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Te Papa’s Puawai Cairns on writing &

Puawai Cairns is one of the authors of a new book Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War. JACK FISHER.

Puawai Cairns, How I write: Te Papa’s Puawai Cairns, Stuff, 22 February 2023

Puawai Cairns (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) is Director of Audience and Insight at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. As former Head of Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa, she played a pivotal role in the development of the museum’s record-breaking ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’ exhibition. She is one of the authors of a new book of the same name that details the human scale of the Gallipoli campaign and goes behind the scenes to tell how the exhibition was made. Puawai is also a co-author on Protest Tautohetohe, a history of protest and activism in Aotearoa that won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction.

Which book do you wish you’d written and why?

A Māori version of Pride and Prejudice or something like that would be fun. Māori literary lives written without tragedy and trauma, would be very refreshing.

Which book had such an impact on you that you bought it for your friends?

Whatu Kākahu, edited by Awhina Tamarapa. It is a sublime book. Large format hardcover book with essays from weavers and weaving researchers, and the most beautiful photographs of kākahu. I had just started working as a curator when Awhina was finishing this epic book and it stands out as one of the best taonga books to date. With beautiful imagery by Norm Heke and Jean-Claude Stahl, all pulled together with writers who have so much aroha for the art of cloak construction and research. It is a taonga of a book.

What book do you go back to time and time again to re-read?

My go-tos are mostly reference books that I used in my curatorial research. Books like Redemption Songs by Judith Binney, or Coming of the Māori by Te Rangi Hiroa. A book I used over and over again during research for the ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’ exhibition was a small book called Home, Little Māori, Home by Rikihana Carkeek – a publication of his diary that he kept while serving during WWI. It is the only published Māori diary from a WW1 Māori soldier, which is incredibly powerful to read and experience. Rikihana was a very fine writer, I wish he had written more after the war.

Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War: The story of a defining campaign and a monumental exhibition. Written by Puawai Cairns, Michael Keith, Chris Pugsley and Richard Taylor. Published by Te Papa Press. $35. Supplied.

Which writer do you turn to when you have writer’s block?

I really love writers like Alice Te Punga Somerville and Max Rashbrooke, who paint incredible imagery with their words while guiding you through complex and heady topics. It’s such a skill that I’m still trying to learn because I think visually as well, and get irritated with myself that I sometimes can’t write exactly what I can see in my head and end up over-complicating / over-compensating with too many words.

Which authors would you want in your book club?

Te Rangi Hiroa and Apirana Ngata, Katarina Mataira, Oprah and Michelle Obama, all the historians in Pouhere Kōrero (a Māori Historian’s collective), all my friends who have written books, poems or great Facebook statuses, Princess Diana so she can spill the tea on her in-laws, her daughter in-law Meghan so they can spill tea together, Anthony Bourdain, Hinemoa Baker, Kate Camp, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Paul Diamond, Teresia Teaiwa, the Bronte Sisters. And then get them all to bring three mates each.

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

I grew up in the 80s, and a nuclear holocaust book called The Children of the Earth was horrifying and deeply real to me. Matched with Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel about nuclear holocaust as experienced by a little English couple in their tiny house, I remember feeling deep anxiety about the future and being vulnerable to the whims of global leaders, while reading that in my little country primary school library.

Have you ever finished a book and gone straight back to the start to read again?

Scarlet Lies by Lani Wendt Young, part one of the Scarlet series. So sexy and funny, I love how she writes her characters. Lani’s writing was recommended to me by my friend Caren Rangi, and I binged on it over summer. Sexy times and jiggly bits! Haha! I’m such a fan.

When it comes to a memorable book, what is more important, a great plot or great characters?

Characters, Darth Vader could exist without Star Wars but I don’t think Star Wars can exist without Darth Vader…

What’s your writing routine?

Usually when I’m completely behind on deadline, super stressed and have hidden myself away to finally blast out words that have been gestating uselessly in my head for too long. With my style of bash-it-out writing, I need very good editors lol.

What “must read” book have you not read? Go on, fess up

Auē by Becky Manawatu. It’s beside my bed waiting, waiting. I refuse to put it back in the bookshelf because I know it must be read. One day, it will happen.

Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War: The story of a defining campaign and a monumental exhibition. Written by Puawai Cairns, Michael Keith, Chris Pugsley and Richard Taylor. Published by Te Papa Press. $35