Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dear Neil Roberts launch speech

We launched Dear Neil Roberts by Airini Beautrais last week.

Poet Maria McMillan launched the book and she has kindly allowed us to post her launch speech here.
at The Guest Room for the Dear Neil Roberts launch

Before I start, I just want to acknowledge a few things. It feels to me, that every book is, to a certain extent, a book of acknowledgment, and this one in particular.

I want to acknowledge the land beneath us, the things bubbling there, the things lying in shadow. The sky above us, where sometimes in dreams we float. I acknowledge the Tangata Whenua of this place. I acknowledge the anarchists, the peace thinkers, the conscientious objectors, the punks, the pacifists, the parents, the activists, the writers, the readers, the thinkers. Those no longer here and those not in the room and those in the room, all of you, I want to acknowledge Neil and those who knew him. I want to acknowledge VUP who have published the book. I want to acknowledge Airini’s family, her partner Norman, Airini herself. Warm greetings to all of you.

One of the things I really admire about this book, is that while there is a strong focus on Neil Roberts and the circumstances of his death, this is very much Airini’s story told straight. Airini doesn’t play with words, or mince them. She doesn’t invent an intimacy with events she wasn’t part of, she doesn’t make assumptions. She’s just telling us her story as honestly and as well as she can. In honour of that, I thought I’d quell the temptation to get all grandiose and pontificate or assume I can imagine what the experience of reading this book will be like for anyone else, or what it means in a wider sense, but rather I thought I’d talk just a little about what this book was like for me, a few of the things it means to me.

I know Airini through activism, we’ve been on some of the same protests, hung out in the same houses, been to some of the same meetings. I don’t really know what to call this world that we have both occupied, this anarchist-leaning activist thing. It’s passionate, lifelong friendships are forged but stakes are high, and people get far more grumpy with each other than anyone else because it matters so much more, and it’s fragmented and lots of us disagree, and lots of people feel isolated and lonely, but for all that there is something there in common. A shared culture perhaps of overt and conscious preoccupation with doing the right thing in a world of much wrong doing.

A thing, which is based around the idea that, however futile it feels, attempting to set things right is not only an important thing, but the most important thing. I think maybe this thing lurks in most of us, active or dormant or bubbling away, or ready to rear upwards when the time is right.

And somehow, reading this book, I thought about how Neil Roberts was part of this same thing, whatever it is. That had he been born a bit later, or had he died a bit later or if he was still around, he might have been in one of the vans with me in the late 80s that travelled up from Christchurch to Waihopai, or he might have held a banner with Airini and her friend at the APEC protests, or he might have had a cup of tea and ate dumpstered pastries with us at 128 Community Centre.

Some of the people Airini and I know knew Neil. I am not trying to ramp up this connection, but just to acknowledge, as it seems to me Airini’s book does, this thread between us. And it seems that with this thread comes an obligation to write about Neil’s story as Airini has or to listen to it. It’s a thread that links many characters in the book, Neil, Airini’s old neighbour jailed for refusing to kill, Airini’s anti-nuke parents, Airini’s essay writing teenage friend, Geoff, Lucia, Sam, Janice. This feels like a tribute to the spirit of resistance that connects all of them. I never felt like this was a tribute or celebration or honouring of the bombing of the Wanganui Computer Centre and Neil’s death, but it really did feel like a tribute to the spirit of resistance that in part motivated it. A tribute to those who love freedom and human dignity and to those who hate the things that seek to control and limit us. A tribute to the suspicion of tools or systems that may be wielded to curb freedom or dignity.

Airini’s book gives us enough information to suggest that Neil’s actions were deliberate, thought out, controlled - of the graffiti he wrote before he dies Airini says ‘The text strikes me/as having been written with a steady hand’. But the book never forgets that a young man died. The book doesn’t shy away from the politics of what happened, nor does it shy away from the tragedy of it. A son was lost, a brother, a friend, a thinker. Airini quotes Sam:
 ‘I think Neil must have been terribly lonely’ and later:
‘He made me think’, says Sam, ‘but then
I wish he’d just talked to me,
because that would have made me think more.’

If I was to say what this book is about, I wouldn’t say it was about Neil Roberts. I would say it is about Airini’s investigation of the death and life of Neil Roberts. The book reminds me of a very good mystery where we learn as much about the detective as about the crime. The narrator, which I’ve made the brave assumption through this talk, is Airini, is wonderfully present in these poems, we stand with her and look around and see what she’s seeing. We watch as Airini bends into the topic of Neil Roberts, finds out about it, reads the newspaper reports, thinks about the time it happened, talks to people about it, and lets us sit with her as she tries to figure out how it fits and doesn’t fit into her own life, her own acts of resistance, her parenthood, her pregnancy. 

This book is a single story, but made of smaller stories. I love its assured narrative tone. Airini knows what makes a good line and what makes a good stanza and how words should sing together to make a great poem. This together with the directness and simplicity of the speech lifts the poems into some dazzling place. Fresh is a very unfresh word to use to describe it, pungent perhaps, vivid, beyond all, real.

There’s a lot of space around these poems, they don’t tell me the ending. They don’t tell me what it all meant. The poem ‘Conclusions’ near the end of the book, is just as interesting but no more illuminating than the poem ‘Introduction; at the start. We’re presented with take after take on what happened, and what happened after. How the action was minimised and dismissed, how it shrunk and shrivelled up, how silence was maintained, but also how in some realms silence was broken, the action grew, and blossomed and expanded.

This book is too a meditation on meditation. An exploration of intense thought on a single subject. Pondering. Figuring things out. How what’s going on in your brain can change your life. How a woman shifted in her seat, a belly full of baby, waiting for birth and needing to make room for a story about death. How she needed to acknowledge something.

Dear Neil Roberts is a wonderful book and I hereby declare it officially, anarchically and peacefully launched in Wellington. And in doing so, I invite you to fill your glasses and I propose what appears to be a kind of toast that Airini has written:
‘Therefore future. Therefore past’.

Dear Neil Roberts is in all good bookstores and can also be purchased from VUP's online bookstore

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