Grace Teuila Evelyn Taylor is an Afakasi poet, teacher, spoken-word artist and mother. Her father is from Glastonbury, England while her mother is from Moata’a and Apolima in Samoa. She is a mentoring presence in South Auckland where she co-directs Niu Navigations and co-founded both the South Auckland Poets Collective and the Rising Voices Youth Movement.
Grace’s debut collection, Afakasi Speaks, is a significant arrival. These poems have sung in the air at spoken word performances, where the poem is wrapped in the body’s movement, and the body’s movement is wrapped in the poem. Hearing Grace perform, it is not just a matter of entering a poem and all its rewards, but encountering a writer who occupies her space with dignity, integrity and compassion. This woman has the courage to stand up and speak out.
Now that the poems have been placed upon the page, where you can stall and back track, you encounter beauty, wit, edge, intelligence, empathy and above all, heart. It is the sort of poetry that takes you into unfamiliar rooms and changes you to the extent you view all that is familiar in a new light — particularly notions of identity.
At the red-hot core of the collection, as the title suggests, is Grace’s navigation of being Afakasi. Afakasi — the daughter of mixed heritage, both white and brown, both Samoan and European — is in-between. The writing (the poems) makes its way in and out of this space. At times it is a gap, a gap that trembles with the electricity of unbelonging. At times it is a braid, a plait, and the electricity of in-between ignites new ways of being. Grace as poet is searching for the words (‘They don’t carry dictionaries for Afakasi’) to take root in this space.
The music of performance is not lost on the page. The white space becomes the silent beat that punctuates the rhythm, the rhyme and the repetition. The white space absorbs the neighbourhood activity. It is where you stall to take on board the heart of speech. The voice.
The first poem, ‘Afastina,’ is dedicated to Selina Tustitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia. In this genealogy song, Grace acknowledges the presence of these writers in her writing lineage. These women. These ‘Afakasi are modern monarchs.’ There is beauty in the image of the butterfly; women are able to stretch their wings wide and find the freedom and skill to fly.
Other poems stand out because Grace seems to reach deep into an honesty of self to say out loud what it is like to be in-between. In ‘Afakasi has no name,’ Grace moves through examples of Afakasi not fitting into the skin of a name, and that poetic movement moves you. How to be Samoan or palangi or New Zealander are the simmering questions? Then, ‘Aunty is Afakasi wishing you would just shut-up/ stop talking about how in-between we are/ it is what is/ just move on.’ ‘The poem, ‘What is Afakasi’ has such energized heat it sears you as you read. This is poetry with its undulating music and chords that catch your ear, but it is also politics. This is a voice that is insistent and strong, a voice that has come from experience and doubt and vulnerability. Like many of the poems in the collection, it is utterly vital, because it can change how we see things. Like all the poems in the collection, it feeds off political ideas, but it never looses sight of heart.
There is an ode-like, tender poem to Grace’s father – she is missing him, and she misses him ‘the most/ when I see/ the weathered paint of our home flake/ when I hear the cold/ tired floorboards creak/ when I get/ a flat tyre on my car.’
The final poems are for and of her child – a different bloodline, where writer becomes mother. Like poetry, he too is a way of filling the in-between. Of finding ways of belonging.
This debut collection is an important entry on the New Zealand poetry landscape. The poems are strong, with wings set to fly and lead us out of misplaced preconceptions into revitalising connections. I loved it.
Afakasi Speaks, Grace Taylor, published by Ala Press, Hawa’ii, 2013