July 2019: Migrant storytelling – the road to understanding

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.

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.


November 2018: Armistice Day, World War 1 and Syria

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.



October 2018: Landings

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!

September 2018: Free to write?

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.

August 2018: Marilyn Garside and Gaza

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,  I’m not planning to use this blog for advertisements, but I’m really happy to wave the flag for this book.

August 2018: Mehwish Moughal and I am Free

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.”

July 2018: Where our passions come from

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.

April 2018: My name is not refugee

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.’

March 2018: Workshops in high schools

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!