7 Feb 2021

Ben Brown delivers the 2020 Read NZ Pānui on youth justice and the power of words

From Smart Talk, 4:05 pm on 7 February 2021
Ben Brown

Ben Brown Photo: Sophie Taylor-Brown

Highlights from the lecture

You’re a male, which is not the simple definition it used to be, but let’s allow that’s what you are. You’re a thief, a drug dealer, a bank robber, a murderer. You’re a gangsta, staunch as, notorious. You’re a lone wolf on the prowl looking for the lambs. You’re a screwed up teenage suicidal maniac.

You are the lost cause. You are the found. You’re the kid that broke the mould and paved the way. There’s a monument out there somewhere got your name on it. Maybe it’s true you don’t know why you did it. Maybe it’s true you don’t give a damn why you did, beyond the fact that you got caught in the process.

Worried depressed sad teen boy (child) crying near brick wall

Photo: 123RF

Statistically, of course, tēnā koe e tama, you’re more than likely Māori. You’re more than likely poor. Ironically, you’ve probably been the victim of violent crime in your short life. There’s a good chance you’ve been abused, assaulted, neglected or abandoned.

Gangs and family dysfunction will be common themes for you. So I wouldn’t mind at all if you called me Matua, or Uncle even, like ‘Uncle, put away the thumb,’ if I casually flicked you the shaka sign, forgetting it’s the Mob salute and realising by your raised fist that you fight for the other side.

You know already the dark side of addiction, the sinister allure and the spiral to destruction. Anger, fear, help­lessness, and anxiety are emotions familiar to you. They are deep. They are visceral. They speak to the animal in you. Suspicion comes easier than trust. Paranoia follows. You require medication just to keep your head straight and go to sleep at night. You hate the world.

A teenage Māori boy looking unhappy

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The State picked you up from kindergarten when you were four years old and took you to a stranger’s house to live. You have a sister somewhere. You wonder what she looks like now. You are hardcore, resolute in your defiance, determined to walk an unrepentant path, for it is there you earn your scars. You think you’re dead already and that’s a crying shame because it makes you doubly dangerous. You are bigger than your Father.

You are sweet sixteen and adamant that vengeance will be done. You are young, you want your Mother. You are hard, you want a war. You are seventeen and a father who has yet to see his son. You are fifteen and you’d kill your Mother’s boyfriend in a heartbeat. You like to train, it keeps you ready.

You practice MMA – mixed martial arts. You might be small but as they say, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight…’ Anyway, shit gets outta hand, you just stab him in the neck with scissors. You struggled at school with literacy. Numbers don’t make sense to you. Teachers didn’t give a shit. You don’t think that’s fair. You’d like to be a builder or an artist or a soldier in the army.

Hooded figure at night

Photo: Pixabay / Khusen Rustamov

You’re the lucky young fool and you’re happy to admit it. You think you got here by accident: made dumb decisions with consequences you hadn’t really thought about, go left instead of right, go fast instead of slow, go out instead of stay home.

And yet, when the debris of your dumb decisions are cleared away and the dust has finally settled, somehow, you still feel lucky. And so you should. You caught a break. You’re still alive. If your luck holds along with your humility, you might just find an inner strength you never knew you had. You might develop character. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll be wiser than you are now.

You are smart and you write well. How could you not have a story? How could we not be interested in what that story says?

Nō reira, mihi mai koutou ki te pānui nei…

Mēnā kāore he tangata e whakarongo ana, kāore he tangata e mōhio ana.

If nobody listens, then no one will know.

Later in the lecture, Ben Brown describes a writing workshop which he conducted at a youth justice facility near Christchurch

Powerpoint slide at lecture with quote about words changing the world

Photo: Dan Horne

Matua, you say words can change the World, are they magic Words like spells, prayers, amen, are they orders, are they threats, are they war words, love words, swear words ... one word, Matua, changed my World ... guilty.

At this point, it might be useful to remind ourselves that writing is not natural. We are none of us born the literate scribe, whatever aptitude we might display. Writing is a pretence and an invention – our greatest invention ever. But it requires tools and training.

It’s a trick we have to learn. Writing is a craft, it improves with practice, atrophies with disuse. It is magical and mundane and mighty. Yesterday’s news. Tonight’s recipe for dinner. Tomorrow’s great enlightenment.

Child hand writing in exercise book

Photo: Flickr / Nilufer Gadgieva

As writers, we conjure. As readers, we are spellbound and engaged. As subjects, we are given meaning. In summary, we are nothing but a gathering of words. Somewhere between Darwin’s ape and the secret name of God we made a mark and began the record of our existence.

We are, each of us, the stories that follow us through life, and even death, and elaborate our journey step by glorious step, letter by letter, word by word, imbued with such potency that when placed in a particular order, a scrawl of symbols can change the world for better or for worse, in whole or in part.

One of the young people currently residing at Te Au rere a te Tonga, in Palmerston North.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

There’s only so much that even the best of us can achieve in four writing hours, whatever the conditions. You will understand of course, that here we were faced with certain extremes of circumstance. Some of our young writers are actually illiterate. By the way, that’s not an oxymoron, that’s a paradox, but it gives you an out if you make the mistake of presuming that literacy equates to intelligence.

Several of them are on Ritalin or some such equivalent treatment, a few are on powerful antipsychotics such as Quetiapine, which, I can tell you, is a slammer. Emotional states run the gamut from darkness to light.

Attention spans ranged from about ten minutes to an optimum 45, and that was on a good day. Virtually all of the YPs are likely to have a problem with anything approaching a formal type of learning situation. The phrase ‘push back’ springs to mind. No point going in there thinking I was going to teach them how to be creative writers.

I had a better idea than that.

I went in assuming that they already were creative writers, they just didn’t know it yet.

Read or download a copy of the full text here

Ben Brown delivers the 2020 Read NZ Lecture

Ben Brown delivers the 2020 Read NZ Lecture Photo: Dan Horne

About the lecturer

Ben Brown (1962– ) writes children's books, non-fiction and short stories for children and adults. Born in Motueka, he has been a tobacco farm labourer, tractor driver and market gardener. Since 1992, he has been a publisher and writer, collaborating with his wife, illustrator Helen Taylor, in most of his 17 publications. He currently lives in Lyttelton.

Many of Brown's books have a strong New Zealand nature background. Brown and Taylor were short-listed in 2005 for the Te Kura Pounamu Award in the LIANZA Children's Book Awards for Nga Raukura Rima Tekau Ma Rima, the Te Reo edition of Fifty-Five Feathers. The English edition was also shortlisted for the Russell Clark Award in 2005.

He was awarded the Maori Writer’s Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre for 2011.

This lecture was recorded in association with Read NZ Te Pou Muramura​ (formerly the NZ Book Council)


Read NZ logo

Photo: Read NZ Te Pou Muramura