Writing the liquid continent: Alice Te Punga Somerville’s Always italicise

Writing has always been a way of building connections. Words can never weave together the complexities of all we experience, but they can weave together threads that bind us. Writing on, about and through what she calls ‘the liquid continent’ of Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa — the Pacific ocean — the writer and scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville builds and imagines worlds, challenging and then offering the reader a passage aboard a waka (canoe) of language, belonging, identity, ‘citizenship’, sovereignty, solidarity and love.

Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised is Te Punga Somerville’s first collection of poetry. The title is explained in the opening poem, ‘Kupu rere kē’, in which the author recalls how a friend was once told to italicise all the ‘foreign’ words in her poems. Given that the first language of Aotearoa is te reo Māori and not English, throughout the book it’s the words not in Māori that are italicised:

Now all of my readers will be able to remember
which words truly belong in
Aotearoa and which do not.

‘Kupu rere kē’ is a metaphorical phrase that cannot be easily translated into English. Kupu means word, vocabulary or to speak. Rere translates as to fly, flee, leap or descend. Kē is a particle that indicates difference or unexpectedness. So, the title might mean something along the lines or ‘the unexpected words that fly’ or ‘the descending different words’. It signifies the difficulty of translation, which is again subtly referred to in the poem ‘Rākau’. Here Te Punga Somerville writes of the difficulty in te reo Māori reclamation, by thinking through the act of whakairo, or wood carving.

We know that carvers coax something or someone
Who’s already there in the wood

This poem is translated by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui into te reo:

Kei te mōhiotia ko te kaiwhakairo tērā ka kukume mai
i te mauri o roto rawa i te rākau

I am drawn to the inadequacy of the English language when translating ‘already there’ into a word as rich with connotations as ‘mauri’. As the Māori academic Georgina Tuari Stewart explains, mauri ‘is often translated as ‘life principle’ in the sense of the Māori belief that all things are living.’[1] The late Turtle Island academic Vine Deloria describes the world as a related sociality, where everything was and is interconnected or as many interrelated human-non-human entities enmeshed together with a kind of mauri. For instance, in Sioux metaphysics all human and non-human beings are interrelated and possess their own character, like the sunflowers that ‘engage in the purposeful action’ by using the buffalo to transport their seeds;[2] while in the Ahnishinahbæotjibway language a person ‘meets’ a lake, rather than ‘going into the water.’[3]

The complexity of these ideas of mauri as it exists in different forms across Indigenous cultures reminds us, too, of the inadequacy of its description within Western scholarship simply as kinship, matter-energy or ‘thingness’ (cf Jane Bennet in her book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things) to describe the non-human.[4]  In translating her poem into te reo, Te Punga Somerville articulates the ways in which the breadth of meaning within Indigenous concepts is lost when these terms are rendered in English.

When we cannot rely on our Indigenous tongue to have command over such concepts, this leads to an inherited pain — an intergenerational wound experienced when we try to speak our language. How, then, can we use English to speak to these ideas of belonging?

Te Punga Somerville considers these different tensions throughout ‘Reo’, the first section of the book. She thoughtfully and sensitively describes the mamae (pain, ache, hurt) surrounding the loss for many Māori of our language for a number of reasons outside of our control. Perhaps our grandparents were beaten for speaking it at school, or a parent or grandparent didn’t recognise the value in it, or took it for granted, or saw the way of the pākehā as the means of escaping other intergenerational traumas like poverty, or because of the shame of being Indigenous … What then? From the poem ‘red-carded’:

you are thrown into the harbour with rocks tied around your body:
your grandfather’s humiliation, your mother’s hurt,
the inheritance your children won’t be getting

These line recall the sharp edges of the poems ‘Rākau’, ‘burdens for this generation’ and ‘ielts’, the last of which ends with the words ‘what whakamā’[5]. Whakamā is a word that means to be ashamed or embarrassed or hurt, but also means to whiten. This is a charged word for a writer who describe herself as

the girl who only speaks english
with a phd in english
having to prove
she knows english

This whakamā is reinforced by a quotation from the late Māori composer, writer and academic Hirini Melbourne (Ngāti Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu), who wrote:

By choosing to write in English, Māori writers lessen the chances of survival for the Māori language.

This line bites at those of us who are not fluent in te reo Māori, but it also acts as a wero (challenge). It becomes a way for us to consider why and how we use our language and how we might find it again.


Invisible ink’ considers the interconnection of journeys across oceans and borders, and of ways to navigate the violence of the nation state. This section is punctuated by at times small observations of how the hurt and anger of histories and indignities linger, such as in ‘1 September 2008’, where Te Punga Somerville makes reference to the violent so-called anti-terrorist raids on Māori living in Te Urewera.

