At the end of 2019, Escalator Press, that I am involved with, published a novel called Chosen Boys, by Petra Molloy. It is a novel about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, in a multicultural Catholic community in the 1970s. It’s a beautifully written, compassionate novel. In it, Petra was writing about her own European culture, and also about the Samoan culture, and the novel shifts between various points of view.
Petra was writing from decades of experience, both as a member of the Catholic church, and also as part of a big multicultural community. During the writing of the novel she sought advice from Samoan readers, and the final manuscript was read by a Samoan cultural expert.
Although she was writing about her own, and another culture, she received some sharp criticism for daring to write about another culture at all. One reader described her as a white woman of privilege writing about Samoans and Māori.
So what to make of this? Are we not allowed to write about our own and other cultures? Does ‘white’ equal ‘white privilege’ equal ‘don’t go there’?
My own take on white privilege is that it’s a defining concept in the colonisation debate. It’s fundamental to understanding that debate. But real life, and fiction, are a lot messier. For example, I have lived in Porirua for a long time. I never doubt that I am a person of privilege. I am that because I am well-educated, I’m articulate, I know how to use the system, and I’ve had opportunities to use my abilities. But in Porirua there are many white people who have none of those privileges, and there are many non-white people who share those same privileges.
When the notion of white privilege is applied to what we are allowed to write about, (ie a white person can only write about white people) I think it is very unhelpful, in fact seriously constraining. In New Zealand we simply don’t live in that world any more.
There’s been a big generational shift. To use myself as an example again, I’m one of a family of five, and all of us married (yes, married) Pākehā Europeans. The partners of my oldest brother’s five children are Māori, Samoan, German, American and Pākehā. At the moment, there are four people living in my house, two Pākehā, one Indian and one Vietnamese. Our neighbours have been Indian, Māori, Chinese, Samoan, Pākehā.
That’s our reality. And I think it’s important that contemporary NZ fiction reflects that. I don’t mean that we should write in some glib or careless way. But if we write in a very well-researched, well-informed way, and if we are writing about the life lived – and Petra was doing all of these things – I strongly support that. But then I would – I have a big stake in this discussion in my own writing!
Although ‘white privilege’ has been extremely important for all of us in doing some historical unpacking, I feel very sad if it becomes a major constraint on what we are able to write about, particularly in fiction, and in fact prevents us from reflecting the world we live in. I would like to see us move on from that now. Issues around privilege itself are very important, especially in relation to inequality, and if we take the concept of privilege seriously, not just in terms of race (I’m thinking about Porirua again) we can have some serious debate.
But there’s an ideology at stake here, and ideology often overrides experience. And it’s a complex issue. I’m running the risk of oversimplifying it myself. I’m guessing that the discussion about white privilege will be around for a long time yet, and writers will be criticised for making choices outside of that boundary – but I hope they’ll take the risk!
Petra has written an excellent essay about this question in The Spinoff.
In 1993 I began the Creative Writing Programme at Whitireia Polytechnic. Twenty six years later it’s been axed. I wrote about the closure of the programme for The New Zealand Author (the publication of the New Zealand Society of Authors) and I’m going to copy that article below.
But a couple of comments first. Some people have asked me, ‘Do you feel as though it’s your baby?’ Not at all. I might have begun it, and I’ve had various roles in it since then, but the programme is a collaboration of hundreds of people. All kinds of people. That’s been its great strength – that it’s involved so many diverse people. And all of them have contributed in various ways.
I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I’ve always had a passion to open up education to people who don’t find it easy to take part, or feel excluded in some way. The Writing Programme has done that. The regret of all of us involved in the programme is that now many of those people have nowhere else to go. If a person wants to write seriously, and doesn’t feel comfortable in a university, where do they go? But we want those people as part of our literary landscape (I’m in danger of having a rant here, so I’ll stop).
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been part of this programme for 26 years. What has kept me Involved? Partly I’ve done other things as well. I’ve worked part time in other places, done free lance work, taken a year off here and there – and I think that’s really mattered. It’s a powerful antidote to becoming stale in the job. Also, the people. Of course the people. All the great people I’ve worked with. And also the fact that the Writing Programme has always been doing something new. I love ideas, and there’s always been room for new ideas, trying out new approaches etc.
