'It was the dream I couldn't aspire to': Victor Rodger and Tusiata Avia in conversation
Poet Tusiata Avia and playwright Victor Rodger on writing, using their family stories, and working in places where "shit was too white"
Although they occupy different corners of the literary ring, award-winning poet Tusiata Avia and award-winning playwright Victor Rodger are no strangers. In fact, they’re cousins: their fathers Mikaio and Nikolao grew up together in the Samoan village of Lefaga, while Victor and Tusiata were both born and raised in Christchurch.
While their personal lives have frequently intersected, their professional ones are colliding for the first time later this month, with Victor’s theatre-producing entity FCC producing Tusiata’s play, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, transforming it from a one-woman play into a production with a cast of six.
Over laundry at Tusiata’s house in Papatoetoe one morning, the two chatted about their respective journeys into writing, creating spaces for people of colour, and how they feel using their families in their work.
TUSIATA (folding her daughter’s smalls while wearing a polka-dotted dressing gown and slippers): What was your journey into writing, cuz?
VICTOR (wearing a neon pink beanie and black thermals): I was a cadet reporter on a newspaper right out of high school in Christchurch. It was the end of ’86… and then when I went off on my OE in 1990, I tried to write up that whole drama that happened with me and Dad – when I was trying to establish a relationship with him, and his other kids didn’t know about me: first as a novel, then as a screenplay and then – finally – successfully as a play (Sons). Did I always want to be a writer? Actually, I wanted to be an actor and later I went to Toi Whakaari, but I’ve pretty much always earned my money from writing.
TUSIATA: Interesting that you went straight into writing from school. It was the dream I couldn't aspire to, because girls 'like me' i.e. brown girls from Aranui didn't become writers. I discovered I was good at writing – particularly poetry – at 10, but by 15, I consciously shut it down. I got the message loud and clear that I needed to lower my expectations.
It’s interesting because I wanted to do journalism too, but didn't believe I could even apply for something that high up on the scale of what I wanted, so I chose something a few notches down: teaching English.
[Writing] was the dream I couldn't aspire to, because girls 'like me' i.e. brown girls from Aranui didn't become writers. I discovered I was good at writing – particularly poetry – at 10, but by 15, I consciously shut it down.
VICTOR: So when did you decide to go for it? I remember that night you came to see Sons here in Auckland in ’99, saying you were going to study writing or were at least thinking about it...
TUSIATA: It took me till my thirties to gather that sense of entitlement. I came back to New Zealand in the late ‘90s after nearly a decade away. Seeing the huge flowering of Pacific arts – which you were a part of – made me see that people like me were doing what I wanted to do. That gave me the encouragement I needed. So I returned to New Zealand, did a couple of writing courses and my career begun.
VICTOR: I was just at a talanoa (discussion) at Victoria University about how they could attract more Pasifika students to apply to the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) where you studied. How was the IIML for you as a Pacific Islander?
TUSIATA: It was great on one level, just to have the chance to write poetry for a year in the company of other writers and under the eye of Bill Manhire. It opened a lot of doors for me, too.
As a PI, though, I felt on my own. I felt dwarfed by what I perceived to be people who were way more articulate and better read than me. In the workshop sessions, I would try to blend into the wallpaper and hope like hell no one asked me to speak.
VICTOR: Before the talanoa, an IIML graduate pointed me to an article by Junot Diaz (The Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) where he wrote about the frustrations of being a person of colour in his MFA writing programme because “that shit was too white”. What do you think would make it better for a POC at the IIML?
TUSIATA: Definitely a certain kind of learning, a certain kind of response to literature, a certain way of speaking was valued. There only seemed to be one way, and that wasn't my way, and it still isn't. I suspect it might be like this for a number of PI writers.
What could make it better? A widening of pedagogy, a bigger space for POC, and recognition of different learning and responding styles.
VICTOR: Did Wild Dogs come out of your time at IIML?
TUSIATA: I wrote and debuted the show during my year there, but that was really just for myself. I was working on a collection of poetry for the course which became the book version of Wild Dogs. The show and the book share some poems but are different animals [The show presents 17 poems or monologues and features the voices of six characters. The book is 40 poems].
VICTOR: It’s such a great title. How did you come up with it?
TUSIATA: It started off as How to Walk Around with Wild Dogs Under Your Skirt and somebody suggested just Wild Dogs Under Your Skirt because it was specifically about the Samoan woman’s tattoo and I guess I was thinking of wild dogs as a metaphor.
Anyway enough about me! I'm interested in why you took the trajectory you did – journalism, drama school, playwriting…
VICTOR: I entered journalism because I wanted to be a film critic (which I ended up being for a couple of years on the Christchurch Star and also in London on a couple of giveaway rags), but in terms of becoming a playwright, I had to get that first story out of me, I think, in order to make sense of what was an intense time in my life and also to help me make sense of Dad.
TUSIATA: You wrote for Shortland Street on and off from 2000 until last year. How was that as a PI?
VICTOR: I really appreciated the skillset it gave me when I worked on This Is Piki with my mate Briar Grace Smith earlier this year and had to turn some scripts around super fast. I don't know if I could've done it without that Shorty St training.
There are some storylines and character arcs that were tough for me as PI to swallow, but at the end of the day it’s been great to see more and more PI and Māori characters on the show. The thing I’d like to see is more PI and Māori writing for the show.
