If I have a fault, it's that I do tend to bring up aku kiore mōkai (my pet rats) in situations where they were perhaps not, strictly speaking, called for. Like that time
I went to visit Grant Robertson (then my local MP) to ask him to make it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of their weight – and took Albus the rat with me to the meeting. I thought Minister Robertson might be keen to meet Albus because he (Albus, not the Minister) was appearing in a web series called TragiComic made right here in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). But Minister Robertson didn't seem that fussed. I suppose he gets to meet celebrities all the time.
It also seemed natural to me to take Albus to that meeting because aku kiore mōkai have taught me a lot about mōmonatanga (fatness) and challenging my own internalised fatphobia. We live in a society that demonises mōmonatanga, wrongly supposing that it must always be unhealthy and ugly. It's a brutal myth that does a lot of damage. Like many people, I wasted huge amounts of my young adulthood enmeshed in self-hatred and diet culture, before finally in my 30s – and to my profound relief – discovering body positivity and fat activism. One of the lightbulb moments for me in this ideological hīkoi was when I realised how I was treating my fat rats.
I have been keeping kiore mōkai for more than a decade. Kiore (and I mean fancy rats, not Polynesian rats or wild rats) only live for two or three years and need to live socially in groups, so all up I've cared for more than 40 animals. Across that time I've learned some lessons.
Basically it boils down to this: some kiore are just mōmona (fat), and that's okay. Kiore mōkai aren't like cats and dogs – you don't measure out a particular amount of food and feed them twice a day. Instead, it's best to make sure the food bowls in their cage are always full, and they will graze as needed. Kiore mōkai need lots of grains and seeds, so I feed them a special rat museli made by the good people of the NZ Rat Rescue. I get aku kiore out of their cage regularly to explore, and they always have a wheel in their cage to walk, run or nap in as the mood takes them. (Occasionally two of them will get into the wheel at the same time and attempt to turn it in opposite directions simultaneously.) The point is – they all have access to the same diet and exercise, but some of them are slender, some are medium-sized, and some are mōmona. There's nothing that can be done about aku kiore mōmona because there's nothing that needs to be done. Mōmontanga is not a problem to be fixed.
Another moment of realisation came for me as I began to learn te reo Māori (ko Pākehā ahau / I am a white New Zealander). I am still very much a beginner in this hīkoi so I have frequent recourse to Te Ara, the free online Māori–English dictionary. The definition of mōmona reads "fat, fatty, obese, in good condition, rich, fertile (of the land)". I was thunderstruck. I was only just getting used to the idea that being fat might not necessarily be as repulsively evil as I had been taught. But – could mōmonatanga be – good? Is fat positivity yet another benefit of decolonisation? I read on. Under each definition is an example of the kupu (word) being used in a sentence. "Hei te takurua hopukina ai te kiore. Koinei te wā e mōmona ana te kiore – he tūpuhi rawa i te raumati (Te Ara 2016). / The kiore were caught in winter. This was the time when the rats were in prime condition – in summer they were too thin." Note the way in which mōmona here is translated as "in prime condition". And it's about rats! It's a sign.
The other big lesson aku kiore mōkai have taught me is about accessibility and combating ableism. A couple of years ago the occasional migraines I used to get morphed into one big continuous migraine that never quite goes away. One of my main triggers is prolonged exposure to bright electric light, such as that emitted by computer screens and smartphones, and used to illuminate nearly every indoor space in the country. (Fluorescent lights are the actual devil and after I die I will haunt them all, fatly.) As I quite freqently want to be inside buildings and to use computers, this is a considerable problem. It is, in fact, a disability.
By a stroke of immense good fortune, I have spent the last eight years building up an immunity to iocaine powder – I mean, developing a freelance career in te ao pukapuka (the world of books, i.e. our local book trade, publishing industry, literary circles, and media). I used to supplement this irregular and badly paid mahi (work) with a part-time job – a job I used to do sitting in an office in front of a computer. When I got sick I asked if I could work from home in order to accommodate my new reality. They said no, and terminated my employment. I vividly remember the warm rush of humiliation as I realised my employers were dispensing with me because they considered me no longer fit for purpose. I came face to face with my own disposability as a chronically ill person and it stung. It really, really stung. It was my first direct experience of ableism.
One of the strands connecting fatphobia with ableism is that they both use people's bodies to make negative and harmful judgments about their worth as humans. Under fatphobia, tāngata mōmona (fat people) are deemed lazy. Under ableism, tāngata whaikaha (people with disabilities) are deemed useless. If fatphobia was bad for my self-image then I could – at least sometimes – convince myself that since I was brainy I didn't need to be pretty i.e. thin. But ableism really did a number on me. It cut right to the core of what I believed I had to offer the world: my ability to produce work. My worth. Under the unholy alliance of ableism and capitalism, tāngata whaikaha are literally worth less than non-disabled people because we are often physically unable to perform as much labour or earn as much money.
But here again, caring for aku kiore mōkai helped me see the light. I have looked after many kiore whaikaha (disabled rats) over the years. Elderly kiore frequently develop a condition called Hind Leg Degeneration that makes it not only harder for them to move around. When this happens, I rearrange their cage. I make sure that everything they need is accessible to them via a flat, smooth surface. And, importantly, I arrange the communal sleeping area so that it's not only accessible to te kiore whaikaha but also attractive to all ngā kiore in the cage. Snuggles are vital to wellbeing.
The important part is this: it is my job as the organiser of their environment to make those accommodations. It is not the job of ngā kiore whaikaha to somehow just get over their condition. All kiore mōkai are worth caring for, regardless of their age, body weight, health status, or ability to climb ladders. They all deserve to live a life of dignity and snacks. Similarly, human worth is inherent in our mana as humans, not just as workers. All built environments should be accessible to all people.
Keri Opai, who leads Te Reo Hāpai project to establish kupu Māori in the mental health, addiction and disability sectors, says: "'Disabled' has been translated into 'whaikaha' which means to have strength, to have ability, otherly abled, enabled. This word was created with the Māori disabled community, and has a deliberate emphasis on gaining strength and ability." Yes! Strength and ability, not uselessness and disposability! Honestly y'all – and I know I'm going against the view of some other kaituhi (writers) in this venerable nūpepa (newspaper) – I really think decolonisation is the way to go.
I don't have a good segue for this next bit: I just really wanted tell you about Orville.
Orville was a hautupua (celebrity). He was one of ngā kiore filmed for The Hobbit (used as set dressing to help make Lake-town look grimy – rude!). In real life he was a sleek and dignified animal, so the film makers put māmaiti (Marmite) on him to make him appear more sewer-ish. It was just the start of his fame. When my mother happened to meet John Rhys-Davies, she told him about Orville and he sent Orville a personalised autograph. After dear Orville had gone to the great toa tīhi (cheese shop) in the sky, the organisers of our national science fiction and fantasy convention made Orville their Ghost of Honour. I attended the con and gave a formal address in his name. Later, the con book, which included a short piece about Orville, won a Sir Julius Vogel award for excellence in science fiction and fantasy. The con also ran a rat-themed short story competition. One of the entries eventually grew into the queer novella The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by AJ Fitzwater, featuring rat queen Orvilia. If any other ringatoi (artists) would like to incorporate Orville into your work, please go ahead – and let me know so I can add it to the collection on taku pae tukutuku (my website).