A significant category prize in the national Book Awards was granted to a Pacific woman for the first time on Wednesday.

Prominent New Zealand journalist John Campbell said it’s outrageous there haven’t been more Pacifica women in the awards line-up in the past. He also said it’s staggering that nobody has painted James Cook in Avia’s light before.

Tusiata Avia won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry 2021 with her fourth poetry collection ‘The Savage Coloniser Book’. 

Illustration by Sitara using Canva.

On the publisher’s website, Avia’s colleague Selina Tusitala Marsh (NZ Poet Laureate 2017-’19) says: “Savage is as savage does. And we’re all implicated. Avia breaks the colonial lens wide open. We peer through its poetic shards and see a savage world — outside, inside. With characteristic savage and stylish wit, Avia holds the word-blade to our necks and presses with a relentless grace. At the end, you’ll feel your pulse anew.”

“Avia addresses James Cook in fury”, says her publisher, the Victoria University Press. “She unravels the 2019 Christchurch massacre, walking us back to the beginning. She describes the contortions we make to avoid blame. And she locates the many voices that offer hope. The Savage Coloniser Book is a personal and political reckoning. As it holds history accountable, it rises in power.”

Perhaps it’s not so much that Avia’s perspective on New Zealand society is new; it just hadn’t made it into ‘the mainstream’ before.

Commenting on winning this 2021 Ockham Book Award, Tusiata mused: “Awards are funny. That kind of recognition is great, but you still get up in the morning and brush your teeth, write another poem. [You] just keep trucking along, just keep writing”.

She also said that “being a brown girl in the seventies and eighties was very uncool. I’m so thrilled that our kids get to see themselves reflected back in a number of different places. And it’s cool to be a brown kid now; I love that. It’s really important to hear our voices.”

Tagaloa Sā Donna Tusiata Avia, daughter of a Palangi mother (a New Zealander of European descent) and a Samoan father, is an acclaimed poet, performer and author. Her poetry stage show, ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’, premiered at the Dunedin Fringe Festival in New Zealand as a solo show. It later became a theatre production for six women. It won multiple awards and made it all the way to the Soho Playhouse in New York, just before COVID, at the beginning of last year.

Apart from four poetry books, Tusiata Avia has also published three children’s books. Her poems have been published in more than 100 anthologies and literary journals. She has taught creative writing and performance for communities, arts organisations, schools, tertiary institutions and justice facilities. Avia was a recipient of the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writers Residency at the University of Hawai’i and the Ursula Bethell Creative Writers Residency. She received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award 2013 was the Arts Foundation Poet Laureate 2020.

© Sitara Morgenster

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