Spoken word poet Grace Taylor, author of Afakasi Speaks, founded the Rising Voices Youth Movement. Her new play My Own Darling is on now at the Mangere Arts Centre.

1. You identify as "Afakasi", a Samoan word meaning "half-caste". What is your ethnic heritage?

I was born and raised in South Auckland. My parents both migrated - mum came from Samoa for better job opportunities and dad came from England on his travels. They met working at the Clark Shoes Factory in Papatoetoe. Dad was a designer and mum worked in the office.

2. When did you start writing poems?

When I was about 13 I became obsessed with the lyrics to music - three songwriters in particular: Bic Runga, Kurt Cobain and Ben Harper. I'd write their lyrics down and study them hard out. My poems are like a dance with words. The musicality and the flow are really important to me.


3. When did you realise the power of words?

My training is in youth work. When I was 22, I was asked to present at a conference on Pacific Youth Health Development. I was very nervous because there were a lot of staunchly Pacific people there and I was still grappling with my mixed-race identity. I read out my first spoken word poetry piece, Being Afakasi. People cried and stood up and started telling their stories. It was really powerful. I've performed that poem many times over the years and seen it transcend race and ethnicity. A lot of people who identify with it are not even half-caste or full-blooded Samoans, they're Palagi people who tell me "I get it. I've had a similar experience". Everyone's had that feeling of being out of place and not belonging.

4. The term "half-caste" is now considered offensive in many cultures. Do you think "Afakasi" should also be outmoded?

I get why the term would be offensive to some. It's dependent on the environment you're in and the historical context in which it landed. I don't think Afakasi should have to go out of usage. People can place whatever name they want upon themselves. I always refer to myself as Afakasi. I'm about reclaiming, redefining and then putting it back out there. When I had my book launch a couple of years ago, a video was circulating on Facebook of this Samoan Australian guy, completely drunk, going off about half-castes and referring to us as "mongrel bloods". It just fuelled me. I actually played his audio before I came out on stage and did my Afakasi is Dead poem.

5. You're 31 now. Is questioning your identity still a big part of your poetry?

I haven't written about being Afakasi for a few years now. I feel like I am who I am and I don't even have to justify it. That questioning and discovering is a big part of being in your 20s.

6. How has motherhood changed you?

I can't just flippantly do anything I like now. Every action has to be purposeful if I'm sacrificing time with my boy to do it. I'm also very conscious that everything I put out there as an artist is part of the legacy I pass on to my son, so it has to be a true reflection of who his mother is. It doesn't have to be positive but it has to be true.


7. Has religion been a big part of your life?

I went to the Auckland Seventh Day Adventist school because Mum went to SDA schooling in Samoa so she was familiar with it. But in my mid-20s I came to the conclusion that I don't believe in institutionalised faith. I believe in relationships. My son's father is from a strong Catholic family so he's been christened and I'm fine with that. I want to expose him to as many experiences as possible and allow him to make his own choices when he's at the right age.

8. You're no longer a full-time youth worker, but you continue to mentor young people through various arts programmes. Why is art so often a force for positive change?

It smashes boundaries. It transcends the walls put up by institutions. It gives permission to express. Artists are the change-makers in the world. We're the ones that are given the task to start conversations, to challenge, to question, to advocate.

9. Can you give an example of a young person you've seen turn their life around through art?

I have so many but one had a huge impact on my life. As a young woman I mentored her on and off for about three years. When I met her she was in a really dark place mentally and spiritually but she had this amazing ability to put words together to create images based on her experiences that had a huge impact on other people. It just blew my mind. She had every reason to be angry at the world, to be a horrible person, but she's so resilient.

10. Why are some people resilient and others not? Is it a quality we're born with?

No, I think we need to be given the chance to build resilience. It's like a muscle, you have to exercise to build it. As adults we just need to walk beside our children and allow them to make their own mistakes; to not get it perfect every time. There's an assumption that every Samoan parent lectures their kids, but my mum never did. Cotton-woolling is not helpful but neither is just chucking kids into really nasty situations. There's a perception that you can only show resilience when you're in a negative situation, but you can exercise it positively. Like when I did my TEDx talk, I had to practice resilience sharing my story live with 2000 people because I was scared shitless.

11. Why is your new play called My Own Darling?

It's inspired by Alice Walker's poem Be Nobody's Darling and it's in reference to my transition into single motherhood over the past year, claiming my own space as a woman and not depending on others to make me feel loved or complete. It's been huge for me and I'm still learning. Man, you get lonely sometimes.

READ MORE: Theatre review: My Own Darling, Mangere Arts Centre
12. What's the play about?

The script is all poetry, so it's using the dynamics of theatre to bring poetry to life. The play is a social commentary on Auckland told through five different characters. Auckland is really the sixth character - it's my lover and my muse. I want Aucklanders to see themselves in this show. I hope that at some point, even if it's just for a second, you're put in a position to think, "Have I done that or thought that before?" and then another moment of, "I know what you're talking about. That's me" or "That's someone I know". My director Mia Blake has pushed me and held me at the same time. I'm really excited to share it.

My Own Darling is on at the Mangere Arts Centre until Thursday October 22.