After finding the words of Alice Walker in a library, Karlo Mila found a way of being in the world as a powerful woman of colour. Karlo shares her journey writing poems that carry all that is unspoken.
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.
Once upon a time, I was a lonely teenager sitting in a small library in Palmerston North doing my best to try to figure life out. It was 1991. I was at Awatapu College. I remember the slightly smelly yellow carpet that matched our yellow and brown uniforms. I was a young brown girl with a Tongan father and a Pākehā mother, with frizzy, unruly hair, glasses and braces; I’d just come back from Tonga to New Zealand and I was trying desperately to fit in. My parents had split up. My father was absent. My mum was doing her best on the DPB. We lived on the wrong side of town. We were the wrong colour. No matter where I looked, I could not see myself anywhere. Not on TV. Not in books. Not in the stories or magazines. Not in advertisements. Not on the news. Nowhere.
One day in that library, I came across a book that changed my life. It was a book of poems written by Alice Walker. The book opens with the following words:
It surprises me to see that I have been writing and publishing poetry for twenty-five years now. For which I have Poetry itself to thank. Because I was so often filled with despair over my own and the world’s shortcomings, especially during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I assumed I would be a suicide by the age of thirty. Not so, I am happy to report. Out of the gloom that covered me, rose Poetry again and again on its charger of sunlight. My life has been saved more times than I can count by this bright unbeckoned stranger from my own deepest ocean and farthest shore.1
In amongst the noise, her brave voice was a cord of truth that I reached out for and hung on to. As I found my own feet slipping, my own uncertainty overwhelming, her voice was a constant refuge that reflected my own inner ocean and took me to shores I could only dream of. She was a proud black woman. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author. She wrote about racism and love. She wrote about social justice and what she was angry about. She said things that I was too scared to say.
Alice modelled a way of being in the world as a powerful woman of colour. She took lovers. She lived beyond the binary of good girls and bad girls. She loved women. She loved men. She took me to places I was not hard-wired for, in the smallness of my city. Alice opened up everything. She cracked it open with her wit and anger and passion. I, too, began to write about what pissed me off.
She said, “Write what you see, as clearly as you can!” It was a challenge. These were words to live by.
She said, “Write what you see, as clearly as you can!”
I remember reading Into the World of Light, the anthology by Witi Ihimaera, and I still recall single poems by Rowley Habib and Michael O’Leary. I copied them out in biro in my exercise books. They were poems of activism, of loss, of the impact of colonisation, of consciousness, of protest. I went back to these words again and again, experiencing some kind of relief. These words had such clarity. They felt into the heart of matters that were so complicated to talk about. They became touchstones for me. Small, precious objects that I stroked. Because these poems spoke another perspective from another place – a place that I could feel deep inside of me – that I could not see expressed anywhere around me at the time.
Roma Potiki’s book Stones in her Mouth was seminal for me. A poetry book that I took out of the library again and again and again. She wrote poems about smug brown men. She wrote about her cousin giving blowjobs to professional Pākehā men. She wrote a particular experience into existence. I couldn’t find it anywhere else but on those rare pages in which I was not strange in what I saw, but connected.
Slowly, I started making my own marks on pages. I fell in love. There was an unexpected outpour of poetry. The gush of it. I carried around my little hardcover books – not just to copy poems into – I started to write my own. I watched the pain between my parents play out every time my father returned to visit us in his former family home. I felt the slow-drip torture of all the unspoken tension fill the spaces of our house. How we could lay out the mattress temporarily on the living room floor for him, with the farewell already too heavy in our welcome. How after he left, we would open the windows to let the cigarette smoke out. I wrote about everything that was too hard to feel.
I was committed to that dream, like so many others
As I worked my way through my broken heart, as I processed my best friend being hit by her boyfriend... as I figured my way through a working-class existence, with brown skin in a white environment... Each poem captured a moment, pressed it to the page, like an insect under glass. I would return again and again to the moments I’d caught. I would whittle away at the words with a sharp blade of criticism until they felt close enough to the true shape of what I was trying to capture. I would carve and carve until I felt the likeness was close to true. This was my process for writing poetry. I was trying to create and replicate the essence of things. I would pull in the words and move them around, I would linger in the fragrance of the feelings. I would stay with my discomfort until I had tamed it into words written down. The poems carried all the unspoken. That’s a hard and heavy job. But poetry could do it. To find some kind of last-line closure – even if I was denied that tidiness in the messiness and chaos of real life.
My poetry began to fill exercise books, but it was always in the margins of my life. My parents – my father especially – dreamed the migrant dream for me. You see, my father could not read or write. He refused to give up on the migrant dream that his daughter would be ‘somebody’ and her profession would deliver the kind of money that had been out of our reach growing up.