The poem ‘fleet’ cuts into the reality of cycles of intergenerational poverty and trauma, sometimes leading to crime, which for a lot of Māori communities is a constant struggle. This is true particularly for Māori women, the most incarcerated Indigenous women in the world.

a polynesian destination for these centuries

arrivals to a bigger

colder place

Te Punga Somerville’s words offer a solidarity and an interrogation of our own complicity, but also how we might try to do better. For instance, ‘worst place to be a pilot’ interrogates a television show centred around white pilots in ‘Indonesia’ (or rather, as she reminds us, West Papua, a land under Indonesian occupation). She then reflects upon her body as a ‘polynesian woman’ and speaks of the sleeping ‘melanesian husband’ beside her, before reminding us that West Papua, like Aotearoa, is also a part of the Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa and was renamed ‘New Zealand’.

nothing changes in the Pacific:
except the fact we forget sometimes
in our own                        renamed                                   islands

that we are a part of it.

The gaps between these words remind us that, although we are separated by bodies of water, these histories of violence and survival connect us, like the swirling ocean.

The painful history of dispossession following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, along with its intergenerational effects, are touched upon in poems such ‘Waitangi Day 2019’ and ‘time to write’. These lines from the former sting hardest:

So many Waikato killing fields, farms on stolen land drenched with Banaban bones,
past the faded sign for a café called Cook’s landing.

I come from those Waikato fields. Those lands belonged to my ancestors and were stolen not even two hundred years ago from my great-great-grandparents. The referenced to ‘Banaban bones’ again stretches the histories of Aotearoa outwards, reminding us that our nation was a colonial force. Phosphorus was found in Banaba in 1900 by an Australian-born New Zealander, Albert Ellis, who worked quickly to make an ‘agreement’ with the Indigenous Te Aka people whereby his private company, Pacific Phosphate Company Ltd, could mine the island for a period of 999 years at a cost of £50 per year. Over the following decades, exports rose significantly, but Australian and New Zealand farmers continued to pay far below market prices until 1963.

In referencing the violence in Banaba, Te Punga Somerville expresses the truth of how most of the British empire was acquired — not through gentlemanly ‘discovery’, but rather extractive, corporate-militarist colonialism, exemplified by state-supported private companies such as the Pacific Phosphate Company Ltd.[6] By invoking these histories, Te Punga Somerville urgently rouses us to the complicity of our government and reinforces onto the reader in what Jodi A Byrd calls ‘colonial agnosia’, or the idea that

… colonialism remains pervasive, but never comprehended as an extensive and constitutive living formulation by those situated in its complicity with colonial occupation.[7]

The reference to Cook in ‘Waitangi Day 2019’ reminds us that his worldview marked Aotearoa’s landscape, at a time when British fens and woods were being drained and the commons enclosed in order for those lands to be rendered ‘productive’. When describing Aotearoa in his diary, botanist Joseph Banks — who also travelled on the Endeavour — remarked that the Hauraki plains that once linked to and across the Waikato were ‘Swamps Which Might Doubtless Easily Be Drained.’[8] Through Cook, we witness the power of naming in our own renamed islands, as he was able to transform the land into an object for European understanding by turning places that were stolen from us into symbols invested with intent.[9]

The nation-building of ‘New Zealand’ was not limited to the violent visits to our shores of men like James Cook. In ‘Permeable’, Te Punga Somerville connects violent nation-statehood by interweaving the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean with a Mohawk friend who has to show ‘his Status card to roam all over North America,’ and officers from the US-Mexico border who train Israeli guards against bodies within occupied Palestine. These violent examples of the power of citizenship and borders are a punch in the guts, and a terse point that acknowledges the privilege of people carrying New Zealand passports to move with relative ease across borders. This is testimony to Te Punga Somerville’s ability to contextualise the Pacific within a global context.

The edges of states, policed by bullet-proof vests
bits of paper
and the stories we remember to tell.


The opening lines of ‘room’ — ‘there are captain cooks amongst us too – bullies, / throwing their weight around’ — remind me of experiences I have had within Māori spaces where I have been made to feel deficient or have been gatekept by other Māori colleagues. This is disheartening feeling is reminiscent of ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, where Fanon portrays the national bourgeoisie in the African context as a parasitic class that lacks either economic power or ideas, and whose political insecurity drives it to seeking to emulate the colonial masters it had overthrown.

