It’s 2012. My girlfriend (now my fiancée) and I are driving to her place in Karori, Wellington. We’re discussing the colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand. She is Pākehā, having grown up in Blenheim, but is open and honest about her ignorance of our history and of my culture and reo (an in-joke in our early relationship is that, when she first met me, she thought I was South African because of my name). We talk about how utterly different the Māori way of life would have been prior to European arrival, and the gulf of understanding that needed to be crossed when those two peoples met for the first time.
‘Imagine if aliens arrived tomorrow,’ I say to her. ‘Everything about them is foreign to us; not just their appearance, clothes, and language, but their culture, society, worldviews; their vehicles, tools, weapons. We have no way of engaging with them or comprehending them because they are different to us in every conceivable way.
‘But slowly, we begin to understand them. We see value in some of the things they bring, and they see value in some of the things we have. We trade, we learn, we form relationships – some of them live among us and have children with us.
‘Then more aliens come. They see opportunity here. We try to accommodate them but they don’t abide by our rules. So far from their motherland, who do they have to answer to? Our relationship with them becomes tense. We worry about our safety.
‘So we write to the aliens’ ruler, asking for her protection. In return we’re presented with a Treaty…’
It’s a gross over-simplification but the analogy works. And although I don’t need to go any further with it in that conversation, it continues to develop in my head. In the years that follow, things I learn about or experience are put through this mental filter that imagines a future Earth colonised by aliens: the Tohunga Suppression Act becomes the Doctor Banishment Decree, which forbids any medical doctor from practicing and threatens anyone seeking healthcare from a doctor with imprisonment; Human children are electrocuted for speaking English in educational facilities; a Magistrate tells my descendant that the Covenant signed between Humans and the Alien Empire, which assured Human independence, was “a simple nullity” signed by “barbarians”.
I think many writers, like me, have books stored away in their heads that they’ll someday write. They probably have many more they will never write. This book is more than that to me. Over time it becomes this idea that I feel like I must give life to one day. I have no idea what form it should take, how or when I will write it. I am not a strong believer in destiny but I feel like I was meant to write this book, whenever and however that might happen.
Fast-forward to 2019. It is, without a doubt, the hardest year of my life. There is no trauma or tragedy I’m suffering from. I am simply the unhappiest I have ever been. I read the news every day and I just feel hopeless. A weird, unhealthy obsession with my weight has taken root that is nearly impossible to weed out. I almost have a breakdown at work. But I finally seek help by going to therapy, and I begin to work through a lot of this stuff.
One day the therapist says to me, ‘It sounds like giving to other people is important to you. You find work stressful but you do it because it contributes to society in a way you feel is meaningful. But if you could do something just for you, what would it be?’
The answer is easy. ‘I would write,’ I tell her. ‘I would write stories all day.’
‘Perhaps it’s time you thought about ways you could do that,’ she suggests.
I politely disagree. I can’t make a living off writing. I can’t pay my mortgage writing books. But the thought stays with me. I have always wanted to do a Masters in Creative Writing, I think, and spend a year just writing a book. It would be the only reason I ever go back to university.
What would I write, though? “The Treaty book” is still there in that mental library of mine, begging to be written. It would be the perfect thing to work on for the Masters. But I still have no idea how to write it. I’ve toyed with the idea of a sci-fi drama, documenting the catastrophic arrival of aliens on our planet. But I decide a commentary on colonisation is about so much more than just the arrival of aliens; it’s about everything that came after. So I imagine a generational tale, one that follows the experiences of a single family through the arrival of aliens, the integration of alien society with ours, and finally our colonisation. I realise quickly that the concept takes itself too seriously. I don’t think it will speak to people in the way I want it to.
I sit on the idea for a while, continuing to attend therapy and focussing on getting better. Work is a common theme in those sessions, as I begin to come to terms with the way that being Māori and working for the Crown has affected me for the last six and a half years. I learn that there is a lot I have repressed, a lot to work through, and one morning, as I walk to work over the concourse from Westpac Stadium, I joke to myself that my experiences working for the Crown would make a good memoir.
In this lightning-bolt moment, all of these ideas collide.
It’s now 2020, and I’m a few weeks away from starting the Master of Arts in Creative Writing. I can’t wait to start the course and finally begin writing the book I feel I was meant to write. My last therapy session was nearly six months ago. I’m uplifted by the whānau and friends who are happy for me to embark on this journey; who are just happy that I’m happy. They ask me what the book’s about.
I tell them: ‘Imagine if aliens arrived tomorrow…’