Week in Review

Books of the Week: Braunias on Ghahraman, Cormack on Penk

Reviews of the memoir of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, and the love story of National Party MP Chris Penk.

Steve Braunias: Everyone is the hero of their memoir. Know Your Place is the film Golriz Ghahraman has made of herself, as the director and the star, winning arguments, resolving issues, brave, principled, resourceful, a campaigner at home on the world stage but adept, too, on the mean streets of K Rd and its revolutionary hub, Coco’s Cantina. The revolution will be served with tapas.

Every memoir is a monologue. Know Your Place presents monologues within monologues, as she cuts and pastes her extremely long maiden speech (yes, all maiden speeches are extremely long, but some feel more extremely longer than others) and also includes the speech she made at a vigil in Auckland immediately following the Christchurch mosque attacks. The director provides dramatic backlighting for the star: “I was angry and I didn’t mask it. My arms were either spread open or on my hips for much of my speech, though these aren’t natural gestures for me. I was speaking with a voice I had never heard myself use, and without inhibition.” The stage, as they say, is set. “I receive all of your love,” she told the crowd.  “I do. And it helps so much...” She writes, “I walked down from that makeshift stage to a flood of warm hugs and tears and shared truths.”

One of the reasons she was so angry? She had been denied a voice. Ghahraman writes about “waiting for an hour or so” in a radio office the night of the attacks for an opportunity to comment on the killings. Ahead of her were other politicians, “all Pākehā”. The programme dragged on; Ghahraman left in disgust. “I also knew I had a group of friends – all women  of colour – distraught and desperate for support, waiting for me in the backyard at  Coco’s Cantina. I excused myself and said I was available anytime by phone. That phone call never came.” Unforgivable!

But there she was, the day after a radio station’s intolerable snub, having her voice heard while addressing a large crowd (“I receive all of your love”) at a public rally in Auckland. There she is, constantly, having her voice heard while drawing an excellent wage as a member of parliament. And there she was, at my invitation, having her voice heard as guest speaker at the Hamilton Press Club in December 2018. I thought she gave a great speech. I don’t remember a single word – in 10 years of staging the Press Club, I hardly ever listen; only a few speakers are capable of compelling oratory, such as Moana Jackson, Mihingarangi Forbes, Paddy Gower and the late Greg King (three months later, in the hills above Wellington harbour, he shot himself) -  but she had a strange, nervous charisma, she burned with sincerity and conviction, she handled the craziness from the audience (Richie Hardcore rose to his feet and challenged Sean Plunket to a fight, then sat down again and went back to looking at Twitter on his phone) with poise and humour.

The thing about Press Club is that it allows an opportunity to observe public figures at close range and analyse their character. Jacinda Ardern (April 2017) had zero content in her speech, but was wonderfully engaging at question time. Winston Peters (May 2012) had zero content in his speech or at question time, but was a merry old soul with a drink in his hand. Ghahraman brought something special. A refugee, a young woman, a Green – yes, all that, but these are generic conditions, you can combine all three and still be a bore or a ninny; what struck me about Ghahraman was the way she held herself. She was at once proud, resilient, determined; and fragile, vulnerable, anxious. Also, she was a lot of fun.  She was so alert, so reactive; she was either always thinking or always laughing.

That sense of vitality comes through in Know Your Place when she writes about her childhood and teenage years. Chapters about childhood and teenage years are usually chapters to avoid in memoirs, certainly political memoirs, but they provide the best literature in Ghahraman’s book. She writes with an eye for detail (“summer stone fruit”) as she evokes her own lost civilisation. “I remember my childhood in Iran as filled with birthday parties, summer stone fruit, and snow fights. There were dinner parties too...A massive feast served at around 9pm...There was music and dancing and boisterous laughter...There was always bootleg alcohol of some sort.” Madonna videos were bootlegged, too, and Ghahraman writes of her mum and her friends wearing “Madonna-esque matching permed hair and bright headbands.” Good times, in the shadow of the Ayatollah. “They were scared. They would turn down the music. Their ears pricked up if there was a noise, a knock at the door. We could be raided at any time.”

Almost as an aside, she mentions, “Truth be told, I felt pretty alienated from the uber-extroverted Iranian party culture of dancing and singing with full abandon...I would often escape to my room with one or two close friends to play quietly."  She goes from this moment of reflection to a sudden sting: "But for my mother, every party was a show of her success as a mother.”

She writes tenderly and sadly of her father being stripped of his humour and his confidence after the family fled Iran for New Zealand. When they arrived, they settled into a new, secure, alienated life in Kelston, that blot in west Auckland which has nothing to recommend it apart from the large, smokey estate of Waikumete cemetery. They worked hard and later owned a liquor store in Onehunga. At intermediate, girls told Ghahraman she was fat (“I had developed curves early”) and made her life hell: “I started counting calories and incessantly running after school, desperately trying to lose the ‘fat’...I lost sleep feeling anxious about things I had eaten as far back as years before. I wore baggier clothes and avoided boys.”

Every memoir is a confession. Ghahraman lays out her anxieties and her unhappinesses throughout Know Your Place. It gives her book an emotional core. Far from merely or exclusively presenting herself as some sort of boorish saviour, she provides a complex psychological portrait. After she got her law degree at Auckland, and got a Master’s in international human rights law from Oxford, Ghahraman worked for the UN. Success, though, was paralysing. “I stopped sleeping...My hair was falling out...I came home with a deep sense of insecurity about my work prospects...I started seeing a psychologist.”

