Travelling with Arapera

Spiral group at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm 1986 l to r Heather McPherson, Carl Erik Larsson, Marian Evans, a Swedish writer, Arapera Blank, Jacquie Sturm, Stephanie Baxter, Patricia Grace (photo: Irihapeti Ramsden)

by Heather McPherson

Spiral organised New Zealand representation at three international feminist book fairs. In 1984 we helped performer and writer Bub Bridger get to the first one in London, with the biggest suitcase I’ve ever seen. In 1988, Irihapeti Ramsden and I travelled to the third fair, in Barcelona. Here, Heather writes about travelling to the Second International Feminist Book Fair in Oslo with Keri Kaa’s sister, Arapera Blank.– Marian

Six weeks after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, Arapera Blank, Marian Evans and I flew to Laufen, in the south of Germany, for the Commonwealth Writers’ Conference.

Marian, artist, writer, film-maker and one of the Spiral Collective who published the bone people, had organised the trip with Irihapeti Ramsden (1946–2003); after Laufen we’d meet with a larger Spiral group — Irihapeti, Jacquie Sturm (1927–2009), Patricia Grace, Jacquie’s grand-daughter Stephanie Baxter (1968–2009) — at the Feminist Book Fair in Oslo and then travel to Stockholm. Arapera, one of the earliest published Māori woman writers, was also an early Katherine Mansfield Award winner; I was a founding member of the original Spiral magazine collective and a Christchurch Arts Festival poetry prize winner, and with Marian represented Spiral’s Pākehā and lesbian feminist strand.

Because of Chernobyl and puzzling governmental silences over what to do for nuclear fallout we and the Laufen organisers had doubted if the conference should go ahead. But after a day of flurried transits, here we three were on the deserted platform of a tiny locked-up station in a darkening countryside, no sign of a train, sharing a smattering of the dominant language, and not only not in Laufen but on the wrong side of the border.

Marian, who’s wonderful at sustaining a cheery optimism punctuated by outbreaks of chuckles and a blessed capacity for acting capably in tense situations, disappeared to find a telephone. Arapera and I, who had met only at the start of the trip, walked up and down the platform chatting desultorily, I wheeling my smallish handy-sized case. Did Arapera haul her three times larger, heavier suitcase? I don’t remember, but on first seeing her luggage I did remember having some twenty years back lugged a similar-sized suitcase to Sydney aboard the Oriana; I eyed Arapera’s with some alarm.

Marian reported back about trains: none tonight. She went to find us a bed. Darkness thickened, as did a prickle or two of apprehension. A friend and I had once slept on the concrete floor of a station the size of a bus shelter and the worst that happened was being woken by a rude passing express. But that had been in — Gore, Bulls? This platform would be chillier, but Austria was pretty safe…wasn’t it? These days?

Night noises flared, shook the grasses, scuffled down the tracks. A bird cried. Arapera wandered past absent-mindedly. Always attractive, smartly dressed, at times elegant, with a mischievous, conspiratorial sense of humour, she stopped and gazed into the darkness down the tracks.

This, she said thoughtfully, reminds me of Rangitukia.

I blinked, stared, blinked. I knew Arapera had grown up in Rangitukia, we’d swapped stories and figured connections. I knew some of her whānau as Anglican Church dignitaries; some I’d met at Bible Class camps and marae stays, with one I’d taught Sunday School. But I was suddenly transported into one of those complex moments in which you learn something unpredictable about another person and yourself.

Here was a compatriot who carried home inside her in a way I did not, could not, and indeed, had tried to escape from, let alone trying to find similarities between us. In this locale I’d think of as inescapably Other; my companion, born and raised in a small rural settlement a hemisphere and several languages away, saw this slice of once-powerful European empire as like home? Home as childhood home, or home town? Or home, our mutual country? Could I claim that? I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have so claimed it, even now.

