Ahead of the NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults winners' announcement this Wednesday, we caught up with poet, scholar, and former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh about Mophead, being a ‘doodler, and HEART-led stories.
What is your day job?
I'm an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland where I teach Pacific Literature and Creative Writing.
What is your connection to Vic Books?
Juliet, Vic Books' former GM, who is now Chair of Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, where I sit on the Board. But before I knew her, I just loved crusily casing the bookshelves whenever Welly called me.
Mophead has been short-listed for the Elsie Lock Award for Non-Fiction in the NZ Children's and Young Adult Book Awards. Other nominees include Courtney Sina Meredith's Tupaia, Kuwi & Friends Māori Picture Dictionary, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi. How does it feel to be contributing to an era of popular and informative Children's publishing in Aotearoa, which in particular showcases Pasifika and Māori excellence?
As someone who teaches in the field of Māori and Pacific writing, it's been long awaited. It still shocks me that judges must choose from among so many fab indigenous and Pacific authors and stories!
What has the reception of Mophead been like? What is it like to have a book that openly challenges racist ideas and attitudes sit happily alongside other popular children's books? Especially when we so often try to avoid difficult and complex discussions about race with our tamariki?
I've had Mophead cookies made for kids' lunchboxes and fan mail from people sharing their own version of their own mophead - sometimes it's wild hair like mine; other times it's a 6th toe; other times it's hair colour or body shape or size or just a feeling of 'difference' that someone has always felt. Mophead is dedicated to 'those who stick out' and Mophead's message is 'I got you'. People respond so beautifully to that.
The racism Mophead encounters is of the everyday variety - it's no secret to anyone who experiences the thousand paper-cuts, the micro-aggressions based on racist ignorance - willful and otherwise - ranging from name calling, prejudiced personal and institutional inclusions and exclusions. 'Challenge' is a strong word - Mophead 'outing' of the racism she encounters at school from other kids is the beginning. Those kids have been raised in families, societies, and institutions where calling someone 'Gollywog' is second nature. The challenge needs to be taken up in those arenas. And it slowly is. The fruit of that is apparent in, as you've previously indicated, our shortlisted books. Everyone has a story. Some stories get privileged over others. I'm just making sure mine stands with the rest of them!
What was the illustration process like for you? How did you know you wanted to illustrate Mophead for yourself?
I've always seen myself as a 'doodler'. I know the world through both the written line and the drawn line. The written line has taken precedence because of the normal expectations surrounding publications in my job. But who said I couldn't draw as well? No one, not explicitly. And so I married my need to make my work accessible with my joy for drawing. Together, well, I'm in bliss!
The first iteration of Mophead was on an old iPad with a clunky digital pen. I then moved to an iPad Pro and Apple pencil and haven't looked back! It's so much fun but so hard at the same time. It's my estimation that Mophead surpassed the time it would take for me to write a critical chapter for a book - that's about a year. Although Sam Elworthy, my publisher at Auckland University Press, loved my quirky drawings, he also suggested that they could contract a professional illustrator to do the job. 'Um, no?' was my response because one of the core messages of Mophead is, 'if I can do it, you can do it.' That applies to standing up for yourself to earning a PhD to becoming the NZ Poet Laureate.
Mophead, alongside its teaching notes, asks very thoughtful and nuanced questions of children and other readers: about themselves, their whakapapa, and how they treat others. How did you settle into a tone for Mophead? How did you decide on what to say and how to say it?
Less is more. Simple beats complicated. A great story beats didactic politics or history.
A HEART-led story with a HEART-centred main character who is true to her creator is what determined the tone. I decided to go with my 7, 11, 15, 21, 35, 47 year-old selves. It's how they spoke, what they thought. As a consequence people of all ages are able to relate.
I loved the way Mophead spoke explicitly about your academic achievements. I can imagine for plenty of kids who read it, Mophead could be their first experience seeing education as an option or something they could excel at and love. Do you have any advice for those who want to study but feel out of place in the academic world?
Find a way to make the critical terrain yours. I found a way in literary studies through poetry, not just studying the poetry of others, but making it myself in order to understand the terrain. I wrote poetry to figure out my place in it. Then I began including my own poetry in the research, it then became part of my Pasifika methodology. I owned it. It meant something to my life. It's how I hooked myself into material that threatened to be interesting but irrelevant to myself and my communities.
What is next for Mophead? Do you plan on writing and illustrating more children's books?
Before the final draft Mophead was sent in, the next one came. At the most inconvenient time, in the midst of deadline chaos, out came a full storyboard of Mophead TU: The Queen's Poem.
One Saturday morning I turned around in bed, grabbed my journal and inked the whole thing, start to finish. It's been a story I've shared when I've keynoted at events and been interviewed in front of live audiences so I was pretty familiar with its narrative arc. Mophead is 'How your difference makes a difference'. Mophead TU is about 'How where you stand matters'. TU means stand in numerous Pacific languages. It's how Mophead had to keep 5 rules issued by the palace when she/I wrote the Queen's Poem. I'm so excited about it. I've called it 'Colonialism 101 for Kids', all wrapped up in Mophead's heart story! She's vulnerable and resilient (and cheeky!) It comes out this October!
Books that you champion:
Tusiata Avia's new collection of poetry, The Savage Coloniser Book (VUP).
The latest AUP New Poets 7 collection is now out with Ria Masae, Claudia Jardine and Rhys Feeney.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd.
What do you like about it?
I also, am in love with a prophet.
Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?
Mary, Jesus' wife in The Book of Longings. She's a secret scribe, she's restless for social change and a devout artist. She's brave and hard working, and of course, loves Jesus, who loves her fiercely back.
Hardback or paperback?
The free one.