18 Jan 2022

Interview – Ben Brown

18 Jan 2022

Tuia! Tui – Tuia! Tuia te hā. Tuia te kupu. Tuia te kōrero. Tāu te māramatanga… Tihei Mauri  Ora… Tēna Koutou e hoa mā, e pēhea ana te hararei? Whakahari me whakahaumaru taku  hiahia ki a koutou kātoa. Ko Ben Brown tōku ingoa ā ka tu au ki kōnei no te taha o te  pānui whakaahua tuatahi o Te Awhi Rito; e whakatautoko ana i tēnei mahi ma nga pou  tāngata o te rōpū Phantom Billstickers.  

My name is Ben Brown. I’m the inaugural Te Awhi Rito. This is me beside one of the first  run of Te Awhi Rito Posters placed throughout the country by Phantom Billstickers. The  posters mark the beginning of a public awareness campaign on behalf of Te Awhi Rito – The Reading Ambassador (Not, by the way, a translation. but I’ll explain the references  shortly.) and a partnership with the Phantoms. Print production, pasting, infrastructure  and all other boots-on-the-ground support for the campaign is provided right across the  motu by the Phantom Billstickers crew. They tautoko hard. They’re solid. They’re sound.  They’re a little bit subversive. They delivered more than we asked for – I can’t say better  than that. All I had to do was whack up a design, email it print ready according to the  specs and the Phantoms took care of the rest. Pro bono. No stress. 

The kaupapa of Te Awhi Rito – The Reading Ambassador is to actively promote, inspire,  advocate for, represent, engage with, advance, support, affirm and ensure a love of  reading amongst our children – our tamariki and rangatahi. It’s a two-year appointment.  Ambassadors are nominated. They do not apply. They are administered by the National  Library and the Department of Internal Affairs. In February last year, in a meeting at the  National Library in Wellington I was briefed as to what the role would probably entail,  given that Aotearoa New Zealand hasn’t actually had a Te Awhi Rito – Children’s Reading  Ambassador before. Having been so informed, I was then asked – a little more formally – if  I would accept the appointment. It was, I have to say, an OMG moment. 

Oh – My – Great – Big – Never – You – Mind….  

Of course I accept the appointment. I regard it as a privilege. I feel honoured, respectful  and . . . perhaps a little bit uncertain? I’ve worked half my life pursuing the substance, the  matter of reading. I believe in its value and its worth. For thirty years I’ve called myself a  writer. The decades seem to have passed a little bit quicker than I would have liked. There  are fewer teeth in my head now and a lot more grey on top of it, though my slowly blurring  vision prefers the shocks of silver that it sees among the braids. In May 2021 

The posters are not directed at tamariki and rangatahi, but at those closest to them who  might yet wield some influence, model exemplar behaviours, judiciously exercise authority  if their authority still has effect. These are the parents, grand parents, whānau, caregivers,  teachers, older siblings, any other trusted, safe, reliable friends, citizens, civil, corporate  or private collectives, institutional or otherwise. The omens, for now, appear benevolent.  The year is new. The weather as warm as it should be. And the traffic lights on the corner  of Manchester Street and Moorehouse Avenue, Christchurch indicate quite clearly that  everything is green for go and pointing appropriately in the right direction. 

Mana kupu, mana kōrero – The power of words, the power of story

The messaging is deliberately enigmatic, presented in written form in the language of the  oral culture that first gave meaning to everything beneath the long white cloud. This is a  tauparapara. It is an orator’s device, a lyrical flourish, an announcement of intent. Formally  delivered, it would alert you to the commencement of whaikōrero and an orator – he  manukōrero – at the beginning of his work. Within its imagery and its rhythms we might  discern symbols and meanings alluding to some deeper context, seeking it out, as if there  are elements of meaning yet concealed. It is metaphor and poetic. 

As I mentioned, tauparapara is oral in tradition, But this tauparapara was written. It was  composed kei runga i taku rorohiko – on my computer – my ‘lightning brain’ machine. It  was constructed using Latin symbols formally introduced to the ancestors in 1814 by a  missionary named Kendall. In the vernacular of a post colonial narrative I could suggest  the irrevocable compromise of authenticity merely by the application of alien literacy skills, techniques and hardware imported here by the agents of Empire and the great  white colonial oppressor. But that would be counter productive and ignorant of the idea  that a living culture evolves.  

