Dude, huh?

Hey Daniel Michael Satele,

I’ve read your piece on Billy Apple few times now and I’m confused. On one hand, the title ‘Can I live?’ in reference to the Billy Apple piece “The Artist has to Live like Everybody Else” seems to be about the way Pacific/ PoC artists/ writers are marginalised within sites of institutionalised whiteness, like art galleries. But there’s a few links in your argument that I’m not following:

Name-dropping, personal branding, exposing the commodification of the artwork within the work itself … OK … so what? This is old hat today. Rihanna is on the radio singing “turn up to Rihanna” in a song called “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

The point for me isn’t the self-referentiality of self as commodity. What’s more interesting is that Rihanna is referring to herself as a commodity and it has absolutely no impact on our consumption of her. There is very explicit depiction of wealth in that video and a lots of pornified/ strip club imagery, and  it doesn’t repulse us, even though the depictions of Black women’s bodies in that clip evoke slavery. How is it that we are so lulled into capitalism-apathy by that music videos like that? Isn’t it that we accept it as part of the bargain we have with the music industry? Commodification is okay – as long as it’s slick – because we are expecting to be entertained.

So Billy Apple’s work doesn’t work like that. It refers to itself and as art as a commodity, but we are uneasy. We don’t accept the argument that it operates on the same-as-usual basis. Having it in a gallery or named as art disrupts the historicity and the familiarity of the object.

So I watched Christina Barton’s video on Youtube about the Billy Apple Retrospective, and I liked it. I liked that she addressed the self-portraiture running through the works. I liked that she reached out to engage with you about your words. Calling her out didn’t sit well with me. What was that about?



No, Paula: Nits are a Symptom, but Poverty is the Cause.

Paula Bennett has announced the Government will provide nearly $1 million funding through the Ministry of Social Development to KidsCan to manage head lice in low decile schools, see Scoop.

Paula Bennett goes as far as admitting that the cost of nit treatments is prohibitive for poor families:

“Although nits are found in all schools, children from low-decile schools, and particularly their parents, could use help in dealing with nits. Treatment can typically cost $30. Combine that with several heads in the household and the problem becomes extremely expensive. This initiative will allow for whole families to be treated if necessary. It can be a struggle for some families to keep on top of infestations. We hear of children having their heads shaved and severe scalp infections where unsuitable treatments are used”.

My problem with the Government working through KidsCam to treat kids for nits at school (including hairdresser style chairs) is that it is the worst type of “ambulance at the end of the cliff” program typical of poorly conceptualised development programmes.

Nits are a symptom Paula, but poverty is the problem. Only treating the nits does nothing to change the living conditions of the child overall. Kids will be just as hungry and cold and poorly educated, without nits. They will be as vulnerable to the next illness that comes along, that their parent or parents will also not be able to afford to treat.

Changing poverty in New Zealand is a different matter.  You could increase the minimum wage to a living wage so that families can provide the essential costs of living. You could increase the base rate of the unemployment benefit, so that children in beneficiary families are not punished for their parents lack of employment. While you were at it, you could implement changes in the culture of Work and Income New Zealand, so that beneficiaries are not bullied and shamed during the application process. You could create jobs.

It’s hard to say if the programme the Government has announced will even work, here are some problems with it:

  • Nit infestation is about needing treatment, but it is also about overcrowded living conditions where lice can easily be passed from head to head. I think kids are likely to keep getting them back from other family members, who will still not be able to afford to treat them.
  • National loves to pretend it keeps out of people’s lives, but I can’t think of a more “nannying” intervention than treating people’s children for head lice!  What it really means is that they are unable to address the impact of income inequality, but children from lower deciles are able to be subjected to more policing than other children. How are the kids going to feel about having people who aren’t their parents come in and treat them for head lice? How will parents feel about it? How is the potential bullying that might occur towards children who are treated for head lice going to be managed? Will it feel like another instance of micro-agression or minority stress for Pacific kids who are already subject to ongoing micro-agressions?
  • Do you even understand how Pacific communities are going to feel about having people come in and washing their kids hair?
  • Money spent on hairdressing chairs, basins, and either paying or subsidising the travel costs of the hair washers (it’s not clear how the program works) could be spent directly on families in need, who could then treat nits in their own home.
  • It could put more pressure on teachers, and take kids away from learning while they are being checked, washed, dried and nit-combed at school.

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”.

