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.