Like Fanon, Te Punga Somerville identifies the omnipresence of colonial violence embedded within the colonial subject. She acknowledges how hard it is to unlearn those modes of behaviour in her subtitle — ‘How to Write While Colonised’ — and by quoting Hawaiian scholar Haunami Kay-Trask suggestion that ‘racism envelopes us, intoxicating our thoughts, permeating our brains and skins, determining the shape of our growth and the longevity of our lives.’

In ‘room’, we are told that there are no centres, no rooms, no walls. This idea of limitless space and of there being no centre recalls Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the organic intellectual and how to build a coalition for liberation, where everyone stands together because they share the same economic position or status. For Gramsci, everyone is a philosopher and an intellectual, but due to the division of labour, some people are intellectuals for a living, whereas others exercise intellectual thought or skills in other areas of their daily lives. Te Punga Somerville reminds us that, as we try to build a wider movement, it is imperative that we think through how to ensure that there is space for everyone to contribute. Māori, like all Indigenous cultures, identify themselves collectively rather than through liberal individualism. Indigenous epistemology requires and is dependent on the formation of relationships in order to develop ideas.[10] Indigenous people exist like the analogy of the wheke (octopus), whereby waterways between islands are not distances from one another, but rather a series of waka-highways that lead us to one another. By this reference, Te Punga Somerville speaks again to our interconnectedness, and how we must work together to imagine and materialise liberation.


In ‘Te Kawa a Māui farewell’ — a poem whose title refers to leaving the Māori studies department at Victoria university where Te Punga Somerville taught from 2005 to 2012 — the author reflects on what it means to move away from the place where you are Indigenous to a place where you are still Indigenous, yet you do not belong to land you are living on. She does this by mentioning the shapeshifting demigod Māui, whose name and stories are common throughout the Pacific. This again establishes again a Māori connection to our cousins across the wider Pacific, but also refers to Māui’s nature as a trickster, transformer, the pōtiki (youngest) who challenges the status quo. In ‘from aotearoa to turtle island’, Te Punga Somerville writes:

hunched over a typewriter
you smoothed and reinforced supple cords
dreamed they would one day knot
around infant shapes
of unborn unknown genealogies

These lines conjure up the image of Taranga, Māui’s mother, who thinking her infant boy dead, cuts her hair and wraps his body in it before casting him into the ocean.

In many ways Te Punga Somerville is a Māui, a person who wanders, who challenges and cannot hold the ahi kā, as expressed in this line from ‘Te Kawa a Māui farewell’ :

I’ve never been an ahi kā kinda girl.

She continues:

It’s just who we are, collectively, together: some are ahi kā, some roam.

Ahi kā explains how the presence of the iwi (tribe) at home is critical for the vitality and continued occupation of their papakāinga, their home. Ahi means fire and kā refers to burning or to burn. In precolonial times. the fires were kept burning as a visual indicator that a piece of land was being occupied. The concept is now used as a way of reinforcing the importance of maintaining a presence on your whenua (land, placenta), as a way of ensuring the survival of your iwi. Te Punga Somerville expresses the conundrum of many urbanised Māori unable to live on their whenua for a number of reasons — maybe because of mahi (work), or maybe because they wander like Māui, searching for adventure and to find other threads of connection.

As a scholar, Te Punga Somerville has always considered the unbroken links between Aotearoa and the wider Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (Pacific). In Always Italicise, we see this in the frequent mentions of our shared atua Māui, and our connections across what she calls — in ‘first draft of a waiata tangi’ — the ‘watery hemisphere’, but also more broadly in moments of solidarity, where she considers the different ways in which histories of colonial struggle for sovereignty overlap.

In an earlier scholarly work — Once were Pacific: Māori connections to Oceania — Te Punga Somerville writes through and with an illustration made by Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator aboard Cook’s Endeavour. This depicts the Botanist Joseph Banks exchanging tapa cloth with a Māori chief who offers a koura (crayfish) in exchange. Thinking through the cloth, Te Punga Somerville reflects on how this barkcloth, not unlike her great voyaging Polynesian ancestors, travelled across the ocean.

In Aotearoa, tapa is known as aute. In Niue it is known as hiapo. In Hawai’I, it is kapa. In Samoa, it is siapo, and in Tahiti it is tapa. This connection between us as people belonging to this ocean and connected through this fibre is reiterated again in ‘the radical act of sleeping’, where Te Punga Somerville writes about sovereignty and being in an archive room.

i. a kapa blanket

of all the unfolding and gentle handling
in this archive room
the most surprising sheets
were tapa — kapa — an expanse of beaten fibre
sewn to a stretch of red cotton
patterns pounded into kapa still visible on the cotton as well
layers of kapa for insulation in between:
under which a Hawaiian family slept almost 200 years ago

the radical act of sleeping’ reminds us again that our Hawaiian cousins within Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa live under settler occupation, yet continue to resist by maintaining cultural practices such as making kapa cloth, as well as by swearing allegiance to a Hawaiian flag that can act as a ‘flag blanket’ — encasing and protecting the bodies of their children while they sleep.