4 Ways To Really Push Back Against Your Privilege

Mia McKenzie is a fab QPOC writer, but her post on “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” totally irked me. The premise was great. She explains that privileged folks sometimes get as far as acknowledging their own privilege, but then think that is all they need to do. What was more difficult for me was that the strategies she outlines are very self-focused, they focus on reducing your privilege as if it is a private stash of social capital, instead of actually dismantling the structural systems of oppression we actually need to dismantle in order for things to change. The problem with seeing your own privilege as a guilty stash of opportunities that just need to turned down is that a whole lot of well-meaning, academically-educated, left leaning folk can do exactly that and the only tangible effect will be that they feel less guilty. The systems that bring about structural inequalities will still be in place. So here is my poor Pacific queer woman version of how you can really push back against your privilege.

1. Fight The Power

McKenzie’s first method to push back against privilege is to “Relinquish Power”, which on the surface seems quite good. I’m all for white, able-bodied, straight, cis-people thinking about the ways that the social ease they are given produces rewards they don’t really deserve, and then figuring out ways to redistribute them. My problem with McKenzie’s explanation is that it shifts privilege too simply into something which can be given up by an individual. She gives an example of a white manager “pushing back” by taking on the opinions of her POC workers. My problem with this is that even when white managers take on the opinions of POC workers, the structural inequalities that so often hierarchically position white workers above POC workers are intact. There is no real challenge to structural racism, or to global capitalism as a system that produces racialized hierarchies. If you really want to push back, you can’t just turn down the advantages that forms of privilege give you and think that you are doing enough. Why? Because structural inequalities (via gender, race, class, ability, sexuality or gender identity) reproduce forms of violence and harm for some at the same time as they reproduce privilege for others. The real issue is recognizing that when you are being privileged someone else is being harmed. And even when you are privileged by a system, that doesn’t mean you are the only winner. Class privileges middle-class, first world kids, but the real winner is capitalism. You can turn down your labelled clothing or your entry ticket to a top-notch university, but unless you are doing more to protest against multinational corporations, trade deals, the pervasive spread of neoliberalism or poverty, you are still part of reproducing the status quo.

2. Speak Out.

McKenzie’s second point is that when you have access to something that others do not, just don’t go. She gives the examples of not going to an event which isn’t wheel-chair accessible when you are able-bodied, or to a woman’s event that excludes transwomen. She’s pointing out that privileged people need to sacrifice things that they are used to being given automatically. And this is a fair call. But really, it’s not going to undermine privilege in any way because privilege is often institutionalised, and reproduced through long histories of exclusion. And while you might have the luxury of not going and therefore feeling good about your cis-privileged and able-bodied self, people who are marginalized don’t have the same opportunities to be heard. So instead, complain loudly to everyone who will listen about how such-and-such event is unjust. If an event you are interested in doesn’t have disability access, email the organisers and complain. Don’t just leave it to people with disabilities to have to fight for their own right to be included. Exclusion is about everyone.

3. Name it and Figure out how to Change it. Dialogue.

Okay, so this is really reiterating the last points. McKenzie suggests that people with privilege “Shut up” in those spaces where their privileged voices carry more weight. And I think that’s a great start. But so often what I find really challenging is when power dynamics are at play and one person or groups systematic advantage is not named. It’s not enough to be quiet. Here’s why. The way I’ve really witnessed male privilege being reproduced is when “nice, average guys” stay quiet and don’t name the way sexism or misogyny is playing out. Staying quiet can work covertly with the way privilege is made invisible. Recently in Aotearoa, there has been a lot of ongoing public dialogue about rape culture. It’s frustrating to me that women have been having to bear the brunt of this by talking out about our experiences of rape culture as survivors, while men have stayed relatively silent about the impact of rape discourses on their own actions.

4. Be careful about what ideas and structures you reproduce.

McKenzie’s final point is to “Be careful what identities you claim”, arguing that you shouldn’t claim a marginalized identity if you don’t have a marginalized experience. She uses this unjustly to challenge “white-presenting” POC who apparently:

” claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race”

This statement is scary enough to me that I’m considering writing a whole blog-post about oppression and being a fairly pale POC (admittedly as a Pacific woman in Aotearoa we are discussing very different contexts), but what I want to focus on here is the way that making sense of racial or ethnic identity as solely based on skin-color buys into the system of imperialism, colonization and racism that we are trying to undo. Like McKenzie, I think attending to marginalized experience is really important. But sometimes even in well-meaning activist talk, categories of people get reproduced in very binary, rigid and stereotypical ways. We need to be careful that we are not reproducing violence through perpetuating a system of meaning that was created by the oppressors. I get really frustrated with how well-meaning Pakeha (white New Zealanders) sometimes talk about the negative social indicators connected to “Pacific peoples” in ways that seem to reinforce messages of social futility. Likewise when middle-class people talk about people living with poverty, or when straight cis-privileged people talk about diverse gender expression in ways that naturalize heteropatriarchy. For example, it’s not ” respecting gender diversity” to give a masculine-identified trans-kid a toy gun. It’s reinforcing the heteropatriarchal ideas that masculinity is about the ability to use violence, and that force is a valid way to solve conflict.

