Feminist Failures and Feminist Bargaining: Negotiating Hetero-patriarchal Culture while being Feminist

I’m reflecting on ‘s piece in The Guardian yesterday about how she experiences serious self-loathing about her body and has a disordered relationship with food while simultaneously being feminist and promoting body love amongst her peers. Cosslett talks to Susie Orbach, who of course points out how incredibly pervasive distorted representations of women’s bodies are within patriarchal culture that feeds huge industries aimed at changing women’s bodies. Orbach questions Cosslett about whether she’ll continue to put up with it. Cosslett writes:

This question stuns me. I wasn’t aware that not putting up with it was even an option. “Become a refusenik!” she says, and I want to: I really want to.

Part of the complexity of Cosslett’s issue is that it feels shaming amongst her feminist, educated peers to admit that that eating is so problematic for her.  She says:

I was embarrassed, and furious, that I couldn’t seem to escape the cycle of self-loathing that I have railed against so often as a writer and editor.

The complexity of striving to adopt a feminist positionality in a context of both a subculture of feminist peers and pervasive messaging within hetero-patriarchial culture stuck a chord with me. There are a multitude of behaviours and heavily compromised “choices’ that we negotiate everyday in-between the poles of patriarchal subjectivity and what might be an idealised feminist subjectivity. All of which do not contain actual, equal, possible choices, because the social terrain we fight them on is so uneven. Should we have children? If so, can we raise them with pro-feminist consciousness but still have them invited to birthday parties? Should we ‘choose’ to be married, de facto, monogamous, same-sex monogamous, polyamorous or single? Should you shave your legs or not shave your legs? Can you ‘choose’ whether to lead in a male-dominated profession or fiercely advocate in a feminised profession; or stay-at-home doing hard nurturing labour with your pro-feminist genderqueer child; or not work within the capitalist system? Do you only fuck feminist-identified women; or only fuck feminist-identified men; or try to change the misogynist ideas of the man you end up fucking? I mean, none of these are really, in practice, experienced as “choices” because often our decision-making is so compromised by the plethora of intervening factors. And yet, they can induce self-judgment. There are many, many times when I’ve felt like I have failed at being a ‘good’ feminist.

Feminism is probably at it’s least useful when it becomes another means for women to police their own behaviour or other women’s behaviour in relation to a group ‘ideal’.

To draw on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) well-known paradigm of ‘doing gender’, it’s worth pointing out that the heteropatriarchial gender system works in part through ‘accountability’. The concept of ‘accountability’ is that when we make decisions about how we ‘do’ gender we know we are being held accountable to gender norms. There are privileges or ‘rewards’ for doing gender in a normative way. There are punishments when we don’t. Wanting to be ‘a good girl’ – or be valued in our culture – goes to right to the heart of ‘being’ a girl. Our early gender ‘interpellations‘ where we take on what it means to be gendered are often really about a desire to be good or loved.

So what happens if Cosslett takes on Orbach’s advise and becomes a ‘body image’ refusnik? It might mean she loses the some of the rewards she currently experiences for being thin. She might not experience the same level of praise, attention, desirability, be invited to the same parties, be able to wear the same clothes, or have the same sexual and romantic relationship options. She is likely to experience social policing and punishment for being fat. She might have friends, family and even strangers commenting on her body. She might be seen as less professional, not be promoted or not be employed. None of these outcomes are fair. All of these possible outcomes are misogynist. But they are realistic outcomes of not being compliant with body norms.

When I was in my early twenties I had disordered eating. Not because of adopting normative body ideas, but because the impact of non-consensual sexual acts in my teenage years made putting anything inside my mouth feel physically repulsive. I struggled with self-loathing, but I experienced an ongoing stream of praise from friends and family members and lovers about how good I looked. Thin meant beautiful. As I went through recovery and my body finally settled on being about a size 14 instead of a size 10, I stopped getting praised for my attractiveness. In my case, being on the other side of the terror I felt around eating was worth it but there was still a social cost for me.

There’s an interesting, complicated, old-fashioned feminist idea called ‘patriarchal bargaining‘ that seems useful to play with here. Patriarchal bargaining was a term coined by Kandiyoti (1988) when women fit in with a patriarchal norm – accepting a norm that disadvantages women overall – in order to increase their own individual power. So in this case, women might adopt beauty practices that continue to promote the hierarchialisation of women based on their bodies, because in reality it gives them more access to wealth or desirability on an individual basis.

