Wellington writer John-Paul Powley's book of essays, Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays is published by Seraph Press and will be launched this week.
In this collection, the author uses the power of stories to tell us about ourselves and where we come from. Acting as ‘kaitiaki o te pō,’ a caretaker of history and memory, Powley combines memoir with history and cultural criticism.
John-Paul talked to the Melissa at the Book Council about his work.
Congratulations on the publication of Kaitiaki o te Pō. Please can you tell us about the title and what it means to you?
There’s a very good children’s book called Old Hu-Hu by Kyle Mewburn. It’s about death and grief. When someone dies how do we understand it? Where have they gone? The conclusion, which I agree with, is that the dead are alive in us. I think that this captures the relationship between the dead and the living; that we preserve them generation to generation in memory and they in turn inform who we are, and that this relationship evolves for each of us as we change our roles in life. It is a beautiful and sustaining idea. I’m not sure that the cultural tradition I grew up in – which sees a strict separation between the living and the dead – is true, and it is certainly not a comfort. More comforting I think to go sometimes and sit at the threshold of night and nurse the memory of our ancestors; to think about who we are, and to pass the stories on.
You’ve said that you thought your debut book would be a novel, as that was ‘proper’ writing. How did you come to write creative non-fiction, and are you still working on that novel?
I will never write a novel. In the past I would have said that in a dramatic, self-pitying way, but it doesn’t bother me at all now. I came very slowly to writing creative non-fiction purely because I didn’t think of it as “legitimate”. All the while I loved to read Alice Munro and Jane Morris and Walt Whitman. I want writing that helps me access something. Magic. For me the raw data of history needs the oxygen of literature to make it sing, and the flight of literature requires the earth of human experience to ground it.
You’re a secondary school teacher and your thoughts on education are threaded throughout your essays. How do you think being a teacher informs your writing?
In two ways. It has exposed me to people and situations that I would have never met otherwise. Secondly, it has caused me to rethink who I think I am. Neither of these things are insignificant, and they are both connected. My first teaching job was in a poor socio-economic area. I started there when I was 35. At 35 I discovered I knew absolutely nothing about the country I had grown up in, and that a lot of ideas I had about that country were myths. Convenient ones to make people like me feel good. At the exact same time I became a father, and found a lot of the behaviour in the classrooms and at home really challenging and confronting. I found myself unravelling. Being angry. Shouting. I had to take hold of myself and think about who I was and how I wanted to be. It is a constantly evolving process. Just last year I came to a new understanding about race that was purely driven by my interaction with a group of students. They taught me.
In ‘Digital Natives’ you make a connection between imperialism, colonialism and the almost religious fervour of those advocating for the adoption of new technology in education. How do you think the use of technology in schools might affect the way young people read, write and think about the world?
I think people forget that using technology in a powerful way is a literacy skill. In addition, of course, having the technology in the first place is about money. Both of these things are problematic for some groups in society; the same groups that have always been marginalised in Aotearoa. In that respect, unless there is social justice, and I mean real social justice like mana motuhake, technology will exacerbate the differences between the haves and have nots. Those already facing barriers will find the barriers higher.
For those with strong literacy and access I think technology sits comfortably alongside traditional reading and writing because it is built out of the same literacy requirements. I don’t see it as a threat. I read on-line constantly. I write there. I still like to buy books, and I see plenty of books in the hands of students. In addition, one of the most powerful strengths of technology has been in allowing the non-mainstream (in whatever sense) to find a community online.
My main concerns about technology and its impacts range from being worried that boredom and daydreaming are being eliminated from the human experience, through to the elimination of jobs that give people dignity and purpose.
I enjoyed your recollections about your sense of style growing up, in particular, the story about your Mondrian-esque knitted jumper that a friend asked to borrow the pattern for, but found his gran wouldn’t knit it for him because it was modelled by a woman. It’s part of a wider piece on gender identity in small-town New Zealand. As a teacher, do you think these issues are still playing out in a similar way for teenagers now, and how have they changed over the past 20 years or so?
Sigh. I think playing out in a similar way is about right. There are bubbles of acceptance in some schools in some cities, and these are encouraging, but I suspect these bubbles are small and also easily punctured. What may have progressed in terms of gender identity or sexuality in term of legislation and policy may have been countered by social media’s ability to be an isolating weapon for trolls. Networks of social media support and community are a step forward, but a quick look at the statistics for suicide, and poor mental health in our teenage community tells you exactly how hard it is to grow up. Finding solidarity online is also not the same as being supported by the community you actually live and act in. On the other hand, being at a school that has an annual pride week and flies the LGBTQIA+ flag (literally) is tremendously positive and would have been absolutely unthinkable at any school in Aotearoa when I was at school.
I admired the details about people and places you wove through each essay, and it sparked my own memories of being in my twenties. Do old memories come easily to you? What did you find most difficult about crafting these essays?
The hardest thing about writing some pieces is that they are often dealing with grief, loss, or my feelings of failure or regret. Even when it seems like a piece might be more about a topic at arm’s length, it is personal. That’s why I’m writing about it: because it hurts or it stings. I don’t write about Māori education clinically – I think about the personal harm school has caused people I have actually met and taught. I don’t think about World War One as a distant event, I think of its damage to my family, and to masculinity in this country. That second-wave feminist notion that the personal is political and the political is personal is something I regard as a profound truth.
I sometimes tell people that writing is my therapy. They think I’m joking. I’m not.
What have you been reading lately? Which books or authors inspire you to write?
Lately I’ve been trying to understand time so I have been reading The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. It’s very hard for my brain to understand though so I often just stroke the extremely beautiful book cover and hope for the best. Our school librarians are pretty flipping great (they always are in my experience) and they feed me books: ‘Is Gender Fluid?’, ‘How to Resist’, ‘The Chibok Girls’. Essentially a reading list that would cause Jordan Peterson to seek to have me struck off by the Education Council.
I love some authors but they don’t inspire me to actually write. The two who make me want to write most are Jan Morris and Alice Munro. I see them as sitting on that line between fiction and non-fiction. Munro writes fiction like it is non-fiction. Morris writes non-fiction as if it is fiction. The exhilarating, vaulting link between them in my head is Walt Whitman. But I have to add music. Music is equally an inspiration to books. When I wrote ‘A Certain Alienated Majesty’ for example I played a five minute section of a pummelling, metal song over and over again. It shaped the whole story. I wrote another piece in the same structure as ‘Zebulon’ by Rufus Wainwright.