Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Power of Protest; the power of words to change our world

What follows is a response I sent to a question asked on our English teachers' forum: "how to approach the violence in some of the texts [we're] teaching this year, so as to do more than wring hands about it; to use it as a vehicle for reflection and change."

I love my job so much - I love how much I get to be involved in the lives of young people who are so amazing and curious and angry and scared
My awesome Y11 class of 2016
and willing to try but needing guidance. So, this is what I said:

Firstly, (to paraphrase Edmund Burke) that the only requirement for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing should be one of the cornerstones of what we do what we do and why we are teachers. To me, being an educator is not about 'knowledge transference' alone but about helping make the (wider) world a better and safer place because, man o man, there are some really, really bad people out there.  

I've suffered terribly at the hands of bullies (when a child and as an adult), abusers (physical, emotional, sexual); I've seen or experienced first hand the heart break of racism, sexism, all manner of discrimination. My family has suffered as a result of cruelty and lies and judgement. Yet, despite these terrible things, I have endured. So has my family. 

And so has (and do so) many who have suffered such great injustices and heartbreak because, though the human propensity for violence is shocking, the strength of the human condition to survive and thrive and make the world a better place is at the core of why great literature, great story makes living on this earth bearable. It's no longer enough to teach the skills of reading and writing -  for what is the use of that, if they are not used to challenge all that is wrong in society and to celebrate all that is good?

Secondly, our rapidly changing world demands that we encourage our students to not sit back and allow 'evil to flourish'. We have to mobilise them and give them the tools and education to challenge their own thinking about difference and violence. It is NOT okay to accept causal racism, misogyny or homophobia (thank goodness) but our communities are stained by the nastiness of fear and judgement of difference. 

Scratch the surface of any institution, and there it is: the Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement; the Black Lives Matter movement and our own 'Roast Busters' and the Russell McVeagh 'open secret' of abuse of power.  And I'll add the vitriolic reaction to Guyon Espiner and RNZ using te reo Māori because that's the waka I'm on at the moment.
The comments on blogs and Twitter and Facebook show that, despite the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, Gay Pride Movement, people still have multiple forums to spew their fear and nastiness and so give voice to this 'evil'. We need to show our students this and unpack why it's there. 

Thirdly, we all ask this question when considering texts: what was the author's purpose? Or, 'what is it the author wanted me to learn, know and understand as a result of this text?' In my opinion, the answer is always about shining light on the human condition and to challenge the reader to reconsider their own view of themselves and, hopefully, modify the way they think and act. Make it personal and relateable. Using another paraphrase (from Atticus this time), that you never really understand a person until you climb inside their skin and walk around it, it is on us to do what we can to bring this understanding. Understanding is the antidote to fear and discrimination. 

A reader's short response to my novel
I have just finished reading Bastion Point with my Y9s and it has woken many of them up to our history and brought some understanding as to why Māori have continued to protest about land loss, the Treaty, and the importance of language. I have shown them news footage and let them listen to first hand accounts. Reading the text was only the start. I deliberately chose the novel because of a survey I did with all my classes last year around Māori language and protocols. The heartbreaking results have spurred me to try to challenge the thinking that the survey exposed - from disinterest all the way to open aggression against things Māori…I had to ask 'where is this anger coming from?' It is helpful too that, as the writer of the novel, I can first hand answer the question around author's purpose and I'm lucky I guess that I can do that but it's only one tool to help to challenge the negative mindset of so many.

Finally, I tell all my students that their voices matter; their words DO have the power to mobilise and make a difference. I tell them that they must never stop speaking out. My Y12s in particular have had a lot to say about the students from Stoneman Douglas High School and those who are speaking out. Those kids have cause, have the fuel to feed their anger and are using whatever means they can to speak out against the wrong. 

It's on me to provide the tools, the words, from the best minds so that my students have a fighting chance. Wisdom and words from Shakespeare, from Harry Potter, from David Hill, from Selina Tuilata Marsh. But also, Mike King and Lesley Elliot and Chloe Swarbrick.  Isn't it always the poets and the students who start the revolutions? I apologise that I am going to mangle metaphors and overstate things, but, as an English teacher in a NZ secondary school,  I see myself as the 'arms dealer' in the battles against all that is the wrong.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


“Some are born great, 
some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
Malvolio, reading, from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ (Act 2, scene 5)

‘Are you winning?’ is a question an old boss used to ask. It was a colloquial form of ‘How are you?’ but, for him, was also about whether you were winning the battle against the pile of planks to de-nail, the fenceline staying plumb, or the job being finished before the weather packed it in.