But I had begun to sense another quality in the silence, a different loading, neither strange nor scary, simply rural. An agricultural silence? I could smell soil, not fresh-ploughed, fresh-cut, fresh-manured, just — earthy. Life moved here in its cycles, its paddocks — well, they’d say fields — beside the railway, in bushes, trees. Night enlarged, hung with veils of non-threatening silence I was still reluctant to call friendly since I wouldn’t define home as necessarily friendly, and I didn’t know how Arapera felt about home. But if this place had emanated a possibly risky atmosphere it did so only marginally. I was recalling the travel guide story I’d skimmed on the train: how in a village in this vicinity the hymn Silent Night had originated, composed not, as was sometimes claimed, by Mozart, but by the Obendorf village schoolteacher and choirmaster.

Was that what Arapera meant? A comparison, smallness, isolation, between her township and this one: a shared possibly spiritual quality in the villagers’ lives? Could that comparison have been made without Arapera’s prompt? The night, this site, didn’t seem to emanate an especially holy silence. The stars were just visible, ‘calm’ maybe, but not exactly ‘bright’?

Arapera must have sensed something of my dilemma. She grinned. Quiet, she said.

I grinned then too, feeling easier, though still with some of the deference Pākehā can feel when tangata whenua insights surprise and delight us out of narrow cultural assumptions. (For example, once at a dawn ceremony to celebrate a waka launch, a youngish Māori/Pākehā group stood in front of me. Activity had slowed, darkness was thinning. Suddenly the karanga rang out. All voices stopped. Right on time, murmured one of the Māori man. His Pākehā friend shot his arm up and peered at his watch: What’s the time? His Māori friend chuckled, paused, chuckled again and spread his hands towards a just-greying sky: The right time.)

Marian found us a taxi and an inn. Not, alas, dinner; some rule or law had laid down that no food be served after a certain time, of course, hours ago. This was more like home and the pretzels I chewed hungrily were just as tasteless and salty as home pretzels.

As mentioned we were to meet in Oslo with the larger Spiral group. Marian left to visit relatives and after brief stops in Munich, and later West Berlin, Arapera and I travelled up through central Germany by train.

Castle spires wavered in misty hills, hot grubby yellow layers hung over the valley: fog, smog, or fallout? Silence washed gently between us. In Munich we had visited Dachau; a melee of flashbacks: war films, histories, books, photos, sixties bomb shelters, Chernobyl, still threshed in my head. I wrote journal poem drafts and teetered over details like the photographs of Dachau camp inmates with their guards, posed like schools or sports teams, except for the prisoners’ striped uniforms and the scratched-out faces of the guards. For me and doubtless many of my generation, the immense threat that had been Germany still reverberated, forever the heavily marked site in which nightmares still happened, through which some of our families and loved ones had lived, on the edges of which we’d grown up. By 1986 I’d read quite a lot; I’ve read more since then. Incidents during the trip would prompt me to wonder: does — and if it does, how, does a country change its population’s historically-sanctioned or vilified political beliefs?

Because of Chernobyl we censored our food. We saw few vegetables in Laufen and avoided all except the potatoes our innkeepers assured us had been stored under cover, in barns. One dinner time Marian thought the mushrooms tasted strange; I left them, more because I accepted Marian’s judgment than because I was convinced of the strange taste; all the food tasted a little strange: I came home with a chronic stomach ache and an eventual diagnosis of spastic colon possibly caused by erratic meals and strong European coffee. Arapera who, as I did, liked her glass of wine, said it would anaesthetise any radiation; a good excuse for a refill, if of doubtful effectiveness. On city street corners the signs claimed: Oranges from South America. But even if the street vendors originated there we still avoided the oranges.

A third entity began to infiltrate Arapera’s and my travel partnership. When she knelt to contemplate and extract her day’s outfit, the open lid of her suitcase seemed to expose a treasure chest, or glory box, or dress-up chest. But I came to think of that suitcase as that damn chest of drawbacks. After jostling through crowded carriages, finding a seat to match the ticket and metamorphosising back into a civilised being, I’d remember. Uh-oh, Arapera’s suitcase. She might still be trying to woman-handle it up the steep narrow steps to the carriage; I must bully it aboard while trying not to re-wrench a painful wrist (diagnosed in Laufen as muscle-strain and dosed with painkillers) into a throbbing injury.