She places her panic attacks and her self-loathing in a wider context - the traumas of growing up a displaced person, and as a minority in the New Zealand model of apartheid.  These are the “shared truths” she recognises in New Zealand’s migrant population; these also form just a small layer of the hatred felt against her by trolls, maniacs, white supremacists, doxxers, rednecks, and others who are may be less insane and more reasoned but find Ghahraman uniquely aggravating. Is there any public figure in New Zealand life who ticks so many boxes of rage? A refugee, a young woman, a Green, who speaks out, who makes the worst accusation you can make about a society that thinks itself pretty decent – that it’s racist, xenophobic, sick.

“I pause when I leave the house,” she writes. “Pause each time I step out onto a podium. I scan the audience for anyone who looks out of place, for lone men, for bulges under jackets.” But is this a very real fear, and a terrible indictment of the way things are in New Zealand, or a kind of melodrama? All of the above, probably. “I felt an urge to protect democracy itself,” she declares, with fantastic grandiosity, of her decision to enter politics. Golriz of Nazareth, or Kelston or wherever, come to bring us peace and slogans. “Make space”, etc.

She’s had an eventful life and her book is revealing, thoughtful, observant. She writes about her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, the support of her partner Guy Williams, her teenage years wagging school on K Road, her trade portfolio (“It’s sometimes hard to get an answer, but, calmly, I persist”) her defence portfolio (“I am obstinately opposed to the billions of dollars we spend on war-making machines”). She offers close observations of Jacinda Ardern, who she first knew during the campaigns for Auckland Central: “We crossed paths a bit after hours in local pasta joints on K Road. She is a social person by nature...She was warm, and would lean slightly into every conservation [and] was always calling to other women in local politics in the room.”

She also relays a conversation she had with defence minister Ron Mark. He: “You know, Golriz, I think about what you and I have been through in our lives [Mark was raised in foster care] and I wonder how we’ve come out of it okay, we’ve ended up normal.”

She: “We’re not normal! You’re obsessed with war planes and I’ve been in therapy for three years.”

Classic Ghahraman. A beautiful eccentric, passionate advocate, different, funny (Mark burst out laughing), personal, not afraid to say what comes to mind – all from her position in the corridors of power.

*

David Cormack: Chris Penk’s Flattening the Country is one of those books that come along at exactly the wrong time, and pitch exactly the wrong argument.

It burst on the scene just as it was being announced that there were no more Covid patients in New Zealand (since changed). It argues that the “Ardern administration” has ruined New Zealand and made blunders and incompetence a feature of its Covid recovery. Oh and that Simon Bridges was right about practically everything. Sadly for Penk about 90 per cent of the country agreed with the Government’s method, and Simon Bridges was rolled as leader of the National Party two weeks before publication.

Though with the recent breakdown in Covid control, might Penk prove a prophet?

The book contains the most curious paragraph on page one: “Was a lockdown necessary? Yes. Was the timing of New Zealand going into lockdown roughly right? Yes. Was it inevitable that our tourism industry would be decimated by the coronavirus? Yes. Was a considerable amount of economic disruption more generally also inevitable? Yes. And are there some countries whose covid-19 results have been worse than ours (as well as some whose are better)? Yes, definitely yes.”

It probably should have ended there too and spared us the bizarre Mills and Boon tribute to Bridges that follows. Had this occurred, we may have been left with the perception that little-known National backbencher Chris Penk was in agreement with his own (current) leader Todd Muller that the “Ardern administration” had done a good job of the health recovery of Covid-19.

Penk’s support for former leader Bridges borders on adoration. “Bridges will be remembered in time for performing his constitutional role with commitment and courage, which is much more than can be said for many of his critics,” he writes.

Unfortunately very few people seem to agree with that perception of Bridges’ performance -including his own caucus, who installed the equally befuddled but perhaps slightly kinder Todd Muller as leader.

Penk writes, “When Simon Bridges exercised his constitutional right – nay duty – to speak up in this way he was shouted down by cowards and bullies.”

It should be noted that within the 156 pages of Flattening the Country, Bridges’ name appears 14 times, while Todd Muller’s name appears zero times.

In Penk's eyes, Simon Bridges is the victim. Attacked mercilessly by pundits, the public, politicians, and media for courageously taking the fight to the blundering Jacinda Ardern and giving voice to … someone? Perhaps that someone is Chris Penk.

The idea of such a book does have merit. Bridges was put upon by a lot of critics, this writer included [This writer more than any other writer – Ed]. But the general perception is that he made a hash of his “constitutional role”. His Facebook post criticising the Government received nearly 30,000 comments. Flattening The Country fails to make a successful defence of Bridges’s shortcomings.

There are echoes of his former leader’s attitude towards Ardern. Penk writes that “Stardust is not an effective antidote to coronavirus”, and that  Ardern “played the kindness card one too many times.” He claims, “It’s difficult to argue that she is not a one-trick pony”.

Penk also claims at the beginning of Flattening The Country that  he’ll use references to help prove his points. He has a whole section devoted to the health outcomes that will be worse for our strict measures (which he also calls not strict enough). To support his case, he calls on comments from Don Brash and a guest post on KiwiBlog.

There is a home for this book. But it is the home of someone who already believes that Jacinda Ardern is nothing but a pretty communist and that the Government made a complete hash of its Covid-19 response from start to finish. This book is unlikely to convert voters to the National cause. It seems solely designed to satisfy a tender love for Simon Bridges.

Know Your Place by Golriz Ghahraman (HarperCollins, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide; Flattening The Country by Chris Penk is available for $20 on his website.

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