It’s a useful idea, but it seems a little harsh when we consider what our options are. Isn’t that really what we are all having to do most of the time? Sometimes gaining status through privileged femininity might feel like ‘any means necessary’ when you are still socially devalued because of your gender, class and race.

So I propose the concept of ‘feminist bargaining‘. Feminist bargaining could be when you have feminist beliefs but also know you have to survive in hetero-patriarchal culture. So you make decisions about where you can live your feminist beliefs, and make decisions about how to survive when you can’t. And really this looks like a series of compromising negotiations with hetero-patriarchy, where most of the time hetero-patriarchy wins because it’s a powerful system of meaning-making supported by global capitalism, not just your high-school dean or your mother. In fact, some of the feminist bargaining you do in some areas of your life probably make it possible to fly the feminist flag in others.

You have to think about whether you are adopting particular practices to survive hetero-patriarchy, or whether you are adopting them to keep thriving while others experience violence or extreme marginalisation on the same scale. I think wealth is a good example here. Are female CEO’s of multinational corporations good feminists? I would say no. Even though they might be using masculinist tactics to swim within the corporate system; it is still too abhorrently unethical. They cause too much harm towards poor, working women, the environment, and other marginalised people.

If nothing else this issue reveals how limited the terrain of individual feminist decision-making is. When we think of feminist actions as the decisions we make in our individual lives, we are clearly facing an impossible tide. We need to move beyond neoliberal versions of feminism focused on the transformation of the ‘self’ – where feminism becomes just another way to govern your own body – to collective actions and goals.

Protest Challenges Police Handling of ‘Roast Busters’ Case.

puudae7Three young women wearing black chained themselves outside Auckland Central Police Station in a direct action against the police’s decision not to prosecute in the Roast Busters case. Their spokeswomen Genevieve Wilson explained that they were seeking accountability from the police, and recognition that the actions of the police have supported rape culture.

They called for a formal inquiry into the handling of the case, including the treatment of the female complainants by police. Their message to the female victims of the “Roast Busters” was that “We support you. We think you are really brave”.

The protest, that used the hashtag #silentVigil, was a powerful challenge to the New Zealand Police to be accountable for their inaction, and to be responsive in changing police culture and handling of sexual violence cases.

The protest of these three young women speaks to a much larger sentiment amongst New Zealand women that the New Zealand Police are failing us when it comes to sexual violence cases.

There’s a few complex and linked issues we could unpack about Police handling of the Roast Busters case. We need to ask questions about police actions, their knowledge about sexual violence and non-consent, and their handling of the case in respect to the kinds of messages they gave complainants and suspects.

Institutional sexism occurs through both overt mechanisms (like policies) and more obliquely through commonly held stereotypical beliefs. In this case, we need to think about whether the police culture is susceptible to some of the broader, pervasive sexist thinking that supports ‘rape culture’. Research by Shannon Chan (2013) points out that women are a minority in the New Zealand Police force, particularly at senior ranks. Shannon Chan’s research with female officers suggested that while they enjoyed the positive aspects of the force – like camaraderie – they tended to downplay sexual harassment and unwanted banter in order to ‘fit in’ and ‘be one of the boys’ within police culture. So, with a force where even female police officers need to ‘fit in’ with misogynist attitudes toward women, we have a problem.

Going forward, the key issue for the New Zealand Police is trust. Do the Police handle interviews and interactions with young women sensitively, and in a way that encourages them to make complaints and trust that their testimonies will be taken seriously? Can we trust them with our painful stories? Can we trust them to understand that liking a boy or going to a party or underage drinking is not the same thing as wanting sex?

The issue now is that the inability of the NZ Police to prosecute – when this was such a well publicised case, and when images of the boys and their Facebook messaging has been seen by most of the country – sends a far more damaging message to future victims and future perpetrators of unwanted sexual contact.

For women it reinforces the sense that we will not be taken seriously by the New Zealand Police, and that the experiences of women and girls are not as respected or valued. For boys and men it sends a message that the words of women and girls are not taken seriously. A message that some act of opportunistic, unwanted sexual contact with a girl is a risk that you can probably take.

To understand ‘rape culture’ we need to make sense of what beliefs and ideas allow rape to occur. To my mind, it’s really ways of thinking about girls and women where our lives and bodies are less valuable than the lives and bodies of men. So when the young men involved in the ‘Roast busters’ could put the esteem of their mates ahead of the feelings of the young women in front of them, that’s a rape-supportive culture. When young women don’t make statements because they are afraid of the reactions of their peers and families, that’s a rape-supportive culture. And when the New Zealand Police can lead a year-long investigation into the ‘Roast Busters’ and fail to hold the perpetrators to account, that’s a rape-supportive culture.

