Pacific Arts Legacy Project17.12.20

Reigniting the Flame

After plotting to escape Christchurch, Tusiata Avia returned in 1999 to find a new Pacific arts community. Author, poet, Arts Laureate and Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Tusiata reflects on her legacy

We’re collaborating with Creative New Zealand to bring you the groundbreaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.

I spent a lot of my life escaping it. When I was seven I decided I was going to leave Christchurch – my birthplace, the place my father immigrated to from Sāmoa in 1953. I was determined to leave Christchurch and get as far away from it as possible. I was going to travel the world. At ten I drew up a plan (and I quote): “I would like to go to Africa, Europe, India, America, Spain, Hawai‘i, Sāmoa.”I gave myself ten years (17 seemed super old to me then). I did leave – not precisely to my time frame, but once I flew away I was quite sure it was forever.

Growing up in Christchurch in the 70s and 80s was not a happy time to be a brown girl. Read: then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s demonisation of Pacific people as overstayers who are taking our jobs, Dawn Raids, the Springbok tour. Add to that the daily skin-flaying experiences of racism that were part of the fabric of life. I got the message through the pores of my skin: You look wrong and you are not welcome here. There was no one who looked like me to let me know it was possible to be a brown girl and be successful, valuable or, god forbid, cool.

I did what I intended; I left the country to travel the world. I stayed away from New Zealand for more than a decade and in that time, unbeknown to me, the Pacific arts were flourishing. It wasn’t until the end of 1999 that I returned for a holiday and was gobsmacked to discover the new state of things here.

I was determined to leave Christchurch and get as far away from it as possible.

My cousin, playwright Victor Rodger, was my entrée into the arts world. I was astonished by the people I met – brown girls like me who were doing the things I realised I desperately wanted to do but didn’t dare. I knew Mishele Muagututiʻa and Pos Mavaega (our fathers were friends) but didn’t know about Pacific Underground until then. I met a whole community of Pacific artists in Wellington; the Urale sisters were particularly supportive and took me under their wing. That was more exposure to, and support from, the arts than I’d had in my entire life. I had given up on my short-lived dream of being a writer when I was 15. That tiny, almost extinguished flame burst back into life during that holiday and I made the decision, I would return to New Zealand and become a writer.

So I did. I moved to Wellington in 2001 and enrolled for a one-year creative writing course at Whitireia Polytech. That is where I realised that poetry was my calling, and to my great surprise, I also discovered I could perform. Thus began my career, and my stage show Wild Dogs Under My Skirt.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt has had a long, slow life. It began in 2001 as a ten-minute performance poem at an open mic in Newtown. By 2002 it was a 40-minute one-woman show at the Dunedin Fringe Festival. For the next seven years I performed and developed it further with a number of directors (including Mishele Muagututiʻa, Tanya Heke and Rachael House) and toured all over the place, from Jerusalem to London to Moscow. It was an amazing ride but I did it on no budget and for the most part alone. By 2009 I was a single mother and touring the show with a toddler on my hip had become impossible, so, like many women in the arts with children and not enough support, I let it go.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt died until 2015, when Victor Rodger and his production entity FCC revived it. I rewrote it for six actresses as a 75-minute show; the brilliant Anapela Polataʻivao directed, Victor produced, and under this dream team it rose up like a Pacific phoenix (fruit-bat?) from the ashes. Over the next four years, the show picked up a swag of awards in New Zealand. In January 2020 it went to New York and had its Off-Broadway debut at the Soho Playhouse, where it won 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year. It was invited back for a return season in April–May this year but that (and a number of other shows planned for 2020) was quashed by Covid. I guess we’ll see what happens from here, but given its long life and the amazing team behind it, my guess is it will live on.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt cast 2019–2020. Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele

Being a writer in Christchurch, solo motherhood and epilepsy

Most of my career has been as a poet and performer. I’ve also tried my hand at, and enjoyed, writing in a number of other genres including children’s fiction, short film, radio documentary, creative non-fiction and a novel (still in progress).

A writer’s life is an odd one, and it certainly doesn’t pay much. Nearly all of us have to do other things to make ends meet. Many of us teach. I had a stint lecturing in Creative Writing and Performance at Manukau Institute of Technology; I still run writing workshops, do school visits and mentoring. Many writers also do writers’ residencies. A residency is a gift from the writing gods; for up to a year, a writer can stop worrying about the wolf clawing at the door, write and be paid. I’ve been lucky to have had a few residencies earlier in my career (Macmillan Brown, Ursula Bethel, CNZ Fulbright) but I’ve found many of the residencies I could apply for now are just not tenable for a single mother. One of these days we’ve got to create equitable writers’ residencies that include childcare, so single mothers can apply.

