Leilani Tamu is a poet, historian, former diplomat and social commentator who survived turbulent teenage years. The mother of two says she was saved, at 18, by her husband Shayne.
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New Zealand Herald, 18 December 2014
1. You have a line about your father, in your new book of poetry, which begins: “I never really knew you yet, I knew you best”. What was your relationship like?
My childhood was happy, although not always easy. My parents separated when I was 2 and my mum’s parents played a huge role in my upbringing. My father represented New Zealand in rugby league. He had a gregarious, fun-loving personality and a brilliant mind. But he suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction. So my sister and I spent most of our childhood living between two worlds, the strict, “safe” world of my Samoan grandparents and mum, and the unpredictable, sometimes dangerous, world occupied by our Pakeha dad. In that world we were reckless TAB kids who hung out under the stands at Carlaw Park. But as I got older it became a place littered with disappointment. There were many broken promises. I remember being about 10 and feeling so angry at my dad for constantly letting us down. The no-shows were the worst. I would sit at the window of our house waiting for him, once from 10am to 5pm. I just didn’t get the fact that his addiction was an illness. I felt like he was putting the gambling before us. Years later I found out from his friends how he used to turn up to their homes on Sundays and beg to borrow $20 so he could put petrol in his car to take us out. I think it was hard for my mum, always trying to make up for the damage caused by dad’s addiction.
She was awesome though, she really weathered the storms and did everything she could to put us kids first. The thing that I’m most grateful to both of my parents for is instilling a strong sense of justice in us. Despite all his flaws, my dad was always the first to stand up for those in need and for what he believed was right, and my mum is exactly the same.
2. How would you describe yourself at 15?
I was a messed up kid. By 15, I’d already run away from home three times and my (then) boyfriend had just been done for car-conversion. My mum was a policewoman so you can imagine how much she liked that boyfriend. He had already been in Waikeria. I started running away at about 13, would sleep at friends’ houses or in parks. On the upside, I wasn’t pregnant – most of my friends were – and I was still at school. I was headstrong and a bit reckless. But I was also determined. I wanted to get School Cert so I could leave school at 16. As it turned out I did really well and didn’t end up leaving school until I’d finished seventh form.
3. What line in prose or poetry are you most proud of having written?
Writing the blog Let’s Talk About Sex is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I’m proud of myself for having the guts to share it with others. It starts: “This is a blog about sex. The ugly side of sex. Sexual assault. Sexual abuse. Rape. The things we don’t talk about often enough.” It was around the time I was 13 and I was hanging out with a group of kids at St Lukes. There was a guy there I really liked and he asked me to go for a walk with him. He had a little pocket knife and he took me to where a group of about 10 other boys were and they watched and I was really scared. As worldly as I thought I was I didn’t really comprehend what was happening. I hadn’t lost my virginity until then. Afterwards I just felt dirty and ashamed.
4. Did you tell your parents?
I just felt I couldn’t. Mum was just in a new relationship and things weren’t good between us. They were already so angry at me for the things I was doing that I just thought I couldn’t tell them. Then the boys started spreading horrible rumours and at school girls called me a slut. It all made me rebel more. I started seeing 18-year-old guys. I haven’t ever really spoken about it before. I’ve never had counselling or anything. But when I heard about the Roast Busters I felt compelled to write about it.
5. You have a daughter now: what will you do to protect her?
Kahlei is 4 and she’s very strong-minded, like me, so my strategy is being very honest with myself that by the time she starts intermediate there will be kids having sex. I need her to have clear ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong and that she can always talk to me no matter what.
6. Was that your lowest point?
That was when my dad died when I was 17. He had a heart-attack while sitting in his car waiting for the lights on Mayoral Drive. When I got the news I was devastated. Despite all of the crap that my dad put us through, I loved him with all of my heart. Losing him is one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with ” and still am. I don’t know that I pulled myself out of grieving, but I guess I just learnt to live with it. I try to make him proud by having the courage to stand up for what I believe in.
7. Was school a constant in your life?
I went to St Mary’s College and it wasn’t easy for them or me. I had to stand up in assembly a few times for tagging or smoking and there was the bullying. But looking back I think school was the constant. I was a reader before I was a writer and I loved a fantasy series by Tamora Pierce which had Alanna, a strong woman who was the underdog and had a tough upbringing but ends up a hero. I loved that. After I did really well in School C my boyfriend, the criminal one, moved to Rotorua so I just stayed on at school and then got a scholarship to study education at university. I found history in my sixth form and loved it. But what really saved me I think was Shayne.
8. How did you meet?
We were working a summer job at the NZ Post processing centre in Mangere and though I’d done well at school I was still really broken and my dad had just died. Shayne was the kind of guy I didn’t think existed. He’d been brought up by his Niuean nana with really solid values. He didn’t smoke or drink. He’d never rebelled. We fell in love and have been together for 14 years. He’s a policeman now, which is funny. My life would have been very different if I hadn’t met Shayne. I’m happiest in the arms of my husband. He’s my biggest supporter and has gotten me through some tough times.
9. How has motherhood changed you?
When my daughter was five months old I was diagnosed with post-natal depression. Getting through that has made me stronger and much more conscious of the need to be kind to myself. Parenthood has also brought me closer to my mum. My respect for her has grown as I’ve experienced the challenges of being a mum.
10. How did you get into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
I met (Labour MP) Carmel Sepuloni at university and she suggested I apply. I was one of a handful of Pacific foreign policy officers. I was there for almost seven years and it was great. Postings to Canberra and Tonga. But there isn’t a lot of freedom to write when you’re in an organisation like that and all of the crap that happened to me when I was a kid has given me a good sense of what it’s like on the outside. It would have been easy for me to bury that and aspire to be bourgeois but that’s not me. I’m driven by a sense of right and wrong and I can’t stand bull****. I have to say what I think and I do that best by writing.
11. What are you angriest about?
The National Government’s constant denial of the fact that social inequality in New Zealand has increased and that more and more Kiwis are struggling to get by. From my experience ” and those around me ” things have gotten worse. Shayne and I have saved a deposit for a house but on pretty much one income with small kids, the banks won’t lend us money to buy, and we couldn’t afford to in Auckland. Poverty is becoming the norm, with families living out of garages and vans ” since when was that acceptable in New Zealand? I know what it’s like to be working-poor.
12. What is your greatest strength? And failing?
My greatest strength is my unfailing commitment to rectifying injustice and being willing to voice my perspective in any forum. My biggest failing is sometimes I get so angry I speak up before I’ve had a chance to clearly organise my thoughts. What did my parents teach me? To always be brave enough to speak up if I believe something is wrong. To always be willing to give things a go. To respect my elders. To be kind to others. To love my sister. And to do my best, no matter what.
Leilani Tamu is the author of a new book of poetry, The Art of Excavation (Anahera Press) and writes about her life in an essay in Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 (Auckland University Press).