Cyborg Hunnies: Mediating Diasporic Difference
Makanaka Tuwe and Anisha Sankar discuss hybrid identities in Aotearoa with Lana Lopesi.
How do we get to know each other? is a question that seems to dominate my work. As a question, it seems simple. But it can also be impossibly hard to answer, and a lot of the time it plays out very clumsily IRL. Within a Moana or Pacific space, this often involves tracing back to ancestral connections for clues. But how does this relationality play out for the varied diasporic communities in Aotearoa, where our connecting force is the settler colonial state that we call home?
Using this question as a central tenet I sat down to eat with two diasporic women I greatly admire, Makanaka Tuwe and Anisha Sankar. Maka is a Shona womxn, raised in Zimbabwe until she was ten years old. She is a storyteller and cultural producer whose interests and works are rooted in amplifying the experiences of third culture kids. Anisha was born in Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, and moved to Lower Hutt when she was five. She is currently a PhD student in Tāmaki Makaurau, studying the contradictions of colonial capitalism. Below is an edited transcript from our talanoa, in which we talked about hybrid identities, belonging, safety and committing to the political project of decolonising this place we call home.
Lana Lopesi: I am really interested in this conversation because I feel the diaspora narrative in New Zealand is so strongly established in relation to my experience as a Pacific person. But we're at a place now where the diaspora experience (if you could even have that as a single group) is so varied and multi-layered, and contradictory as well.
However, I feel like we’re not at a stage where different diaspora groups are able to relate to each other, or even know how to talk across these really specific experiences to each other, so that's what I'm hoping we’ll hash out today. I want to ask you both: When did you realise that you were not of this place? Because as someone who was born here and whose parents were born here, I only ever called myself a New Zealander when I had left New Zealand, at 22.
There’s nothing about me that a Kiwi can ever look at and say “you're one of us”.
Maka Tuwe: The day I realised I wasn't of here was the first week of school. This girl told the other kids to tell me that they weren’t going to play with me because I was Black. I had never had an awareness of my Blackness before then. I think my blissful ignorance and innocence was taken away that day, because that's when I became very aware of my difference.
Anisha Sankar: There was no explicit moment that made me aware of my difference, but it must have just been a general feeling of alienation from a young age, because I started doing things like changing my accent when I was at school. My mum told me recently about how one day she couldn't pick me up from school and my dad had to pick me up, and I just, like, started bawling, saying, “No he can’t come because he’s too dark.”
MT: I relate with you about only calling myself a New Zealander when I’m overseas, and I think that is tied to a feeling of safety and protection. I’m visibly Sub-Saharan African and so when I’m overseas people will generally ignore me until they hear me speak, and then a fascination comes along. It's interesting, because while I was in Morocco at the markets I got cast out as a border-jumping, looting Sub-Saharan African who had just come to Morocco to border-jump into Europe and cause havoc. But the moment you open up your mouth and speak you then turn into like this, African-American tourist who has heaps of money to spend.
AS: New Zealand citizenship offers so much security.
MT: Let me tell you. You start getting called an expat instead of a migrant.
AS: Recently I heard Golriz Ghahraman talk about her experience coming to Aotearoa, and she observed that when she arrived here, it was like the only way people could understand her identity was to cut it off from this whole history of trauma that’s happened. So you only exist in so far as how long you have been here.
My own experience is different, but this observation really resonates. No one asks you what happened to you before you came here, there's no curiosity. It's like the borders of the country are also temporal, which cut you off from this past that you had. I think that’s why I feel like I've forgotten so much of my past, because here I haven't been asked about it, or it hasn’t been honoured or valued. There's no space for me to express it.
LL: I just want to pick up on this idea of safety. Do you feel safe here, now?
How do we make room for each other to have those experience gaps, but still stand together in solidarity?
MT: No. I felt safer even in Morocco – a country where I knew that, being a Sub-Saharan woman traveling alone, anything could happen to me and no one would look for me – than I do here. And I find myself yearning for that, to be able to disappear and not be a spectacle. I'm still trying to establish if it’s safety I feel when I'm everywhere else but here, because it's like everywhere else should reject me because I'm not from there, I'm only passing through. Whereas here it's like a deep-seeded rejection from the very place you've grown up in. I've been really thinking about that a lot.
I think, as well, when you're away [from New Zealand] you have the privilege of finding aspects of yourself that you can never really explore because you have to do life here. It's like you feel stuck, because you’re trying to figure out how to survive materially as well as through your physical sense of belonging. When I interview other Africans I ask if they identify as African or Afrokiwi. When I’m asked that question, I blank out and say “African”, because there’s nothing about me that a Kiwi can ever look at and say “you’re one of us”, and that’s made clear to me in so many instances.
LL: And when you say Kiwi, who are you talking about?