Finally, challenging oppressive structures takes a lot of hard work over time, often for small gains. So often what we really need to do is to build a critical counter-public, and it’s hard to know how to work together. I’d love to get some feedback about these ideas and how to practically challenge privilege and the systems that produce them.

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.


Love Radically: Some words about trans/ cis romantic and intimate relationships and intersecting axes of difference.

Okay, so I just read Mia McKenzie’s interesting and challenging list on 8 Ways Not to be An Ally. Mia is a writer I hugely respect. But the item on dating sat uncomfortably with me, and awoke some tensions I’ve been trying to work through in my own thinking and politics – not because I don’t think that fetishism and exotification are important – but instead because I think we need to make sense of relationships in even more complicated ways, and make sense of the way intersecting axes of difference can operate differently across different aspects of relationships. Mia McKenzie writes:

 Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.

I want to discuss some aspects of my long-term relationship with my ex-partner as a means of extrapolating what I mean by intersecting axes of difference and power, and the way these complex intersections play out in relationships. And simultaneously, I want to use an intersectional feminist analysis to deconstruct some of the uneasy assumptions about what it means to be a partner and ally, and raise important questions about how we think about partners – as either allies, limited term allies, or as non-allies (because of the potential for exotification or fetishization).

Firstly, Mia’s statement is about making sense of people who don’t just have one relationship with someone from an Othered or marginalised category (i.e. a POC or a trans person say), but who continually date people from that group. Is that fair enough? Is that just a reasonable means of identifying people who may be threats, who fetishize a particular group? Here’s where it gets more complicated for me.

I am a Kailoma (mixed-race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha queer femme genderqueer cis woman from a poor background. My ex-partner is a white middle-class bisexual trans woman. While we were together, I sometimes experienced hostility from other white trans women who felt that I was ‘cis privileged’ and didn’t like my participation in trans events. I was also called a “tranny chaser”, and when I spoke to other lesbian cis women who were partnered with trans women, I found that they had also been called “tranny chasers”.

So my then-partner and I had a big talk about how we saw privilege and power operating in our relationship, and between us. We agreed that while there were a small handful of situations where my cis privilege meant that I experienced more social ease than my love, by and large her whiteness and class privilege trumped my cis privilege in most areas of our lives together. This doesn’t mean that the social ease given to cis people wasn’t real or relevant in our lives. It means that class and race are such forceful social mechanisms that in most situations being non-white and from a poor background made me relatively disadvantaged in relation to her.

We need to think carefully about how axes of difference play out in intimate relationships. It’s not much that one person holds privilege and that necessarily extends to “power over” the other person. It’s often more that privilege creates access to wealth or resources that the other person might not have to hand. And that, in an intimate relationship, if one person continuously experiences less access to resources, that may amount to a relative lack of power. This relative lack of power might play out as a diminished ability to make decisions in the relationship that effects both people.

But of course, what happens in a relationship like mine where a couple are negotiating multiple differences is that you experience privilege differently in different sites. So in lesbian nightclubs or queer events that were more multicultural, my status as cis would mean that I would experience more social ease than my partner (women might exotify me, but my identity as a woman wouldn’t be questioned). But at university, my partner’s whiteness and class background created an pervasive ease and sense of belonging that I didn’t have. Her whiteness acted as a buffer in an educated academic setting. And because under capitalism, work and education have more impact on our overall lives than social relationships do, she was relatively privileged in relation to me.

But what does this mean when a couple might – like us – negotiate different cultures and classes alongside different gender identities or sexualities? Does it mean that her whiteness acted as the most powerful lens and I was racially exoticized? Does it mean that my cis status acted as the most powerful lens and she was fetishized? What if I told you that her previous partner was also non-white? What if I told you that another former partner of mine is currently exploring their gender identity? Are we both freaky perverts for daring to border-cross? Or were we delusional for imagining that we could find genuine love, intimacy and fairness across differences?