I was committed to that dream, like so many others. And yet I could not swallow it completely.
He wanted me to be a lawyer. I knew that a full subscription to the Pālangi life was not for me. I could not bring myself to do it. Armed with scholarships to help Pasifika students get to uni, I studied sociology and social anthropology – studying ‘us’ – Pacific peoples – and Māori – with the quest of understanding ‘why’. Why was it that we found ourselves here, second-class citizens in the so-called land of milk and honey? It didn’t make sense to me. What was I not seeing?
Because I was weird and I wanted more. And I wanted less.
Poetry was always a refuge while I was doing ‘real work’. Slowly, as I studied at Massey University, I found the part of the library that had works by Konai Helu Thaman and Albert Wendt and Momoe Von Reiche. It was a home-coming. Even though I was not studying literature and my life belonged in other sections of the library, their singing words pulled me away into worlds I knew that I dreamed in. It had taken so long for me to find their poetry and Albert’s novels.
It was everything at a time in which nothing around me in the cold concrete of Palmerston North reflected anything I was interested in. I went through all the motions. I worked at the cinema. I bought the clothes. I listened to the music. I kissed the boys. I lived a ‘normal’ life. I took the university courses. I got the As. But there was always something missing. It was never quite enough. I would sink into deep depression. I would be given drugs. I would take antidepressants. I would drink a lot. Every weekend. I would throw up. It was normal where I came from.
I would eat sweet things to comfort me. I would throw those up. That was less normal.
I think that this has been an enduring feature of my life. From the outside, at certain times it would seem as if I was very successful. On the inside, however, there was a level of suffering that at times scared me.
Because I was weird and I wanted more. And I wanted less.
This rising and falling has been a repetitive part of my life
Whatever it was that I wanted, it was not what I could see around me. It was under the skin of the life I was living in. It was unseen and yet moving around and under and through everything. In Aotearoa, it has always been there. And yet it appeared invisible, unbelievable, unfathomable to all of those people around me. Much later, I realised that this other world was described effortlessly in our own languages – mauli, mana, tapu – in the philosophical and epistemological waters of the Moana – we knew and named this with ease. But I was only able to speak within the confines of what English allows. Just like all the other teenagers around me, I was busy saving money for Doc Martens and going through the motions – but it never seemed like enough. It wearied me, that Pālangi world. I would go for a while. I would do well. I would win scholarships and awards and be considered successful. And then I would break.
This rising and falling has been a repetitive part of my life. Along the way, poetry has always been constant – even if I couldn’t write it, I could read it. In the depths of my despair and the heights of my success. Poetry has never cared. In the midst of the noise, I always found poetry singing its own truth, wanting nothing more than to be sincere to itself.
I was lucky enough, after one of my breakdowns, to give myself permission to take some English papers – just because. They did not add up to the credits that I needed. They were not even offered at my university. I did not even have the right prerequisites. It cost me lots of extra money and fees to be at The University of Auckland, even though I was actually at Massey doing something far more practical.
But I did it. And the fact that I’d crapped out doing everything I was supposed to do made me feel braver about doing what I wanted to. I took Albert Wendt’s creative writing class.
The thought of being taught by Albert was the irresistible pull. I had lived and walked and breathed through his sentences. His owls and multidimensional heavens had called me. His anger at the racism in New Zealand had struck at the same flint that burned within me. His words of everyday life and love of his family had reached me in mine. The way he brought dignity and vision to us had empowered me.
When I finally met Albert, I was surprised at how quiet he was. I did not at the time understand or fathom the weariness and drain of mainstream institutions and the pull they have on the lifeblood of our brightest and best. I watched him closely, his lack of satisfaction with the world he moved in so very clear. And yet, he would speak of seeing the latest work by Lemi Ponifasio and his eyes would brighten and dance. We would see an activated Albert for a moment – that would then drain as he trod the water of the relentless currents of the mainstream. I watched him brave repetitive wave after wave of Pālangi privilege. Exhausting.
But I did write a book of poetry. Albert enabled it.
Later I would understand what it means to move in this privileged world – the benefits, the costs, the unbearable and the lovely. Albert opened up a world of Pacific arts that I had only been able to write essays about from afar in Palmerston North. A living, breathing John Pule appeared in our class. A living, breathing Sia Figiel appeared at a festival alongside Oscar Kightley and Victor Rodger. I had read them all. I watched quietly from the back. Too shy to approach them. But my mind blown at the fact that they had done it – they had written us into being.
Albert was the game-changer and the door-opener for me. I was not at all confident about my work or my worth. He gave me an A+, and in his beautiful cursive script he wrote in pencil that I would be one of the great writers of my generation.
