Poet takes on racism and the legacy of Captain Cook

Liz Hobday |

Tusiata Avia says ‘our histories have been taught to us through the lenses of white privilege”.
Tusiata Avia says ‘our histories have been taught to us through the lenses of white privilege”.

It’s not often that poetry meets with controversy, but one of New Zealand’s most celebrated contemporary poets, Tusiata Avia, says she gets hate mail almost every time she publishes.

Avia’s play Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, based on her poetry and billed as one of New Zealand’s most successful theatrical exports, is touring the Gold Coast, Wollongong and Sydney in April.

There are also hopes her more recent show The Savage Coloniser will be staged in Australia soon after one of her most provocative works, The 250th Anniversary of James Cook’s Arrival in New Zealand, is performed live as part of the show.

Cast of Wild Dogs Under My Skin
New Zealand writer-performer Tusiata Avia’s play Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is based on her poetry. (HANDOUT/KABUKU PR)

It’s a furious address that imagines a carload of girls pursuing the naval explorer, or white men like him, with hunting knives – but are they really hunting the long-dead Captain Cook, or a legacy of violence and colonisation?

It was not until 2023, more than two years after the poem was initially published, that it sparked a public debate in NZ and the Pasifika poet was accused of “reverse racism”.

It’s an incorrect accusation made by those who won’t acknowledge historical facts, argues Avia, who received death threats as the controversy played out.

“They refuse to look at the history of colonisation and racism in this country, and we know the same goes for Australia too,” Avia told AAP.

“When Captain Cook landed here he didn’t just come to peacefully look around – he slaughtered people as well.” 

In 2023, Avia was recognised for her poetry in the NZ Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement, becoming the first Pasifika woman to receive the honour.

Her most recent book, Big Fat Brown Bitch, is in part a response to the threats she’s received from white supremacists and the country’s far right.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt was first staged in 2002, decades before all this happened, as a celebration of the lives of Samoan women that began as a 50-minute one-woman show at the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

Since then it’s toured to the US and Europe, as well as to Hawaii and American Samoa, with the current production expanded to a cast of six.

“It’s really the all-singing, all-dancing version of the show with big production values,” Avia said.

“It’s quite an astonishing thing now.”

The Savage Coloniser confronts racism far more directly than her earlier work, with reflections that are also relevant to Australia, and its statues of Captain Cook.

“Would you put up statues of other people who stole land and killed with absolutely no good reason?” Avia said.

“Why would you do that?

“It’s because our histories have been taught to us through the lenses of white privilege.

“It’s not something that’s been done by mistake – it’s an agenda.”

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt plays at HOTA, Gold Coast, from April 6 before touring to the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, and Riverside Theatres, Sydney.