Primitivism, Poetry and the Representation of Pasifika peoples.

Michael Botur recently wrote an article on The Big Idea about Pasifika poetry called ‘Mouths from the South’. He focuses mostly on the spoken word poetry associated with South Auckland Poets Collective, but also draws in notable Pasifika poets including Karlo Mila and Selina Tusitala Marsh. Throughout the article, Botur maintains a tone of mild condescension, stating:

 [Writers like Mila and Marsh] set the scene for several NZ poets who wouldn’t be in print at all were it not for Pacific publishers, leaving old fashioned scribes behind.

Hang on, who we are leaving behind?

The article has already been challenged through a response piece on Facebook by poet Grace Taylor, and poetry heavyweights Tusiata Avia and Hinemoana Baker have left stunning responses in the comment section (you can read them by scrolling down from Botur’s article).

What I want to explore here is how Botur draws unwittingly on a discourse of primitivism, that shapes his condescending interpretation of Pasifika poets. Primitivism is a discourse that originated from Europe during the colonial period. Most basically, it was a means of describing Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ in comparison to so-called ‘civilised’ people in the West. Primitivism is associated with a series of binary oppositions that prop up the authority of West in relation to ‘the Rest’, who were seen as ‘lesser than’. So the so-called ‘civilised’ were associated with the mind, rationality, and progress, whereas the “primitive” were linked with the body, ‘myth’ and the past.  Primitivism wasn’t a benign misunderstanding of Indigenous cultures. It has legitimised over a century of political, military, economic, social and educational interventions into the lives and lands of Indigenous peoples.

Botur’s article draws on primitivism by casting Pasifika poets as naive and uneducated in comparison to Pakeha poets and the Western canon of poetry. He says:

Few SAPC poems utilise stanza, metre or stress. Gushing torrents of unstructured personal commentary full of I, me and myself are commonplace, punctuated by dramatic pauses and breaks for laughter. MIT’s creative writing teachers may well be inventing their own rules for poetry; then again, the internet seems to be the predominant teacher of creative writing out south.

There is a sly, derogatory tone in “inventing their own rules” here that conveniently forgets that the Western canon also tells a story of innovation. Ironically, the SAPC poets I have heard utilise metre and stress far more than contemporary Pakeha poets, because the Western canon has shifted towards free verse, which is purposefully unstructured. A critic who criticised Pakeha poets for not utilising stanza, metre or stress would be a laughing stock.

Botur makes repeated reference to the lack of alcohol at some SAPC events. Again, this hints at the colonial, historical depictions of Pasifika people as naive, or childlike. He says  “The February SUP reading I attended was a sea of backwards caps in a well-lit café serving non-alcoholic drinks” and later, “Alcohol is embedded in almost any poetry event in Auckland – except out south, where the poets get high on life.” I think Botur’s target here maybe what he describes as a distinctive theme in Pasifika poetry, our so-called “non-threatening puritanism”. Again, what is noticeable is that Pasifika people are being associated with religiosity – not as a statement of fact – but as a way of signalling our backwardness, compared to imagined, sophisticated Pakeha poets. Using alcohol consumption as a marker of poetic sophistication is a strange one. What was missing was the immediate context (the event Botur attended was for all ages).

Botur’s article is concerned with inherited knowledge. On one hand, he casts Pacific poets as aping their American counterparts, rather than innovating a particular spoken word art form, by saying “Stand Up Poetry (SUP) typically features poets emulating Def Poetry Jam performers, whether they realise it or not”. But then, later on, he seems concerned that Pacific poets have not sufficiently inherited the knowledge of the Western canon:

“None of the influential poets Worley and Pale list are long-dead British blokes; instead, most influence comes from digital age people on the South Auckland circuit who can be viewed on YouTube.”

Certainly, this claim is delegitimising. It speaks to an expectation that poets should be influenced by the Western literary canon, and conflates it with a technophobic and generational concern that young people will be influenced by people on YouTube, instead of by the written (and presumably non-electronic) written word. A central aspect of primitivism as a discourse has been the privileging of the written word over spoken language. A belief that spoken language is less civilised, that spoken language is less considered and therefore less eloquent then written text. Botur forgets that Shakespeare was also writing to works to be performed to crowds. I have no doubt that if Shakespeare was alive today, he would also be producing works and sharing them by YouTube.

Finally, Botur describes South Auckland poetry as having “an obsession with ethnicity and otherness”. His use of the word ‘obsession’ is an attempt to trivialise racial politics and Otherness as a significant theme. Botur’s article highlights – through it’s banal reproduction of primitivist discourses about the Pasifika Other – why Pasifika poets and critical thinkers have to stay on theme. Young Pasifika poets write and speak about their experiences of Otherness because they are continually experiencing marginalisation. So often, depictions of Pasifika peoples are coloured by historical, racist tropes.  I see the work done by Grace Taylor, Daren Kamali and others from South Auckland Poet’s Collective as providing a much needed space for telling our own stories.  Botur’s article did not tell us much about mouths from the South. An alternative title might have been “Words from the West”.