In West Berlin we visited different icons: Arapera chose the Brandenburg Gates, I chose the Berlin Wall, its guard towers and artists’ murals. Continuing north again, we shared a compartment with a schoolteacher, her young daughter and for part of the journey, two youths who argued loudly, banged the fold-down shelves and generally acted in a loutish manner. I scowled, the schoolteacher, a mild woman with a nannyish air, sat eyes down and mouth twisted as if she were trying to smile over disapproval or trying not to smile, but she did try to distract her daughter’s concerned sideways looks by focussing on the child’s story book.

Arapera, dozing beside me, peered briefly at the rowdy youths, shut her eyes and presumably shut them out. I sneaked the odd envious look at her, then realised ah, the perfect tactic: don’t dignify unwanted behaviour with attention.

I began to talk to the child. May I see your book? Do you like dogs? The youths stepped up their gabble but the schoolteacher with fluent English and an understated accent kept her focus, and also began to ask questions, making little exclamations of surprised delight over, for example, New Seeland. Thwarted, the boys exited to the corridor. Arapera woke and joined the conversation, charming both child and woman; Arapera found in her handbag a New Zealand-inscribed silver fern token. More smiles. The schoolteacher turned graciously to Arapera.

And where have you come from? she asked.

Arapera’s eyelashes flickered, her mouth moved, stilled, she glanced towards the window. I winced. Should I say something, do an intervention?

Graciously Arapera replied: I’m an original New Zealander. We say from Aotearoa.

It took some uncomprehending moments before the woman, flustered and apologetic, made effusive amends: Oh, oh, I’m sorry, so sorry, I thought you must be — you were from somewhere in Europe. Like…she searched for comparisons… like, Spanish?

Yes, said Arapera. I’ve been guessed as Spanish before. In Europe.

Then I remembered Arapera and her husband had visited his people in Switzerland; later Arapera confirmed that Europeans would ask if — among other identities — she were Spanish, Italian, Roumanian, gypsy. I did wonder if her fashionable womanly dresses beside my deliberately casual top and trousers might suggest to others that being differently outfitted we didn’t have a shared origin. By this date, many Western lesbian feminist women travelling together internationally wore androgynous clothing and were, recognisably, couples; similarly dressed women in the street searched each other’s eyes to check if the outward encoding matched the internal connection. Lack of make-up was another mark of identity but markers could change; eighties ‘lipstick lesbians’ differentiated themselves from seventies lesbian feminists and heterosexual women by mixing styles.

In Oslo, Arapera was happy to join up with the larger Spiral group. We had had difficulties with our different concepts of time and timetables: I wishing to see and do as much as possible in the time available, Arapera’s continuity being much more leisurely-paced, particularly escorting that suitcase.

When we visited Stockholm’s Ethnographic Museum to see the Stockholm cloak to which Irihapeti introduced us — a significant cloak collected by Joseph Banks on Captain Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand — the museum arranged a welcome ceremony. Arapera gave the karanga.

I remember now that ringing powerful call that can set hair prickling and tears rising in tangata whenua and manuhiri all over the globe. The emotion raised and shimmering in that smallish crowded room, left us, as Irihapeti said, with ‘not a dry eye in the house’. Young as she was, in that museum context, Arapera was our kuia. Her presence, muffled for me by being seen always in relation to non-indigenous culture, here shone magnificently.

At Stockholm’s Ethnographic Museum 1986, with the korowai l to r Jacquie Sturm, Patricia Grace, Irihapeti Ramsden, Arapera Blank

Living in two cultures is not without costs in both; Arapera’s life, her stories and poems, her karanga in Stockholm, were made by a unique person. That Spiral trip, its brief companionship gave me a glimpse of just how special she was.