Issue 8 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Pelenakeke Brown

The Body Remembers, Tua-Back

I remember this time in color and images with no sound.

I remember my oversized multi-colored coat that I seem to be wearing in every picture.

I am always dressed in my Sunday best, normally a skirt and a blouse, or a long dress. Clothes not meant to be played in, but these, my good clothes were the only ones I had taken with me. I had left my hand-me-downs at home.

I remember nameless blonde girls whose houses I went to after school. I was too shy to touch anything; I had never been allowed to go play at someone’s house before who wasn’t my cousin. Or brown, like me.

I don’t remember going to school for the first time without my cousins.

I do remember the concrete of the basketball court at school where we all played at break time.

I remember an older boy carrying me around on his shoulders. I think his name was Adam. Sitting up there tall, ready, reaching up high, to let go of the ball and throw it into the hoop.

I remember the school fair and my pearl white costume with glittery fairy wings.

I remember being very timid. Not speaking much, smiling mostly. That seemed safest.

 

These images are from when I went and lived with Sheree, my aunt, my father’s sister, when I was five years old. Sheree lives in the heart of Wellington City, the Capital of New Zealand. She lives five minutes from the centre of town. If you sit on her window seat and peer down past the trees you can see Parliament from the windows in her living room. I went to Clifton Terrace Primary, a small school styled on a country school format, multigrade classes divided into two, the older kids and the younger ones. The school was on the other side of a reserve that was near Sheree’s house. Every day after school Annie, a distant cousin of my dad’s, would pick me up. We would walk home together through the reserve, stopping most days to have picnics in the grass. I remember eating giant Cookie Times and Annie teaching me how to recognize and find these small very green clover-like looking weeds, which were edible, sweet and tangy in my mouth.

This is when my mother says I lost my language. I don’t remember that. She says I could not speak English when I went to school. Samoan is my first language. Even now it feels and sounds like home. Feeling familiar in my mouth when I speak it. It’s still there, just hidden under layers of English and memories and trauma and pain and people saying no. Of being polite, making it easier for everyone else.  Being the good girl. Saying ‘Yes. Ok. I’ll do it.” Rather than “No, fuck off, I don’t want to. This doesn’t feel right.” My mother says we spoke on the phone every evening after school. She tells me that eventually I stopped replying in Samoan, speaking and answering only in English. From then on English has been my dominant language. Even today this is how we mostly communicate. She speaks in Samoan, I reply in English.

 

After my first term of school I went home to visit my mum and I didn’t go back to Sheree’s. I don’t remember saying no. We never spoke about not returning to Sheree’s: I just didn’t. From then on I would visit her every school holiday, keeping in touch but with no obligation to return.

 

Two years later, when I was seven, I went to live with my grandmother—my father’s mother. She lived in the same city as we did—Auckland—so it wasn’t as much of a shift as when I had gone to live with Sheree. My grandparents lived in Mount Albert, a suburb, 10 minutes from the city. They had a big house on a double section. It was a wooden villa, painted blue with grey trimming; with four bedrooms, a granny flat attached and a large deck and garden at the back of the house. I had my own room. I didn’t share my bed with anyone. My mother lived in state housing on a street lined with other state houses. There was little privacy. I rarely slept in a bed alone. Always with my sister or my mother or a cousin if I stayed over. Often we slept four kids in one bed. The night before I left, I slept in the front bedroom with my mother, just the two of us. I was excited to have her all to myself. I slept alongside her chest—the prized place—and not her back, where I had been relegated ever since my sister was born, warming her like a personal hot water bottle. The curtains were pulled back, the room only having a single bed and a dresser. We were lying in the dark, with the lights off, but there was a full moon and the night was dark blue. My mother explained that tomorrow I would be going to live with my grandmother—my father’s mother. I was going there for a short time because I was going to have an operation soon. She said I would be back. “Be a good girl ok? Your grandmother is being very kind.” “Yes” I said dutifully. It seemed a little strange but my mum said I would be back so I believed her. I would be back I thought. So I agreed to go.