AS: I feel like there’s no New Zealand identity or label that’s for us, that's able to hold all of our different histories and also our ethical obligations to the political situation here. Because the only identity that exists is dominated by Pākehā and if we don't fit into that, and we’re not complicit with it, then there’s no other way to, like, mediate our relationships to the land here.
LL: I guess that’s why I'm so drawn to any spaces like this one I’m sharing now with you two, because I’ve always thought about how when my grandparents came here they learnt about Māori through mainstream media, which is just not good to anyone. So they internalised a settler-colonial way of thinking about Māori, which is just not how our relationships with each other should be mediated. So, what I'm really interested in is just trying to find this language to be able to talk to each other in a way in which we're all included but not homogenised.
AS: Settler-colonial frameworks of identity and frameworks of relation don't have room for that. They constantly universalise settler identity and they homogenise difference.
LL: So we’re all here, this is where we all live and the place we call home. We can’t just wait for something that doesn't want us to be in it to include us. What do we do?
When you’re forced into these places where you don't feel safe, difference almost becomes a threat.
MT: You touched on something that I talked about a lot on social media – the ‘experience gap’ – and I think that it might apply to this context. We're all saying that we need to now unearth the different experiences that we all have and make room for them, otherwise we'll end up in a situation where our identities are homogenous, when in reality we all know they aren’t.
Can we apply the same notion to providing spaces where we can have our own gaps and experiences, but still have similarities? Africans, on the continent and of the diaspora, are all connected by water. All water connects us from slavery to globalisation to migration; we all have that thing that we've had to move, whether forced, decided upon over a period of time, or whether you just have to get the fuck out and go. And it's like, can we do that for ourselves here as other diasporic entities? How do we make room for each other to have those experience gaps, but still stand together in solidarity?
LL: I think it’s interesting in relation to the Pacific experience. Because the pan-Pacific identity in New Zealand was a means of survival for these groups of people who outside of New Zealand would not be Pacific Islanders but Sāmoan, Tongan, Tokelauan. And it seems to me now that the shift is actually to move toward pulling out the strands rather than focusing on the regional.
MT: And within those groups you've got your Christians, Muslims, your “I believe in mother god”, and the ‘fun gay’, and then the other ones who don't think that's part of your culture. So you’re right, it's like how do we do that when there are just so many layers?
LL: And I think sometimes when you’re forced into these places where you don't feel safe, difference almost becomes a threat.
AS: Identity (or what we’re identified as, in and by structures of oppression) is so often defined by power. And so to be a migrant or in the diaspora, or queer, straight, whatever, all of these different categories are not wholly ours, they’re cyborg. By that I mean, they're mediated by colonialism and capitalism so much so that they're like limbs for us. It's not really a question of how we choose to identify, because our agency is already compromised by the systems.
How can we reclaim identity when it exists to identify us in our complicity and our role in these systems?
I’m interested in identity, from the perspective of: How can we reclaim identity when it exists to identify us in our complicity and our role in these systems? I feel like we’re in such a liminal space because of migrant diasporic histories, where we're neither here nor there, in so many different categories. And when you kind of transcend that threshold that contains boundaries, then you're able to see the contradictions.
LL: I guess I kind of wonder, when will it end? Because you two weren’t born here, yet I feel it so much, the stuff that you're saying. I look at my kids. And this is the place that they’re from, they’re third generation but their experience is totally racialised. So then I'm like, again, what's wrong with the place?
AS: I feel like the answer is very clear. Of course. None of this makes sense because settler-colonial epistemologies need it to not make sense. They need us to constantly be coming up against this threshold, and not being able to cross it, because that's how it preserves its own power. But this is where the question of our identity has to become political, not just for ourselves and our sense of belonging, but also to contribute in whatever ways we can to this momentum of social transformation here and our ethical obligations to tangata whenua.
MT: I feel you with that. I was thinking the other day about self-care, where, even if you do all this work and everything else to realign yourself into decolonising your own mind and your own customs and everything else, you still have to exist in the society.
LL: Yeah. And it's tiring.
AS: This conversation is important to me because it signals that we're trying to burrow our way out of this cave that we've been trapped in because of the way settler-colonial discourse operates, and we know it's not working.
That signals this impulse that we all feel, but it's an impulse, for which there's no home yet. And so we're adding to the momentum of this need for us to find a home in harmony with this project that we also have to commit to – if it can be in harmony with this project we also have to commit to – for decolonisation, for Māori in Aotearoa.
LL: You’re totally right. This is the first active conversation I've had like this, with people outside of the Moana, so I don’t have the answers either and in a sense I can feel myself asking you both questions so that I can find the language, which is something I also don’t know.
AS: That’s how this stuff emerges. New knowledge can only arise through dialogue, with us grappling actively with these contradictions and tensions. And we know that there are contradictions, and so finding each other is us holding hands and burrowing our way out of this hole a little bit, together.