Tēnā koutou katoa! Nau mai haere mai ki tēnei perehitanga o te hautaka
4th Floor | Papa Tuawhā. A very warm welcome to this year’s 4th Floor.
For this issue (possibly the last one ever) submissions were requested on the theme of ‘Writing as Activism’, alongside a rallying cry borrowed from Audre Lorde: Write fire! We invited writers’ persuasive essays and personal stories of grief, rage and injustice, but were also interested in poetic détournements of the textual forms of activism and more abstract, experimental riffs on current political issues. Thinking of the great multitude of activist writers – from the Dada poets to James Baldwin to Patricia Grace, to name but a few – and acutely aware that we’re again living through terrible times, I expected the causes to run thick and fast.
Our deadline was April, too soon for writing about some of the year’s biggest political upheavals – the Christchurch terror attacks, Oranga Tamariki, Ihumātao. Even so, as submissions flowed in I was surprised to find there were few, if any, angry, sharply written calls to arms, manifestos, protest songs or even culture jams nailing the many very real troubles our country faces. Did this reticence say something about the profile of the Whitireia writing community – or about tertiary communities in general: less flaxroots, more academic? Or about a lingering culture of ‘colonial politeness’? Or did it say something about the way writing is doing activism in this time and place?
What I did find as I settled into reading, however, were many tangential activisms stealing upon me in writings of quiet demeanours. Words meandering to the heart of something via sleights of hand, or via the slyest of cracks, abruptions or incisions in the smooth surface of a language or a form. Subtle activations of forces animal, vegetable or mineral; of life forces or death forces; of forces cultural, sexual, patriarchal, historical or emotional. Perhaps, despite the need for some seismic shifts in our world, micro-activisms are quite apt too in a time of micro-aggressions. Perhaps it’s a time for honestly calling forth what’s inside, more than shouting at (or for) everyone out there. Perhaps micro-activisms can also have seismic vibrations, if they attain enough critical mass.
There are absolutely recognisable political causes in these writings too: the environment, vegetarianism, queer politics, decolonisation, #MeToo. And there are writers vigilantly centring their own marginalised voices, mobilising difficult feelings and sometimes, fiercely, writing fire. I love (while lamenting!) how many of these pieces evoke feelings of complicity within complex dynamics: Jane Arthur’s Residue, Hinemoana Baker’s How to survive on a plinth, Helen Lehndorf’s nice dystopia, Ryn Richmond’s Trial. Their activisms are freighted with a contemporary awareness that any problem is orbited by multiple vantage points; that each writer’s voice is one among many. Together, such works nudge open a clear seeing of the tangled realities we must navigate when trying to bring change.
In each piece, I feel a writer activating something that has burnt them. Sometimes no more than a softly smouldering pang for a cut flower as in Sue Jamieson’s this brief life. Sometimes a brighter, more incandescent indignation at the interminable colonisations of reo and whenua suffered here in Aotearoa, as in Anahera Gildea’s An ekphrastic whakapapa. Reading each piece, I too am stirred. I am especially humbled and joyful to be publishing Gildea’s beautiful bilingual poetry in this issue of 4th Floor – a small step toward placing te reo Māori front and centre on our literary stage.
In reviewing and organising the final selection for publication, we have eschewed author, alphabetical or genre divisions (so hegemonic!). Instead, we offer a journey, loosely organised, across several of the different kinds of fire or force that these activisms are quietly, intently circling – though of course other groupings and other journeys are possible.
So let’s celebrate these many-centred activations and their finding, sharing and giving of voice. Let’s celebrate the ways in which a single image (Erica Challis’s handprint) or typographic choice (Marlon Moala-Knox’s punchy social-media hashtags) can move us to useful feelings. Let’s use these words as springboards for thought and action. And let’s ask ourselves what further literary activisms yet await our reading, our writing and our doing.
Guest editor 2019