March 2019: A launch under armed guard

On 21 March, Race Relations Day, Landing Press launched More of Us, poems by 46 people from 29 countries who have come to New Zealand as migrants or refugees. They range from Dutch migrants who came in 1960, to high school students who arrived from Syria in 2017. Some are well-established poets, some are ESOL students.

In 2018 our tiny Landing Press had three interns! So we had the resources to do this collection. We sent out a call for submissions throughout the country, both through normal writing channels, but also particularly through organisations involved with migration, or resettlement, or the teaching of English.

But we wanted this book to have a broad range. We wanted it to include people who had arrived recently, students, adult learners grappling with English. So we ran workshops in four high schools with ESOL classes, and also with adult learners at English Language Partners in Porirua.

We spent a great deal of time with many of the writers editing their work. We were all committed to a book with powerful things to say, said in the best possible way. The writers were extraordinarily open to editing suggestions – we felt as though this was indeed a book that deeply belonged to all of us.

In the book, bios written by the writers appear on the same page as their poems. We did this because we see this book as being as much about the writers as their poems.

We always intended to give this book a prestigious launch. A book by a group of migrant writers can be sidelined, and we believed that this book should be launched with considerable mana. So the launch was planned for the National Library, with the book to be launched by the Minister for Ethnic Communities, with several members of the diplomatic corps also present. In December 2018 we made the decision to launch the book on Race Relations Day, 21 March 2019.

Then on 15 March the shocking shootings in Christchurch occurred.

In the following week we felt as though we were in the centre of a storm. But the whole country was in the centre of a storm. We were organising a high-profile event in a well-known public space, with a Minister, an Ambassador, a High Commissioner, and a large ethnically diverse group of invitees. Would the launch go ahead? Could the police guarantee security? (most events were being cancelled) The Library advised us that the decision would be made by MFAT. The day before the launch, we were still not sure it would go ahead.

But it did. The National Library was entirely locked down except for the front entrance, where there were armed police. There was a bag search, everyone had to be identified by a name tag and we had to be able to vouch for everyone who came.

Two hundred people came. We already knew that writers were coming from other parts of the country, but suddenly more were coming. One writer and her family came from Auckland at a day’s notice. Suddenly this launch had become much more than a launch. It was a statement of who we were, or wanted to be.

It was a remarkable event. We had made a powerpoint of photographs of all the writers, so there was a backdrop of all these extraordinarily diverse faces. Twenty-two of the writers were there, and ten read their work. Michael Wood, the Under-Secretary to the Minister for Ethnic Communities, spoke very movingly and perceptively.

By the end of that week, both the distributor Nationwide Books and we had sold out (the book has been reprinted).

More of Us is having a remarkable journey. Apart from media coverage, poems from the book have been read at events around the country. In the May issue of North and South two poems are included, one by a student at Mana College in Porirua. Last week that student received a very generous cheque from a woman in Auckland who had read his poem.

Tragically and by extraordinary timing, it has become a book for the times. Our small team at Landing Press are very proud of it, and we’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure it is read as widely as possible.