Everything else is in the article. So here it is.
Does It Matter?
Whitireia Polytechnic has announced the closure of its creative writing programme. From 2020 only a small number of online courses will remain. This is part of widespread and severe cuts across the polytechnic.
Does this axing of the programme matter?
For centuries writers have written fine works, having never set foot in a writing course. In our time, writers as varied as J K Rowling, Arundhati Roy, and Jo Nesbo have never taken a writing course (as far as I can tell). The teaching of creative writing has become an industry, driven by motives ranging from a deep desire to improve the quality of writing, to personal or institutional ambition. World-wide, it is producing large numbers of PhD graduates with no hope of getting related employment (Australia is a good example of this). It has created a generation of new writers who believe a writing course is a necessity, and are carrying huge student loans as a result.
A critic, or policy advisor, might say all this. And there is some truth in all of it.
So why do we in the Whitireia Writing Programme feel strongly that this axing matters?
First, some history. The programme began in 1993. At the time serious writing courses were in universities; the discussion was that a polytechnic could have a broader reach and include people not comfortable in a university environment. The new writing programme found a natural home at Whitireia Polytechnic, which was a young vital community-based institution, committed to inclusiveness and with a strong focus on the arts. Whitireia launched the first full-time creative writing programme in the country, and the first substantial programme in a polytechnic, although Northland’s polytechnic was going down a similar road.
The programme was founded on certain principles. It strongly encouraged diversity, both cultural and socio-economic. Writers studied a range of genres with a range of tutors: this encouraged writers to be versatile, and ensured that the programme wouldn’t reflect one style of teaching or writing. It had a vocational edge. It had strong links with local iwi Ngāti Toa. The programme acknowledged the two linguistic and literary traditions of this country, English and Māori, and students could submit work in either language.
The programme has always been innovative and has evolved over time. For a start those changes were in response to what people wanted; for example, they wanted a dedicated novel course, so we began one. Increasingly changes were dictated by institutional requirements.
But it has held to most of those original principles, particularly encouraging socio-economic diversity. It has always been prepared to take a chance on some people. Sometimes this has paid off, sometimes it hasn’t, but that’s the nature of risk. It has always maintained a vocational component – sessions with working writers, a module on the publishing process in all its current forms, and a ‘writer’s cv’ exercise which encourages students to phrase the skills they have learnt in vocationally relevant terms.
We’ve also provided support to a lot of mid-career writers who have worked for us as assessors, mentors, etc.
We play the ‘success’ game like everyone else. We list numbers of works published, awards, lists of successful graduates. But we know that the success of a writing programme is greater than that. It can be life changing. For some people, studying something they are passionate about can give them a grounding that leads to success in other areas. If one were to quantify this in economic terms, the benefits to the country might be surprisingly large.
Mark Amery recently described the course as ‘the oldest and one of the most admired of New Zealand’s creative writing courses’. We’re proud of our achievements. We’ve contributed to making New Zealand’s literary landscape more diverse. We’ve made a big difference in many people’s lives. We’ve made writing a real grassroots activity in many ways – the Eat Your Words poetry competition in partnership with 40 Wellington cafes, for example. We never ‘claim’ a writer, but we’ve contributed to the success of a raft of very good writers. The flood of responses to the programme’s closure reiterates this over and over again.
A note about Escalator Press. We founded the press in 2013 – its brief was to publish new and established writers, new voices and perspectives, and to publish books that were both excellent and good-reads. We’ve done that. In addition, once or twice a year we meet with the authors over brunch, we’ve given media training, run a website workshop, provided mentoring – and we’ve paid them! We’ve been a good publisher. But the future of Escalator Press is also under discussion.
None of this is relevant to the programme’s closure. Quality, contribution, success, none of this counts. This is purely a cost-cutting exercise. Every course must now have a ratio of 1 tutor to 20 students. By this formula, every writing course at the IIML at Victoria University would be cut. The international benchmark for staffing of creative writing courses is 1:12.
