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Tusiata Avia in Conversation


Tusiata Avia is one of Aotearoa’s finest poets. Her thought-provoking work has won her critical acclaim as well as legions of fans. In 2020 she was awarded a Queen’s Birthday Honour and in 2021, her collection, The Savage Coloniser, won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

That same collection became a political football of sorts after several politicians and commentators criticised the content as allegedly promoting ‘reverse racism’ and Tusiata Avia herself come under personal attack. Her public response was a fitting, sardonic reply to her critics but privately the experience was a very painful one.

She talks to Zara Potts about her writing life, what inspires her and how poetry helps her make sense of the world.

You’ve been spending some time at Toi Auaha (the artists’ studios)?

I used to go there quite regularly for my writers’ group which was based there, but when it stopped I kind of got a bit lonely so now I’m mostly working from home.

A writer’s life is often quite solitary, isn’t it?

I’m way too Samoan for that! I’m actually not a fan of working by myself, I don’t do well in a garret at all!

So you draw inspiration from being around people?

I don’t write out of nowhere, no. I’m a social being, I’ve never really liked being on my own. So for me, the writers’ group when it was going was great, it’s a great environment for me as a writer.

Other than people, where do you get your inspiration from?

From whatever is going on. Recently I guess a lot of my work has come out the political stuff that was going on.

I have to say, I’ve never seen anything like it. It felt very personal..

It was personal! And the fact that it was so personal made it feel really nasty. It feels like it’s been a whole year of one thing after another and it has been quite difficult.

I can imagine. From an observer’s point of view, it looked awful.

It has been awful. I had to write about it because that’s all I have. It’s the only voice I have, and it feels small in comparison to the platform they have. Writing is my voice in the world, and I write about the things that I care about.

Is it tiring having to write your experience of the world?

It gets tiring living with this shit. Writing is a way of coping. It’s a safety mechanism for me.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

Quite early. When I was ten years old at intermediate school, I had a teacher who was both really mean but who also encouraged me to write, and it gave me the sense that I was good at it. But even though I had a feeling I was good at it, there was still the fact that for brown girls like me there was very little space, very little entitlement for us and I remember thinking ‘girls like me don’t write’. So, I didn’t come back to writing until I was in my 30s, and at that point I felt I could give myself permission to write.

How important is it to a writer to have feedback?

It’s crucial. Even the writers I know who are real garret writers need feedback. The feedback we receive from readers, other writers and the outside world in general is just massively important. In saying that though, I’m very careful these days about what I let myself read about my work.

It’s one of those things that’s annoying about human nature, isn’t it? You can get lots of praise and great things said about your work, but it’s always the shitty comment that lodges.

It really does. I try and let the positive stuff in, but it’s sometimes not as easy as that. When I was really having to guard myself against the political attacks, I couldn’t really afford to read anything at all and so I missed out on a lot of messages of support.

Growing up in Christchurch – how did that influence you, if at all?

It was kind of dark. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s which was not a good time to be a brown person in this country. Muldoon. Dawn Raids. The Springbok Tour. I grew up in Aranui and we were really amongst it all then. I was aware of inequality and where people saw me, and how people saw me, and I had to find a way to survive in that. It’s not like every moment was hell, but it wasn’t that happy for me.

As you’ve gotten older, how has your relationship to the city changed?

I actually left Christchurch 20 years ago and then I came back and have been here for 16 years on and off. I still have a strong relationship with this place. I have a 16-year-old daughter and it’s better for her than it was for me. She has a better sense of herself as a Samoan girl than I ever did.

How do you find the creative community in Christchurch?

Probably my closest community here is a group of Pasifika women writers and poets called Fika, they’re my homegirls and we’ve been together now for ages, they’re great. But of course, we can’t all just sit around and be poets and writers – we have jobs and family – so it’s nowhere near as regular as it used to be.

Do you have artists or writers here who you really admire?

I really love some of the musicians out of here – Scribe and Ladi6, in particular. Pacific Underground have been here since the early 80s, supporting people and churning out some fantastic stuff. So many Pacific and Māori artists have come through there. For me, it seems that for people in our community, the strength has really come out through music. As for writers, Victor Roger has really been a rock for me. He’s also been so instrumental from the beginning of my career in making room for me. He’s been a really fabulous support, and his own work is second to none.

What’s going on for you now?

I’m heading to the Wellington Writers Festival and I’m also doing a programme in Auckland called ‘Rupture’ which is to develop a television series. This is to help develop writers to develop a tv series, and there’s six of us, so that should be fun. Then I’m heading back to Wellington for the Aotearoa New Zealand Arts Festival to see my show ‘Savage Coloniser.’

As a writer, what advice or piece of knowledge, has served you well?

Different things at different times, really. Different things will be really important to me for different reasons. But in my 30s when I decided I wanted to be a writer, ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron really helped me clear my way into writing again. It’s fantastic when you’re starting out and it’s awfully good to return to.

As a writer myself, I find one of the biggest hurdles to creating, is procrastination – do you procrastinate? 

I don’t know many people who don’t suffer with procrastination. I have a couple of novelist friends who are somehow able to get past that – they’re really driven – and I honestly don’t know how they do that. Catherine Chidgey is such a driven writer and I really admire that.

It seems to be a trait that is really common to writers who are perhaps writing memoir or poetry or creative non-fiction.

Procrastination is complex. It’s fear. It’s dread, it’s all kinds of things. It’s layers and layers of emotional stuff. What works for me is to have an external pressure – a deadline – so that I’m working towards something that someone else is asking for. Left to my own devices, I tend to only write when inspiration hits me or when I’m really upset or angry so that I need to write about it.

That’s probably the difference between novelists and poets.

It’s so different! It’s the difference between a marathon and a sprint. Just totally different techniques.

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