Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Into the wild

Tusiata Avia in action during her solo show, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Avia is now watching a new generation of Pacific women perform the piece.
Tusiata Avia in action during her solo show, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Avia is now watching a new generation of Pacific women perform the piece.

In a heavy metal music club in Moscow nearly a decade ago, writer, poet and performer Tusiata Avia stood on stage to perform her one-woman show Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and wondered if anyone would understand.

After all, it was a performance based on her first collection of poetry, which drew on two different cultures - New Zealand and Samoa - to tell stories of six Pasifika women. Through these stories, it revealed the sometimes painful experiences Avia herself had faced in negotiating two cultures, two worlds.

"I wondered what I was doing because not many people there spoke English, but they got it; they all got it," she recalls. "I think there is something about the spirit of the piece that rings true. It's the old 'specific, but also universal' and deals with the big human issues we all face."

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt was one of the first performance poetry and published poetry collections, to explore what it meant to be a young Pacific Island woman in New Zealand and it introduced many New Zealanders to new facets of our culture.

Novelist Sia Figiel, the first Samoan woman to have a novel published, described it as revolutionary "... in the sense that, not only does it define the face of Pacific literature in New Zealand, but it redefines the face of New Zealand literature itself".

It toured on and off from 2002 - 2008 in places as diverse as Moscow - Avia was there as a guest of the New Zealand Embassy - the Middle East, north Africa and Vienna as well as New Zealand.

Now it's back, but not as fans may remember it. Avia's cousin, playwright Victor Rodger, asked if he could use the poetry collection for a reading with his FCC theatre company. Strong audience numbers and feedback told Rodger it was time for Wild Dogs Under My Skirt to make a return.

Avia hasn't changed the text - much - but the presentation has altered. For the first time, it will be performed featuring six actors: Grace Vanilau, Joanna Mika-Toloa, Luse Sua Tuipulotu, Malia 'Ahovelo, Nora Aati and Stacey Leilua directed by Anapela Polataivao.

Avia couldn't be more thrilled.

"I'm really excited and I have a lot of faith in Anapela and the cast," she says. "I am happy to let them take it and let it become something else, something new. I know the cast is all thrilled to have roles they can get their teeth into, where they're not just playing cleaners or somebody's mother."

She describes it as a journey through "a lot of different issues" centred around the treatment of women and children, and says while it was written in the early 2000s, those issues remain relevant. However, Avia is not saddened that they still trouble our societies.

"These are big issues and they take time to deal with, but I am pleased we speak more openly about them now and that there is a much greater awareness about things like domestic violence, women's roles and how violence is not acceptable.

"I'm not here to criticise for the sake of being critical; I make the comments that I do because there are things that need to be looked at and it's not good enough to say, 'that's just part of the culture and that's just what we do', and brush them away."

Mother to Sepela, 9, Avia says she's pleased to see her daughter questioning social norms and values and writing her own poetry. Her hope for characters Sepela might write? That they have more choices; that the world continues to move onwards and upwards.

"She lives for the stage; she spent her first five years on the road with me travelling to poetry festivals. She has an ear for language."

What: Wild Dogs Under My Skirt
When & Where: Mangere Arts Centre - Nga Tohu o Uenuku; Monday - Saturday

- NZ Herald

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