No one denies that the polytechnic sector needs a major shakeup. But all these cuts were announced before the overall review was made public. The creative writing programme is part of Te Auaha, a visionary initiative which brought together all the polytechnic arts programme under one roof. Te Auaha was opened in March 2018. Eighteen months later, it’s dead. What business would invest in a new multi-million dollar venture, then can it before it’s even had a chance to get established? A business would recognise that a new large venture takes two-three years at least to establish and would plan and budget accordingly.
Many people have asked what they can do about this closure. Write to Chris: Kris Faafoi, Whitireia’s electorate MP, Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education, and Chris Gosling, CEO.
Back to the original question: does the axing of this and other writing programmes matter? If it does, and we think so, it could be the catalyst for a vigorous debate about what we want substantial creative writing courses to look like, how inclusive we want them to be, and how would that happen?
For myself, today I’m going to take a poetry workshop with a group of ESOL students at Mana College in Porirua. They come from Syria, the Philippines, Vietnam, Samoa, they’re learning English, and they’re writing poetry. In the last year, seven students from this class have had work published, they’ve read at four big events in Wellington, and at a poetry conference. By writing poetry they are giving us new insights, and they and their families are becoming part of our community.
New Zealand Author 318, Spring 2019
Recently I was asked to write about why the telling of migrant stories is important, for the Public Libraries of New Zealand newsletter. This is part of that article.
I’ve been writing in the territory of migration, cultural shifts and connections, for three decades now. I believe that an important role for a writer is to be the writer for the person who has the story to tell but not necessarily the ability or opportunity to tell it. In my books Migrant Journeys, I have in my arms both ways, Borany’s Story, and The Crescent Moon, I have been the writer on behalf of many storytellers. More of Us, the collection of poetry published by Landing Press earlier this year, required a different role, as editor, so that the voices of the poets, who had all come to New Zealand as migrants or refugees, were heard directly.
In the larger picture, I strongly believe that the telling of personal stories shifts our minds in a way that facts can’t. If I tell you my personal story, and you tell me yours, we can no longer hold stereotypes of each other. No matter if one of us is wearing a hijab, or a gang patch, or a suit and tie – we become individuals to each other.
Fiction allows us to explore this cultural territory in other ways. Last year I published A Change of Key, an adult novel, which is a sequel to The Score. Alice Tawhai wrote in Landfall, “… it’s completely essential reading for all secondary school English classes. An opportunity to gain empathy and understanding for those who are new to our country wouldn’t go amiss for young people who’ve been here for longer, and others will see themselves or their families reflected in our literature for perhaps the first time.”
This is the nub of why all these books are important: they allow migrants to see themselves as part of mainstream society, and they allow the mainstream the opportunity for better understanding.
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.
Armistice Day, 11 November. The National Library auditorium. Part of Wellington’s literary festival Litcrawl. A line-up of excellent and experienced speakers speaking about World War 1. And in the middle of them, two high school students, Yazan and Mohammad El Fares, reading their poems. They’ve been in New Zealand for two years, and here they are reading their own work – about Syria, and Lebanon, before their family came to New Zealand as refugees. About their experiences here. About their hopes. They remind us that war is both history and a constantly present thing.
One evening when I was at the El Fares home, their father showed me a video he had just been sent of his home village being bombed. Here they were, sitting in a house in Titahi Bay, watching their village being bombed. I can’t imagine it.
It reminded me of a time when I was teaching an English language class, for adults who wanted to be able to talk about current affairs in New Zealand. Each week we would watch a news item on TV, then talk about it, looking for the words we needed to ask questions and express our opinions. One night we watched an Anzac Day parade. In the middle of the discussion that followed, I realized that I was the only person in that room who hadn’t lived through a war.
The next year, we took our kids to the ANZAC Day dawn service at the Cenotaph in Wellington. Standing in the middle of that large crowd who were totally silent, I realized how lucky we were that we could gather in that place with no fear of violence or attack.
It’s good to be reminded how lucky we are, so that we never take it for granted.
At the end of their presentation, Mohammad El fares read a poem by his sister Razan:
I can’t do anything
But if I can do something
I want all the people in Syria
to have a new life.
Syria will become a safe place.
People will meet and smile again,
and trust each other.
All the children will go to school
and achieve their goals.
People will not be scared of each other.
They will help and look after each other.
They will buy everything cheap like the past.
They will go to the mosque to pray
and in Ramadan they will make the breakfast
and invite friends and talk and eat
and have a fine time.