Like my old boss, the motivational experts tell us winning is about not giving up; it’s overcoming obstables; it’s about picking yourself up when you’ve fallen. Which is all very good to try to encourage you when you are finding life hard, there are problems which seem to get in the way of success or when you fail.

But winning in the true sense of the word, as in, first place, the best in your class, a prize which cannot be earned just by showing up and doing the work, that’s a whole other matter. Especially in a world that feeds off headlines or putting people into catagories: first class, No. 1, champion, award winning...

I’ve written previously about the pain of rejection; about the delight in acceptance; not about how it is for me to win!  I feel a weight of responsibility with this win. And felt it leading up to the announcement. It is as if the wairua/spirit of the story of the fight for land for Ngāti Whātua and for all iwi stood behind me. My win or loss was going to be part of the narrative.

This blog post is an attempt at just that. To put into words how it felt to have my book Bastion Point win its category in this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Firstly, after the immediate giddy delight, fumbling acceptance speech, tears, kisses, hugs, there was still a shadow of disbelief: Seriously? Am I like, good? Better than just good?

Secondly, there is guilt – for the disappointment the other contestents will no doubt be feeling – I have been there and that sort of gut punch is unpleasant and not wished upon others I admire and respect. Whose books I loved (more than mine but that's because of the 'familiarity breeds contempt' syndrome) and who I was convinced were more worthy.

Finally, there is fear mixed with relief: that that is ‘it’ – there is nothing more to strive toward. I’ve made it. I’ve done it. I’ve managed to snag that elusive ‘best in show’.

In talking with other ‘winners’ (past and present), it seems that we share this in common. There’s also the surprise at onlookers’ surprise when we say ‘we didn’t expect to win’ – as if we are being falsely modest. We’re not. See Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davies ruminate on who they expect might win their book’s category and then watch their faces when they learn they won!

It’s a strange beast, this writing lark: on the one hand, it’s all on us, the writer, to do the business. Yet on the other hand, we just couldn’t do the work justice without our Beta readers, our family, our cheer leaders, our agents, and our amazing editors. To miss out on an award is to feel disappointment for ourselves but also that we have let the team down; to win, like I did on Monday night, feels like I have given the best compliment, the best return of invested time, energy and talent to those who have continued to cheer me on. I’m sorry that in doubting myself, I doubted you. William Shakespeare has the best advice for us all hidden in this observation of human nature:
 "Our doubts are traitors,  and make us lose the good we oft might win,  by fearing to attempt.”
Measure for Measure

Saturday, July 8, 2017


A little while back, I learned my lastest novel, Bastion Point: 507 Days on Takaparawha, was shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults - in the Esther Glen (Junior Fiction) Category.

I cried. Such an honour to have my peers (the judges this year who are top of their game/know heaps of stuff about writing and reading and children's reading) say: we liked what you did there. This book is good. Those tears were also for the people of Ngāti Whātua whose story of the protest I tried to recreate; whose lives were not a made-up story but were filled with frustration, and determination, and grief, and, finally, finally, triumphant (bitter sweet because the win never should have been needed).

Then I saw the list of others in my category and I got hot prickles of anxiety - these are great books (I've now read them all and loved them all) and wondered if I was a pretender; if I would be caught out being a fake.

I've had some really wonderful reviews by people saying things like, 'Tania's done a terrific job' (a special-to-my-heart response from a great man who, very sadly, died suddenly not long after this broadcast).

I've tried to ignore a review which has criticisms my te reo Māori accuracy but the accusation rankles because the reviewer is wrong and I've had the most highly regarded language experts check my usage. Words matter to me and the words 'significant errors' sting. I can assure you, there are no errors in the novel.

Overall, the shortlisting (and a recent monetary award for my Charlie Tangaroa novel) affirms what those of us in this business know: rejection comes with the territory but, the more you fling out your art, the more likely you are to snag something good.

The awards ceremony is in Wellington on the 14th of August. I am so looking forward to the event and catching up with our very supportive whānau of writers and illustrators for children.

Meanwhile, it's school holidays and, despite being struck down with a strain of flu not covered by the injection, I fully intend to have the first draft of Charlie Tangaroa and the creature from the Sea finished before school starts again.

May I commend the shortlisted titles to you for your reading pleasure. NZ punches well above its weight when it comes to quality books for children and young adults. Then, tell others about what you've read - spread the word and write reviews.