Poet Tusiata Avia lashes ACT after party calls book The Savage Coloniser 'racist' and 'hate-fuelled'

The author of The Savage Coloniser has hit back at ACT after the party called her work "hate-fuelled" and "racist". 

A stage show, which is receiving taxpayer money via Creative NZ, is now being produced based on the book by Ockham-winning poet Tusiata Avia. 

ACT put out a press release criticising the book and stage show on Wednesday, saying the Government is "funding hate" with a show about "murdering James Cook, his descendants and white men like [him] with pig hunting knives".

"The Government, through Creative New Zealand, which taxpayers fund and whose board Ministers appoint, is supporting works that incite racially motivated violence," ACT leader David Seymour said in a statement on Wednesday morning.

The party is calling on the Government to withdraw $107,280 in taxpayer money that went towards the show and apologise for "giving so much to racism in the first place". 

Avia hit back at the criticism saying "ACT do not understand this poem". 

"I would counsel them to read Claire Mabey's guide on my poem and understand what they are reading, before making uninformed, uneducated claims," Avia told Newshub. 

Excerpt from the poem:

These days

we're driving round

in SUVs

looking for ya

or white men like you

who might be thieves

or rapists

or kidnappers

or murderers

yeah, or any of your descendants

or any of your incarnations

cos, you know

ay, bitch?

We're gonna F... YOU UP.

Creative New Zealand said in a statement one of its functions is to "uphold and promote the rights of artists and the right of persons to freedom in the practice of the arts". 

The agency said Avia's work is intentionally confronting and strongly worded by her own admission.

"We are aware there has been recent criticism of the book's poems; it is important to note that while a single poem has offended some readers, it sits within the context of a whole book that draws upon multiple, imagined perspectives exploring colonisation and its aftermath. Art is where ideas can be explored, tested and shown."

"We recognise this freedom is not absolute, however, whether a work of art constitutes 'hate speech' or contravenes the Human Rights Act is a matter for a body other than Creative New Zealand to determine," Creative New Zealand said. 

But Seymour said the Government should come out and denounce the show and "declare it will give nothing to racism, and withdraw the funding". 

"The Government says it wants to stop hate and then it appoints board members who fund this stuff. How is it any different from the kind of hatred that led to the Christchurch shootings?"

ACT's criticism of the poem was met with scepticism by AM co-host Ryan Bridge during a discussion on the issue. 

"The problem I have with this is if you say you can't have films and movies that depict white people being murdered then would you also not be able to have movies about historical events and slavery and Abraham Lincoln and stuff like that," Bridge said on the show on Wednesday. "It is meant to be art." 

Co-host Melissa Chan-Green took a different approach and said the Government needs to be careful, but that it is important to remember art is controversial. 

"I think you can't go so far as to say arts funding can't go towards anything controversial because that is what art is. It evokes a reaction in you," Chan-Green said. 

"I guess you do have to be careful where it is Government funding because art is controversial often by nature but if it is Government funding that can be seen as some kind of support for the message."      

The Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Willow-Jean Prime said she does not get involved in individual funding decisions.

The Human Rights Commission told Newshub they have received complaints and queries in connection with published excerpts of the 'The Savage Coloniser', which they're in the process of considering.

"We are precluded from making any specific public comments on the issues raised while we assess and respond to these complaints and queries." 

This story was amended on March 9 2023 to add comment from the Human Rights Commission.