 

No

I have Cerebral Palsy. This operation would be my second. I hadn’t really paid attention to what it meant until I was sitting at my grandmother’s desk and came across a newsletter she received from the ‘Cerebral Palsy New Zealand Foundation.’ I hadn’t ever thought about it, I was curious realizing I didn’t really know what it meant. I decided to do some research,  sat down at the computer and typed in ‘Cerebral Palsy.’ I read that it was a form of brain damage that occurs either when the baby is in the womb or at birth. I learnt that there are different kinds of CP, spastic and non-spastic. I bristled as I read the word ‘spastic.’ I didn’t like it, I felt uncomfortable. But it’s ok, that’s not me I thought, ‘I’m not spastic.’

 

Something had gone wrong when I was born, an error with my delivery. I had not received enough oxygen to my brain and therefore parts of my brain had not developed. This damage had led to a loss of function in the affected area—the cerebellum—located at the lower back part of the brain, which affects mobility and balance. The amount of brain damage you receive determines how badly you can be affected. Some people can walk, others are in wheelchairs. For me, it has affected predominantly my right side so it means that I walk with a limp. Whenever I tell anyone I always down play it and say with a ‘slight limp.’ I also barely mention that my right hand doesn’t really work. My mother complains there is nothing too wrong with that hand, and I just never did my exercises and was lazy. I always make it clear there is nothing else wrong with me. That it was minimal, I’m still smart and it’s not genetic.

 

I think that the color of my mother’s skin impacted how she was treated that day. She doesn’t like to answer questions around my birth. When I ask her for details, such as what time I was born she asks me “Why! Why do you want to know!?” Sometimes she says, “I don’t remember.” Recently when pressed she said “I don’t like the way they treated me when I had you, that’s why I can’t remember. I told them you were coming but they said ‘No.’” I said, “The baby is coming now.” And they said “No. It’s not time.” Instead a nurse measured her, pressing a tape measure firmly down around her belly. My mother was alone, her English not good. Aunty Fui, who had taken her to the hospital, is fluent in English and Samoan. She had left my mother to drop off her two children at a relative’s house nearby. By the time she returned I had been born.

 

For this operation they operated on both legs, so I was in a wheelchair before moving onto crutches. After I was out of the cast and able to move freely again, I remember throwing a tantrum when I realized that I wasn’t going back. I don’t remember how I knew I wasn’t going back. Maybe I had asked outright “Can I go back home, now that my leg is better?” Maybe they had let me know, told me, I wasn’t ever going back. Either way, I was here to stay. Sheree was visiting from Wellington. What I do remember is trying to run away, screaming and crying down the hallway to reach the front door, to escape, but my aunty and grandmother caught me. They held me down as I kicked and screamed. Then they carried me to the brown couch in the living room where they rocked me as I wept until I eventually fell asleep, exhausted. I let Sheree hold me.

 

This image is very clear in my mind: their pale bodies so much bigger than mine. White arms, with big chests holding my unwilling body into them. The feeling of overwhelming confusion, fear and anger. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mum, my cousins and my sister. Instead I was stuck inside this large, quiet, white house. This is one of my last angry outbursts, where I let my anger go. Annie was also in my new home caring for me again after school. She had moved from Wellington to Auckland for University. For those few months that I was in a wheelchair I was home schooled through the correspondence school. Annie’s presence at this time: a friend, coaxing me with her familiarity until I no longer fought, instead acquiescing quietly.

 

Ask

I tried to go back several times. Each time I asked to return and live with my mother I would have to get the nerve to speak up. I would approach the subject tentatively. My grandmother was sitting at her grey desk, looking out into the front garden as I came up behind her to ask. There was a pause before she responded. Slowly, she turned around and asked very reasonably “Well, what about your piano lessons- you like Mary-Anne your teacher, don’t you? And your swimming lessons? Janet is a great teacher and you have a lot of fun with Pele and Corinn.” Pele and Corinn were twins in my class, who I looked forward to seeing every week. Who would they swim with? Maybe the class would be cancelled if it were just the two of them. We also gave them and their mum a ride home every week after class so that they didn’t have to take the bus.

