Best of the Year
The novelist whose sister married into the Mongrel Mob
A remarkable personal essay by Westport novelist Becky Manawatu on her sister who married a gang member.
My sister married a Mongrel Mob member more than 10 years ago. Rumour has it she wore a red and black dress. I didn’t go because I wasn’t invited. It’s not that my sister and I don’t love each other, it’s just that we've long lived in separate worlds. She got it bad for a patched boy. I got it bad for a rugby boy.
I spent many years watching my man play and I cheered for him in his kit, afterwards there were often sculling races and someone occasionally ruined the party by suggesting the girls get their tits out for the boys. I don’t know what my sister’s man might be doing for her to cheer him on, but I do know that the day he called me to tell me he enjoyed reading my novel Auē, he had just come in from fixing his fence. He was pleased with himself and he was keen to have a cold beer. I have heard some things about this man that've been difficult to comprehend but I was like, chur bro, hope to have one with you sometime.
I thought of my sister and her life when I wrote the chapters in Auē about an unnamed but identifiable gang. She’s become like a mythical creature to me because I haven’t seen her since once upon a time over a decade ago in Taumarunui, when we parted ways on good-sister-like terms. I was going to Italy, she wasn’t. We’d see each other when I returned and then we didn’t, and we didn’t and we didn’t.
Sometimes I look in the bathroom mirror and call myself a c..t.
My father was the skipper of a boat. My mother didn’t work but spent her days making the house seem like she never cleaned it because it never needed to be cleaned.
I have two sisters and one brother. My brother has blue eyes and blonde hair like me (mousey grey now) and my sisters are true ātaahua Māori wāhine. Nic is eight years older than me and Tam, 10.
My Māori whakapapa is to Southland, the Chatham Islands and Rakiura. I developed a love for mutton birds at a very young age and everyone in my family loved me for it. Especially my sisters. “You are more Māori than we are,” they’d say. I didn’t understand what they meant. I thought we were peas from a pod, and me and Kodie were just the whities.
I think I was about eight years old when I found out there was a better reason that they were brown and I was white. I was at Waimangaroa Primary School and I was waiting for my turn to bounce on the trampoline. Another girl was bouncing and she wouldn’t stop. Finally I got annoyed enough to call her selfishness out.
I was all like: “Hey! It’s my turn.”
And she was like “Whatever”, and kept bouncing.
So I pulled out my usual trump, my royal flush: “I’m gonna get my sisters.”
She stopped jumping. And I grinned, thinking, Yee-ahh, works every time. But she just smiled and smiled. Then she said, “They’re not even your real sisters.”
I pictured their long, long black hair, and green eyes and brown eyes and the tallness like they had been around for so much longer than me, and thought that they might actually not be my real sisters. A tear fell down my face. The girl saw it, and mocked me, then got back to bouncing.
I went home and demanded answers. For dramatic effect I’m gonna tell you I stomped my foot. I don’t know if that’s true, but the memory I have of my emotional state that day makes me believe I could have.
When I asked what the fuck was going on, (also not something I’d say then, but felt) they all looked at me like I was mental. And not for my emotional state, but for my lack of attention to the skin colours.
So, Mum told me they were my half-sisters. They had a different father. They called dad, Dad, because he was their dad. But not their father. Then my sisters told me that we would never, ever, not ever use the word half-sister. Mum was using it now, for explanatory purposes but never again will we use this term. Not for no one.
As we got older I took more joy in this rule. When I was old enough to end up at some of the same parties as Nic or Tam (mostly Nic, mostly at her house - Tam didn’t really do parties) they’d introduce me as their sister and we’d watch people ask questions with their faces. It was typically pākehā who wanted real answers, who would say, “So…you...” as if we owed them an explanation.
