You don’t look like a Māori

It was January, 2011. I had spent the past decade living in Tokyo and was visiting my mother in Whanganui over the summer. Although Japan has amazing cuisine, arguably the best in the world (Tokyo has the highest number of Michelen starred restaurants), I often craved New Zealand food. On my first day back, Mum and I went to a local cafe for lunch. I had a hankering for some good old Kiwi coffee lounge stodge. A cheese and onion sandwich followed by a caramel slice, washed down with a nice, strong cup of tea. Maybe an asparagus roll. All very 70’s. As I slid my woodgrain tray past the stacks of thin sandwiches and brightly coloured slices that now seemed so exotic and strange, my mother politely asked the woman behind the counter if she could use the restroom.

‘No, we don’t have one. Go to the Subway down the road.’

Off Mum went. As I was eyeing a ham and tomato savoury in the pie warmer, a Pākeha woman came in and asked the same question.

‘Yes, right this way,’ was the instant response.

I grew up on the North Shore in the 80’s as a ‘half-caste’ that looks white, and people would be shocked that the little brown woman who’d come to pick me up from Brownies and sleepovers, was actually my mother. I’d overhear my friend’s parents say all manner of racist things about Māori, the gist being that we are lazy, good for nothing thieves. You certainly wouldn’t want one in your house. Then Mum would turn up and they’d clutch their pearls and grab hold of their handbags and be all like ‘Oh.’

I felt myself perspire and my pulse start to race. I fixed the server with a hard look.          

‘Why did you send my mother, a sixty year old woman and a customer here, down the road when she asked to use the toilet? When you let the next person use it?’

Another staff member came over. The racism was so blatant they didn’t even try to deny it. ‘So sorry, we’re really sorry,’ they said, over and over. Only to me, I might add. They never once apologized to my mother who returned a few minutes later, to find me still shaking.

‘What’s wrong, Girl?’ she asked.

I told her what happened. She looked at me and shrugged.

‘Don’t worry about it. I’m used to it.’

That broke my heart. That she was used to this treatment. She didn’t even think we had to leave, but I had lost my appetite. 

This racist incident wouldn’t have shocked me as much growing up. I could totally relate to Jermaine Clement when he said ‘As a pale-skinned Māori person, I felt like a spy as a kid.’ I was shocked that it would happen in 2011. I had been out of the country for ten years though.

I remember the time when Mum came to my high school to pick me up but couldn’t find me, and had to ask kids on the school bus where I was. She was terribly upset because a Pākeha boy had repeatedly said to her ‘You’re not Colleen’s mother.’ He wouldn’t believe her and treated my mother, an adult, with total disrespect, simply because she was brown.

I remember my Dad saying ‘Don’t speak that shit in my house,’ referring to my mother’s first language. I would deliberately mispronounce Māori place names around Pākeha friends so I didn’t seem weird. Being Māori was definitely not cool when I was growing up. It even felt like something to be ashamed of.

I’m so glad that times have changed. On my return to New Zealand in 2015, I saw a group of Māori with Tā Moko speaking Te Reo with each other at the airport. It looked really normal, which might be a strange thing to say. It made such a positive impression on me. However, when Taika Waitai made his comment, ‘New Zealand is racist as fuck,’ I had to agree with him. A Stuff article about the resulting furore popped up in my feed, and I posted a comment on it saying that he was absolutely right, and explained what happened with my mother at the cafe. The majority of comments were supportive, but there were a significant number of people who made disparaging remarks and accused me of lying. One woman said that I wasn’t a good daughter, because if that had happened to HER mother, she would have done something about it! She demanded to know why I didn’t go to the Human Rights Commission. Who has the time and energy to lay a formal complaint for every micro-aggression? This same person also said that New Zealand isn’t racist, because she had never seen it. Well, why would she experience it, being white? I know I have white privilege, precisely because I see how differently I am reacted to and treated, compared to my brown mother and brother.

I believe New Zealand is generally a tolerant country. I also believe that the rights and recognition that Māori receive now directly reflect the tenacity and fighting spirit of our people, not this mistaken idea that here in New Zealand we’ve treated our natives well, compared to other countries. When people in the dominant culture who don’t know what it’s like to be colonized, and don’t understand the transgenerational trauma and systemic racism that naturally follows such oppression would say things like ‘Get over it. It’s in the past,’ our people didn’t give up. They endured lengthy legal battles and made sustained efforts to get some form of redress for what was violently ripped away and stolen. Māori people have fought for each and every gain that has been made, and will continue to fight, and will continue to flourish.        


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

A Place to Grow

I took this photo during my time in Tokyo. It is of a lotus about to bloom. I’ve always loved the Buddhist view of a lotus – as a lotus can grow out of mud and blossom above the muddy water, we too can rise above the mire and messiness of our lives. We can transform.

Last week we had our final Te Papa Tupu Workshop in Wellington. We kicked off with HUIA Executive Director Eboni Waitare inviting us to reflect on our  journey with the programme, before meeting with our mentors: James George, Jacquie McRae, Simon Minto and Whiti Hereaka. That session was followed by informative and stimulating workshops: point of view with Paula Morris, story arc with Simon Minto, marketing and personal branding with Waimatua Morris and publishing with Robyn Bargh. We finished up by sharing thoughts on where we see ourselves going with our work, before heading off to drinks and nibbles with Creative New Zealand, Te Puni Kōkiri and Huia Publishers’ staff, and finally dinner and cocktails at The Library – an aptly named and decorated watering hole for book nerds like us. It was a full day, and I believe we all left with full hearts … yes, I am a giant cornball. I admit it.