As in the past.
To finish, Yazan read a small statement. It’s like his manifesto. I’ll leave the last word to him:
I would like New Zealanders to understand that we are all the same but with different cultures, colours and beliefs, and differences shouldn’t be an issue.
I also would like New Zealanders to be aware that we came here because of the war in our country and we came here to be safe and to study. We lived through a war and now we want to live in peace.
So we ask for your support and respect.
More of Us is not just a book, but a project!
In 2017, we had the idea of making a collection of poems by migrants and people of refugee backgrounds. In 2018, this idea took shape. We put out a call for submissions through every outlet we could think of. But at the same time, we didn’t want this collection, called More of Us, to be just poems by experienced writers or long-time residents of New Zealand.
So I began to run workshops in high schools for ESOL classes. Just two workshops, I said. Well, here it is eight months later and I’ve just run the last workshop at Mana College in Porirua. And what an extraordinary journey for those students, who have read their poetry this year at several public events, the last being the Wellington Litcrawl Armistice day event.
I’ve also been running workshops at English Language Partners in Porirua, with a group of women who have written some remarkable things.
Some of these students and women are in the More of Us book. By writing poetry they’re becoming part of the mainstream! And the More of Us project will continue to unfold.
Last week I visited The Landing, in the Catlins area on the Otago coast. It’s the place Landing Press is named after – the small poetry press that three of us established two years ago. It’s also the place where my great-grandfather (the original settler) set up his home. I thought that maybe there would be no trace of The Landing any more, but there it was, commemorated in a memorial to the people who had settled there.
The Landing is several hundred metres up the Owaka River from the sea. It’s where cargo boats used to come and unload or load up. It’s beautiful. But there’s a bar across the Owaka harbour/river. Boats coming up the river had to navigate the bar, which was dangerous and the cause of shipwrecks.
So our tiny Landing Press is named after a place both beautiful and dangerous! I love that.
My great-grandfather, Captain Charles Hayward, was the harbourmaster there for 15 years. Eventually he was drowned in a shipwreck himself, and the story of his drowning is a big family story.
It’s become a cliché to say we’re a country of immigrants. I don’t feel like an immigrant. I feel deeply rooted in this country, and I get annoyed with people who says there’s no New Zealand identity. I feel as though I have a strong New Zealand identity, and it’s shaped by all the elements of this country – Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, and our environment and history. But last week I did think a lot about my great-grandfather. He had it easier than a lot of migrants. He came here by choice, not driven by war or some other turmoil. He was able to pursue his chosen profession of sailor here – unlike many professional migrants today. He came to a part of the country that was relatively stable and settled, in a time of turbulence in the other parts of the country.
Maybe that’s why he was able to establish a strong family who went onto to contribute so much to the city of Dunedin.
So maybe there’s an immigrant lesson in this after all. If migrants enjoy security and safety, and are given the opportunity to use their existing skills, or develop their potential, they can become big contributors to this country.
Now I’ve ended up on a moralistic little lesson. I didn’t mean to go there. I’d rather just think about my great-grandfather steering his cutter Bessie up the river towards The Landing, with our tiny Landing Press sailing bravely after it!
This week I have taken part in events at the Manawatu Writers’ Festival. One was called ‘Free to write’ and in it a number of people from migrant and refugee backgrounds told their personal story. It’s always moving and inspiring – and a large reminder of the global reality – to hear these stories.
The other event I took part in was called ‘The story collector’. And it focussed my mind on something else. Behind the stories that people tell, sometimes there is simply delight at the freedom to speak. In other cases there are reasons to fear speaking aloud.
In each book I’ve published which contains the stories of migrants or refugees, there has been one person who does not want to be identified. Ngàn Hac Tráng, in I have in my arms both ways, has no photograph and does not use her real name. In Migrant Journeys, Nena uses only her first name, and has no photo. In The Crescent Moon, Mehwish Moughal has no photo. The reasons are often complex – fear of recriminations in one’s home country, fear of recriminations here, a desire not to seem to be speaking on behalf of a small migrant community. And maybe one can become trapped in one’s own story. Borany Kanal, whose story is told in Borany’s Story published 25 years ago, still receives letters from high school students, because the book is so enduring. But she is now a mother of three teenage children and living in USA, and the story, that in some ways she has wanted to move on from, still follows her.
