22-year-old Tayi Tibble has recently graduated her masters and published her first poetry book titled Poūkahangatus. It featured at number one twice on the Unity Books bestselling list and was the first book of poetry to claim the number-one spot since Hera Lindsay Bird in 2016. It was reviewed by Jenna Todd for the Spinoff Papercuts Podcast: as having “a freshness, a naughtiness, and an incredible cover”.
Fresh and naughty with incredible ‘covers’ are themes brown girls are universally loved and recognised for. Being a scholar and unapologetic poet published straight out of uni sets this brown girl apart. I knew Tibble and I would get on because she goes by ‘Paniaofthekeef’ on Instagram. I knew because she went to Aotea College near where I grew up in Wellington and because she came to our interview in brand new Fila sneakers with a platform that made her outfit just drip [LIKE].
“I’m like a gangsta bitch but I remember being a teenager and being real shame about that like dressing real twee,” she says. We talk about being unapologetically who you are in 2018 and what decolonising the mind means to her as well as what being an urban Māori means today. We talk about how much harder women of colour have worked to get into positions of significant power and how important it is to keep pushing that kaupapa so our daughters and sons can dream a bit bigger, aim a bit higher and feel a sense that achieving those dreams are possible for them too.
For Tibble leading by such a high example is a pressure and a privilege – and a platform she’s intent on growing. “People will often ask me ‘Oh how do you feel about being a Māori writer?’ in reference to the fact that Pākehā people don’t get called ‘Pākehā writers.’ I’ve also encountered other Māori writers rejecting that label, saying that they aren’t or can’t be ‘a Māori writer.’ They’re just a writer like everyone else and I get that but…. I don’t really fuck with that. I’m a Māori writer. In my mind that’s undeniable and inescapable, and it’s important that I embrace that.
SERUM: So you embrace the responsibility?
TAYI: I have to. Cause I can see the detriments of not doing it, the detriment of not having role models, or people to walk the path before you and guide so….so yeah you have to there’s too much on the line. Too much too lose – but so much to gain too.
SERUM: Do you feel there is progress happening in New Zealand in 2018?
TAYI: Yeah I do. You have to believe right, in order for it to be realised. I think more and more people are becoming aware of inequalities and have the right intentions at heart. I think most people want a better and fairer more creative New Zealand. But I also think we could be further along. ..Okay I’ll tell you my Don Brash story. So I was at Hamilton Press Club. I was there because Vincent O’Malley, he’s a Pākehā historian and a really cool guy – he’s doing a campaign to teach Waikato wars in schools – so he gave an address about that and I was like sweet, sweet, thinking we’re just going to have a fancy lunch and free wine, but then the floor was opened up to Don Brash to reply, and he starts popping off as per usual saying things like Waikato wars? What about Māori on Māori crimes? [Laughs] Just being Don Brash. The thing with Don Brash though – is that I feel sorry for him, because he can’t imagine a different New Zealand. He can’t imagine anything outside of anything he knows or what he thinks he knows. I honestly just think that everyone needs to take some time and just imagine what New Zealand could be like. One of my fav quotes is from Lana Del Rey – I don’t think it’s from her but she said it and it’s: ‘Life imitates art’ which is why we need to put more positive brown art out, and then society’s attitudes will follow – we have to be able to imagine a better New Zealand. Which is why it’s so important to have brown people leading the discussions, curating the art, directing the festivals and writing the media. See I’ve done interviews before where I just feel myself clam up because I get the feeling that the interviewer is not really listening to me, they’re listening for something and it’s that extraction, exploitation even, that’s actually real dangerous and uncool. If you want to talk to me about my work you have to meet me at my level. Like this conversation we are having now is really cool, like you get it and so I can talk openly about this sort of stuff without feeling like I’m educating or protesting.
Tayi Tibble. Photo by Ebony Lamb.
SERUM: For me I just don’t want this to be a phase where people of colour stories were trending between 2015 to 2020 like I think it’s important to keep pushing for that.
