Author Spotlight Q&A: Isla Huia

isla huia, writer, wearing a black hat sitting at a table, with crossed arms

Isla Huia (Te Āti Haunui a-Pāpārangi, Uenuku) is a te reo Māori teacher, writer and musician. Her work has been published in journals such as Catalyst and Awa Wāhine. She has performed at the national finals of Rising Voices Youth Poetry Slam and the National Poetry Slam, as well as at Christchurch’s Word Festival. Isla can most often be found writing in Ōtautahi with FIKA Collective, and Ōtautahi Kaituhi Māori. Photo credit: Naomi Haussmann


Congratulations on the forthcoming release of Talia. Can you tell us a little about your collection? Who should be reading Talia?

Ngā mihi maioha! Talia is my debut collection; it’s about indigeneity, wairua and looking for the light amongst it all. More than anything it’s about its namesake, Talia, my dearest friend who passed away last year. I found that the only way to grapple with a loss so large was to give it to the world through language, and so, although it all sounds a bit dark, my truest hope is that people can connect and relate to these texts and these experiences, and feel seen through them.


Sometimes writers talk about their book as if it is something they’ve birthed – a struggle as well as a gift. If you were to think of your book this way, who are its whanaunga? Who helped you bring this book into the world?

Talia is absolutely my pēpi. Talia herself is this book’s closest relation, by default, but there are so many others who helped birth this pukapuka too. In particular, I’m forever indebted to my rōpū of aunties who took me in as a rangatahi, and showed me how much words can be a vessel for expressing things that seem otherwise unspeakable. As ever, I also credit both my kupu and my whakaaro to my tīpuna, who I hope can feel their stories being told through me. My tīpuna and my mokopuna to come are my most important audience, always.


What tikanga or kawa do you apply to your writing process?

In the past few years I’ve developed a love of going on long hikoi by myself, usually in the hills around my house, by the moana, or up in the mountains. In finding so much peace out in the taiao, it has naturally occurred that this has become the place in which I write most – usually in my head, and then maniacally typed into the notes app on my phone when I get back to my car. I guess that means my tikanga is to be with the whenua, to listen to it, and to see what it has to say to me. That’s where the heart of what I write comes from, always.


Talia is published by Dead Bird Books. Tell us a little bit about why you chose to go with an independent publisher, and how has that experience been for you?

I was incredibly lucky, and met one of my favourite writers, Dominic Hoey, at a writers festival last year. He runs Dead Bird Books, and it was through forming a connection with him that I was able to publish this book. Working with an independent publisher has been a dream – none of my mana has been taken away from me, and I’ve felt safe that my pukapuka is in good hands at all times.


If you had to make a soundtrack to accompany Talia, what would be on the playlist?

Ko tēnei te tino pātai! Beginners Luck by Maribou State, because it reminds me of Te Henga, which is an important place in the book. Slack Jaw by Sylvan Esso, because it breaks my heart in all the right places. Julia Stone’s cover of I Want To Know What Love Is, and Cat Power’s cover of These Days, because Talia was first conceived on an overnight bus, and those songs came on shuffle somewhere between Taihape and Tūrangi. Venus Is Home by Erny Belle. All of the waiata Māori. Dawn Chorus by Thom Yorke. Akura by Ngaiire. Everything by Sharon Van Etten and Bon Iver, the kuini me te kīngi of my musical heart. Waerea by Ngā Tūmanako. Hope by Fat Freddy’s Drop. Sprawl ii by Arcade Fire. Shall I go on?


What are your dreams for this book?

That it reaches the people who need it. That it reminds the world that wāhine Māori have a thousand and one tales to tell. I’m a high school kaiako o te reo Māori for my day-to-day mahi, and I when I look at my ākonga, I dream that they too will be able to tell their own truths as they grow, and that somehow, my book helps them see their own mana and their own light.


Which book by a Māori author have you read lately that you loved and what did you love about it?

Tauhou by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall blew my mind. A Bathful of Kawakawa and Hot Water by Hana Pera Aoake did too. Wawata by Hinemoa Elder reminded me of everything I forgot. The Savage Coloniser by Tusiata Avia, who has let me perform as an honorary Māori in her Pasifika writing group (FIKA Collective) for years, and so whom I’ll include as an honorary Samoan. Love you Aunty. Her Limitless Her by Reihana Robinson was astonishing. No Ordinary Sun by Hone Tuwhare is a pou for everything I write. Cousins by Patricia Grace, because, well – of course. Rangikura by Tayi Tibble felt like looking in a mirror. Te Awa Atua by Ngahuia Murphy, which has stayed with me far beyond citing it in an essay. All of them. I recommend them all. Ah. I can’t choose!


Isla releases her debut collection Talia this May.

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