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!

March 2018: Migrant Journeys on radio

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.

February 2018: The beginning of All of us

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.

January 2018: Dr Hashem Slaimankhel

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.

October 2017: A month of big book launches

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.

August 2017: Poetry for everyone

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.