I folded the words quietly into my bedroom drawers, not really believing them. I was put in an English Department video at the time, to advertise The University of Auckland. I had no doubt that they had an appetite to have a token brown student singing the praises of their department. Even in this advertisement, although I was doing creative writing, I was not able to say or dream or fathom that I hoped to become a published poet. I mumbled something about how English was helpful for all jobs out there; that good grammar was needed in all kinds of professions.
It wasn’t the best time to birth a book of poetry
But I did write a book of poetry. Albert enabled it. He asked Huia Publishers to ring me. I was living in a little state house in Onehunga with my dad and I still remember the shock of the call. That a publisher was ringing me to see if I had anything they could read. I said, no, not a novel – but I could send them through a manuscript of poetry. They responded that they did not publish poetry – but they’d take a look.
Once they’d read it, they contacted me to say that they didn’t know much about poetry – but that they liked it. And they’d send it to some proper poetry critics to see if they thought it was any good. From there, with the help of John Huria, a book of poetry found its way into print.
At the time it was published, I had a small baby and was pregnant with number two. It wasn’t the best time to birth a book of poetry. I was caught up with the whir of being a mother and a wife and all of that domestic duty. Fellow poet Tusiata Avia was also published and, a bit later, Selina Tusitala Marsh. We joined Serie Barford – for a long time a solitary Sāmoan female voice in Aotearoa anthologies. We would send each other new works as newfound sisters in poetry. Grace Taylor and Courtney Sina Meredith followed us, and the voices of Pasifika women in the literature landscape began to speak in ways that were not solo, but a chorus of different things to say – each of us writing in our own unique way – often pulling on common threads.
We were writing about what Courtney Sina Meredith called ‘Urbanesia’
There was the presence of our poetry aunts – Konai Helu Thaman, Momoe Von Reiche, Grace Molisa – all voices with the richness of the islands full in their timbre. We were writing about what Courtney Sina Meredith called ‘Urbanesia’ – the feke of the Auckland motorways, the disconnects of holidays in homelands, the experience of being brown in rooms of white. We still, like our poetry aunts – and older cousin Sia – wrote about our intimacies as women. Sweet and sour, fresh and rancid. This is something we all face in the same way – we speak unafraid into the silence.
The other thing that I think we, as Pasifika authors, are clear about is that we write into communities of belonging. We understand the ways that we are marked and identified by non-Pasifika peoples. We know that we are always – on some level – writing ‘back’ – out and against other people’s stories of us. We are part of that movement of self-defining ourselves, within collectives and of collectives. We are part of something – we are of our times. We rarely delude ourselves that we are individuals living a distinct individual experience. We know what it is to find ourselves in text – the homecoming, the welcome, the familiar mirror. We know how powerful that is in a world full of Snow Whites. It mattered to us. It matters. Our voices matter.
I was invited to read poetry at the opening of a Pasifika literature conference. And as usual, I recall scribbling this poem right up until the moment that I had to stand. It was a roomful of Pasifika authors – novelists, poets, playwrights – and it was exciting to be among my peers. To have peers. We have become the audience that we always wanted – as well as the writers we wanted to read. It is a joy. The acceleration of voices. To be joined by Leilani Tamu, Lani Wendt-Young, Ria Masae, Richard Pamatatau – by too many Pasifika artists to even name. To live in Aukilani and not be able to attend every film, every play, every comedy show, every art exhibition, every poetry reading of Pasifika poets and writers is a luxury that once I could not have imagined.
The load is being shared
We have a collegiality among us. There is an awareness that the weight of being ‘the one’ who might be read and who thus ‘represented’ us is no longer completely there. The load is being shared. We can say our difficult things and not be deemed responsible for representing the entire experience and spectrum of what it means to be Pasifika, or Tongan, or ‘afakasi, in Aotearoa. It allows us all more freedom to join a cacophony of many voices – resisting the tired song sheet and repetitive repertoire that we are sometimes called to rehearse as part of an ethnic minority.
Being part of the Pasifika arts community is pretty much my favourite thing about being a grown-up. A lot of adulting is hard. But this is where I can get lost and find myself. Shed off all the other layers. Carve everything superfluous off and return. To have company and solidarity in creating art is the greatest joy and privilege.
I’ll close with the poem that I wrote for that Pacific literature conference. I chose to read it when I accepted the Creative New Zealand Contemporary Pacific Artist Award in 2016. I was heavily pregnant with my third son. My words usher in a new era, that of my children. In which I imagine them connected to the legacy we started living consciously, rejecting the narratives chosen for us by others. Seeking the resources we needed from our ancestors, responding, always responding to the multidimensional world around us. Doing our best to write what we saw, and also doing our best to write what we could not yet see – but dreamed – into being.
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.
Header photo by Pati Solomona Tyrell.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.