The first time I read Tusiata Avia’s work, I was an adult student failing a creative writing paper at Auckland Uni.
Most of the poets we’d read talked about landscapes, which were all somehow metaphors for divorce. The whole thing made me want to stab myself in the eyes with my pen.
Then one day the tutor held up a copy of Avia’s debut collection, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. As we went through the book I was instantly transfixed by the way Tusiata used simple language, bursting with subtext. After class, I went out and bought the book and read it cover to cover, stealing anything not tied down to use in my own work.
A few years later, we travelled to New York together to perform. While I spent my time on stage struggling to get the Americans to connect to my poetry, Tusiata easily won them over. Whether we were at a tiny open mic in North Philly or at The NUYOrican poets Cafe in New York City, she owned the stage, in a way that became my benchmark for performance.
All this is to say, I knew Tusiata’s new collection The Savage Coloniser Book was going to be good. But even so, I wasn’t prepared for a book this powerful and original.
Like her earlier work, the writing is simple and direct, filled with slang and colloquialisms, the metaphors robust, a lot of the works constructed around stories. But there’s also depth that takes repeat reading to explore, lines and stanzas so beautiful you have to put the book down for a second and take a breath.
Unlike many of her literary contemporaries, Tusiata pulls no punches. Jacinda, Unity Books, Captain Cook and many other icons and fixtures of “Kiwi” society get examined and pulled apart in this book's 100 odd pages.
As the title suggests, race and racism within Aotearoa and the Pacific is a central theme of the book. The poem How to be in a room full of white people describes the alienation of being one of the only brown writers at literary events.
“Listen to white people call you the name of the other brown woman writer”
In 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, Tusiata speaks directly to Cook,
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.:
Another theme is Tusiata’s struggles with epilepsy. In poems like Every seizure a dating opportunity and I am in hospital after another seizure she details her life managing the debilitating illness. And though they are often heartbreaking to read, they are not without humour:
“The round swollen belly of a spider
could be the back of the head of a neurosurgeon.
My children are terrified of him.
When he climbs down off the ceiling I say
‘Look, kids, it’s just a neurosurgeon.’”
But it’s the poem Massacre that is the stand out for me in this collection. The piece follows the lead-up and aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, capturing the horror and confusion that followed the tragedy in a way that most artists (myself included) were too scared to even attempt.
Though the general tone is one of darkness and anger, there are still feelings of joy and empowerment all through Tusiata’s writing. In FafSwag Spell (i) (ii) (iii), Tusiata pays homage to the incredible South Auckland arts collective, with line after line of breathtaking imagery.
“You are the plane tilting and I feel the lift of the ground leaving.
It happens in the manava and it happens between the legs.
You are the two black wings stretched wide
with the body in between.
I am the incorporeal water”
Poly kidz r coming, is a raucous celebration of Pasifika culture, cries of ‘Cheehooooooooo!’ echoing throughout the poem
I can’t recommend this book enough, even if you’re not a big fan of poetry. It’s heartbreaking and fierce and crack up.
As Tusiata writes in Some notes for critics “I could write about landscape but it fucken bores me.”