Pacific, Queer and Feminist All the Time? The Evolving Practise of What it Means to be Multiply-Situated.

The modus operandi of my blogging for the last year has largely been to add to the critical voices amassing around various Government and policy decisions in Aotearoa (and sometimes the UK and Canada), media speak, and corporate actions that have harmful consequences for those vulnerable to them. More broadly, I am critical of the globalised neoliberal agenda and global capitalism, processes of racism and imperialism, patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia. My viewpoint is multiply informed by being kai loma (mixed race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha, a second-generation Pacific migrant in Aotearoa, a woman who is also genderqueer, feminist and queer.

Starting afresh in 2014, I’ve been reflecting on what aspects of my blogging practise I want to retain and what I want to change.

I’ve definitely enjoyed being able to respond quickly to emerging issues in New Zealand’s media landscape, and bring a feminist or Pacific migrant angle that might otherwise be absent. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue that has emerged between myself and other Pacific women as a consequence of our online presence. I’ve enjoyed challenging myself to write and then post poetry about social issues, which has meant making some of my emotional world very public.

A challenging aspect of blogging critically in Aotearoa is that you don’t have the same invisibility that I imagine bloggers in other parts of the globe might have. I didn’t anticipate that because people are mostly driven to the blog by readers sharing links on facebook or twitter, it gets read by people who would never intentionally read the blog of a Pacific queer feminist.

As I began anticipating a more “mainstream” readership, I started to write more events-based, shorter blog-posts in an more journalistic style, as opposed to taking risks with my writing by being more poetic/ creative, more self-reflexive, or offering more complexity. The frustrating thing is this process has been good for my blog, but not so good for me as a writer. I’m not really taking myself out of my comfort zone. It reminds me – as Sara Ahmed has discussed in Queer Phenomenology – that social ease is a consequence of accrued privilege, and some of us don’t have lives where we are made to feel comfortable. The public nature of blogging in Aotearoa has meant that I haven’t wanted to feel vulnerable in a site where I could be judged by mainstream New Zealand.

 I’ve started to fear the limits of allegiance. That readers who are left-wing and supportive of posts about poverty might not be down with my feminism. Or that Pacific readers who might share posts about Pacific or migrant culture might not be okay with posts about sexuality. And really, this comes back to how I am multiply-situated ALL the time, and I don’t get the privilege of treating ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class as if they are one-dimensional because ALL the time my lens is as a Pacific queer woman.

So this is what I’ve decided. Pakeha middle-class straight men don’t need another writer/ media commentator pandering to them and the things that they may or may not be able to withstand. It’s not helpful for my writing to feel stuck in “explaining” mode. I need it to get more complex and messy and personal in order to be more critically challenging for me. I need to be able to explore issues that run a mile from mainstream but which are rich and thought-provoking in my own life. And for that I need to feel fed and sustained by a critical community of readers and writers who are non-white, queer, and feminist.

So I guess what I’m saying is things are going to change. This might not be the blog you are looking for, and frankly, I’m okay with that. If you feel like sticking around, you can expect more poetry, more complexity, and lots more queerness. Imagine that evening has fallen and I’ve lit a few candles. There are less people but we can pull our seats closer. Everything is in shadow and more beautiful.


Beach Weather: Thoughts on direction and where to focus my energy.

Wreck Beach is next to University of British Columbia campus. In the sunlight it is completely transformed; lots of pale blue sky makes the long stretch of stones less pensive. There are a mix of older sun wizened hippie types and gay men, and UBC students trying out their heteromasculinities by drinking beer and playing frisbee (still wearing shorts interestingly). I’ve been looking at the sky and ocean and thinking about where I want to focus my energy. I am reflective because the joy of being relaxed on a clothing optional beach reminds me of Palm Beach, on Waiheke Island which is my favourite ‘local’ beach in Aotearoa, and I am struggling to remember why I ever moved off and didn’t return to the Island (Oh yeah. The exorbitant ferry fares while being a student.)

Being on the beach grounds me, and reminds me how vitally important the environment is to me. Since being overseas, I have been getting a more finely tuned sense of what is important to me. I see myself more clearly. I have a stronger sense of where I end and where my communities begin.

Ironically, it’s a feeling that draws me home to the Pacific. I keep coming up with ideas for social activism in Aotearoa. I feel I have more to do in Epeli Hau’ofa’s ‘sea of islands’.

