Tina Makereti reviews The Ani Waaka Room by Te Aro Pā poet Debbie Broughton – one of three books by diasporic Taranaki wāhine being published this month.
I don’t have the advantage
of white privilege.
I have the advantage
of Taranaki privilege.
I have a mountain
who believes in me.
I have bones
who have waited
two hundred years
for me to return home.
– Debbie Broughton, ‘Who’s privileged now?’
There’s something extraordinary happening in the writing of the Taranaki Māori diaspora. In November, three books by diasporic Taranaki wāhine will appear: The Ani Waaka Room by Debbie Broughton, Tauhou by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall and Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan. In September, scholar and poet Alice Te Punga Somerville published Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, and there are a number of other diasporic Taranaki Māori who have recently published work or have projects coming out soon.
Last month in an online chat, Alice suggested we could construct an entire university course in Wellington from mana whenua writers. I immediately thought we could do the same with an anthology. Even in that short paragraph, we have examples of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and writers who live in the Ōtaki, Paraparaumu, the land of the Bunurong people in Melbourne and the unceded Coast Salish territory of Vancouver. All are mana whenua of specific parts of Taranaki, Wellington, Kāpiti, Pito-one/Petone, Hutt Valley and/or Te Tauihu o te Waka – top of the South Island.
Sounds complicated? We’ve barely grazed the level of complexity that diasporic Taranaki Māori live with. And when I use that term, I mean to include Māori who are descended from the mountain who may be Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Mutunga or other iwi, as well as Taranaki iwi themselves, but who now live in other places, either by choice or following generations of occupation elsewhere. One thing that has always been confusing to me as a Te Ātiawa person from a number of places in Taranaki, who can trace her descent through multiple hekenga (migrations) down through Kāpiti to Waikawa (and up into the Hutt, but let’s try to keep it simple), is how there’s a general assumption that Māori belong only to singular, fixed, permanent places. That is true for many, but for others, including one of my other iwi, Ngāti Rangatahi-Matakore, and our Kāpiti neighbours Ngāti Toa, migration is the story of our people too.
In The Ani Waaka Room, Debbie Broughton brings the many dilemmas and paradoxes of the diaspora into sharp focus, and by sharp I mean there’s irony and wit enough to slice yourself open. From the first poem, I howled with laughter, with anger, with admiration. Mostly with laughter. Which is not to say it’s all levity – these poems never let us forget the complexities and specificities of being Māori, of iwitanga and hapūtanga, cos you’re never just Māori – the tensions of knowing who you are yet still having so much unknown due to the eradication of your culture. Even when I was fact-checking this piece, Debbie said she couldn’t be 100 per cent sure whether she is mana whenua of some areas. Hey, me too, and not for lack of searching or learning. Often, our parents and grandparents don’t know either. This is how colonisation attacks the very heart of who we are, fragmenting our identities.
Debbie has a way of showing us this in her poems – multiple ways in fact – that cut to the chase and defamiliarise the situation just enough to bring these incongruities into sharp relief. Take ‘When your Venn diagram isn’t very Venn’ for example:
Clearly, it helps to understand the concept of Ahi Kā to understand this poem, but like most of Debbie’s poems, the clue is in the title, and besides, one of the joys of the book is how it addresses, without apology or explanation, an imagined reader who is similarly dispossessed. The dispossession that Debbie writes into means the imagined reader exists always on the cusp of knowing and not-knowing, and is fully possessed of their home places even at the same time as they are alienated from them.
Debbie is a master of the succinct poem – see ‘No one wants to read a poem about colonisation’ and its mate ‘But apparently poems about decolonisation are all good’ – yet there are a variety of approaches here, some much longer. ‘If you don’t like my look, then don’t look then’ tackles the same kaupapa as ‘Venn diagram’:
I’ve been told I should go back
to where my Taranaki
ancestors came from
I don’t know where in Taranaki my ancestors came from [..].
but we know they were on the heke
from Taranaki to Te Aro Pā
and we know their names
we know their names
we know their names
‘It is deemed advisable’ offers a contrast to the poignancy of that final refrain by showcasing an irrepressible sense of humour that embraces the absurdity and ironies of the “postcolonial” position:
First, let it be understood
that the term “Taranaki coast”
is here given an extended meaning
and includes all the west coast
from Taranaki to Te Upoko-o-Te-Ika— a distance of 195 years.
Second, let it be understood
that when we say we are from Wellington, we also mean we are from Taranaki.
And when we say we are from Taranaki, we also mean we are from Wellington.
Third, let it be understood
that we no longer say
we are from Wellington,
since we have been made aware that Wellington was a wanker.
Sometimes the humour comes in the form of hieratic language that mimics legal-speak, and sometimes in the vernacular of cousins from the Hutt:
Jewel: Cuz, where are we from again?
Tia: Te Aro Pā, remember?
Jewel: I thought Te Aro Pā doesn’t exist anymore
Tia: Eww, you don’t exist
At other times, actual ministerial documents or historical letters are reproduced in full, the latter providing the punchline to a scathing takedown of the Duke of Wellington. Other poems take the form of fill-in pepeha worksheets from school (most parents will be familiar with these – always an infuriating exercise), local tour directions and museum exhibit labels. ‘The re-Taranaki-fication of Te Aro Pā’ begins with a quote from the Waitangi Tribunal’s Taranaki report, and an admonition: “Decolonisation / is your job / not mine.”
There’s a huge amount of gutsy bravado in many of the titles and in the content of the poems, and here I emphasise the pieces that make sly digs at how colonisation has been internalised by our people. The spectre of intratribal tensions and the particular hurt of being wronged by our own is exemplified in ‘How to be an owner and still be dispossessed’:
Scene: You’re about to make one
You’re pretty sure
if you ask that question at the AGM
Aunty will say
you’re related to Uncle.
Uncle will stage whisper,
“No, she’s your relation.”
And yet still, it is clear, we are not to take any of this too seriously – ourselves least of all. Debbie doesn’t shy away from the serious or painful. There are a number of poems that, like ‘Let she who is without muka cast the first mussel shell’, detail the survival of a family under the conditions of colonial imposition, while also questioning false ideas of authenticity. But what is significant here is the way the author refuses the victim position, reinforcing the gifts that have always enabled us to adapt and thrive: our ability to take the tools of the coloniser and turn them back on him; our propensity to laugh loudest when we laugh together; our vigorous tutae detector.
I suspect there is a strong relationship between migratory movement and innovation, between leaving home and creative energy. When you are somewhere new, you have to figure out who and what you are in that different space. How can you make a new, often foreign language speak of your experience? We migrated to survive and thrive in other places, pushed out of our homelands by musket and land wars, the invasion of Parihaka and the confiscation of our home places. Generations later, we’re still figuring out what this means. It’s quite something to witness the collective strength of the writing emerging from the Taranaki diaspora, and the way that writing connects us.
I hope some-
one will find their way
through the door…
So I can say-look, it’s me,
it’s us. We
– ‘Te Aro Pā’
The Ani Waaka Room by Debbie Broughton (Te Tākupu, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, $25) can be purchased from Te Wānanga o Raukawa.