I was back in Wellington that October attending Te Hā Kaituhi Māori – National Māori Writers’ Hui. Afterwards, the return trip to Australia was like a severing. For four days I had been a part of something deeply transformative and nourishing. Workshops, panel discussions, performances, readings and everything in-between including sharing kai (food) and sleeping over marae-style on site had filled my cup. Profound connections were made with some incredible writers whom I am now lucky enough to call very dear friends. I returned to Gadigal lands (Sydney) with fire in my belly, inspired to keep connected and more so, to keep connecting – to looking at ways I could bring writers together.
I was deep in the process of finalising the anthology Solid Air: Australia and New Zealand Spoken Word (UQP 2019) and it was a natural step to start to thinking of ways to thread writers from across many shores together. Not just any writers though. I specifically wanted to bring First Nations writers from across the globe together – to listen to their poetic harmonies and read how their voices would sing on a page together.
Commencing the position of Senior Producer at Red Room Poetry in late 2019 was a gift – being employed in the arts is a privilege I will never take for granted. After having concentrated on producing the stunning anthology Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala 2020), the team’s focus turned to all things Poetry Month. I work with a small and remarkable collective of people at Red Room, helmed by Artistic Director – Dr Tamryn Bennett. When I proposed the concept of Fair Trade to her and that it might be a project which could be housed within Poetry Month, I received nothing but support.
Fair Trade was finding its feet.
‘This embrace of the internet by Indigenous peoples worldwide means that we are now exchanging, conversing and situating ourselves within a globalised world.’
–Lana Lopesi, False Divides. Bridget Williams Books, 2018, p.72
To experience the return of Joy Harjo to these shores for the Adelaide Festival Writers Week alongside Ali Cobby Eckermann in March 2020 was a true celebration of wairua (spirits). Moments like these which follow one another sometimes feel tidal, or seasonal; either way – it doesn’t take retrospect for them to feel wholeheartedly right.
It was during the Adelaide Festival that I was also able to have conversations with two writers whose work I was in awe of – Natalie Harkin and Tony Birch. I asked both of them the question ‘which First Nation writer would you like to collaborate with?’ and responses opened up further conversations which created an energy around what we could do. Fair Trade layers were starting to ripple.
Typing these words, in this moment, the idea of attending a writers’ festival in-person again any time soon feels like a foolish concept to conjure. I heard on the news today that half of this continent, so-called Australia, is in lockdown. Days of people manically rushing out to stock up on toilet paper seem to have slightly shifted and perhaps we’re moving to a point in the covid arc of slowly breaking down, or at the very least deeply questioning colonial structures that suffocate and control the most vulnerable people in our society and value the economy above all else. Having said that, this past weekend thousands of people have marched un-masked in protest over the lockdowns screaming we want freedom. WTAF?!! Watching the news about these protests gave me the same feeling I’d had driving past all those ‘Aussie’ flags to Grafton years ago.
‘The belief that ‘natives’ did not value work or have a sense of time provided ideological justification for exclusionary practices which reached across areas such as education, land development and employment.’
–Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, Otago University Press, second edition. 2012, p.57
As is the way of most projects founded in relationality, layers grow slowly and naturally develop a foundation. Ali Cobby Eckermann would collaborate with Joy Harjo, Natalie Harkin with Leanne Betasamasoke Simpson and Tony Birch with Simon Ortiz. I reached out to Sam Watson and Ellen van Neerven, reconnecting with two people whom I’d previously worked closely with. They were both excited by the idea and suggested that they write with Sigbjørn Skåden and Layli Long Soldier respectively. There are so (like so) many writers from Aotearoa I wanted to invite to the project and know that this will happen in the future.
But for now, I am completely honoured that the remarkable poet, academic and artivist Anahera Gildea agreed to be involved in Fair Trade. When I asked her which poet she’d like to collaborate with I barely finished asking the question before Anahera responded with absolute knowing – ‘Evelyn Araluen!’
And there it was. Fair Trade wanted to write itself as a 12-poet-poem.
‘My view of writing is in agreement with Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, who has recently affirmed that one ‘ought to make it (art) unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time’.’
–Haunani-Kay Trask, Wasafari, Volume 12 – Issue 25, 1997, p.42
Over the past 12 months of developing and engaging with each of the participants of Fair Trade, there have been many moments where events have deeply impacted the lives of the writers, both in a very personal way as well as in a larger, community context.
I remember when it was announced that Joy Harjo would take on a second term as the US poet laureate in April 2020 and thinking this would rule her out of the project. When Joy emailed back that, despite the enormity of her poet laureate commitments and responsibilities, she chose to write with Ali, ‘her sister’. From then on, I knew Fair Trade would be a taonga of these times.
I have immense gratitude for the poets of the project as they have endured an intensely heavy, difficult time in which to write. The poems which have emerged have been written throughout hospitalisations, family deaths, unmarked grave discoveries at residential schools, PhD pressures, juggling several jobs, family responsibilities, community commitments and more, not to mention multiple lockdowns.