It’s worth recalling Braidotti’s claim that in the West, difference is colonized to denote relative power –  so our delineations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ become a means of creating and reinforcing social hierarchies. Difference outside of this context of meaning-making might be neutral. So we can question the ways in which we view ourselves and others in light of the cultural value we assign, and how this produces power relations.

One of the biggest problems I have with the “tranny-chaser” perception of trans-partners is that perpetuates another binary between the “good” trans-partner/ally and the “bad” “tranny-chaser” that doesn’t speak to the complexities of relationships and ongoing need for dialogue between partners. In the first year of our relationship, I probably unequivocally saw myself as the “good” trans-partner/ ally. That’s because we hadn’t been together long enough for me to know that we would eventually need to have hundreds of difficult and painful conversations about gender. Not because I wasn’t entirely on her side, whatever that might be. But because over time we realized that we understood gender entirely differently, and we had different perceptions of what ‘woman’ meant, which was as much about our different racial backgrounds as it was about our cis/ trans status. My belief that I was an ally – on the basis that I believe trans women are women who should have equal access to rights and dignity as cis woman – didn’t necessarily amount to a shared understanding of my partner thought was important about her gender. And as much as I wanted to truly recognize my partner the way that she saw herself – because I wanted her to feel recognized and validated in our relationship – I couldn’t always understand gender in the way that she did. Equally, we have had hundreds of difficult conversations about cultural appropriation, classism and racism.

Hundreds of conversations about differences probably sounds exhausting, and it definitely could be. But I actually think that overall it is something we did pretty well. It’s hard to have to constantly be trying to put your own preconceptions to one side, and listen wholeheartedly to someone else. It takes a lot of love and compassion to carry you across that gap in worldviews. And strength of character to hold on to different perceptions where they are important for your own sense of authenticity and self. You need to talk heaps about gender and race, and at the same time hold on those feelings of love and connection that make relationships worthwhile.

I like how Sandoval has talked about love as creating radical possibilities for alliance across differences. I guess if I were talking to a trans and cis queer couple contemplating a relationship despite differences in culture and class background, my advice would be to love radically. Fetishization happens when someone views another person as less than who they are, because their viewpoint is obscured by a cultural stereotype. They classify the person as an erotic Other. I loved my ex-partner as a whole, complex and unique person. I wasn’t afraid to love her trans-ness, but I also loved the complexity of her story, her ideas and insight beyond being trans. I loved her enough to listen carefully, and ask questions, and disagree and try again. You need love, mutual respect, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue about how salient social differences impact on your ability to relate to each other.

980 Views: Reflecting on the Susan Devoy Poem

Last week I wrote a poem about Susan Devoy’s appointment as Race Relations Commissioner in New Zealand here.

My blog reflects my queer Pacific migrant experience, and is a mix of social justice issues alongside book reviews and everyday life. It generates around 50 views a post. It’s a shared conversation between small activist communities, so I can live with that.

Not so with the Susan Devoy poem. Over the last few days it has had 980 views. And yep, in the blogosphere that’s not a lot…but for a poem from a relatively obscure Pacific migrant writer about racism in New Zealand? A POEM. Yeah, there’s something going on with that. The more statistically-inclined amongst you might be interested to know that I had shared it with friends on Facebook, and eight of my friends shared it on. Someone with maths-smarts can explain to me how that gets to 980 views.

I’ve been reflecting on how my poem came to represent a tiny cultural zeitgeist, where  several hundred people felt moved by an expression of anger about racism in Aotearoa  – enough to share it on. Which made me think it resonated with how people are actually feeling about Susan Devoy’s appointment. It rang true.

The people that contacted me about the poem were  – probably left-leaning, sure – but pretty diverse in terms of cultural background. And some Pakeha thanked me too. It can be hard to not feel defensive when racism is brought up, so their willingness to show appreciation moved me.

What really humbled me this week, was that Marama Davidson was inspired to send out a call for more poems about it in a  “Race Relations Commissioner (dis)appointment” poetry competition. She has created a Tumbler page called Susan Stand Down. She has over 30 poems. You can send your poem to susanstanddown@gmail.com

Someone asked me on Facebook what the point of voicing concern about Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner is.  For me, even if the only outcome of these poems is that Maori and migrant communities know that there are alternative voices, that is enough. What it represents is a growing counter public of people who don’t accept the everyday racism that is so commonplace in New Zealand.

And before anyone even goes there, don’t even try the “you-should-be-supporting-a-woman” line with me. Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner will make the lives of Maori women and migrant women harder. That’s because the role of the Race Relations Commissioner in Aotearoa involves needing to champion race relations work.

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.