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.”
I’ve just been asked to talk at a writers’ festival. The session is called ‘The Story Collector’ and I love that title. I’ve never thought of myself as a story collector, but I have been one for most of my life, and most of the stories I’ve collected have been migrant stories. Actually I haven’t so much ‘collected them’ as have been the writer for the person with the story to tell.
Where did this come from, this interest in migrant stories? When I was a child, my very hospitable parents invited a big mix of people to our house, including many Colombo Plan students (the Colombo Plan was a programme to bring mainly Asian students to New Zealand to study). That was the life I grew up in – it was full of all sorts of people. Then when I studied in Canada, I had the chance to take courses in Multicultural Education. I wrote all sorts of rubbish essays about what was happening in New Zealand – I didn’t have a clue, but my lecturers didn’t either. But that all sparked something strong in me. So when I came back to New Zealand I started teaching in a programme in Christchurch for newly arrived refugees. And it all carried on from there.
This year I’m publishing a new novel, A Change of Key, which is a sequel to my earlier novel The Score. Like The Score, it’s set in an inner-city block of council flats, where a very diverse group of people live. When I published The Score, readers in a whole raft of countries – Australia, England, USA, Germany, Switzerland, Serbia, Canada – said, ‘You could be writing about my city!’ I loved it – that inner cities had so much in common, and that maybe the story rang true in many of them. I hope it’s true of A Change of Key too.
Carina Gallegos and I are also publishing a new collection of poetry, All of us. Carina and I first met when we were both working at Te Papa. She’s originally from Costa Rica, and has spent several years working with mainly Colombian refugees in Wellington. I began working on a series of poems around the theme of migration last year, then asked her to join me. The whole collection is on the themes of migration and refugees, and alongside that we’re publishing a collection of poems by people from migrant and refugee backgrounds. There’s a lot going on. Plenty to write about! That’s why I’m writing this occasional blog.
My name is not refugee is the title of an event we’ve just had at the Porirua Public Library. Organised by extraordinary children’s librarian Bee Trudgeon, it was a real celebration of diversity. And on the programme were 10 of the ESOL students from the school workshops I’ve been running. They all introduced themselves in their first language, then read their poems in English. It’s hard enough standing up to read a poem in your first language, let alone in a language you’ve only been learning for a few months. But they all did it. Their supporting cast was Moira Wairama as MC, storyteller Tony Hopkins, drummer Sam Manzana and the Kaka family from Syria telling their own story. As Bee said, it was a ‘truly moving evening of spoken word performances with World roots.’
Along with the collection of poems, All of us, by Carina Gallegos and me, I’m part of a group compiling a collection of poems written by migrants and refugees. So we’re asking for poems from people all over New Zealand. But at the same time we want to create some new work. So I’ve been running some poetry writing workshops with ESOL students in three high schools in the Porirua area – Aotea College, Mana College and Bishop Viard College. There’s some real magic happening here. Some of these students have only been in New Zealand for six months, but they write lines like:
Me and my friends liked to throw a stone into the well
and listen to the voice that came from the water.
I wish I could fly.
I wish I was at my future already.
I wish I could throw back
So I could redo all of my mistakes.
We’re just at the beginning – who knows what these students will come up with!
Migrant Journeys, the book of interviews with migrant taxi drivers that Liz Grant and I edited a couple of years ago, is being reinvented in a new medium. Michael Wilson, manager of Access Radio in Wairarapa, is doing a radio series based on the interviews in the book. Reading the words of these drivers is great, but hearing their voices as they tell their own stories is even better. Michael is doing a great job of capturing the essence of a life in just a short space of time. We’re looking forward to hearing the final series.
Last year I started writing a collection of poems. I was influenced by the translations of some Chinese poems I’d been reading, particularly the fact that they were so simple but often about big issues – loss, journeys, grief – as well as small moments of happiness and observation. I decided that I’d write these poems around the themes of migration and refugee experience. Now Carina Gallegos has joined me, and we’re combining to produce a collection of poems around these themes. We’re not making up much of it – basically we’re just retelling, as poems, lots of stories we’ve been told. How are we going to knit together our two different styles of writing? Well that’s one of the interesting challenges of writing together.
I’ve been reading tributes to Dr Hashem Slaimankhel, outstanding Auckland community leader who was killed in a terrorist attack while visiting his home country of Afghanistan. Several years ago when I was working on The Crescent Moon book and exhibition, I interviewed five members of the Slaimankhel family, including Dr Slaimankhel’s nephew Omar, who has been speaking about his uncle. I’ve just been reading about them again. All of them are keen sportsmen, and one said, ‘I describe myself as a Kiwi, but inside I’m a full-blooded Afghan.’ Foot firmly in both camps. Over the summer I’ve been reading about Afghanistan, and Gaza, and Cambodia, and it has all reminded me how illusory ‘them over there’ and ‘us over here’ is. We’re all in it together.
Although some publishers don’t do book launches these days, both Escalator Press and Landing Press (two small publishers I’m involved in) believe in having great launches. It’s a celebration of the writer’s accomplishment of producing a very good book (that’s the most important thing) but it’s also a way of letting a large number of people know of the book’s existence, and of selling a lot of books! At the two launches for Because Everything Is Right but Everything Is Wrong, a Young Adult novel by Erin Donohue (Escalator Press) and for My wide white bed, poems by Trish Harris (Landing Press), between 80 and 100 books were sold at each launch. Both of these are books to be proud of – excellent books that will make a big mark.
I spend quite a lot of time on publishing work these days, and being part of a team (well, two teams) who produce books that really matter is very satisfying.
We’ve just had National Poetry Day. Landing Press, together with Escalator Press, ran a competition at the National Library, around Keel and Drift and Rob Hack’s collection of poems Everything is here. With a giant origami boat as the eye-catcher, and a free biscuit and a poem as a bribe, we got 235 entries in a competition. Very easy to enter – just one word about the sea – and you went in the draw to win dinner on a boat, or books. It was all about making poetry something for everyone. At the end of the day, as well as announcing the winners, 3 of us (Mary-Jane Duffy, Trish Harris, and I) made all those 235 words into a poem – a very long poem – and sent it out to all the entrants, along with names of the winners.
Reading with other poets in Best New Zealand Poems 2016 at Writers on Mondays at Te Papa was also a great way to mark National Poetry Day.
In some other countries, poetry is very much part of everyday life. That’s my idea of what poetry could be.
The Curioseum: Collected Stories of the Odd and Marvellous was published by Te Papa Press in 2014 (go to the Books page to read about it). It’s a wonderful door for kids into looking at objects in a museum very imaginatively. Having edited it, I’ve always seen it as having great potential for all sorts of spin-off activities. So we – Margaret Tolland, Education Co-ordinator at Pataka Art and Museum in Porirua, and I – ran a writing workshop for kids and some of their parents. Everyone wrote a story that came from some strange or wonderful object in the Pataka collections. We’ve made our own little Curioseum out of these great stories! One of the special things about it was having kids and their parents writing alongside each other.