I'm so impressed by the path you took, the fact that you felt that you could take that path. I can't help but wonder what the differences were – personality? Gender, perhaps? Our early experience of life?
TUSIATA: What about film?
VICTOR: I'm finally getting into film with the adaptation of my play Black Faggot, and that's been a long time coming since I was obsessed with movies and movie stars as a kid, so you might have thought I would’ve gone straight into film.
TUSIATA: I'm so impressed by the path you took, the fact that you felt that you could take that path. I can't help but wonder what the differences were – personality? Gender, perhaps? Our early experience of life?
VICTOR: Look, you and I both know Mum’s always had my back. She’s always been one hundred percent supportive in anything I’ve done. That’s definitely given me a sense of entitlement. I'm very, "Well, why not?" whereas what I'm hearing is that you were, initially at least, more like, "I can't."
TUSIATA: I think it's called a platform of confidence and self-belief on which to stand, cuz!
VICTOR: Who are some of the writers who inspired you?
TUSIATA: Sia Figiel. Sharon Olds. Selima Hill. Albert Wendt was a really early influence. I was reading Albert back in the days before I thought I could ever be a writer. But when I started reading Sia Fiegiel, I thought maybe I could do this too. What about you, cuz?
VICTOR: Albert, of course. James Baldwin. Toni Morrison. Joan Didion. Edward Albee. Tony Kushner. Early David Mamet…
A recurring theme in my work has been the illegitimate son/absent father - you know the story. Dealing with autobiographical material has sometimes been tricky. Certainly mum's response to Sons gave me pause when she felt like I’d exposed her pain to the world. How do you feel about using your life - and the lives of your own family – in your work?
TUSIATA: A lot of what I write is autobiographical. Perhaps it’s easier with poetry, because no one reads poetry – certainly not my family! It's a different story when it's on stage though, so I find techniques to 'protect the innocent' – changing names or details, making things so they’re not recognisable to the people involved.
It’s a different experience for me to watch your work, as someone who knows your life story and your family. But it doesn’t shock me because I understand that they’re the raw materials and we make art out of them. And I do the same myself.
VICTOR: What about your amazing poem TABLEAU in Fale Aitu about you challenging your mum about an event she denied ever happening, and Demonstration where a woman at an anti-rape rally with her daughter recalls her own rape? I'm genuinely struck by both those pieces...
TUSIATA: In Fale Aitu/ Spirit House I get really brave and confront my early life and my parents head on. I don't pull any punches, I don't disguise things. It's very confessional – in that tradition of confessional poetry perhaps.
VICTOR: It's interesting, cousin: I know that Albert Wendt has consciously chosen to protect some people in his work. I never felt like I needed to do that. And since I was effectively raised white, I have never been scared of offending the community with a capital C. Have you been scared about doing that, since your work is also provocative and pokes at a few sacred cows? It's speaking your truth, that's how I put it. That's what I did with Sons. That's why it has aged well, because it's still emotionally true.
TUSIATA: Albert, you and I have different communities and different relationships with the communities. That'd have some bearing on that. Sometimes I'm afraid of offending people in the Samoan community and in my own family, and sometimes I have. But I totally agree with you about speaking my truth. On the page and on the stage is the most potent place I can do that. And it's often the truth for others too – I've written a lot about the abuse of children and sexual abuse. It's pretty universal.
It's all about emotional truth. What is true for you or me, very often chimes for other people too.
Our personal experience is part of the greater human experience. And despite differences in colour background, or anything else, if you're a human reading or watching this work, chances are, something inside you will be nodding it's head or wiping away a tear.
It's all about emotional truth. What is true for you or me, very often chimes for other people too.
VICTOR: You know something? We've never been on a panel together, although we’re often at the same writers festivals.
TUSIATA: SOMEONE NEEDS TO PUT US ON THE SAME PANEL!
VICTOR: Similarly, we’ve never worked together, until now. I remember the night before the reading [of Wild Dogs], you were with me when I found out Dad had just died. And the day of the reading, that was an interesting day. I remember I was trying to just get through that reading and keep a lid on everything, and someone came up to me with the wrong frequency and I snapped at them: “My dad just died.” That shut them up [laughs].
TUSIATA: I was really touched that you could still go on with it. But I understood that perhaps you needed to continue being normal, even though something huge had happened. It certainly turned up the level of meaning.
VICTOR: How was it for you watching the play reading, being able to see your work for the first time as an audience member since for so long you did it as a one-woman show?
TUSIATA: Watching Wild Dogs was really moving for me, to see the show, which is so close to my heart, take flight like that, become a bigger thing. It’s really personal and I performed it for eight years myself and it’s kind of in my body – but to watch Anapela [Polataivao, the director] and those actors embody it in their own way just felt like a real privilege.
VICTOR: And what I REALLY love (aside from your work) is that there is the depth and breadth of talent amongst our PI actresses to fill all those six parts three, even four times over.
TUSIATA: Yay for Pacific actresses! Although next time.... maybe you should cast me too.
Directed by Anapela Polataivao
Starring Stacey Leilua, Nora Koloi, Mika-Toloa Joanna, Malia 'Ahovelo, Luse Tuipulotu and Grace Vanilau
Cover image: Ken Downie
L-R: Stacey Leilua, Tusiata Avia, Anapela Polataivo and Victor Rodger