At the mentor meeting, James George asked me what was going on, as I’d said I was in a bit of a slump. I explained that I was having difficulty with creating more of a narrative spine in some of my stories. I was feeling blocked, and I wasn’t sure why. As always, he cut to the heart of things very quickly:

find some other place where there is some energy in your work and work on that / a piece of description, a piece of dialogue / something poetic and wistful / what are your strengths in this collection? / what are you good at? / don’t look at what’s not there / maybe it isn’t there / have confidence that you have fascinating subject matter that you can invoke truthfully / you may have to confront a truth about yourself that you are terrified of / let your characters speak their truths to you / make the undercurrents noisier / more disruptive / pile these themes / not to fix them / embrace who you are and what you do.

Once again, I am reminded how fortunate I am to be here, now.

During the workshop discussions, James George made a great point that HUIA invests in writers, unlike other publishing houses who harvest. This makes HUIA very unique. I feel incredibly supported and nurtured by HUIA, and by each and every person who is a part of the HUIA whānau. I am so grateful that I was able to thank Robyn Bargh personally for what she has built for us. What she has created is phenomenal, and a success story. This opportunity came at a time in my life when I deeply needed someone to believe in me. Take a chance on me (lol Nadine). I was so ready for it. It’s been life changing. It’s been emotional. It’s now my dream that we will take this beautiful taonga that HUIA has given us and share our stories on the world stage, to inspire and uplift our people and make them proud.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Birth Pangs

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. I’m working on a story set in the Hokianga in the 1950’s, based on true events that I am reshaping. Reimagining. I wasn’t there, obviously.

James George (mentor): ‘This is the strongest opening to any of the stories so far. Has real punch, and the economy, almost flatness of style really allows the implications to burn.’

My mentor’s comments are encouraging, yet I’m still having a hard time working on it. I sent the opening to Nadine (Hura) who said: ‘I got chills reading it. I got the feeling I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t stop reading.’ I replied that my writing often makes people uncomfortable, and she said ‘Do you feel resistance writing these subjects?’ Which is something I hadn’t even considered … that the countless ways I distract myself from sitting my ass down in the chair and writing aren’t always down to simple laziness and lack of motivation. That perhaps the themes in this particular story are difficult for me to face.

I’m surprised I didn’t consider this question of internal resistance myself, earlier. I’ve written before about subjects that are personally painful, like teen suicide. It never occurred to me that this could be challenging. It’s a curious blind spot.

I’m reminded of a printmaking class years ago, with the incredible artist and teacher Marty Vreede who talked about how there is a pain threshold when making art that you have to push through. And that one often isn’t aware of what the art is really about until the fullness of time reveals it later.

There was a quote that resonated with me during my art school days, written about the artist and my whanaunga, Ralph Hotere, and I’m paraphrasing here because Google isn’t helping. Something like ‘The meaning of suffering was the genesis.’ This holds resonance again for me now, especially as JG pointed out a biblical undercurrent in my current story.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I do know that I have to fight through my internal resistance and shut down any and all negative self-talk. Be kind to myself. This is brave work. Fuck Imposter Syndrome. I’ve cut the booze back, which helps. I’m present and clear-headed, mostly. Now I’m gonna sit my ass down in the chair and push the words out, one by one. And hope that it will all mean something, in the end.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Highway to Heal

When you were a little girl, books were your refuge. You learned to read before you went to school. You would read the newspaper every day, on the floor with the sheets spread out. You read everything in the house: a set of Childcraft books, The Thorn Birds, Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (the illustrated second edition). You read in the car even though it made you ill. Your library card was always maxed. Mum would scold you for reading at the dinner table.

‘You read too much.’

At primary school you wrote ‘When I grow up, I want to be an author.’ You forget about this. At twenty-five, you leave New Zealand for money and love, and you don’t come back for sixteen years.

One summer, you return. You are an outsider. You need something to do. You write.

***

You are sick of your stories. You don’t know if they are any good any more. You lock them away in a drawer next to your bed where they languish for weeks. Someone sends you a link to an intriguing opportunity: Te Papa Tupu. You check it out. Hmm. Looks legit. You mentally blow the cobwebs off your manuscript. You follow George Saunders’s advice while doing a line edit: imagine there is a barometer in your brain, and wherever the energy drops in your writing and the needle dips, change it. It’s all about the micro choices. You do this with vigour and vim. You flex your writing muscles. You write a new story for your short story cycle. You fill out the required forms. Name: Colleen Maria Lenihan. Iwi: Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi. You print out your manuscript in triplicate and put it in the post. Bam. You tell your mentor that if you don’t get selected, you will quit writing. You tell yourself that you believe in your work. You tell yourself, ‘You got this’. On the day the recipients are due to be notified, you watch the clock, pounce on every email that dings in your inbox, wait for the phone to ring. By 4 p.m. you start to have doubts. By 4.30 you think surely you would have heard by now. By 4.45 you are lying on your bed in the fetal position. Yet another crushing rejection to get over.  At 4.55 you are railing at God, if she even exists, and hating your pathetic life when there is a ding. You check your new message immediately. It is from Huia Publishers: What is your contact number? You leap up from the bed. You punch the air and shout YATTA!

Later that night, you remember what your child-self wanted to be and think, Jack Kerouac was right. First Thought Best Thought. It’s just taking you a really long time to grow up.


DSC_0421Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.