The metaphorical thread suggests the whakapapa of kōrero – of story – as an ambassador  of reading might consider it, from the first thought in a writer’s mind to the light of  understanding. These few lines are the core. Were I to announce my kōrero with this  tauparapara in a formal setting, I would begin with a refrain familiar to the paepae.  Structured around simplicity, using the natural cadence and rhythm latent within the  words, the refrain introduces the idea of a common thread drawing seperate elements  together. This is how things become bigger than the sum of their parts.

Tuia… Tui – Tuia …’  

Tuia is the threading through, as with a needle drawing the muka.  

It is the binding together.  

And so: 

Tuia te hā – Threading the breath.  

The breath that precedes and carries the voice. The breath that implies the thought  that the voice will bring shape and substance to. 

Tuia te kupu – Threading the word. 

The word that carries the idea. The word that gives meaning to things in the world  and reveals our relationship to those things.

Tuia te kōrero – Threading the story. 

The story, whether spoken, written or otherwise presented. The story that begins  and ends with words gathered to a common purpose; to elaborate all possibilities and  allow us to explore them. The story that helps us know ourselves and fulfil potential. 

Tāu te māramatanga – Understanding, meaning and insight are yours. Story exists to tell us things about ourselves. This is the ultimate purpose of story,  whatever form it takes, however frivolous or serious, whether fiction, fact or absolute  fantasy. Somewhere in the story is an insight into you. That insight is for you to find, but  it’s yours when you find it. 

Tihei mauri ora – Tihei is the sneeze of life, the first breath, possibly even the first  word…alluding to te hā for our purposes. Mauri – often referred to as a life essence, to me  it is the energy or force of existence. We might think of it as a constant flow through all  things. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics offer similar descriptors to the nature of  things. Mauri carries with it all the metaphysical aspects; mana, tapu, wairua and so  forth. Ora is life. 

Te Awhi Rito – Reading Ambassador  

Te Awhi Rito is a juvenile harakeke plant. In this, our present context, it is also he tohu – a symbol – representing the Children’s Reading Ambassador of New Zealand. The symbolism is drawn from the body of lore, tradition and tikanga encapsulated in the the harakeke mythos. As often as not referred to as flax, native flax or New Zealand flax, harakeke isn’t a flax bush at all.  

Phormium Tenax is a day lily. Then again, day lilies aren’t really lilies either. The misnomer arises from the linen like fibres, called muka, that give  harakeke its renowned utility and unequalled status as a plant of immense mana in the  tikanga.  

Harakeke ensured the viability and survival of our original Polynesian settlement and its  evolution into Te Ao Māori. Māui tied down the sun and fished up the land with chords  and lines and bindings made of muka. Māori used it to build, clothe, gather food, express  in art. Muka hauled the waka, rigged the sail, secured the anchor stone. Harakeke  appeared in one form or another in every aspect of Māori life.  

As you observe Te Awhi Rito – the young harakeke – you will note the small central leaf.  This is Te Rito – the young shoot – the child, if you will. The leaves either side, they are  mātua – the parents. Either side of them, kaumātua – grand parents. Beyond the  kaumātua are the tūpuna leaves – the ancestors. These leaves fan out from Te Rito in a  supportive, protective embrace. This embrace is Te Awhi. In this way, the harakeke offers  a model of conduct, an insight into the human arrangement of whānau and extending  beyond, to community. 

In reference to the reading ambassador, Te Awhi Rito represents the support structures in  place to support our young people in the pursuit of reading. In an age of Information,  Technology, the library of the world is within reach to anyone with a browser and access  to wifi. The written word has never had more utility, more application than it has today and  will have tomorrow. Yet there are disturbing signs of a downward trend in the literacy and  reading skills of our children and young people. Reading habits are changing. Papers  have been written questioning the emphasis placed on a reading requirement in an age  where an app can do it for you. Ask Siri, she’ll tell you what it says. I personally take the view that if you think the machine can do it for you, you perhaps misunderstand what  reading – in a human context – actually is. To be brutally and fundamentally simplistic – as  far as I’m concerned, reading builds better brains, not reading doesn’t . For ‘better brains’  you could swap in ‘better minds’, ‘better imagination’, ‘better creativity’, ‘better critical  thinking’ etc. But you get where I’m coming from, eh. 

