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Colonialism 101

One of Aotearoa’s most passionate creatives is back to tackle more big issues in a language our rangatahi can relate to.


Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh is an Auckland-based Pacifica Poet–Scholar of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English, Scottish and French descent; born with extraordinary hair and an even more extraordinary tongue. 

She has a lot of firsts under her belt, as the first person of Pacific lineage to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland, where she now lectures, and being the first Pacific Poet Laureate. Her first collection of poetry, Fast Talking PI was and still is, revolutionary. 

She is a self-proclaimed ‘wild woman’ and that personality trait serves her well, almost as much as the hyphen that is more of a tool than a punctuation.

“I'm a ‘Pacifica Poet–Scholar’ and it’s that hyphen that bridges my critical and creative selves. Not just as separate components, but each informing the other, and it always has.”

Making a difference

Her first illustrated book Mophead is an autobiographical story about representation and why it matters. It’s a book about racism and empathy, about being different and understanding that difference not as an ‘other’. 

Now, Mophead Tu, the sequel of what she hopes to be a trilogy for children of all ages, is about to launch another tale. 

“The first Mophead was all about how your difference makes a difference. Mophead Tu is definitely about how you stand makes a difference and figuring out how you begin the journey of knowing who you are… because that's not a finite journey, right? For me, it was also how to figure out where I stand in me, and the magic behind the creative processes that I'm learning as I go along. 

Mophead Tu has a streak in her hair. She is a little bit older, speaking to me and where I currently am in my own life, and all the lessons that I'm learning.”

Tell your tale

By reflecting on her own personal experience of being honoured with the title of Commonwealth Poet and the process that followed to write and perform a poem before the Queen, Selina Tusitala Marsh reveals some of the lesser-known historical narratives of the Pacific and how they tie to Western Imperialism. 

At the core of the storytelling is the importance of valuing your own subjectivity and Marsh’s own journey to bridging a divide, telling her story and the process behind it.

“I wanted to give the kids - and everyone else - the tools that I have or that have made themselves known to me in terms of how I process stuff, how I work it out, what it is I know. Because there are so many kinds of voices and forces out there who see you in a certain way, confine you, limit you or try to write your story. 

“It goes back to one of the core messages that I have…whether I speak as an academic or as a poet or a creative writer, and that is: ‘Tusitala tell you a tale’ or someone else will…or they won’t! And you won’t have your story out there anywhere!”

It’s a book that is teaching us and our children that your mouth has your own intelligence and that by harnessing the power of language, we can learn to trust those instincts that we are born with. 

This is the kind of generous and robust writing that comes only with deep subjectivity. One that is political and engaged in resistance of our social and cultural contexts. Pasifika identity involves so many peoples and their experiences. This is not an unproblematic notion. It’s about approaching your life for material and how you write about yourself, asking ‘what do you want to put out into the world that is not there already?’

“Stories - just by being themselves - are acts of resistance when they appear in the society that reads Pacific Islanders and Māori through particular lenses. These stories put ourselves right smack bang in the centre. So, when I write a book like Mophead Tu, it's doing it ‘our’ way, the Tusitala way which is to write the tale - Tusi: to write, tala: the tale.

“There are just so many competing forces, ready to tell us and our kids who we are and what we're capable of, or even the kinds of stories we should be telling. We've all got these stories in our lives and the skill that a storyteller brings is … knowing which strand to pull out, and which streams are interesting. 

“I just have to look at my own life to ask which stories have stayed with me, because either they put me into a space of discomfort, the ones not yet resolved, or they kind of give me an energy.” 

Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh reads Unity from the Secrarium Steps during the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey in March 2016.

Giving a voice to the voiceless

Mophead Tu sits in that discomfort by being a memoir about what we don’t often speak about - but that we can all relate to. Being bullied and being silenced. It’s about surfacing these stories that are often hidden because we are too ashamed to talk about them. 

"I dare you to show me someone who hasn't had that force in their life at some point in time. When we're celebrating a huge success and then somewhere, someone has to come in and take you down. 

“It also doesn't often come from those we expect it from. Like when it's one of our own. I haven't read that story in public circulation very much, because we're also this collective ‘We’ and we don't want to air our dirty laundry. We're already vulnerable in society, but at the same time, as soon as it feels like we're being silenced in this way then as a storyteller, you kind of get driven to tell that story.”

This is most certainly as personal as it sounds. These are not minor feelings. 

But there is also nothing minor about unpacking the word colonisation and our shared colonial histories that include erasure, power imbalance, ‘discovery’ and many different claims that come with that power imbalance.

“There was a responsibility to tell the Colonial story in a way that kids can be aware of it and be made aware of it. That’s why the bullying has come up again because it's something that everyone can relate to on a personal level. The next step is to take it on to a more political level. The most powerful stories can reach any demographic and they have these elements of being faced with adversity and how to build up resilience to overcome that adversity.

“My own tagline for the book is colonialism 101 for kids.”

The common wealth

Mophead Tu is about solving the problems we have by now named and identified. By bridging and respecting our cultural differences, we would be able to go beyond misunderstandings and start to see each other in an equal light with equal purpose to thrive. 

Selina Tusitala Marsh is showing us that this approach to COMMON-WEALTH works. Contributing and creating shifts in perspectives and embracing of one another. Contributing to building a future that has dignity for all. Focusing on what we have, not just on what we lost. A kind of post-traumatic growth. This is about celebrating our differences while pulling for the COMMON good. This book is so necessary. 

“It's got to be a COMMON-WEALTH! Go back to the language. The language is magic. Words and worlds. How can you say that word, or use that word, and not be that word? Everyone has to benefit, not just you guys.

“And from being in Westminster Abby and seeing all these 53 represented nations and thinking there is no other organisation that I've been part of that could bring these beautiful people together. It would equally be a mistake not to view the Commonwealth critically and without understanding the history behind it and the power that it also offers.”

Selina Tusitala Marsh meets the Queen at Westminster Abbey.

Mophead Tu is inviting us to explore the multi-layered meanings of narratives, the manipulative intervention and subversive power of poetry. It’s about relating to one another and speaking in our unique voice without being shut down or undermined.

 Selina Tusitala Marsh is centring the marginal and residual traces of the process, the circumstances and context under which her poem UNITY was created and performed for the Queen, using the imaginative apparatus of a children’s picture book. 

Although we are not living in the post-colonial world, post-racial world, this is a writer that is comfortable with her voice. It is about leadership and understanding what to do with your privileged voice, and how to use your privilege to be strategic, powerful and to influence others in your ‘knowing’ and your ‘doing’.

“The knowers are the doers. The doers are the knowers. There's no artificial boundary between theoretical, critical thinkers and the practitioners. We value the wisdom of those practitioners and then that ties into the three-part, Pacific centric epistemology of how we know the world, which is through knowing, doing and being. That sacred triangle and the beauty of being able to practice in your space.”

This has been a year of reckoning and with this book, we are reminded to re-examine how political art and experience really are. It shows us that creativity grows the flame in helping to overcome trauma and strengthening resilience while exploring the nuances that reveal themselves as rich weave in our collective identity. It is the crown jewel of storytelling by changing what stories are being told.  

“I ruminated on books and they marinate in my life. That's kind of part of the message that I want kids to get. It's not how many books you read, but how each of those books speaks into your life and help shape your imagination… help you know the world.”

There is a world in this story. 

“There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity

Costs the earth and yet it’s free”

Mophead Tu: The Queen’s Poem is available from 12 November - click here for details. 

Written by

Dina Jezdic

3 Nov 2020