I felt like a gangster standing beside Tam or Nic or both of them bad bitches, as people tried to work us out. I don't mind people wanting to work others out. Often that comes from curiosity and curiosity is a beautiful thing. But sometimes people just want to put you in a box and when you fight that it makes their necks redden. Insubordination fills people with rage. Not being let in to the secret fills people with rage. But when my sister introduced me to tangata whenua it would be an, oh chur, I’d get a hug and a kiss and that was that, no need to explain.
But, faar, some people: “This is my sister,” Nic would say.
“So…?” they would reply.
“So... her name is Becky.”
And fuck off we don’t wanna hang out with you.
When I started writing Auē I was mad at some shit that had gone down.
I wasn’t mad that Glen Bo wanted to stop living with us and live with his mother, I was just a bit miffed about it. But when I next got to see him, one of my bestest friends in the world, and he was now in a box because he was a murdered child, then I got angry.
First I got very, very wishful. I sat beside his coffin and tried to will him to life. I stayed beside him so long one of my other cousins got an occasional duty to make sure I had Time Away from Dead Glen Bo. Then I got very, very heartbroken.
After that I got very, very filled with rage. Mum gave me an axe and I chopped up a dead tree after school for a new hobby.
Glen Bo was murdered by his stepfather. Beaten over two days until he was put into a coma from which he wouldn’t stand up to go play. People did a haka for him while he was inside his coffin at Aunty Marg and Uncle Guy’s house. And then tears fell from ranginui on that bluest of skies day. We all looked up and smiled, and looked around each other and smiled and the haka roared around us until we were all crying again. I wanted Glen Bo to come out and see the haka, he would have loved it.
When I started writing Auē I was mad that my family had been scattered and we'd never get it back. I was mad at Nic. I was mad at her husband I didn’t even know. I was mad at myself.
I sent a copy of my book to Te Kūiti to Nic. Her husband decided he’d read that shit first. When he finished it Nic messaged me: He finished your book.
R u busy he gonna talk 2 you.
He called and as the phone rang I imagined him standing there in the kitchen of a yuck house with a ugly patch on, wielding a magic machete he could put through the phone and kill me with for being such a dumb little white girl thinking she knew where the fuck, what the fuck and who, who, who the fuck she was writing about.
He said: “Becky! I just finished your book Auē.”
And I said: “You did?”
And he said: “Yeah, yeah, that was a book. That was a good book. I wanted to go into that book and smash some of those guys heads in.”
And the images of him in the yuck house with the ugly patch with a magic machete dissipated, and there was just a man, on a phone talking to the sister-in-law he’s never met.
He reads prolifically, he said. He loves books, has his own library card. In fact has told the Te Kūiti library they should get my book. He said he'd just fixed his fence and now he'd like to go crack a can, so he’ll hand me back to my sister.
Then she finished the book. And she wrote to me and there was one moment that hurt her the most, one that made her cry.
Butterfly kisses. She wrote to me that she remembered me giving her butterfly kisses.
“Just one butterfly kiss from you made everything ok, there is a bit of Auē in all of us,” she said.
People have asked me about my gang research. I told them that I imagined a man who was given no love - which is not to say all gang members are drawn to a gang for lack of love. I imagined him not as a quintessential gang member and not as the stereotype of every gang member, but just as a fucked-up guy who could, in a mythical gang-like house, become someone’s worst nightmare.
I asked myself questions about this man: what if he got on the gear? What if he wanted to feel powerful more than anything else? What if he ensured his Mrs couldn’t get a cent, bar through him?
How would that make him behave? What if he could get hold of some smack? How would he feel about that when none of the other mythical gang members had the balls or brains or means to get hold of some smack? What if his woman is the thing he is afraid of the most in the whole world - not machetes or guns but her wahine beauty? What if she's the most beautiful thing he ever saw and he'd rather she were dead than anyone touch her?
What if his country had been colonised, and his language caned from his ancestors and everywhere he'd been in his life he felt completely ripped off?
For my research all I did was ask questions of a mythical man in a mythical gang but for the sake of magical realism I stamped a bulldog on one man's neck.
For my mob sister.
Get back in my life you bad bitch.
Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35)
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