Her story is also a reminder that the retelling of personal stories can be very painful.
I was involved with the editing of Tears of the Moon, by Guo Sheng, which tells the story of Guo Sheng’s high-profile family living through the Cultural Revolution in China. Guo Sheng is not the author’s real name, and there is no trace of her identity in the book. She was living in New Zealand, but was deeply afraid of recriminations against her family still in China. This seriously affected the outcome for the book, because it became impossible to market it. That was a huge disappointment for her. At the time I remember we had discussions about whether she was too paranoid about this – but we New Zealanders living in our security, and often our naivety, have no right to make any kind of call about this. Earlier this year we had a Chinese man staying with us for a week – 40ish, well-educated – and I talked to him about this book. I asked him if Guo Sheng’s fears were justified, and he said, absolutely.
All of this was a reminder to me that stories don’t always come lightly. They may also come with risk, and courage. But in all the projects I’ve been involved in, there’s been a shared passion, to shift people’s heads, to create better understanding. And personal stories do this.
Over the last few months I’ve been reading chapters of a book for the author, Marilyn Garson. Among a whole host of other things she’s done, Marilyn’s worked in Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Gaza – she doesn’t choose the easy options. Now she’s back in New Zealand, and she’s writing about five years in Gaza. She’s writing about her work in economic development there, and about being a Jew living in Palestine.
Reading her work, for the first time I’ve really understood the desperate situation of people in Gaza as a result of the blockade by Israel. I didn’t know that Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories in the world – two million Palestinians crammed into 362 square kilometres (NZ has 268,000 square kilometres) – the collapse of basic services, severe shortage of goods – it all makes desperate reading.
I’ve just read a review of an earlier, smaller book by Marilyn, Reading Maimonides in Gaza, in the Green Party publication te awa. I want to quote from it:
“This is a story from inside, written by a woman who went to help, as she had been doing in other countries, and found that ’the violent waste of its potential overturned what I knew about conflict and aid, and challenged the content of my Judaism’.”
Working with Marilyn on her book overturned what I knew about Gaza, and Palestine, and Israel. I like to think that I’m reasonably well-informed, but I just hadn’t grasped the enormity of that situation. As the reviewer says, ‘the sheer waste of human potential, the intelligence and creativity stunted by the actions of a hostile neighbor.’ I think about that, because in New Zealand one of the most important things we can do for new migrants is to give them the opportunity to use their potential. Whether we do so is another conversation.
Marilyn’s book is available from the publisher, Mondoweiss, https://store.mondoweiss.net/. I’m not planning to use this blog for advertisements, but I’m really happy to wave the flag for this book.
There’s been a series on TV1, I AM, and one of the series, I AM FREE, is about the Moughal sisters in Auckland, who escaped an abusive and violent father. Several years ago I interviewed the eldest sister, Mehwish, for The Crescent Moon project. The Crescent Moon was a book and a photographic exhibition (Ans Westra was the photographer) about Muslims of Asian descent in New Zealand. It was a project of the Asia NZ Foundation, and I spent many months going around the country interviewing a big range of Muslims, from 4th generation New Zealanders, to newly arrived migrants, and mixed in every way. It was a great project, and resulted in a book and exhibition of small stories about nearly 40 people – a kind of snapshot of each of them in their everyday lives.
I met Mehwish in Auckland. It was never easy arranging to meet – I had the impression then that her life was very complicated – and in the book she is the only person with no photograph. That in itself says a lot about that time in her life. But I was so impressed with her – with the story of the family, with her broad vision, her wisdom. The TV documentary reminded me of all of that again – and of the price the family has paid for their brave decision.
In The Crescent Moon book, we highlighted a quote from Mehwish to take the place of her photograph. The book itself is beautiful, and her quote, printed on a gold page, is striking. I want to include it here.
“I’m a Muslim and I respect and explore all religions. There are things I like and things I don’t like in the Muslim religion. I’ve got lots of questions. It’s about finding people who have a strong belief in their religion, but know there are some parts to it which are not okay. It’s the same with Christian religion. Every religion has its wrong thing to discuss.”