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A Māori in Manhattan 1

Hinemoana Baker

Ngāi Tahu in New York

 

We left Aotearoa on Wednesday 22 February, not long after the anniversary of the earthquake which devastated much of Christchurch and its people, and began a year most would rather forget. At 12:51pm, my partner Christine and I listened in meditation as the names of the dead were read on air. As the roll call continued, I began to imagine the alphabet itself as those buildings, falling to this force of nature.

I was born in Christchurch. I went to Canterbury University, lived there for a few years. For most of my adult life, though, I have lived in Wellington. The earthquakes in Ōtautahi took no personal toll on me. I am very grateful for this. But I don't think this is why I haven't been able to write anything about that day. My loved ones (in particular my god-daughter and her mum, T) have been deeply affected by it. My brother and his wife. I remember in excruciating detail that day when we were at home, absent-mindedly watching the telly one afternoon over lunch, only to see the TV3 coverage change to those horrifying, dusty scenes in the streets. People running, sobbing, desparate.

Yet I haven't been able to address any of what happened with written down words. Poetry's failed me. Perhaps language collapses, along with everything and everyone else. Perhaps I am not the only one who doesn't know what to say, or how to say it.

There goes M, N, O. The silence after the last 'Z' rings with great sadness.

 

This building over the road from the beach was like T's safe-house when she was a teenager. Or rather, the space next to the blue wall, where the building used to be. We drove slowly past it when I was down visiting in November. She commented how much smaller the space looks than the building felt. I remarked how I always felt that way when watching 'Grand Designs'. There's no way you're gonna fit that eco-mansion on that bit o' land, mate...

On Brighton Beach, after we smudged out the swastikas drawn with a careful stick in the sand, T and I talked about this crazy trip to New York. How Jim Wilson, Amero-Christchurchian-Kiwi and founder of Phantom Billstickers Ltd, wanted to take eight NZ poets to The Big Apple. And we were two of them. He said he wants to 'put some hope back into the streets, and into people's hearts.' He feels so strongly for Christchurch and for the West Coast after Pike River. 

Being so aware of all this, It seemed surreal sitting there, looking at that freakishly long pier, discussing a poetry reading at Saatchi and Saatchi World HQ in Hudson Street, downtown Manhattan. I started imagining the pier vertical and about a zillion feet taller. I took a deep breath of sea air.

I don't know how it is to live through what's happened in Canterbury, in Pike River, in Japan. But I know about grief. And I know how it can take the air out of a person's life, make you turn in smaller and smaller circles. 

For some reason it feels like a peculiarly American English expression -- 'I am so sorry for your loss.' Perhaps it's universal after all and I've just watched too much TV. Too much 'Six Feet Under'. It's what I want to say, though, on that day, every day, to everyone in Christchurch and beyond. I am so sorry for your loss, family of M. I am so sorry for your loss, family and friends of Z. I am so sorry for your loss, beautiful city, river city, city in which I was born. 

It's what I want to say as soon as I land in New York, too. To everyone, from Manahatta to Manhattan. 

 

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Last time I was here I arrived by train. This time we flew into Newark airport, over the bristling midtown skyline, United Airlines flight CO90. Two ordinary passengers on an ordinary plane. 

 

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Our hotel, 'The Jane', is a jewel of  turn of the century design, lovingly restored in 2008. It was originally built as a hotel for sailors, and as the New York Times' Christopher Gray says, 'it's more a berth than a bed.' It is famous for having hosted the survivors of the Titanic in 1912, who stayed here while the courtcase was heard. Gray again:

'In 1912 survivors of the Titanic were sheltered there. More than 100 of them gathered one night for a memorial service at which they sang “Nearer, My God, to Thee” with “a mighty, roaring chorus,” according to The New York Times. The sailors were destitute, their pay having stopped the day the Titanic sank, and people left money and clothes for them at the building.'

 

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Today is Friday. We've been here two full days. All day Christine and I walked around the West Village, seeing the sites, making the pilgrimages, stopping all along Bleecker Street for photos and to buy Moleskines 20% off from 'book book'. As you do. This morning a search for the original name of the Hudson River did not immediately lead me to the Lenape word 'Shatemuc'. Nevertheless we will find our way over the multi-lane highway that is West Street to mihi to that river, to acknowledge all it gives and has given. And all that's been taken from it. 

This afternoon we found our way here, to the Stonewall Inn, to mihi in a similar way, to acknowledge our forbears. I have spent some time thinking about marriage in the last few weeks. It's legal here for same sex couples (you know, human beings) to get married. I'm not big on marriage myself, but I'm really big on human rights. I found myself googling 'How do I get gay married in New York City?' the week before we arrived. Only to realise I should have simply searched for 'How do I get married in New York City'. That's the point, ay? 

For some reason all this has prompted me to rediscover a post I put up on a Facebook thread a while ago (why o why?), in the wake of the Māori MPs visiting the Destiny Church conference to canvas for votes pre-election. Although he was one of several, for some reason I was especially outraged that Hone Harawira had gone along:

'People feel this kind of connection between Mana and Destiny is important because Hone needs numbers. My question would be: does he really think that, long or short term, it is politically wise - and a position of integrity and mana - to be siding with (or to be fair, to be seen to side with) a far-right organisation whose leader models himself on corrupt American evangelists who make fortunes from their followers, and who has espoused many times in public and no doubt at his pulpit that civil unions, homosexuality and women in positions of power are abhorrent at best, evil at worst? Does anyone seriously think that Destiny supporters will vote for anyone except the Destiny party?'

Yeh, I was a bit angry. And surely a contender for World's Longest Rhetorical Question. For my troubles I made a lot of new friends in the Mana Party as well as one quite frighteningly stalky enemy (the police have since visited him). The only time I've even come close to what happened for those people at the Stonewall riots was at the hideous Destiny Church rally in Wellington. 

 

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Christine bought a beautiful children's book today called 'This is New York', by Miroslav Sasek. It was first published in 1960, and is one of several he wrote from the idea of creating children's travel guides to the big cities of the world. 

The first page talks about how, in 1626, the island of Manahatta (Manhattan) was 'sold' to the Native Americans for 'twenty-four dollars worth of handy housewares. It remains the biggest bargain in American history. Businessmen say that now he would have to throw in another eight billion dollars.'

A little further in, the book talks about the origins of the name 'Wall Street'. 

'It's name comes from the wall built here by the Dutch against the Native Americans.'

Wall Street's where we're headed tomorrow.