How I write: Nicole Titihuia Hawkins and the magic of Māori storytelling

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins author of Whai - winner of The Jessie MacKay Prize for best first book of poetry, at the Ockham Book Awards 2022.

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Nicole Titihuia Hawkins author of Whai – winner of The Jessie MacKay Prize for best first book of poetry, at the Ockham Book Awards 2022.

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa, Ngāti Pāhauwera) is an emerging writer, avid home-baker, red lipstick enthusiast, pro-level aunt and proud māmā to a newborn. She lives in Te Awakairangi (Lower Hutt), hosts Poetry with Brownies and runs side hustles with her besties from her. Before she began spending her days breastfeeding and changing nappies, she was most commonly found teaching English, Social Studies and Māori Activism at a local high school. Hawkins’ poetry collection, Whai, took out the Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of poetry at this year’s Ockham Book Awards.

What books have made you cry?

Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English -everyone living on indigenous land should read it. Karlo Mila’s Goddess Muscle – a collection to heal your heart. Small Island by Andrea Levy makes me cry every time I read it.

What is your guilty pleasure reading list?

I don’t subscribe to the idea of ​​guilty pleasures in reading, or much at all in life. All reading is good reading and there’s space on the bookshelf for everyone. Why feel guilty about things that bring us pleasure, instead we should just enjoy them for what they are!

Where are you happiest with a book in your hand?

There’s only one place better to read than in bed – the beach. Whether I’ve been at Matauri Bay in the beautiful Nota, or Playa Marlín in Cancún, there’s something about the sun and the salt that make me feel like the words soak in so well at the beach. Wherever I am reading, incredible snacks and an appropriate beverage are absolutely necessary.

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Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins.

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Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins.

What did you read as a child or teen that had a profound effect on you?

Journey, a short story by Patricia Grace, The Seahorse and the Reef by Witi Ihimaera and Hone Tuwhare’s poetry. These texts were my first explicit introduction to Māori literature and they spoke to me on a deep level, of the pain my people had endured and the issues we are facing. These texts opened my mind to the magic of Māori storytelling.

What’s your writing routine?

I write whenever and wherever the kupu come: in the shower, late at night, on my lunch break, in the car via voice notes to myself. I write mostly with pen and whatever paper I can get my hands on until I have a decent draft. Before I had a baby I would often edit in cafes or restaurants in the city, ordering something every hour or so to keep my spot. I usually always ask my peers for pre-publishing feedback and am so lucky to have such a great wāhine Māori writing network.

Can you share a piece of good advice you’ve received about writing?

I took Victor Rodger’s Māori and Pasifika creative writing paper at the IIML and he gave us two pieces of advice that really stuck with me. Firstly, there’s no getting away from doing the work so stop avoiding it and just get it done. Secondly, don’t contextualize your writing. If you need to explain it before people read or hear it, you haven’t done enough. The work should speak for itself.

What advice do you give to writers starting out?

Don’t waste your time trying to write like anyone else. Write your stories, your way, using your voice. When you’re starting out you may feel really lucky to have your work published or included in some spaces – I get that. I still feel lucky when my work gets selected. It’s important to remember though, that the publisher is also lucky to have your mahi in their project. No matter how prestigious the publisher is or however inexperienced you may feel, you bring the stories of your tipuna to their table and share them willingly.

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