TAYI: Yeah…I worry about that too. Like in my own situation, with winning The Adam Foundation Prize and with the release of my book, lots of literary people and literary communities have been hyping me up. Of course because the work is good, but also I think people get behind me because I’m young and brown and cool, which I definitely appreciate, and everyone should definitely be supporting young brown artists and writers, but at times I do feel weary of the attention I get from predominantly white institutions. I don’t want to get played out, I listen to ‘Crop That Back’ by Coco Solid everyday, because this writing and arts administration gig is actually what I want to do, and I take it seriously. Which is why brown women need to get into positions of power so we are helping people get up, leaving the doors open behind us, protecting ourselves, our stories, history, trauma and writing our own narratives. Ensuring that those narratives are either healing, validating, or aspirational.
Poūkahangatus was written over the course of her last year of studying, as an academic and self professed nerd she says she has always loved history and stories of World War II.
TAYI: I like World War II stories – my Granddad was a Dutchman who came to New Zealand escaping the war and my Nana was a beautiful East Coast wahine who had to send her brother, cousins, lovers off to war after they joined the 28th Māori Battalion. After the war, she moved here after to Wellington. I grew up listening to, and loving all of these stories about the war, the sacrifice the adventures. Lot’s of soldiers who enlisted went because it would be an adventure, for most of them, the only way they would be able to see the world. And there’s heaps of Māori in Italy, like Florence – heaps of the Italians fuck with Māori hard cause of the war, that interconnected history. Māori soldiers fell in love with Italian women. It’s crazy to think about how the war dispersed us and where all the lasting presences of Māori really are…
SERUM: I wish we got taught these things more man.
TAYI: Yeah you don’t get taught that, you don’t get taught shit. I feel like brown woman in particular are carriers of knowledge like that, but we have to make an extra effort to educate ourselves amongst all these Pākehā-biased narratives.
SERUM: Yeah I just caught the end of a National Radio interview with Jacinda Ardern talking about repatriation of soldiers from Malaysia only happening now.
TAYI: That’s like a big thing in Māori tikanga – bringing your body home to your family, to your tūrangawaewae – that’s one of the saddest thing about the war is that bodies can’t go back to their family.
SERUM: What do you think it is about Poūkahangatus that people love and want to have more of?
TAYI: Just the politics in it – the cultural elements and identity elements. It’s fresh, and it’s prioritising and giving value to an urban, brown existence and experience. For example it references, Kim Kardashian, The Pussycat Dolls, Aaliyah, Rihanna, where one might, I dunno Pākehā writers like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen right? The thing that I have noticed is that the brown girls who read it get it, so they don’t have to pry or ask too much about it – they’re happy to have it exist and they can relate to it, how it is on the page. Pākehā people on the other hand are really really curious. I’m glad they’re interested and want to know about it and can see it’s value, but I also get the feeling that it’s possibly their first time coming into contact with Māori literature, or these kinds of Māori stories.
SERUM: Which is…
TAYI: Fucked….but it is what it is I guess. I don’t think I’m doing anything super unique.
SERUM: But then you are… It’s cool that this has been created for younger brown girls to look to and connect with you know?
TAYI: Yeah I think that’s something that Pākehā really underestimate is how underrepresented people of colour actually are. Underrepresented or misrepresented and it’s erasure, and that’s a tool and violence of colonialism, cultural erasure, being black marked, or smudged out. I think that’s a large part of what my book is about, representation. You have to be able to see yourself in media and literature, and if you don’t you’ll relate to whatever role models or things you’ll see on the television who look like you, and they might not always be healthy ones. Like growing up I was like ‘I’m Jade The Bratz Doll!’ and ‘I’m Nicole Scherzinger!’ cos they looked like me the most, and that’s why I’m a crazy big lipped bitch now. I just think it’s really violent to not be represented and I don’t think Pākehā can’t even comprehend this because they just see themselves all the time. I’ve discovered in literature, this little weird attitude that some people have that, almost looks down on people who write from their own lives, cos writers should use their “imagination” or something like that, but again, I think that attitude is situated in a position of privilege. The privilege of having always had every multifaceted aspect of their existence validated in books, films, on screen, whereas people of colour are still having to legitimize their existence across a range of platforms, just to be able to live.