Single motherhood brought me back to Christchurch; when I was pregnant I came back to my family, thinking, This’ll take me about four months, to get used to the motherhood thing, and then I’ll continue with my life unchanged, baby strapped to my back. Ha! Here I am 13 years later. Sometimes I am surprised to find myself still here but finally, after all this time, I’ve grown fond of this city. Since my return, Christchurch and I have been through earthquakes and massacres – there is nothing like watching a city fall to its knees to find compassion in your heart for it. I’ve also found good friends here, many of whom are also mothers, particularly among FIKA, a group of Christchurch Pasifika poets. I live with my 87-year-old mother and my 13-year-old daughter in my childhood house; the same one I decided I needed to escape from all those years ago. Life has a curious way of bringing things around full circle – an opportunity, perhaps, to see things differently.

Uncontrolled epilepsy has given me a new kind of life

Late in 2016 I lost my beloved father, and the same year my epilepsy, which had always been controlled by medication, decided to assert itself and change things up for me. Uncontrolled epilepsy has given me a new kind of life, not the one I would have chosen but one I’m learning to negotiate. How do I travel to writers’ festivals and gigs? How do I perform on stage? How do I visit schools or even have a coffee meeting when I might have a seizure at any moment and give myself yet another head injury? This has become a major consideration (read: anxiety; also read: teacher) in my life and often limits what I am able to do.

I love what Pelenakeke Brown is doing around disability arts; it is slowly seeping into my consciousness that I need not be angry, resentful and shamed about my epilepsy. It’s true that it has changed my life but perhaps there are different ways of relating to the way my brain and body function now. As I write this I’m sitting in bed (I call this bedwork – so much better than desk work), pillows either side holding me like a mama’s arms. Nowhere to fall.

She took me aside and told me, You can write.

The sistahood

I’ve mentioned some of the sistas that have been important to me and my career. There are others I need to acknowledge as part of this story. I’m going to include the men under this heading too (because I’m writing this and can do what I like).

Sitting in a dank London flat late in the 90s, I put down a copy of Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel and stared into the distance with my mouth hanging open in wonder. Oh my god, this is possible? It blew my world apart, just as Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home had taken my breath away in the mid 80s. Sia sprouted the seed in me that day, which would blossom soon after.

Bernadette Hall found me in a weekend poetry workshop (during that New Zealand holiday). She took me aside and told me, You can write. She published my first poem in 2000. She has remained a dear and trusted mentor. Jamie Bull found me at Whitireia in 2001, she also took me aside and told me, You can perform. She gave me the pep talks I sorely needed when I was taking my first shaky steps as a performer. Bill Manhire made space for me in the literary world when I was a new graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters MA programme in 2002. There was still very little space for brown girls in that rarefied atmosphere.

I don’t think he read my books but he carried a copy around in his bag because he was proud of me.

I’m going to repeat Victor Rodger’s name here because he has been my champion, he has opened doors for me, and my eyelids to what I’m allowed to do. As strong as I am on the page and on the stage, in many ways I realise I’m still a woman of my generation and social class; still the brown girl taught not to reach beyond my station.

Selina Tusitala Marsh, my bestie, who walks the daily path with me (on the end of the phone from the other end of the country) as we negotiate the writing life, figure out another email from the person who wants me to perform for free while they are making $350 per hour out of the gig, discuss the meaning of our lives and talk about how to get our kids to go to school/stop the dramas/put some clothes on.

My extraordinary mother, Sylvia Avia, who told me with a quiet kind of rapture, I would’ve been proud of you whatever you did, but to be in the arts! Oh, the arts! My beloved father, Naumalau‘ulu Mikaio Avia, who – like so many Pacific immigrants – wanted a better life for me; I don’t think he read my books but he carried a copy around in his bag because he was proud of me.

Last word to the English teacher at Tangaroa College in Ōtara, who teaches my poetry to her students. Our students love your poetry and have had success in NCEA exams using Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. For me, this is better than any book review, any award. This is how I know I am doing what I came here to do.


This piece is published in collaboration with Creative New Zealand as part of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project, an initiative under Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Strategy. Lana Lopesi is Editor-in-Chief of the project.

Series design by Shaun Naufahu, Alt group.

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