Mīria George (Te Arawa; Ngāti Awa; Tumutevarovaro, Enua Manu, Ngāti Kuki 'Ārani) is a writer, producer and director of Māori and Cook Islands descent with six award-winning stage plays to her name. George's short film Fire in the Water, Fire in the Sky will have its international premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival - one of only three New Zealand films to be selected. Then it will screen in cinemas in 12 centres in Aotearoa, one of Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts, part of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, October 29-December 5. nziff.co.nz.
I am from two very distinct villages. In both of them, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, sometimes I felt like I had six parents. My mother's family is from Horohoro, just south of Rotorua, and my father is from the islands of Tumutevarovaro and Enua Manu. As a child, these villages felt like the sum of my world. But wherever I was the grass always felt greener, I always wanted to be somewhere else. I have vivid memories of Dad telling me, again and again, how lucky I was to be from these two worlds. I didn't believe him at the time, but now I know how fortunate we were.
Mum had been a nurse and Dad was a visual artist and an educator. He was always drawing or painting and through him, we saw that being an artist could be a choice. My parents divorced when I was about 5, Dad moved back to the Cook Islands and Mum quickly realised she needed to spread her wings so we moved to Hamilton and she went to Waikato University to study psychology. She was so committed to her education. For me, my sister and brother, campus was also a great place to ride our bikes.
I learnt to drink water from a tap when I was at primary school in Tumutevarovaro. I learnt how to turn on the tap, let it run, cup your hands beneath the running water, then drink from your cupped hands, where the water pooled. I'd never needed to do that in Hamilton or Horohoro because we had drinking fountains at school, but in Rarotonga, we drank water from our cupped hands. I think that's why water is such a kaupapa, a recurring motif, in my work. Whenever I introduce myself in an international indigenous environment, I say I am of two waters, both fresh, Te Arawa, and salt, the Cook Islands.
I was a really big reader and every Friday night Mum took us to the main Hamilton library. It was so beautiful, and going from the kids' section to young adult, the library felt like such a place of possibility. I started writing poetry when I was about 8, and my dad was really encouraging. He constantly asked me, "What are you writing, and who are you writing for?" I kept writing through my teenage years when both Dad and my stepmum used excerpts of my poetry in their exhibitions. To see my work included in that way, I knew I could live a creative life, and writing would be part of it.
My grandparents, and my aunts and uncles, told great stories and my kuia Hepora Young wrote short stories and poetry in te reo Māori. She also spent time in Canada, so First Nations' writers would travel to see her. Through her, we came to understand who we were in a global context and because of her, my cousin, my older sister and I all did our final year of high school overseas with AFS [American Field Service].
My cousin went to Brazil, my sister to Russia and I went to San Jose in Costa Rica. To be so fully immersed in another culture, I finally understood the uniqueness of our people, and it was there I felt I stepped into who I was and what I wanted to be. Technology was new then too, in the late 90s, and my older sister set up my first email address. Mostly we kept in touch with letters, and I was only allowed to call home once a month. My family were of the "no news is good news" philosophy.
Back in New Zealand, I knew I didn't want to go to university, so I moved to Wellington where I worked in retail, and for my aunt's publishing company where I stuffed envelopes and answered phones. I transcribed incredible interviews with Māori leaders for Paul Diamond's book A Fire In Your Belly. When I finally went to university, I studied English literature, Māori studies, Spanish and film, until ultimately it became a degree in film and theatre. My lecturer David O'Donnell had this visceral love for theatre from Aotearoa and that was infectious. About that same time, I saw Pacific Underground's Romeo and Tusi in Porirua, on the back of a giant truck, and that's where those two art forms, writing and theatre, started to cross-pollinate.
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During university, I worked part-time for my iwi, Ngāti Awa, as we neared the end of an over-two-decade-long Treaty negotiation. It was incredibly powerful, hearing our kuia and koroua share their grievances, their mamae, over the loss of land and society, the dismantling of te ao Māori, religion, language and family and how that impacted intergenerationally. And while nothing can ever really compensate for the significance of that loss, by working for my iwi, I felt a deeper understanding of the grievous expansiveness of colonisation. I also have awesome memories of working for our kaumātua Sir Hirini Moko Mead and being invited to join him and Sir Wira Gardiner for tea and cucumber sandwiches. Sitting in his office and listening to them kōrero, I understood the commitment they'd made over their lifetimes to be part of advocating for our people.
At this time, when I was 24, I started writing And What Remains. I would go to work and if the office was quiet, I would bring up the Word document on my computer and work on my play. The premise was, what would New Zealand be without Māori. If all iwi Māori were made to leave, would this country really care? It was set in the near future, in 2011, and wāhine Māori, if they wanted to stay in New Zealand were sterilised by a government programme. But if they refused, they had to go. I wrote that play in 2007, while working for my iwi who were addressing colonial grievances. At the same time, the foreshore and seabed legislation was unfurling in front of us in real time, where ultimately Māori were blocked from exploring due legal process.
When the play premiered, Carla Van Zon [former artistic director of NZ International Arts Fest] emailed the morning after we opened and said she loved the work and not to take any notice of what people were saying. And I was like, "What did who say?" And that's when I began to read the reviewers' responses, and when I became conscious that it was a really difficult premise for some people. As a young artist, it was fascinating, but also really brutal. One friend described it as a baptism by fire, and it really was.
Of course, I didn't let a few harsh reviews stop me. Yes, they hurt but what it showed me was how conservative New Zealand theatre was. When the play was taught at Victoria University, part of what they studied was the critical and audience response to the work and it was just so flammable. But I knew, for Māori, the premise of the play was a context many of our people understood.
It's hard to make plans at the moment. Being an artist, you have to have tenacity, because the hurdles are many and great. So right now, if I focus on telling a story, whether it's told on stage, or screen or in sound, I don't think Covid can stop me.