Meanwhile, bravo to the courageous young women that protested outside the Auckland Central Police Station today. It was an unsettling visual image to see young women with black gaffer tape across their mouths, an image that brought the silencing of young women to the fore. One woman held a sign that simply read “You failed us”.

A mass protest against rape culture and calling for police accountability is planned for the 22 November outside of the High Court at 1 pm.

Red Post-Election Blues.

There was a kind of depressed lull after the Sept 20 election, none of us on the left had much to say. I was overtaken with post-election blues; a kind of energy-sapping disappointment, frustration and despair. One of my friends posted a fb note saying that he was still processing, so could we please not talk to him about the election. I got together with a group of friends that week to provide mutual solace, and ended up kissing an environmental activist who walked me to my bus-stop. So clearly, there are always silver linings.

But overall I’ve felt that there is more to say –

We are facing an emerging picture of the impact a third National term will have. John Key has come out backing the so-called ‘child poverty’ advice of the Ministry of Social Development, even though MSD officials disregarded the main recommendations of the report. Ignoring research-based findings in favour of right-wing discourse smacks of arrogance, but clearly Key’s government feel they have a clear mandate from the election to keep rolling out quasi austerity policies.

I’ve felt disappointed by the election summations of the left. Chris Trotter gnashed his teeth about the gender quota issue in the Labour party, complaining that less than 1/5 New Zealand men gave their Party Vote to Labour. It’s interesting that even amongst the left, scapegoating marginalised groups – like women – who are more exploited for their labour is an acceptable practice. The failure of New Zealand men to vote Left speaks to the uneven distribution of  emotional labour and nurturing in our culture (i.e. that women are more often responsible for children and elderly) not the failure of feminism. It means New Zealand men largely voted in their own self-interest, rather than voting for the good of dependents. It also reflects New Zealand men’s greater earning power.

Labour is facing a four-way Leadership race between Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker, Andrew Little and Grant Robertson. I’ve felt really irritated by social media calls for people to vote on merit rather than ‘special interests’ or ‘political correctness’. It’s just really embarrassing that left-wing commentators have such a poor understanding of how structural inequalities work. Even if you are a die-hard old-school Marxist who puts the exploitation of the worker at the centre of your analysis, you should know that capitalism effects different groups of people differently, i.e. some workers are more exploited and exploitable than others. Because of the impact of structural racism (in education and the justice system for example) Maori and Pasifika peoples are more vulnerable to exploitation as low-paid workers. Even without that level of analysis, Maori and Pasifika voters did turn out for Labour, and deserve party accountability. That’s not even going near the politics of indigeneity, and what I would want to say about colonisation and Te Tiriti. So pull your heads in.

So is there a better way to theorise National’s landslide win? What stands out to me is the level of saturation of neoliberal discourse after the previous two National terms, and in a global context of ongoing austerity measures. Chomksy’s recent comments about the business classes in America fighting a ‘class war’ to challenge opposition, and discussion of the decimation of the union movement, have made reflect me on the impact on growing income inequality in New Zealand.

What if the failure of Labour to secure voters was less about political claims-making along a mutable political spectrum, and more about the division of haves and have-nots without the buffering “middle-class” we’ve generally seen?  Marx argued that we act in our own self-interest. The interests of the wealthy elite is far removed from the social and economic needs of New Zealand’s working class; perhaps why Cunliffe’s gesture towards raising the minimum wage didn’t make a dent in political consciousness.

What does it mean if New Zealand’s political process has come to represent the interests of the business classes?  We are already in a global environment where corporations have more power than individual governments. The only solutions I can think of lie with mobilising globally across different disenfranchised groups (like the global poor), and directly challenging corporations instead of simply channelling our efforts through government.

I’m really interested in hearing other people’s views on how we can create meaningful social change. Do we need to get radical?

What’s in a Name? White Bourgeois Cruelty Culture in Auckland

Okay, I’ll admit, being irritated by the naming of high-end venues and ‘concept stores’ doesn’t even seem like an issue particularly worth blogging about. It’s just that it feels so gross that nowhere along the design process did anyone go, “hey, do you think that might be – like – a little off?” So I’m going to discuss “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” (the rebranding of Sale St in Sale St) and “The Shelter” a ‘concept store’ in Ponsonby.