Time; why it’s important and why it’s not  

The easiest, most rewarding way to get our kids, not just reading but wanting to read, is  for us – the grownups – to show them the way in word and deed. Read to them and with  them as often as you can. Start before they even know what words are. Start before they  even know what they are. Give it a sense of occasion. Make it a habit to look forward to  an expected part of the day. If that idea intimidates you, ask yourself why. Then take the  time to find a story you like and just get on with it. It’s really that simple. Reading is how  we engage with written language and written language is our superpower – it elaborates  our world, places us in it and tells us how to do anything we want. All we have to do is  read.  

Every meaningful human experience down to the mundane and routine. Every imagined  possibility. Every failure. Every fall. Every step and stride and stumble and every miracle  on the way. Every madness. Every monstrosity. Every moment marked as a milestone,  whether magnificent or deplorable. All of it written down somewhere so that some other  human can come along, soak it up and see where it might lead.  

Let me be be clear. Reading to your kids does not mean teaching your kids to read.  Teaching your kids to read is a slightly different game. And it’’s hugely important, so you’d better be prepared when the time comes. But of course, if you’ve read to your kids, you’ll  all be good to go.  

I want to suggest that in a quietly profound way, reading to your children as often as you  can from as young as you like is a BIGGER thing in many ways than consciously trying to  teach them to read. And reading to your three week old or your three day old or your first child born this morning simply for the pleasure it brings is even BIGGER. I can tell you  that, generally speaking, all else being equal, it’s the furtherest thing from a chore you’ll  ever do in your life. It’s the pure and simple pleasure of story time, of moments spent  imagining, with your sons, your daughters, your non-binary offspring if that’s how you roll.  It’s much more than time, its the life of you and your children expressed in words  especially chosen for that purpose, on that occasion, where sounds coalesce into  meanings by an ancient magic that even a three-week old knows without knowing yet,  that hearing a story says – ‘Yes, I’m safe, I’m loved, I belong.’ 

So please, don’t let the best thing you might do in your life slide by because you  somehow convinced yourself you haven’t got the time. If you did, or you intend to, well  I’m sorry. But you’re wrong. It’s not the time you’re short of. It’s the inclination to care.  TIME is everywhere. The universe is full of the stuff. At the end of any day you want to  choose, it’ll be the only thing of real consequence that you and your kids will have.  So read them a story. Make it live. Make it so damn good, they’ll read it to their own kids  one day, just to see them feel what they felt. Just to feel what they saw you feel when you  read it. Then do it again. And again. And again . . . 

Post Script  

In summary then; we want to inspire a love of reading in our tamariki and rangatahi.  Reading for pleasure. Reading for fun. Reading because it makes you think better, feel  better, know better.  

No carrots. No sticks. Just words. W … O … R … D … S. Humanity owes everything to  words. They are our greatest invention. Learning to write and read them is our greatest  innovation. Nothing else comes close. Nothing else even happens. You’d think we’d be all  over it… Well… yeah… nah… maybe… or… maybe not… 

A funny thing seems to have happened as we make our way to tomorrow. These days,  technology and information lays Everything at our fingertips, in our pockets, on our  tablets, laptops and devices, in our cars, our TVs, our toasters – words have never had as  much utility or application – but a clear trend has emerged in the last ten to fifteen years –  engaging with the written word is becoming problematic. Reading as a comprehensive  skill set appears to be in decline. More of our kids are leaving school with reading skills  that can only disadvantage them in an information dense reality. 

A cursory browse through online stats reveals only that an abundance of information is  about as effective as none sometimes. New Zealand, for example, shows an adult literacy  rate unchanged from 99% in well over ten years. But we sit quite snuggly between  Iceland and Ireland so Njals saga and Ulysses keep us right up with the play. Samoa pips  us by nearly a percent. I’m guessing the Bible has something to do with it. The Good  Book worked for Māori back in the 19th Century.

The Adult Literacy Rate is defined by the WHO as ‘The percentage of population aged 15  years and over who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement  on his/her everyday life.’  

MY LIFE IS SHIT will get you a pass. As long as you know what it means. I’ve seen it  written MY LIF IS SHIT! by a 17 year old locked up in Youth Justice just last year. The  exclamation mark would more than make up for the missing E in my book. That kid  understands. I’d give him a pass. He deserves it for being ignored for at least ten years in  the education system.  

I wonder if we can do better. 

Ben Brown.  

Lyttelton, NZ.  

January 2022. 

Leave a comment
More Posts

Comments are closed.