 

Suddenly these extra-curricular activities seemed very important. I was letting everyone down by not continuing. Helen stood up, pacing as she spoke. Her rational approach, her reasonable-sounding voice starting to turn into accusatory upset tones. And then she was crying. Helen never cried or lost her temper. I felt terrible, ungrateful and I was horrified to have made someone so upset by asking a question, requesting to go home. I was so selfish, too much. I started to think how kind Helen was for giving me these opportunities and started to see that yes my education would suffer if I didn’t continue. “I’m sorry” I apologized, then retreated and scuttled out of her room to mine.

 

I would always ask at the end of the school year, as the summer holidays started, at a time that I thought was convenient for everyone and my schooling wouldn’t be disrupted. New Zealand becomes sleepy and shuts down for the summer, from mid-December until February, only waking up after Waitangi weekend. Ends would be tied up nicely, I thought. Waitangi Day is the closest thing to our national holiday; it is the day the Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand, signed a treaty in 1840, at Waitangi, unconsciously giving sovereignty of their land to the British Crown. This day and treaty is a contentious moment in New Zealand history when words and meanings were lost, fought over and came out the other side to mean new things. When words were not safe. The feeling and goodwill lost in translation. A moment of giving transformed into a moment of being taken, two very different concepts.

 

In the present day there is the Waitangi Tribunal where land grievances can be taken. Some have been settled, with reparations, and an acknowledgment of past hurt; sometimes land is able to be reclaimed, while others are still processing. However in my mind the grievance can never be fully healed. What was once taken and whole can never be fully restored. The land remembers.

 

When I went to live with my grandmother, I remember there being many lessons. There was the correct way to hold a knife and a fork. How to drink one’s milk without slurping. Even how to speak. When I arrived I spoke like my cousins. My accent reflected the area that I had lived in, come from. When I said the word ‘ask’ I always pronounced it as ‘aks’ the sound of the ‘k’ coming before the ‘s.’ My grandmother always corrected me when I pronounced it this way. Sometimes I would have to say ‘ask’ repeatedly until I said it correctly. Sometimes I would purposefully say it wrong, repeating ‘aks’ with the ‘k’ stubbornly sitting at the back of my throat and the ‘ssss’ sound dangerously long. I made it a game, laughing along as she shook her head in frustration.

 

Gradually I started to pronounce it properly. The crisp sound of the ‘k’ always rounding after the ’s’ like a smooth rollercoaster off my tongue. Then I started to notice when my cousins pronounced it ‘aks.’ Sometimes I would correct them. They would always look at me in confusion when I did this. They hadn’t ever noticed they were saying it wrong. There were many words my grandmother corrected but this is the one I remember having to change. How ironic that it was the word ‘ask’ that I had to alter, become obedient in saying. Now I can pronounce the word perfectly, but it is the action itself, of asking for what I want, that I struggle with.

 

The next time I asked I had just ended my piano lessons. Again, the school year had ended. Next year I would be starting intermediate. I don’t remember how I was talked out of that one. Probably something to do with school and if I stayed I could go to University. I always knew I wanted to go to University and had decided from a young age that I would get a scholarship. It would be my escape. It would be harder to get a scholarship with the quality of the schools in South Auckland. I had everything here that I needed to succeed. I started to agree with this argument.

 

Finally I stopped asking. I realized as a teenager it was too late. I didn’t want to go back. My mum is from the island in Samoa called Savaii, which historically was crudely known as ‘tua-back.’ Tua means back. It is so backwards that you have to say it twice. Going back denotes backwardness, slipping back, it is a negative term. When my mother would ask when I was coming back I would now avoid the question—remembering the emotional manipulation and guilt that would ensue from Helen. But also now, I realized I didn’t want to go back anymore. I had become accustomed to my middle-class, privileged life. I was a quasi-only child. I couldn’t go back-back.