So, “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” of course sounds like what you would call a brewery in a very dark children’s novel with characters, like “Mr. Amis Greed”. Or perhaps what you might ironically call a bar in a dystopian novel, or a piece of contemporary art, all the while signalling that sweat shops are not known for their fun and joie de vivre.

It’s ironic, you groan. Sure enough, “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” is so-named because it used to be a clothing factory (See Metro’s review) where machinists used to produce denim wear for the shipbuilders and yachts down in Westhaven. A nice little slice of history, made palatable with your ageing meat sandwich.

So this is where it begins to bug me. The marketing of ‘Sweat Shop’ is about combining clothing factory historicity – think blue denim – with symbolic markers of working-class American culture – think  American BBQ cured meats, and trying to entice consumers to follow on the bandwagon of the American Charcuterie boom. Working-class Americana looks hip. The “About Us” section of their website makes these hilarious claims about being “the hardest working bar in Auckland”, which is of course not about their actual work practice, but about marketing themselves in relation to our fascination with an American narrative of hard work, sweat and beer.

So marketing working-class culture to the bourgeois in Ponsonby seems ugly, but not terribly new because in New Zealand we expect a little exotification in our marketing; how will the bourgeois know it’s any good if it doesn’t look like it’s come from somewhere else? Of course, bourgeois enjoyment of the spectacle of working-class culture depends on their distance from it (you can enjoy your stylised brew a lot more with no actual poor people around).

The part that really bugs me though is that even though the name “Sweat Shop” is what Jameson would have called ‘blank irony’ (referring to how irony in branding in late capitalism is only drawing attention to it’s referentiality or pastiche, rather than being pointed at something) the joke only works because of the consumer’s distance from actual Sweat Shops. That is, because the drinker is able to go “haha. Sweat Shop. Good one.” and not think about how “sweat shops” are so-called because of their unacceptable working conditions, and are still commonplace in the garment industry in Bangladesh, India and China.

Doesn’t that put you off your drink, even slightly? Doesn’t it seem like the pun is actually only witty because it is also slightly cruel, referring to something we know is sinister?

That’s when we come to “The Shelter”. Now generally, a shelter is a temporary residence for people or things that need shelter. So, people that are living rough, or animals, or women and children escaping abusive homes, or people who are trying to avoid being killed or maimed by bombs.

But in Ponsonby, “The Shelter” is a “concept store” (hehe as in, a store with a concept) of “like-minded” brands to provide an “artistic experience” for the “discerning shopper”. Now, my analysis would be similar to “Sweat Shop” , i.e. it is bad taste and relies on a cruel, vacuous irony to describe a place that is actually luxurious, for the rich. But bizarrely, “The Shelter” is kind of worse. How?

Well, when I looked at the marketing, there was a noticeable lack of irony. The graphic on the website has a visually opulent image of a white building that almost evokes a church. The categories on the website offer ‘Eat – Wear – Shelter – Watch’. The text reads ‘The Shelter houses a carefully curated selection on new and established brands’.. . You get the sense that Vicki Taylor genuinely imagines her store is providing a form of care and nurture via protecting the aesthetic sensibilities of the very rich. Sigh.

This is part of the continuation of discourse amongst the wealthy, white elite told over and over to nurture themselves through consumption. And what poor, wee fluffy bunnies they are. How they very definitely deserve to take shelter in a design-led haven, away from the harsh realities of a world of people needing shelter.

It seems to me a sign of things getting worse in New Zealand (and globally) when white, bourgeois folk have lost their capacity to be embarrassed by this level of stupid. Maybe it’s because we have grown. Previously you knew that the conversation would carry across different sectors in society enough that it would get back to someone’s grandmother. Someone would have pulled Vicki Taylor aside and said “hmm not a good idea honey, that’s going to sound really tacky, because you know, of the people needing actual shelters”. Maybe there is such a burgeoning gap between the wealthy and the rest of us that many upstarting bourgeois are in a bubble having conversations in closed circuits. Their white, bourgeois lack of exposure to other worlds and other world-views can breed a form of careless cruelty.

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.

Karangahape Road:The Need to Protect Queer, Trans, Migrant, Poor and Vulnerable Presence in the City

I’m nervous about discussing the dry and rectangular world of city planning, and more fluid, mutable worlds of spirit, community and creativity in one blog-post. And yet, I am called to action by my fierce loyalty towards Karangahape Road.

Wayne Thompson (no relation) wrote an article in the Herald on friday about the changes afoot for Karangahape Rd.

