I come from a family of storytellers; they seem to be able to spin the spoken word into magic. Put me on the spot, and my words get tangled in my mouth and become something awkward and heavy. I can never quite seem to articulate my thoughts that way, but give me a pen? Give me a pen, and everything changes.
I’ve always made up stories. I used to develop worlds and characters for my brother and cousins so we could play out vast adventures across our grandparent’s farm. I shared my writing with friends and family and had a few things published here and there. It’s so much a part of me that I couldn’t imagine life without it.
I am a writer.
I wasn’t sure about applying for Te Papa Tupu though. I almost didn’t. It was such a big, wonderful thing, a thing I really felt I needed to help next level my writing. And I was petrified of not getting in. I managed to make myself apply by lying to myself – because I’d encouraged a couple of other friends to enter, I had to do the same in solidarity.
Aside from wanting to improve my writing, I was starving for connection with Māori writers. We’re spread out, we don’t all look physically Māori, and we’re not always identifying ourselves as Māori on social media, etc., either. At the same time, I felt like maybe I wasn’t Māori enough to join the few groups I knew of.
Te Papa Tupu is the first time I’ve ever applied for anything where being Māori was a requirement. My whole life, I’ve had that voice in my head that I’m white enough to pass, to get all the benefits that are available to Pākehā, so I should just not. And on the other hand was the fear that if I claimed I was Māori, people would tell me I wasn’t Māori enough. I was stuck in that place of not feeling like I was being entirely myself but scared of discovering I was somehow doing my heritage wrong. I don’t look it. I don’t speak it. I don’t know where the macrons go half the time.
The reality is that I am Māori, and it’s only my fear that’s held me back. Fear and lack of knowledge. Lack of connection.
I’ve been working on that barrier for a long time. About a year ago, I added the word ‘Māori’ to my twitter bio. It was such a small thing, and yet I deliberated over it for days. It felt like I was revealing a hidden part of myself; coming into the open. I’m not sure what I thought would happen – what does it even mean to be a Māori writer? Do people read your work in different ways? Is there an expectation of what Māori will write about? Will people see things in my work that they didn’t before because they are looking at it through a new lens? I didn’t know, and it made me anxious. But I took that step anyway.
Applying to Te Papa Tupu was a much bigger step, and it’s already opened my eyes to how supportive, inclusive and amazing the community is once you find it. Since getting accepted, there has been a lot of ‘I didn’t even know you were Māori!’ (in a positive/sorry-for-not-realising way) and not a single ‘You’re not really Māori/not enough’, not even a ‘You don’t look it’.
Sometimes taking those big leaps is really worth it, and I’m still grinning ear to ear about being selected.
I swear it took me a week to believe I got in. Two. Hell, it might not have been until we were on the plane to that first workshop that it sunk in. Maybe not even until I was in the room with all the mentors, the amazing folk from HUIA and the Māori Literature Trust and the other mentees – each of them looking as exhilarated and nervous as me; eager to soak up wisdom, to learn and grow.
I feel so fortunate to have been chosen for this round of mentoring – thrilled that I get to work with Whiti Hereaka, who has already had such an impact on my writing. I’m so grateful to all the individuals and organisations involved in making this happen, and I can’t wait to see how our books look at the end of this process.
I am a writer, and I am Māori. And I tell you what, if you are both of those things (even if you’re not confident in those things), reach out. There is a whole world waiting for you, and it’s shiny and wonderful. I’m only sad it took me so long to dive into it – and now that I’m here? I’m going to make the very most of it.
Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.