 

Brown

When I went to University I chose to study Pacific Studies. Basically I read any paper that was related to the Pacific; this included History, Anthropology, Literature and Art. Anything that could connect me to my Samoan-ness. I even took a Samoan language course. But it wasn’t the same. I was learning about my culture in an academic setting and often through a post-colonial lens. I read Bell Hooks, Foucault, Saussure and explored signs and the power of language. I read the criticisms about Margaret Mead’s field research in Samoa. I learnt about the Mau movement and the ‘feagaiga’ relationship between a brother and a sister. A relationship I understood practically but here I learnt about it in books, as part of anthropological observations.

 

I was still removed.

 

In my third year the English department offered a course in Maori and Pacific Literature. This is what I needed, what I had been looking for. Here was my culture in the flesh finally available for me to consume: stories that started to resonate with my own experience. I learnt to see what had occurred to to me as a form of colonization. I read poetry by Tusiata Avia, Selina Tusitala-Marsh and stories by Daniel Satele. These works weren’t always in the present, some delved into the past often giving a voice to that silent brown girl such as plays written by Makerita Urale and Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. But these courses were still being developed, often only running every two years, and cancelled if there were not enough enrollments, exciting and much needed as they were.

 

One reason that I studied Pacific Studies was to connect to my Samoan roots. To prove I was really brown. If I understood the history of my people then maybe I could reclaim and understand some of what I had lost. Instead I realized even though I was studying subjects about my people, I still felt uncomfortable in my own brown skin, with other brown people. Not brown enough. I was more comfortable walking through and relating in the white world. Understanding how to speak at a dinner party rather than at a family to’onai (get together). I understood my role better in a white setting.

 

Colonized

I spent a lot of time alone as a kid or surrounded by only adults, and lonely in the hospital, in casts, and traveling so I discovered my love of books early. I used books as an escape. When I was faced with an uncomfortable situation I read. In books, I was able to travel, and learn about other cultures and laugh with these characters, who were my friends, their other worlds engulfing mine. I always had a book with me, even when I went home to my mum’s every second weekend. When things got difficult I would retreat and read. My sister Grace was always complaining “you only ever come here to read.”

 

I didn’t know how to play with her. Or was too scared to try. Everyone was so physical. Jumping around, moving freely in their bodies. I didn’t want to hang with the other kids who would look at me funny and ask who I was, wanting to know “Who is that white girl?” Their look of surprise when Grace would reply “Oh, that’s my sister.” Then they would want to know “what’s wrong with her leg, why does she walk funny?” My sister would shrug and say, “I don’t know, she just does.” Maybe they would start to wonder why I lived with my grandmother. “If there’s nothing wrong with her why doesn’t she live with you?” Questions my sister nor I could understand or did not know how to answer. Instead, to get away from their questions and stares I would sit quietly and read.

 

Growing up, my displacement was apparent in the way that I was treated. At first I was one of them, amongst my cousins, playing, and I was disciplined just like they were too. Then I was removed, and now, treated differently, seen as delicate, exempt from many things. With them, my cousins now pointing out my difference. Suddenly I was stuck up (I was just shy). I was the palagi (white) one. I was brainy (I just liked to read). I was rich (because I had my own room). Always ‘Other’ no matter where I was. The only brown face amongst my white blonde cousins. Then I was the quiet, shy, white girl visiting her mum and reading quietly in the corner.

 

There is a power to words, and white people have harnessed this power. In their historical role as colonizer they have successfully used words to subjugate people and take land away. Many treaties have been signed and mean two different things to each party. My mother signed some papers. This was to change my name. On my birth certificate I had my mother’s maiden name as my last name. My grandmother approached her, saying she wanted me to have her last name, my father’s last name. My mother signed the papers,  she agreed. “When they came to me to sign the papers, to change your name. I never think that she take away your name.  I think she add Brown.” She never knew that my grandmother would be taking away my Samoan last name and replacing it with her own. Only later, when it was too late, did my mother understand.