Auckland City Council is seeking feedback on their draft K’Road plan by 14th May, and are having a public drop-in feedback session with the council’s planning team this Monday 5 May 11am-2pm, Methodist Church, Pitt Street (It’s the last of four but I only found this out sorry).

Struggling through the policy-speak of draft plan (lots of vague words like ‘colourful’, a word I will come back to), the Council knows that Karangahape Road area is going to be a vital site because of it’s centrality to the future city rail link. Think lots of moving bodies. They also know as the city population grows, Karangahape Rd is going to need to accommodate a bigger population; think more businesses, more accommodation, more people wanting to have fun. They have already consulted with Karangahape Business Association, but to my mind there are other vital stakeholders whose views are obscured or missing from the current draft, and a risk that the jargon of planners will lead to Karangahape Rd being banal and soul-less.

Wayne Thompson writes:

“Karangahape Rd has long been known for its character – which includes everything from quirky stores and trendy cafes to a vibrant nightlife and prostitution.

For some, that mix is what makes the area unique and appealing. For others it’s a mix that needs to change. A road that needs to be cleaned up.”

His article usefully draws attention to the tensions expressed by Karangahape Road Business Association, who want to see the road cleaned up, and yet retain its current atmosphere. Thompson quotes Waitemata Local Board Member, Vernon Tava, who says:

“The problem is how to keep the colour and yet make it a safer place for business”

This statement is really the heart of it.

What bothers me most is that making it “a safer place for business” is not the same thing as making it a safer place for people, and even then, we need to think about which bodies we are protecting, and from whom. Making Karangahape Rd “a safer place for business” is not really about safety at all – it is about protecting capital, wealth and assets, for private business owners. Safety for people is a different matter all together. It is about the absence of harm or violence, respect, dignity and compassion. Some businesses the Herald article spoke to complained about “binge drinkers” and “sex workers” in their carparks and doorways; and one businessman complained about “the street people”.

I want the City Council Plan to protect city dwellers who live rough, sex workers and other vulnerable users from the micro-agressions inflicted on them by business owners. In fact, that’s only scraping the surface of what I would dream for Karangahape Rd.

I am reminded of the work done by queer theorist, Michael Warner (2002) who has described how attempts to “clean up” edgy parts of the city, privatises sex, and marginalises queer, gay, lesbian and trans visibility and culture. Warner described the rezoning of New York City in the 1990s, where these actions led to the loss of public expressions of gay culture, and a public space that was more mainstream, and heteronormative.

I want to tell you my own history of Karangahape Rd.

In 1997, I was 17 and had my first lesbian love affair with a girl who lived in a dingy flat above shops on K’road. She might have been 18 or 19. She had long dreads. Grunge was still in, and I can remember her wearing op-shop cardigans, smoking roll-your-owns and wearing doc marten boots. At the time it felt worlds away from the chaos that was unfolding in my conservative family. We could walk down K’road holding hands and feel safe, and ‘at home’. We could sneak into nightclubs like Legends, or the Staircase. Once I remember a girl took a photo of us at a party; she had never seen ‘beautiful’ lesbians before. Quite simply, Karangahape Rd was a Queer St. A street of glitter covered drag queens, of gay men in tight tee-shirts ,or else wearing leather and handle-bar moustaches. It was overtly sexual. It was the place you escaped to from the suburbs.

Now, I know that over 20 years gay politics have changed. Last year’s recognition of marriage equality would have been entirely unimaginable to my 17-year-old self. There’s been a shift from a politics of radical visibility, to a politics of seeking equal recognition. There’s no question that for many gays and lesbians, sexuality is no longer that important because of the high level of mainstream acceptance.

But I have a few concerns.

Firstly, when the current draft of the Karangahape Rd plan mentions “colourful”, or refers obscurely to it’s “character”, it doesn’t mention the significance of GBLT community. When it talks about preserving “culture” and “vibrant history” it doesn’t mention preserving the relationship between Karangahape rd and sexual and gender diversity. It’s frustrating that queer community has provided the bodies, the energy and creativity, but then are not explicitly consulted about it’s future, and our stake in it.

While there have been tremendous gains made for some members of the GBLT community over the last 20 years, there are still those of us that do not have the privileges of Pakeha middle-class gays and lesbians, and who have some way to go before they experience gender or sexual justice in their lives. Particularly young queer folk, including those who may be trans or gender-queer. I want Karangahape Rd to retain it’s character as a queer hub through the presence, safety and comfort of queer people. Currently, Karangahape houses Rainbow Youth, an organisation for GBLT young people. Community organisations like Rainbow Youth are enormously susceptible to the pressure of market rents. We need to future for Karangahape rd that maintains it’s connections to queer young folk.

