We are introduced to essa may ranapiri’s debut collection, ransack, (VUP, July 2019) in three stages. Three quotes that introduce us to some of the lenses through which the world of ransack exists: the hyperpersonal, the disassociated personal and Te Ao Māori.
‘for all of us whom the gender binary struggles to consume’ is the opening dedication and scaffolds not only the hyperpersonal nature of the work, but the thread of discontent with the gender binary and the explorations of gender within the text.
The next signpost we encounter is a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. A work important to the text, not only in terms of its explosion of the gender binary, but also because scattered throughout the book are poems as letters addressed to Orlando themselves. This is where we see the first integration of the dissociated self, the self as something other than. The narrator as both Orlando and themselves. Addressing by turns: themselves, the reader, Orlando and characters we are not privy to.
‘Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another tongue.’
This quote could be read as a capsule of the whole collection. In it we find a package of the conversations ranapiri is having within the work. Both the limitations and mutability of language, the mutability and limitations of the body and a sense of alienation from both language, landscape and self.
The third signpost is an english translation of a verse from Pokarekare Ana, a song originally written and sung in Te Reo, about the experiences of Māori soldiers serving in World War One.
I have written my letter
I have sent my ring,
so that your people can see
that I am troubled.
This book is that letter, that ring, sent from over an ocean so that we may see the troubles that ranapiri sees. Problems primarily stemming from the colonisation of these islands and the subsequent and continuing violence that follows in its wake.
The Orlando Letters serve as an informal structuring device for the book. They have no page numbers, they exist outside the world of the book both in form and function. They are deeply personal and directed both at and away from the reader. You are privy to a diary in these moments. The decision to hide them from the book, make them disappear until you find them, unable to flick back later to a page number, is a very smart one. There are no page numbers in a diary.
The level of care and meaning imbued in every decision made for this book not only allows it to pulse with a personal and passionate warmth, but also makes it almost impossible to not engage with the text with on the same level of presence.
One of the truths that this book so eloquently illustrates, is the dissociative products of colonisation and their impacts on Tangata Whenua and takatāpui whānau. This is beautifully realised in the way the work talks about the body. And it talks about the body a lot. The body appears in the text as almost everything but an actual body. We find, the body as numbers:
‘a body resembles a 1 when it is lying prone? It moves from 5 to 6 when it struggles in sheets. And 9 and 10 when it finds something to eat. It tackles out the land with animal proficiency. A crowded 3 when it crawls across the bathroom floor’
The body as meat:
‘to that meat alien’
And fully abstracted:
‘A new one grew in its place and the snake feeling lost and rejected and angry opened its newly formed mouth wide, drew fangs and made to bite its replacement off. It swallowed every part of me and I swam as a corpse in snake intestines.’
When we see the body most clearly as a body, as something connected to itself, it is when the body appears as the land, as Aotearoa. We see the landbody as a subject of colonial destruction:
‘swords of burning hydrocarbon / into the stomach of / the coast’.
Sometimes the landbody is our body,
‘waking up in a stream of pebbles / your face engraved on each one’
and sometimes, the landbody is just that. The land embodied. An inherent part of Te Ao Māori, with mountains:
‘like a woman, the goddess of the moon come down to freeze herself in stone.’
This is one of the ways we can see the comments ranapiri is making on the detritus of colonial violence – that colonisation displaces indigenous peoples and creates a disassociation from both identity and land, and disassociation from identity stemming from the disassociation from land. This is illustrated masterfully in ranapiri’s closing statement of the book:
‘her cunt was never questioned until the whalers got here
my body was born on a hook-shaped question mark
looks half like an embrace and half like a murder.’
This is a work that speaks personally and powerfully about universal issues: gender, the limitations of human expression and language, colonial violence both present and historical, the white-washing of indigenous experiences and histories, and how to reconcile all these alienating experiences in one meatmade cage. If escaping ourselves is impossible, how do we continue to live? This book won’t necessarily answer these questions for you and that’s not the point. One of the geniuses of ranapiri’s work is that the writing mirrors the experiences the book chronicles. It is strongly constructed in its own world, but deeply connected to the one we live in, it is engaged with both itself and the world at large. Reading it feels like working through experiences as they happen, like history and the present are a fluid mass. We may be disconnected from ourselves, but we are simultaneously trapped in the large web of life and history. And it’s confusing and it’s painful and it’s beautiful. ranapiri’s debut is a triumph of cohesion and layered meaning. A world that tells truths and allows us to look at painful experiences so that we may better learn to live amongst them.
About the reviewer
Eliana Gray is an award winning writer living mostly in Ōtepoti, Aotearoa. Their work is like their life – sad, confronting and deeply funny. They have won the University of Otago Poetry Competition and competed as a finalist in the National Poetry Slam. Their work has been put many places, including their recent debut collection Eager to Break, which is available through Girls On Key Press. You can find them on the internet @foxfoxxfox and sometimes in real life. You can buy a copy of Eager to Break at the Poetry Portal Bookshop.
About the author
essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Raukawa | they/them/theirs) if they die before the end of the settler colonial nation state of NZ you owe them a revolution [their first book of poetry ransack out from VUP in July 2019]