 

I see why my grandmother did it. I don’t agree with the act. I still don’t think she would understand what a strong action it is to remove a child from their environment. To change their dominant language and inadvertently make them afraid to ask for what they want. To ask why. To make them obedient. To separate a mother and daughter when there is no real threat. To remove one from their culture. To colonize someone. By learning the meaning of post-colonialism at University and about colonization I was able to put a name to what had happened to me and to see how others had redressed their anger and power.

 

Long distance

I can never go back now. I understand that. I am different and have had different experiences growing up than my siblings—aware that I am still seen as the palagi one. The only one to have gone to University in my mother’s immediate family and complete a degree.  I have had different choices. One of these decisions was to move to New York City. I came here on a holiday in 2013 for two weeks commuting in on the train from Princeton NJ. Every day I would leave at 8 am, then catch the last train back at night. I was exhausted. I loved it. I carried my black sketchbook with me everywhere. Every day I drew. I hadn’t drawn since I was a teenager. I drew strangers sleeping on the train opposite me, my shoes, graffiti on walls, lines, even dots. Layer upon layer of crisp black line on paper. Turning nothing into something. I was excited, something was building. I talked to strangers, directed tourists and tried to hide my perpetual grin in my scarf. I didn’t want anyone to see and know I was an imposter, not a real New Yorker. I felt emboldened. Free.

 

Six months later I returned, now I live here. Alone. Moving here is not without sacrifice. I am missing out on seeing my siblings grow up. I am aware that my absence is a confusion for the younger ones. They are unsure and unaware as to when I will be back, yet proud that they have a sister who is ‘an artist living in New York.’ But there is a gap to be filled. No sister to pick them up from school, no museum visits or trips to the theatre. No going to cafes and trying carrot cake for the first time. Finding a space to get away, hop in the car and drive off, with the windows down and the music up. I miss these things with them too. Moving here was the first decision I consciously remember making as an adult for myself, by myself. Something I am often afraid to do, often hesitant to step out. Finding it easier to smooth over the edges and do what others would like rather than making a decision. This was a risk but one I wholeheartedly invested in. Now living here I am still trying to continue the pattern of listening to myself, one that does not come naturally to me.

 

I Skyped my mum recently and asked her lots of questions. There is something about living here, and the distance of Skype, that has enabled a closeness between us. Here, I am able to ask her questions I never would have asked before. Now, she answers them. Last night I asked her about me leaving, “How was that decided?” “Who decided?” “Did you understand what was happening?” I asked her. “Why?” she said. “You went. I give you to them.” “But why? Why did you give me to them?” I asked. “Because they always come to ask. They wanted you.” “Who?” I pressed. “Fale, and Helen would come. Fale, a high-born Samoan friend of the family would ask on her behalf. Helen would say ‘I want to help her.’ But you never wanted to go.” She laughed a little as she remembered. Shook her head. “I feel sorry for Helen. When you see her coming you always run. She sometimes pick you up from school and when you see her with your bag, you would start running home.” Our house backed onto the school grounds. We had a hole in our fence that I climbed through every day.

 

Listening to my mum I heard how much I never wanted to leave. How I would unashamedly run away each time. But still they kept on trying. My grandmother was forever coming around to pick me up and take me to things. My mum said sometimes they would carry me into the car anyway. Screaming and crying. But still they took me away. Each time it would be a struggle, I would fight. Hearing this I laughed. I liked the sound of this feisty young thing.

 

When I talk to my mother about this hazy time, asking her questions, trying to get clarity, she always uses the word ‘They.’ “They came to take you. They asked for you.” “Who? Who is ‘They?’ I asked” This question confused her. “What?” she said. “You keep breaking up. I can’t hear you. You are talking funny.” My Skype connection was slow. My words were broken up. I turned off my video to help the connection and closed all windows that are open. This conversation was very important. I needed to hear the answers. To talk with my mother. To figure out this time when everything changed.