But yeah the best part about this whole experience and having my book published is all the messages and support I get from brown woman. When I get them I’m like yes, this is what this is all for! They give me the most validation and encouragement than I get from anywhere. I read those messages and I think, this is all I need, I don’t need awards or fellowships, or widespread media, just community and connection…. But then I have this secondary thought which is if all these girls were in the positions of power and influence, the curators, the directors, the editors, the publishers, then I’d be totally set lol!
Poūkahangatus featured at number one twice on the Unity Books bestselling list.
SERUM: So what does the term urban Māori mean for you?
TAYI: I think it’s about encompassing both the modern world and the Māori world, and accepting and being comfortable with the tensions that living in both these worlds produce. I was born and raised in Wellington, but I have always known that I was really from Te Araroa, Gisborne, Ngāti Porou, and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui.
Being Urban Māori is tied up with a lot of ideas about being disconnected, separated or disenfranchised. A lot of people read the book and imply that to me, but I just don’t really feel like that. I feel very millennial, logged in and high-maintenance whilst also feeling very Māori, compassionate and communal. They don’t have to clash at the the expense of one another. They can coincide and coexist, and Māori have been living proof of that for generations.
SERUM: I guess navigating that space…when you put all the labels aside we’re all still women, you know we got boobs we get our period, for you as a woman, how do you navigate that balance to allow the two to coexist?
TAYI: Well I certainly haven’t always felt comfortable about my identity as a person of colour or as a woman. I definitely had to go through all that dumb shit like wanting to be white and acting white because I grew up in a lot of white spaces, or feeling like I had very little agency over my body, but a whole lot of shame about it. I guess for me my cultural identity and my identity as a woman are completely entwined because my role models have been my Mum and my maternal line. I feel like I only recently was able to embrace myself as a woman when I embraced my mana wahine, and that’s what makes me feel really sexy, feminine and empowered. But identity of course is fluid and a constant journey. But I’m still on a personal journey of decolonising my mind. I didn’t grow up with strong ties to my marae, I’m half caste, I’ve had to teach myself about myself.
SERUM: Some people don’t like that word aye..I guess it is old school
TAYI: It is! It’s awful and dehumanising to split a person into fractions! When I think of that word, I get an image in my head of being split and split again to the point where you just shimmer like glitter. But I feel like I’m still negotiating that word with myself, which I think as a mixed-race Māori, I have a right to. And it’s significant to me because I’m the half caste daughter, of a half caste daughter, who in turn was the half caste daughter of a Māori woman and a Pākehā man who moved to Wellington. So we’ve been here for generations. I’m four generations away from the time where my line lived on the Papakāinga. I didn’t grow up immersed in tikanga or te ao Māori but I was really lucky to have a biracial mum, who had already gone through life looking like she did and living in a white setting. So my mum really knew how to be a mum to me and help me navigate all of that. Her own Mum was really assimilated, Christian and submissive, as woman were during her time, and so she didn’t guide her or bring her up Māori. My mum made a very conscious effort to teach us what she could about our history and where we come from. The internet really helped with this! Another example of Māori and modernity coexisting beneficially. But my Mum, she’s really woke – my mum’s been woke before woke was a term.
SERUM: You see, that’s what I’m saying! Woke is a term but conscious women who have been through hardship and then ascended to a level of deeper understanding, have been here, for time.
TAYI: We’re woke because we have to be. It’s the only way we can exist in this world with dignity. It’s what really helped me come to terms with my identity; learning about our history, colonisation and piecing the puzzle together as to how we got here, and why certain things have happened..all effects of colonisation that are still very present and real. Once you notice them, it’s undeniable. And the longer we pretend that colonisation is in the past and not a real growing, shifting entity, the more affect it’s going to have. The only way we can decolonise or actually move on is confront it and talk about it, and have people of colour leading those conversations.
You can buy Poūkahangatus here.
Cover photo by Ebony Lamb.