What New York Times Critic Dwight Garner Got Wrong in his Case for Critics who are Actually Critical

Dwight Garner’s riff – about the need for critics who are actually critical – is still stirring sandstorms in the blogosphere. I’ve felt ambivalent about weighing in all week, largely because Dwight Garner is a superb critic. A critic who, I think most of the time, hits a perfect note and delivers a review which captures the gestalt of a piece of work.

But Garner’s piece on the need for critical critics – instead of scores of tweeting admirers – sat uneasily with me. He argues:

What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

Underneath this claim is surely the shadow side of a critic in a tough global climate where words are as cheap as chips. Certainly, the post American Idol world of online voting and i-democracy means that there is often little distinction made between say, the opinion of a seasoned journalist and the opinion of your grandmother’s neighbor’s cat. Recently John McFarlane, editor of The Walrus expressed it like this:

This egalitarian impulse is the cultural assertion of the neo-liberal belief—itself increasingly popular—that the market should determine nearly anything. But more alarming is the flip side: a growing disrespect for knowledge and expertise. In contemporary North America, one person’s opinion is as good as the next, no matter how uninformed.

And yet, Garner’s claim for ‘excellent‘, ‘authoritative‘ and ‘punishing’ critics conjured a dated, Anglo, and modernist ideal of literary criticism as a system of objective, aesthetic sensibility. The idea that we will get to the underlying truth of a work – if only we have an intellectual elite to show us the way. It seemed to repaint the world as one where soppy, narcissistic writers simply can’t handle the shortcomings of their work, and critics act as torch-bearers distilling talent away from the pretenders.

This fantasy of criticism is not true. In literary criticism, women and people of color have been routinely devalued. Now I can imagine certain readers jumping up to say I am grandstanding on  a fight which has been won because in Canada, women are publishing as many books as men. Well, last year Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) did a survey of Canada’s top literary journals. Across the 8 major players in 2011, only an average of 32% of reviews were written about books by women authors. This no doubt reflected the lack of women reviewers across these journals, ranging from 17% of reviewers in one publication to a high of 40%. As CWILA points out, this creates a critical conversation that is heavily gendered.

Sina Queyras, Editor-in-Chief of Lemon Hound, points to the gendered bias in criticism, saying:

“What is important work? What is a circle jerk? When do these things overlap? Discuss.”

Sue Sinclair, CWILA’s critic-in-residence, has different ideas about what is necessary for criticism that hints at the different kinds of critical conversations we would have if women and people of color were full participants rather than voices from the margins. She suggests that criticism is an offering – ‘not a decree’. She argues:

Some think that the writer is best served in just the way that the reader is: by the critic’s truthful response. I agree. But there are different ways of telling the truth: it can be done indifferently, it can be done as a slap in the face, or it can be done kindly and with a—perhaps implicit—acknowledgement of the effort that every writer brings to their work. My experience is that the first two approaches can hamper or harm the writer and that the last one can help the writer to rise to the difficult occasion of public criticism.

So Dwight Garner’s call for more authoritative and punishing critics obscures the masculinist and monocultural aspects of culturally privileged criticism – it speaks to a narrative of “tough love” whereby authoritative fathers/ teachers teach their sons/ students to be men.

What we actually need is more women and people of color to be part of the critical conversation. Because what is important about criticism is that is it a conversation – albeit a conversation across author’s works, canons, across space and time. When my children’s (9-12) novel Josefa and the Vu (Huia Publishers 2007) I was afraid to read reviews. I was afraid of my own vulnerability. When I did eventually read some – a few years later – I found they were small offerings – to take Sinclair’s lovely phrase. Offerings of celebration (and some guidance) mostly about how unusual it was to find a (multicultural) children’s book with a Fijian main character. They didn’t really extend anything like the critical questions I had asked myself in my head. The really difficult questions might only have been able to be asked by Pacific reviewers or other writers of color.

I actually think that Dwight Garner might agree with me. Certainly, he is one of the white men that does not simply review books and authors with a similar worldview to his own – his reviews include the works of women and people of color. His recent review of Jamie Quatro’s collection of stories,  reminded me why – as a reader – I look at reviews in the first place. Garner’s review closes with the lines:

Something about “I Want to Show You More” makes me want to remove copies of it from the “new fiction” table in bookstores and scatter them through the religion and running and illness and sex sections. There’s so much in these stories that’s shocking. Yet there’s so much solace.

I read reviews because I want to read books. I want critics to shed light on writing. Not acquisition headlights or overblown spotlights – just the partial, refracted light of an aquarium or darkroom. In the best critics, I find the same thing I search for in novels: a glimpse of something profound.