 

I see images of this anonymous ‘They’ coming around trying to talk with my mother, convince her that I should go. She should agree to let me go. Being told what to do.  It wasn’t only my grandmother. I know my Samoan grandfather and uncle, the heads of my mother’s family, also supported this decision. My mother tells me that my grandfather’s brother would get angry with me when he would see me running away from my grandmother. It’s amazing to me to find out how many other people were involved in this decision, in my relationship with my mother. With our right to stay together. Then my mum said, “But then I wanted you to come back and you didn’t want to.” I stopped. Not sure what to say next. How can I tell her, explain, that by then I didn’t want to. It was too late.

 

We move on. She started to speak again, “I feel sorry for Helen. She really wanted you. Every time you run away she always get so sad and ask “‘I just want to help her.’ But you never want her.” She paused, looked at my face through Skype. She can see I was waiting for more. Thinking it through as she tells me all of this. That I was processing. Trying to remember myself. She tried to explain. “She wants to take you to your appointments, to talk with the doctors, to understand.” “Yes but why couldn’t she have just picked us up and taken us,” I started to say, “Why did she need to take me away?” I asked. “You know she want to help your education, help you” my mother replied. “Yes but why?” I kept on. Finally my mother broke. “You know it wasn’t easy to look after you then. With no money. I don’t always understand what the doctor say!”

 

I’ve never seen my mum like this. Admit that it was hard to have a disabled daughter. We don’t ever talk about those early days, not like this. I’m surprised. “It was hard,” she continued. “We take the bus and the train to your appointments. Me, you and all of the kids.”  My mum would look after my cousins while their parents worked. There were five of them plus my sister and me. I started to laugh when I thought of us all traipsing around on public transport. “Why are you laughing?” my mum asked. “It was hard.” Then she started to laugh. “You know one time we all get off the bus and I look up and I see Pat was still on the bus!” Pat our smallest cousin and my mother’s favorite.  I get a taxi and we all get in and I tell the driver “See that bus, follow that bus!” “Why?” he asks. “Because my kid is still on it!” My mum exclaims, laughing and smiling as she remembers. As I looked at her through the screen on my computer, I wonder how she paid for the taxi but I don’t ask. This story I know. I have heard it before. But hearing the lack of structural support for my mum is hard too. My grandmother could have paid for a taxi, or she could have picked us up. There were lots of solutions to this dilemma (I didn’t need to be taken).

 

Anger

Hearing these stories of running away. My strong reaction when my grandmother visited affirms my feelings. I knew what I wanted, but still others decided. This vision that Helen had. To save me. Help me. Whatever. To educate. Give me everything I needed in life to succeed. Not thinking about the consequences of her actions. No one thought twice. They thought it was ok.  Often people don’t understand when I tell them. They think my adverse reaction, after all this time, is too much. “But it worked out, right?’ They ask. “I mean here you are in New York!” Yes. But that’s not the point I tell them. It shouldn’t have happened.

 

It also makes me sad. If they could see that I didn’t want to come. If they could see I was settled, obviously happy where I was. Why did they keep on trying. I am sad for that strong, angry, impassioned young girl. Who yelled. Who said “No.” Where has she gone? I wonder. I have lost this ability. As a child I was stubborn. Not afraid to say no.  If I didn’t want to do something I wouldn’t. I would refuse outright. Angrily. Strongly. Say no. Shake my head. Yell. Cry. Become obstinate and fearless in my refusal. As an adult I have lost this ability. My stubbornness only surfaces in my refusal to get hurt, sheltering myself with it. Stubbornness now only manifests itself as self-sabotage and fear.

