Friday, 22 March 2019

Christchurch terror attacks - writers must respond

On John's election as national president of the NZ Society of Authors

Tēnā koutou katoa

We send love to our Muslim brothers and sisters at this terrible time.

New Zealand writers will always stand for tolerance and understanding in the face of barbarity and ignorance.

Writers through their work, can spread understanding of other cultures and faiths. They can celebrate the dignity and mana of these faiths and cultures. They can dispel hatred and fear.

They can show that the 'other', the foreigner, the immigrant, is just like us, with the same hopes, struggles and dreams. This can help combat the anti-immigrant rhetoric of political leaders who set people against each-other for their own ends, and who encourage and give legitimacy to racists and haters.

They can shed light on the corrupting role of violence and the glorification of violence.

The Ponsonby mosque in Auckland is opposite the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Two days after the attack, the mosque was a fortress guarded by a huge Maori policeman and a tiny pakeha policewoman with loaded M4 carbines. A telling metaphor for the way Muslim communities in the West have often lived - islands in an alien sea. I could only leave my flowers outside the high walls.

A week later, things had changed. I passed the heaped up mountains of flowers left by Aucklanders, pungent but decaying, and was ushered into the domed room of the mosque by a smiling young man. I sat cross-legged on deep red carpet while the bearded imam, a Koran in one hand, reminded his flock, seated before him, that we are all living on borrowed time. He alternated Arabic with English. Above him, a huge red digital clock underlined his words.

I was aware of my own 'otherwise' in this holy place; how alien, how foreign I felt, a striking reminder of how awkward and out-of-place Muslims must often feel in our cities. I was inside the fortress looking out. I listened to the oratory for half an hour then left.

As I exited the mosque, another imam, Habib, stopped me and took my hand. He spoke of his long journey from Bangladesh, to Thailand and on to New Zealand. When I told him I was a Buddhist, he grasped my hand more firmly and smiled. 'In Thailand,' he said, 'Our friends the Buddhists lived such simple lives. They were very generous.' Perhaps out of tact, he didn't mention the genocide being perpetrated by the Buddhist majority against Muslims in neighbouring Myanmar.

Still, here were a Muslim and a Buddhist holding hands on a street outside a Catholic Church in a small country which has just been torn open by an unthinkable act of barbarity. In the wake of such terrible events, perhaps this was a little progress.

We can use these attacks to cross the moats between cultures and faiths. And we can take action as writers, too.

The greatest books of the last hundred years have opened our minds to the complexity of humanity, its miraculous variety and richness. Novelists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and our own Maori writers have shown us how to understand and appreciate the marvelous diversity of humankind.

In 'Midnight’s Children', Salman Rushdie reveals in magical prose, the moment when the Indian sub-continent freed itself from the shackles of British colonial rule, and ran helter-skelter down a new, riotous and uncontrollable route to independence.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the great Kenyan writer, writes from a jail cell, on toilet paper, and reflects on the emergence of a new democratic Africa from the rule of despots and tyrants.

Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Albert Wendt have shown how grievously neglected our own Pacific identity has been until recent decades, and how this marginalisation and neglect has diminished us all. Their books strike a rich new vein of cultural complexity that we New Zealanders can mine for our genuinely Polynesian future.

These books are narratives of emancipation and enlightenment. Of cultures emerging from the past and establishing something precious and new.

In the face of this richness, poetry and diversity, the writing of white supremacists is shown to be arid, impoverished, and destined for the dust-bin of history.

For ten years I lived and worked with immigrants in a poor and violent part of a foreign city. Many of them, Ethiopians, Chileans. Nicaraguans, Iraqis, had fled oppressive and cruel dictatorships. They were regularly vilified in the local media and by politicians as outsiders, parasites, free-loaders.

They were among the most brave, resilient and cheerful people I have ever met. They were thankful for the relative safety of their new home. They were grateful for the smallest generosities and the kindness of their host communities. Our Muslim countrymen and women here in Aotearoa remind me of them.

The Christchurch mass-killer posted an 87-page, 16,000 word manifesto on the libertarian website 8chan. It was lucid, spell-checked, and persuasive for those who desire to hate. It was a paean to medieval notions of racial superiority that informed the Christian crusades and animated a generation of Nazis in 1939.

Racist writers around the world, egged on by a new wave of populist politicians, echo Tarrant's message on their websites and in their chat rooms.

We must use our own skills as writers to counter these messages.

Writers are opinion makers, culture bearers and influencers. The best writers aspire to the highest standards of humanity. To what we all have in common. To our brotherhood and sisterhood with other nations.

We have much work to do in 2019.

Ngā mihi 

John Cranna


  1. How special to have John Cranna as our new President. thank you, John, for bringing your experience and wisdom to this position.

  2. Thank you for this excellent blog. In Christchurch I still find myself waking with the dull thud of disbelief. We have friends whose friends are still in hospital suffering from their wounds and of course there are the deep psychic wounds. I feel responsible as a writer because I saw so much racism in the city of my childhood and my upraising. I have seen hatred in the wretched little racist comments in our white middle class which so longs to be an upper class and among the upper class who don't want to share their precious pedestal. I still see and hear racism. I have three Pasifika children and I am conscious that those of us who see it are still expected to pretend we don't. I have encountered racism in literary groups and among writers and I have decided to confront and challenge racism at every turn. Small streams of hatred contribute to the river that allowed a killer to float comfortably in our midst, we need to let the sewerage out. So yes, we need to write and in groups we also need to be prepared to say 'that is not right, take your racism to the toilet, please.'

    1. Kia ora Saige! I admire your bravery. Without warriors of justice like you, there would be no progress. Kia kaha. Nga mihi, John

  3. Beautifully said, John. Speaking truth is something we writers have a duty to do. Thanks for your words,

  4. Your comments resonated deeply. We breathe and bleed the same and the chance reading of this has provided renewed impetus to pursue a publisher for my next book on courage and kindness in 101 countries. Hoe Happens! Catherine DeVrye

    1. Kia ora Catherine - warm best wishes for your quest. Do not give up. Kia kaha. John