9 Dec 2023

Tusiata Avia's Big Fat Brown Bitch: 'I was bloody rarked up'

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 9 December 2023

Samoan-NZ writer Tusiata Avia became the target of harassment and death threats earlier this year after her poem 250th anniversary of James Cook's arrival in New Zealand was labelled 'racist' by the ACT party.

"I'm not hard to find and I live with my 16-year-old daughter and my 90-year-old mother, you know, so yeah it was scary," she tells Susie Ferguson.

New Zealand writer and poet Tusiata Avia

New Zealand writer and poet Tusiata Avia Photo: The Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi

Avia's new poetry collection Big Fat Brown Bitch was partly written in response to that shocking backlash, which included the "deeply cynical and heartless and cruel” comparison of her work to the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks.

"I was bloody rarked up over what had happened and frustrated because I didn't get a right of reply, so all I had was poetry."

Reeling from having written a "poem about racism and colonisation" that was itself being called racist, Avia had an accident that left her unable to walk.

She was at first hospitalised and then, because of bed shortages, spent three months in what she calls an "old people's home" on a kind of forced writers retreat.

As far as such places go, it was "quite a good one", Avia says, but still had a very strange dystopian atmosphere.

"There was the rich people's wing with grand pianos and fountains, there was the poor people's wing, which I was in, there was kind of the dying level and then right at the top there was the level with people who had lost mental capacity."

Avia grew up in Christchurch and, after performing a one-woman show around the world for several years, moved back to the city while pregnant with her daughter.

"I remember telling someone 'Four months and I should have this whole single mother deal down'... I'm still here 16 years later."

As a child in '70s and '80s Christchurch, Avia says she was well aware of the city's racism: "Muldoon, the Springbok tour, Dawn Raids... it was not a good time to be a brown girl, not at all."

Although the culture of the city is changing, she says, especially after the 2011 earthquakes, it's a case of "slowly slowly".

"My daughter is having a better experience of being a brown girl in Christchurch than I did, thank goodness, because there is more acceptance and there is more celebration around being Pacific. But it's still hardgoing, she still has to deal with being called the n-word on a regular basis."


Avia says she has always felt herself to be "in the wrong body", apart from a period living in the Middle East 30 years ago,  

"I happened to fit the ideal of what a body is supposed to look like ... it was huge for my self-esteem, actually but it's very hard to maintain that when you live in a culture that's violent towards [my] kind of body."

"Big fat brown bitch", Avia says, is a descriptor that reflects how many people in Western cultures see a woman of colour in a big body.

"I see the looks of disgust on people's faces and I've internalised it myself. That's why I know what's in people's heads, I know what's in people's heads because it's in my own as well."

Over two decades of writing, despite such thoughts, Avia says she's "trained herself" to keep expressing her own truth.

In conversation with people at her life performances, she's learnt that by doing so, she often gives voice to the experiences of others.

"I don't try to, I always try and tell my own story, but I know that [my writing] is powerful because it does do that."