Photo: Alt Group / Toaki Okano
My first ever…Death threat
When hate mail about a poem inspires more poetry.
By Tusiata Avia
The first threat on my life didn’t come like it does in the movies: a brick with a note tied to it thrown through my window; the family cat strangled on the doorstep, the note stuffed in its poor little mouth. I didn’t even know a threat had arrived. It was delivered to the festival that was putting on my play, The Savage Coloniser Show. The producer (also my cousin) held off telling me for a while – there was enough crazy shit going on at the time.
When he did tell me, he was more worried than I was. It didn’t seem real to me. “Do you want to read it, cuz?,” he asked. My first thought: Yes, please. I can make a poem out of it. Not a normal reaction, right?
That time was not normal. It was March of this year, just days before the show was due to open. A poem of mine – “250th Anniversary of James Cook’s Arrival in New Zealand” – a poem about colonisation and racism, appeared in Stuff as promotion for my show (which is about colonisation and racism) and my world was blowing up.
A number of the far right were incensed by my poem (never mind it had been published in my book three years earlier). Act used the opportunity in the run up to the election to gaslight and stir up more hate for brown people. They labelled me a hate-fuelled racist and compared the poem to the Christchurch massacre. It was a cruel and cynical comparison. It was deeply disrespectful to the victims and their families.
The cast in rehearsal were feeling unsafe and I received a phone call from the Race Relations Commissioner counselling me to watch my step.
I went to Auckland for the opening of my show – I had bodyguards. Bodyguards!
I’m not a politician or an activist or Posy Parker. I’m a poet. People in my social circle know me as a sensitive, caring person (although you may not know that if you make the mistake of thinking I am my art).
I practise my art and my free speech in my writing. Poetry has always been my strongest, most eloquent voice, and over the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve discovered it has also spoken for many people like me: Pasifika people, people of colour, people living with the long-term effects of colonisation, people who feel this deep in their puku. And in their empty kitchen cupboards.
I write about colonisation and racism. I write about love and family and culture and being between cultures. I have a line of awards on the shelf in my bedroom that I can contemplate when I wonder why I don’t own a house or have much in the bank. Being an artist is not a money-making choice.
I used some of the hate mail I received for inspiration in my new book, Big Fat Brown Bitch, but, as far as hate speech goes, I decided I needed to draw some lines in the sand to keep myself safe. I decided I didn’t want the words of someone who wished me dead dancing about in my mind, maybe forever, so, I decided to leave that threat unopened. I wrote a poem instead. Look out for the italics, this is where I have used quotes from some of the hate mail I received.
Sorry guys, the thing is, when I write a poem about colonisation I become a werewolf.
My views become exactly the same as those expressed in Germany. What I mean is, I’m the whole of Nazism and the entire Second World War. When I write a poem about colonisation sexual and racial violence burst out of me like wolf fur through the rents in my smooth brown skin. I start howling at the moon and inciting racial violence all over the place.
My daughter locks me in the bathroom and says through the door: “Mum, stop that racist violence dressed up as art, because, Mum, poor white people disaffected by the effects of globalism couldn’t say those things”.
My daughter slumps down outside the bathroom door in tears and whispers: “I’m tired of my acceptable ethnicity. We brown people have all the privileges now. We can say anything we like and get away with it”.
When I write a poem about colonisation under a full moon, I start writing hate speech and incitement to murder, which is exactly the same as the Christchurch massacrist’s manifesto justifying the mosque shootings.
Exactly the same.
Now, I’m howling and ripping off my clothes and writing a poem which is inciting violence right through the walls of my house.
The neighbours hear me writing a poem about colonisation and they yell:” Stop that race-baiting, our kids are trying to sleep”.
Later, my white neighbour will come over to my house and say: “Let me explain something to you, Tusiata. Racism is like a scab on your knee, and if you pick it, what will happen?
Leave it alone and it will heal, otherwise I fear the wound will get infected. And what will happen to me then? Huh? What will happen to me?”.
When I write a poem about colonisation it turnsinto a hate crime right then and there. It springs up off the page, and marches out into the street like an army of ten thousand colonial soldiers armed with guns.
My poem steals my neighbour’s land, and everybody’s land. My poem steals 94 percent of
all the land in New Zealand. It steals millions upon millions of acres of land.
My poem kidnaps children, puts them in state welfare institutions, abuses them and stops them speaking their own language.
In the space of a few generations, my poem has traumatised the people who originally owned this land and their language almost disappears.
My poem is no accident. My poem does all these things on purpose. My poem has a plan to take over everyone and everything.
When I write a poem about colonisation, my moral compass is marginal at best and the consequences of my poem devastate innocent people all over the country. Look at my poem about colonisation, causing the radicalisation of people and ruining social cohesion.
Oh no! Here I go again, with my pen and my exercise book, inciting hate speech and dehumanising people.
Now, I want you to listen closely because I’m going to tell you something very important: Brown women are so privileged these days, we can get away with anything. If I was a white male I would be taken apart!
That’s honestly how simple it is.
It is not complex.
No land theft. No genocide. No intergenerational trauma. No two centuries of white privilege. There is truly nothing more to think about.
Damn this poem! It is making my jaw grow long and shaggy, fangs grow from my mouth and my eyes turn red. Here I go, on all fours now, with a tail growing out from under my skirt like a wild dog. Here I go, writing a racist rant about one of history’s greatest explorers.
How dare I!
Don’t I know who Captain James Cook was? Someone help me, please!
Because when I write a poem about colonisation it is borderline terrorism.
Because when I write a poem about colonisation it is the same as an Isis beheading video.
“Mum”, my daughter screams into the street behind me as I bound away, “I don’t care how hard your upbringing was in Christchurch, it’s just not fair that you get freedom of expression. I’m sick to death of us brown skinned female poets and the generations of privilege we come from”. Now the neighbours are out on the street, wringing their hands and shouting, “Our children have access to this poem!”.
Look at how the pendulum has swung. Things used to be in the right-white order. Things used to be fair. Things used to be normal. And now it’s not safe to be white.
But it’s too late, I am running with my Evil-Brown- Woman-Poet-Werewolf strength.
I am writing a poem which bursts into flames.
I am writing a poem which will burn down the whole of New Zealand.
I am writing a poem which will destroy the whole of Western civilisation.
This story appeared in the December 2023 issue of North & South.