An Interview with Becky Manawatu

In Te Ao Māori, tamariki are tapu, they are sacred. Not to be disciplined with physical violence. Men are incredible creatures more than capable of recognising this.

Becky Manawatu’s debut novel Auē is a humbling word embrace that captures the strength of aroha in the face of soul-destroying sorrow, read my review of it here. Taukiri and Ārama, young brothers born unwittingly into New Zealand’s gang culture, are thrown into the deep end of life and forced to adapt to survive.

It’s unsurprising that this novel is a finalist in the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at this year’s Ockhams. 

How do you set yourself up for a day of writing?

Coffee, peanut butter on toast. A walk if I need. Headphones with a song or two playing on repeat.

What compelled you to write a novel on the brutality of New Zealand’s gang culture, especially on the women and children involved?

I can’t explain my motivations well.

I guess, the book is essentially a result of mourning. Mourning the loss of, or connection to some people, mourning the way my family once looked. Honestly I’ve become a bit uncomfortable recently with bridging my life to this fictional world. I have done it a bit with some personal essays, and I’ve come away from that, by the skin of my teeth, without hurting anyone. Fortunately, so far the opposite – some healing of relationships – has happened. I don’t want to wreck that now. Suffice to say pain, love and hope compelled me.

You said that your feelings about the book are conflicted. Why’s that?

My feelings about the book will be conflicted – and I know this sounds dramatic – for the rest of my life. That’s because there can be no blanket approval for this mahi, nor should there be. I am a woman, who from a life of white privilege chose to write from Māori perspective, and not just people with Māori whakapapa but people whose lives have been damaged by colonisation. People damaged by inequality and racism; injustices I’ve not experienced.

I set out naively, if I’m honest. ‘Just write a story. It probably won’t be read,’ I thought. (Though in sticking with this honesty, obviously I hoped it would be read). Of course I’m uplifted when I learn that someone (particularly when that someone has some mātauranga) has believed in the book, you know, that it has said something truthful to them, but I would not be so arrogant as to think this means it’s got a big fat green tick.

I will and want to remain conflicted. I will do so by consistently acknowledging – probably every day in some way, shape or form – the likelihood that someone has or will read the book and say, “Fuck this book. I don’t believe it.” Or it could be smaller like: Fuck this line, or that phrase or this word here.

I find it very strange that people think being conflicted is not an okay state to live in. I accept it. I deserve it. There is no such thing as a happy ending. Dilemma, conflict, redemption isn’t just for stories, it’s for real lives. It keeps us going, working, trying.

What message do you hope people take from Auē?

That children are sponges.

That no one is ‘just’ anything.

There is a line in the book where Aroha, a ghost says, speaking of her sister-in-law Jade: “She is tangata whenua and she is the most important person alive and she must wake up and see that.”

What the line was saying, should say, is “we” as in “we all” must wake the actual fuck up and see that.

In Te Ao Māori, tamariki are tapu, they are sacred. Not to be disciplined with physical violence. Men are incredible creatures more than capable of recognising this. To be a gentle man is a beautiful thing, a powerful thing, and while he is mortal, and he is physically destructible, a legacy of love, what he can teach his sons, is indestructible.

What research did you undertake to give Auē its breathtaking authenticity on violence, sorrow and the strength of aroha?

I feel uneasy to talk about my research on violence as it was personal: I mean, you can research violence in your own body, pull up your own trauma, investigate it, if you are compelled to. If that’s helpful? Which it won’t always be, unless, maybe, you can transmute it.

Likewise, the best place to research sorrow and love is within your own manawa.

To talk about something else I’d like to point out that I needed help with the reo. There is not a lot of te reo Māori in the book. In fact I worry that people might have expected more because of its beautiful title. Writers often pen toward a desire. At the end of Auē a group of characters are sitting at a table using the reo. To be able to kōrero te reo has been a desire throughout my life. Like the sea it is sometimes a strong, weighty desire, sometimes it’s a placid, unobtrusive desire which I can ignore. I am quite ashamed of my reo ability. That shame has increased because I think my book might suggest to some people I have the reo, but I don’t. For others the book will reveal to them I don’t have the reo. A different source of shame.

But I don’t have a gift for language vocally in te reo Pākehā either. I mean, yeah I can keep up a bit of a chat, but can only express how I deeply feel about something when I write.

Did writing about female violence take its toll on you emotionally? If so, what did you do to protect yourself?

Aroha protected me. Real, palpable aroha in my heart for all the characters. I felt very close to them and felt lost without them when I was no longer writing the book. In saying that there was one character in particular who I could hardly bear to feel love for. He disgusted me so much. But I did find some love for him, even a little forgiveness. Some karma? The tamariki also protected me. Which is true to life, you could have all this messed up adult shit going on and your kid will say or do something that grounds you, kicks you up your backside, to ease the intensity of the adult shit, sort of. (I write that with some caution. Things like domestic violence or addiction are far more consuming and not stopped so easily.)

The contrast of children’s stories against adult’s stories protected me as a writer and in turn, hopefully, the reader. With Ari and Beth they were often getting up to crack up stuff which gave a bit of reprieve.

You’ve dedicated Auē not only to your Mum but also in memory of Glen Bo Duggan. Do you mind me asking (and I can take this one out too I’m just so intrigued) who Glen is?

Glen Bo was my cousin and he was murdered when he was 10 years old by his stepfather. My family misses him.

What book should everyone read when we’re able to get back into the bookshops? 

I have not bought Hēmi Kelly’s A Māori Phrase a Day, but over lockdown I have been watching his daily Facebook videos, and trying to bloody net those kupu and keep them in my head. Soon as lockdown is over that’s the book I’m buying. My pre-lockdown read was Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone and I loved it so much I read it twice, the second time immediately after the first. I am currently reading Booker prize winner Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. The book obviously needs no endorsement from me but I have to give it a shout out because it’s really fascinating me. The unique voices Evaristo has given to so many characters is an absolute triumph. New Zealand writing rangatira Reneé’s These Two Hands has been a comforting book to drop into through lockdown, and Women who run with the wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Etés is my bedside bible.

Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?

I am, but I have no idea what I’m actually up to there yet. Haha. There’s this young girl and a woman and there’s a man. I am spending a bit of time just writing them in dialogue to work out who they are. I love dialogue for that.

When you found out that Auē was nominated as a finalist in the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction what did you do to celebrate?

A couply beers. A whānau hug. A craving for some valium.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Becky Manawatu

  1. I loved this book so much that I read it twice, I loved the characters and didn’t want to lose them. Knowing the author as a dear friend in no way influenced my love for the book, it would have been one of my go to books if the author was unknown to me. I am an avid reader and was in a panic that I didn’t have enough books to read while in lockdown so Becky’s comments of the books she is reading at the moment are enlightening for me. There is an absolute ‘realness’ about this author and you always feel that she is writing from her heart.

    1. Hi Jan, So true. I haven’t read a book as captivating as Auē in a long while. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with Becky and share her work with my family and friends and I can’t wait for Unity Books to reopen so I can tell our customers about it too. I believe this novel will always be found on the shelves of bookshops around NZ. Chloe x

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