Many of the works in Always Italicise connect to one another.  In both ‘An Indigenous scholar’s request to other scholars’ and ‘An Indigenous woman scholar’s prayer, Te Punga Somerville acknowledges the challenges of academic life, but also what she wishes to impart to other Indigenous researchers and scholars. The first poem plays stylistically with citations as a means of outlining its academic context but also to encourage other scholars to think of those who have come before us as companions as well as people whose shoulders we stand on. This serves also as a means of mitigating the reasons that Indigenous scholarship is excluded and the difficulty in being an Indigenous person within an academic institution. It’s a mnemonic note that not all of our ideas are necessarily original — so it’s important to read widely and acknowledge the breadth of work by Indigenous thinkers:

Treat it as scholarship with which you as a scholar can engage: do not treat it as (or refer to it as) perspective or culture … Your bibliography will show who you have been reading — so do your comments and your arguments.

Just as poignantly, in ‘prayer’ she writes: ‘May i run out of ideas before i run out of time.

This idea of writing companions and of being connected to a whakapapa of the ideas and words is reinforced by the dedication of poems toTe Rangihiroa (Sir Peter Buck), JC Sturm, Epeli Hau’ofa, Teresia Teaiwa, and Tracey Banivanua Mar.


Always Italicise is a collection of astonishing depth, rich with both stories and histories. Its structure is thoughtful, politically engaged and concise, and Neil Pardington’s design and cover are truly special.

I cannot write more words about why I think people should read this book. Instead, I want to talk about the poem that has stayed with me after every re-reading. It is entitled ‘Sphere’ and speaks to the experience of a miscarriage in a way that I’ve never encountered before.

It physically hurt me to read it because I experienced a miscarriage myself in late 2019, but I found myself returning to it over and over again, thinking through my own unresolved grief. It begins with a quote by the late Taranaki writer JC Sturm — ‘The Planet is an urupā’. The word urupā refers to a graveyard or the place where we bury our dead, and the line signifies the ways in which our bodies emotionally but also biologically hold those who have passed away. The poem is imbued with a Te Ao Māori understanding of time right from the title, for on the surface of a sphere, again, ‘there is no centre’: our whakapapa connects us to our ancestors, to the trees, to sharp rock, to a molten core, to the whenua, to atua such as Papatūānuku (earth mother) and to the great ocean tides that brought us here and connect us like a giant wheke to Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa.

I am an urupā:
full of
whakapapa, full of death,
a place to mourn the hearts
that used to beat


[1]  Georgina Tuari Stewart, Māori Philosophy: Indigenous Thinking from Aotearoa, (Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 90

[2] Vine Deloria. Jr. ‘Relativity, Relatedness, and Reality’, Barbara Deloria, Kristen Foehner and Sam Scinta (eds.) Spirit and Reason: A Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden, Colorado, 1999, p. 37

[3] Wub-e-ke-niew, We Have the Right to Exist a Translation of Aboriginal Indigenous Thought : The First Book Ever Published From an Ahnishinahbæotjibway Perspective. Black Thistle Press: New York, NY, 1995, p. 218

[4] Te Kawehau Hoskins and Allison Jones, ‘Non human others and Kaupapa Maaori research’, Critical conversations in Kaupapa Maaori. Huia Publishers: Wellington, 2017, p. 31

[5] Alice Te Punga Somerville, ielts, pg. 9.

[6] Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. (London: Pluto Press, 2021), pg. 222.

[7] Jodi A Byrd, ‘Eyes that can never close: Colonial Agnosia and the Mnemonics of Refusal’, Cultural Studies Colloquium, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2015.

[8] Geoff Park, ‘The Immense Trees of Ooahaouragee’, Ngā Ururoa: The Groves of Life. (Wellington: VUP, 1995), p. 37

[9] Ibid, pg. 32

[10] Shawn Wilson, Research is ceremony: indigenous research methods (Canada: Fernwood Publishing, 2008), p. 8

Hana Pera Aoake

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Hinerangi, Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/ Waikato, Tauranga Moana) is an artist, writer and curator based in Aotearoa. They coorganise Kei te pai press with Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa). Hana has a book, A bathful of kawakawa and hot water (2020) and is the curator of the Kawerau Museum, but most importantly is Miriama Jean’s māmā.

More by Hana Pera Aoake ›

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