In the plans there are a few references to public spaces that will be made “family-friendly”. Now, in general, of course I would want public areas to be family-friendly. But in the context of an area with a current and historic association with young, brown trans, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, and whakawahine sex workers, I don’t want the creation of “family-friendly” public space leading eventually to the pushing out of these street-based sex workers (who may be unable to get brothel work because of racism and transphobia) into areas that will make them more vulnerable.

Cities can have a creative presence that is difficult to pin down. It is something about the rub of different bodies, the movement, and the different textures that emerge from the juxtaposition of diverse worlds. A frission if you will. So Karangahape road has also been a home to artists and writers. The plan mentions consultation with creative industries, but I wonder whether the planners understand that the presence of artists and writers is also dependant on materialities (e.g. affordability of rent), exposure to diversity, cafe culture, and the ability to cultivate relationships with the eccentric, the non-productive and the under-employed. I can often be found drinking coffee and writing at either Alleyula in St Kevins, or at Revel. If it gets too commercialised, it will die.

Finally, lets talk about the relationship between Karangahape rd and people who live rough in the city. The draft plan for Karangahape Rd does mention the Homelessness Action Plan (I couldn’t find a live link to it on the council site) but from my limited understanding, it is a multi-agency strategy for assisting those people sleeping rough into long-term accommodation. This occurs on a case-by-case basis via support workers who can help them those sleeping rough access services (via say, WINZ and Housing New Zealand). Obviously I haven’t looked at the plan in full, but in terms of where rough sleeping intersects with Karangahape Rd, I still think there could be a more meaningful acknowledgment of the relationship between cities and rough sleeping, and an approach of explicitly acknowledging the safety  and well-being needs of the rough sleeper population and recognises they are likely to be a continuing aspect of the city. I imagine that plans to move people into long-term accommodation often have some kind of lag while bureaucratic wheels turn, and that there might be gap in meeting the short-term and immediate needs of the city-based people who are vulnerable.

I thought about how in Tory St in Wellington’s inner city, there is the is the amazing soup kitchen at the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre. Firstly, before people get worked up about the suggestion, Tory St is still a thriving and popular street which houses trendy cafes, graphic design companies and the like. The Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre is an accepted and welcome part of Wellington inner city at least partially because the soup kitchen has been there (albeit in different forms and at different venues) for over 110 years. It has become part of the public culture of Wellington. Despite this, of course, it is only possible because of a group of nuns, and probably, private church wealth and low property prices.

In 2014, in a highly, secular culture, it doesn’t seem appropriate that we leave the role of public compassion to the work done by church organisations. There is no equivalent social body to say, buy inner city property to create soup kitchens (certainly not with the same level of public uptake). Which brings us back to the Karangahape rd plan of the Auckland Council. How could the needs of the most vulnerable street users be made more central?

Please get involved and give the council feedback by May 14. I want to leave you with an anecdote about a recent Karangahape rd experience. I drinking coffee and writing on my laptop at Alleyula in St Kevin’s Arcade a few weeks ago, and a kid came up to me. He must have been 12-14, but his skinny frame and oversized jumper made it difficult to tell. His skin was pale but the rims of his eyes were very red, and he had a very slight tremor. He asked me for two dollars so that he could catch a bus “to get home”. I looked at him and knew it wasn’t for bus money. I said, “Sure, dude” lightly, and reached into my purse to get change. He continued talking, “The other people won’t help me because they think I’m just a bum, like one of those K’road bums? But I’m not a bum”. I could see that he was trying to represent himself  – via an imaginary bus ride to an imaginary home – as someone I would help and speak kindly to. That we are often prepared to help those we are ‘like’; a kid who has plausibly forgotten their bus money, but not the same kid who has been living rough and using drugs to survive overwhelming distress. So I gave him a couple of dollars, but said, “Yeah, but you know, no one is really bum. They’re just people who are having really rough times”. He thanked me and moved on to asking other tables, evidence that he did not just need a trip home. But he turned and waved to me when he was leaving, giving a grateful smile.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was a teenaged lesbian and when lesbians were still outsiders, Karangahape rd taught me about safety, joy and community you get from other outsiders, no matter how much of an outsider you are. Please lets protect Karangahape rd’s relationship to outsiders, queer folk of all stripes, migrants, artists, poor folk. If it has to be a “safe” place, let it be a safe place to be different and vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

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”.