 

I looked up where the word ‘anger’ originated from today on the Internet. The root of the word is from the old Nordic word for grief. If I look at situations when I am angry and replace this word and feeling with grief, it makes sense. Anger is how my grief reveals itself. But I keep this feeling and emotion in check. When it does emerge from the dormant volcano, watch out for anyone who is there. My grief, pain and sorrow so huge I have to keep it locked down, for the safety of all. Including myself. When I am confronted with a situation where I might need to let go or cannot control, I avoid. Closing down this dangerous moment, unable to move or act. Fight or flight, with me historically always choosing to flee.

 

Something is always changed chemically when it reacts with heat or cold. Like some gases when heated they expand, my anger, my heat caused me to expand. In contrast my environment and displacement caused me to contract, until my chemical make-up was changed. No longer a fiery warrior girl. Now, a timid in her head kind of girl. I want that girl back. I want that anger back. I want to be unafraid. I want to stop being polite. I don’t want to be the good girl anymore.

My Body 

In my experience the tools used to colonize someone are separation, loss of language and education. The next step is to be assimilated so much so that you are more comfortable in the colonizing society. Check. I have been successfully colonized. So much so, that the bond with my grandmother is stronger than with my mother. I went through many moments of pushing and pulling away from my grandmother growing up. Choosing my aunty Sheree as my confidant as a child. Choosing my mother’s children and home as an escape as a teenager. Finally accepting her and being close, loving her fiercely until she passed away. I remember coming home from work one day in her last weeks and noticing the way her eyes lit up, the way she smiled when she saw me walk through the door. I miss that look. We laughed a lot together. I learnt many things from her. I inherited a very strict moral code which sometimes makes judging others difficult and provides the ability to convey disappointment without saying a word. I know what it is like to be close to someone who is dying, to care for them albeit not perfectly and the difficulty that comes along with dying. I saw her dignity. I understand that she was a flawed human being, but one that changed the trajectory of my life. I am no longer angry with her. Although I have many questions for her still.

 

In Samoan there is a phrase ‘O le ala i le pule, o le tautua–through greatness is to serve.’ To be a good girl is to be a good girl through service often through one’s family. After my grandmother passed away a family friend called me from Samoa to give me her condolences. She is one of the few people I remember having a conversation with during that time. She ended the phone call saying, “Keke, you are a good Samoan girl.” She was validating me. In that moment I realized I had done the ultimate act of service to my Palagi (white) grandmother. I had acted as a Samoan girl to my Palagi (white) family. I had been searching all this time for what it meant to be Samoan, afakasi (mixed-race), and disabled, trying to prove my brownness, but I had done it with my grandmother. Without thinking. I stopped trying after that. I realized then I didn’t need to get a Samoan tatau (tattoo) to tell everyone I was Samoan. I didn’t need to prove I was brown enough.

 

There are so many places my body has been pushed and pulled. Placed in different environments. Told how to be. How to move. Move my mouth to new movements to make new vowels and sounds. Physically I have moved and lived in different cities, labeled by how my body looks and moves. Told what that body means. Disabled. Not disabled. Beautiful. Not beautiful enough. The color of my skin. How light or dark it is depending on where I am standing, or in relation to whom. My body, my self remembers many of these changes, many of them I don’t. I have forgotten. Pressed them down. Silenced. I can never go back but I can try to remember.

dingbatsmaller

 

Keke Brown is visual artist, writer and performer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is originally from New Zealand, she is half Samoan half European/Caucasian. Keke began her career in the arts as a founding member of New Zealand’s first mixed ability dance company Touch Compass Dance Trust. She has a BA from the University of Auckland and has just completed a 3-year studio art intensive program at the National Academy, School of Fine Art. She has exhibited in several galleries in NY, and is very excited to be participating in NYFA’s 2016 Immigrant Artist Program: Social Practice. All her work deals with the Samoan concept of the ‘Va’ or the space in-between. Her favorite space to observe is the New York city subway. www.kekebrown.com. Selected by Karolyn Gehrig.

Image copyright Flickr Creative Commons.

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