Monday, 9 May 2016

Interview with Tusiata Avia

Tusiata Avia's new poetry collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House will be launched during the Auckland Writers Festival on Wednesday this week. Tusiata is taking part in a number of sessions at AWF, see their programme for details.

Tusiata Avia ((2016, Hayley Theyers Photography)

 You travel the world in your latest poems – Samoa, Christchurch, Gaza, New York – and your poems are not romanticised, ‘travel’ poems, they’re political and tough. Do you find your work getting drawn into the politics of wherever you travel?

For me the personal and the political are intertwined: the politics of the places I’ve lived in or visited effect me on a personal level in some fundamental way. For instance, the friends I had/have on both sides of the Israel/Gaza wall; I have an emotional connection to them, even the ones I strongly disagree with. I still love them.

One of the things I’ve learned from all the years of travelling: for me, it is all fairly meaningless unless I am making real connections, heart-connections, with people. Some people expect me to be like my poems in that way – political and tough – I’m not. I often don’t and/or can’t express things (particularly things that upset me) immediately. I’m not quick on the uptake. But I feel things – emotionally and intuitively –  immediately. I often feel much more than is comfortable to feel, I have a very ‘porous’ skin. Writing is one of the ways I have to process and express how I feel about things and then send that out into the world.

Some of the poems in this book make for confrontational reading. I’m thinking of ‘Demonstration’, which I heard you perform in Dunedin. It was hard to listen to, but I also couldn’t help but be filled with joy at how commited you are to not flinching from difficult topics, in this case, rape. Can you talk about the process of writing such a poem and then deciding to perform and publish it?

I’ve only performed that poem twice. It requires the right audience, people who kind of know what they might be getting themselves into. And I have to do some preparation to perform a poem like that. That poem in particular is very confrontational but in an unexpected way – it sneaks its way in and then really slams you. Some times you have to break the wounds open.

I wrote that poem after attending an anti-rape protest rally, it made me think about my own experience of rape as a young woman, and what I’d done with it, how I’d buried it. I was questioning myself during the rally: was it REALLY rape. Then I went home and I had to write the poem pretty much straight away. Most importantly, I had to reclaim a position of strength. I had to find that strength for myself. I guess the invitation in that poem is to consider how we might be with our traumatic, buried experiences. They don’t have to stay that way.

I’ve always the need to bring the skeletons out of the closet (my own and ours collectively, as a society) and bring them in to the light so we can all examine them. As I see it, that’s part of my job as a writer.

There’s a voice in your poems that’s been there from day one – this Samoan/Palangi voice – for which you are rightly celebrated. Is this a voice from your family and neighbourhood growing up? How has this voice developed over your three collections?

I think it’s really hard to pin down your own voice. I think it’s like identity: not static, always fluid, sometimes has its feet on one side of the border, sometimes on the other, sometimes straddling both camps, sometimes in neither, in another place altogether.

I wrote much of my first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, in a number of Samoan voices. Sometimes they came from particular members of my extended family and sometimes they came from the voices in my head that (even though they expressed themselves using Samoan vernacular and accents) are universal to the kaliedescope of the human condition: bouncing from love to cruelty to rebellion to humour etc. 

I don’t use that specific ‘Samoan voice’ so much now, I don’t really know why. I’m not trying to consciously use any particular voice. I think I just write whatever is there inside me – it finds its own mode of transport out.  

The new collection is called Fale Aitu | Spirit House – and there are aitu all over the pages of the book. Can you talk about the role of aitu in your poems, are they a character, guiding principles?

Aitu are spirits. And I guess spirits can inhabit all kinds of things and take the form of all kinds of things. Sometime I feel them physically as actual presences. In modern Samoan culture aitu tend to be thought of as scary, dangerous things (like ghosts or demons) and best avoided, but they played an important and less negative role in our misty pre-Christian past. Whether we believe they’re there or not, whether we feel their presence, whether we’ve buried them, they still walk along just behind us.

Fale Aitu | Spirit House is a selection from a much larger number of poems written in bits and pieces over the last 6-8 years. I didn’t sit down with a project or a narrative (like my earlier books) and write a body of work. These are a distillation from poems I wrote when I had no time to write; I had become a single mother and then a full-time-working single mother. Believe me, there is no time to write, let alone write anything cohesive! That worried me when I finally put together a manuscript, it just seemed like a disparate bunch of stuff to me, until I gave it to Bernadette Hall ( a friend and mentor). She handed a bunch of the poems back to me, and said, “Look, there it is.” And then I could see that the book had been there all along. I think my subconscious knew what it was doing all those years;  the aitu knew what they were doing all along. Now I read it and am surprised to see how it works, the shapes it makes and the echos Some shapes are a bit clunky, but then I think I probably am too.

Fale Aitu |Spirit House by Tusiata Avia.
Released Thursday 14 May, in quality bookshops and at VUP's online bookshop
p/b, $25.

A launch for Fale Aitu will be held at Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, Level 1, 300 K-Rd, Auckland on Wednesday 11 May, 5.30pm–7pm. All welcome.

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