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The Avia Controversy - As Told By Tusiata Avia

11 Apr 2023

From the corridors of power to the crevices of social media, her creative expression was weaponised and made her an unwitting centrepiece in a racially charged debate. Now - in her own words - Avia replies.

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Tusiata Avia
Tusiata Avia. Photo: Supplied.

Tusiata Avia is a name that brings almost spontaneous applause from the creative community. The Award-winning poet, performer, Arts Laureate and MNZM for service to Poetry and the Arts is one of the most influential and respected voices in Aotearoa’s literary sector.

But it’s also a name that has been hijacked for a different purpose.

Over the past few months, her most recent work, The Savage Coloniser Book (2020), has sparked as much outrage as it has accolades. The (predominately white) response to her poems have been targeted as hate speech, and thrown around by those who are either upset by it or using it for political purposes.

It’s the Avia Controversy.

Avia has no problem being thought-provoking, as she has always been one to stand by her convictions. The Big Idea offered Avia an opportunity to speak on how the social media barrage has felt from inside the eye of the storm. This is her response.


I’m sitting here in Christchurch at 1.26pm on 15th March waiting for the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) to play on the radio at 1.39pm as a way of remembering the Christchurch mosque massacres: the 100 Muslims shot, the 51 Muslims killed in this city four years ago.

I’m sitting with my writers’ group in Rolleston House, named for William Rolleston, murderer of Parihaka. William Rolleston: fourth Superintendent of Canterbury Province 1868-1877, Minister of Native Affairs, 1881. Rolleston ordered the invasion of Parihaka. Their blood is on his hands.

I’m sitting immediately opposite Rolleston’s statue – I can see him from my window – resurrected after the wise earth tried to swallow him during the February 2011 earthquake. The good people of Christchurch glued him back onto his broken ankles, attached his head and put him in his rightful place: presiding over this city along with his brother-murderers memorialised here.

The four avenues which bound the centre of Christchurch are named after them: Rolleston, Fitzgerald, Moorehouse, Bealey: murderers and thieves with fancy titles and blood-soaked histories.

If I doubted for one millisecond, I am very sure I am in a deeply colonised, deeply racist city in a country built on the back of massacre and theft, rape and pillage.

This is why I write the poems I do. 

avia book.webp
Tusiata Avia celebrating her success at the Ockham NZ Book Awards with The Savage Coloniser Book in 2021. Photo: Marcel Tromp.

It’s a beautiful, blue-sky Canterbury summer day here. The tourist tram rattles past, the gothic buildings (that housed these killers) look romantic. Rapunzel could let down her hair any moment from one of these lancet windows.

I remember being quite smitten by the gothic architecture in the centre of this city when I was moony-eyed, romantic teenager brought up on European fairy-tales and dead Ophelia paintings.

A writer colleague has just sent me an article in which David Seymour rails against the Christchurch Call to Action: a commitment between governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist, violent, extremist content on line. 

Sigh. Pot calls the kettle. Again.

I’m sitting here in Rolleston House thinking about the so-called  ‘Avia Controversy’

As glam as it sounds, having your own controversy is no fun. They are for politicians who court controversy like their very own Rapunzel: climbing their way up her hair into the public’s shell-like ear. 

Controversies are not for gentle-souled-but-fierce-in-the-craft poets, like myself.

In a country built on a history of white supremacist violence; in a city where our most recent massacre gets a quick call to prayer on RNZ, followed by a spilt-second silence and then a piece about a travelling bridge player; in this country where a poem dares to point some of that out – itself becomes framed as  “hate-fueled and racist”. In this country, a poem that dares to point out this out, draws all the rapunzel-hair-climbing personalities to the table:





I’m sitting here in Christchurch thinking about my small poem that ACT dares compare to the “hatred of the Christchurch massacre” itself.

What Orwellian-madness, double-speak is this? What breath-taking, calculated and heartless use of the dead and injured and grieving and traumatised is this?

Dear ACT, 

Borrow a copy of The Savage Coloniser Book from your local library. Read a few pages in, to ‘Massacre’, the poem that guides the reader through the Christchurch shootings. Hang on a minute before you isolate a “hate-fueled and racist” line to spin into all kinds of political weaponry. Take a breath. Are you OK? Right, now read Claire Mabey’s guide to reading a poem – I know that is hard for you. You’re doing well.

Dear Plunket and Peters and Clark and Free Speech Union and Farrar and the 300 complainants to the Race Relations Commission, the media who only wanted a two minute sound-bite and the media who refused to publish my response poem, the authors of the ute-full of hate-mail and the white- supremacist who made threats to my physical safety,

I invite you all to read Mabey’s guide – through your hurt feelings, your narrow minds, your Pavlovian racism – I am unpacking genocide and intergenerational trauma. THAT is what the poem is about.

AAF 2023_The Savage Coloniser Show_photo by Raymond Sagapolutele_high res_ (19).jpg
The Savage Coloniser Show has been lauded in its Auckland Arts Festival and Wānaka Festival of Colour seasons last month. Photo: Raymond Sagapolutele.

The thing is, you hurt and angry men, I suspect that one or two of you (*cough Seymour) are not particularly worried about my poem, my show or anything else I have done in my 20 year career. But, boy, can you can sniff out and a create a good ‘controversy’. Gosh you’re clever! Look at you weaponise a few lines from a poem, take them completely out of context and make “more publicity for the politicians” as elections fast approach. 

Because, in the final count, this is all the Avia Controversy is.