It’s not every day you get to see a Polynesian journalist speak in Devonport; in fact, it’s not every day you get to see a Polynesian journalist period.
For as Tapu Misa, one of the New Zealand Herald’s most popular columnists pointed out, she is the only Polynesian Op Ed journo in New Zealand. Which probably means that what she says could be quite interesting.
Which is exactly how it turned out.
Tapu was speaking to around 70 attendees at the regular meeting of Devonport’s University of the Third Age (U3A) – a local organisation that provides a stimulating environment for its largely retired members, through speaker invitations, mini courses and trips.
Ms Misa’s stated objective for the morning was to talk about why she writes from the perspective she does; that of a “bitter socialist” – as oft-described by some of her more pugnacious readers.
Her background certainly might explain some of that “leftiness”; her Samoan parents with their five kids immigrated to New Zealand in the 70s expecting the land of milk and honey. The reality was of course something quite different.
Consequently, Tapu grew up in considerable poverty, with her father working during the day and night, and her mother similarly cleaning at night while looking after the growing family (eventually seven kids) during the day.
As she matured, learning English from watching the TV (the first phrase she learnt in English was “Beam me up Scotty”) Tapu began to regret the lack of Samoan or even Polynesian role models in NZ public life. She felt such a role model would have given her some sense of what could be achieved in what was a very foreign world.
“The only Samoans who were well known in New Zealand were Bryan Williams and the Yandall sisters ” she said. It was Bryan Williams – and his “incredible thighs” that provided her with a lasting love of rugby.
Indeed, the lack of “brown” role models meant that many of her generation turned to Black American culture for inspiration; hence the strong affinity local Polynesian musicians have had with everything from 70s disco to modern rap.
It was within this environment and against this background that her world view developed. And this, she states, is why she believes what she believes and thus writes what she writes.
“We are to a large degree products of our upbringing and environment” she said. “But ultimately we all have a lot in common.” And as she has found in corresponding with people from across the political spectrum during the course of writing her column over the last ten years, once you begin a conversation, it’s often surprising how much common ground you discover. “News is so ‘siloed'” she says. “It’s rare for people to actually engage with those holding opposing views.”
This struck me as particularly salient with respect to her description of her childhood, the extent to which both her parents were absent as a result of the necessity to work and the experience of the audience to whom she was speaking.
Paradoxically, the experience of an immigrant girl such as Tapu living below the poverty line in the 70s could be compared to many a child from a wealthy family of the 21st century. Take your classic Devonport nuclear family; with both parents often working and the child in daycare from a very young age, in both cases both parents will often be absent. And as those of us sprouting grey hairs all know, material wealth is cold comfort in the presence of abandonment or loneliness. Love is better than Lego.
While wealth is often seen as a non-navigable divide between people, for the children the experience may be remarkably similar. And when this kind of commonality is established, political divisions can often seem superfluous.
Consequently, those with an open mind from the conservative side of the fence may find more than they expect when they read the column of the “bitter socialist” with a penchant for broad thighs.
Tapu Misa writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald every Monday.