July 1, 2021
Franchesca Walker (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāti Pāhauwera, Pākehā) is a writer and storyteller living on Whadjuk Noongar land. Born and raised in Aotearoa New Zealand, she arrived in Australia after her father had what can only be described as a mid-life crisis and decided that his life passion really lay in driving trucks in WA mines. This life-changing decision might be why Franchesca writes memoir – as a show of thanks (or is it punishment?) to her father for exposing her to the Perth way of life. It also doesn’t hurt that her father and the rest of her family are infinitely more interesting than any characters that could come from her own mind. Franchesca’s work has most recently been performed as part of Baredfaced Stories and published in the Centre for Stories Journal.
During her residency at Drip Expresso, which was funded by the City of Bayswater, Franchesca worked on an extract from a collection of essays she’s writing about her family – it centres around the driveway of the house she grew up in, and the important role it played in her life. Apparently the driveway had to be seen to be believed; one of her friends dubbed it “The Rollercoaster.”
Read on to learn more about her, her practice, her time at Drip, then further on to read the extract.
Tell us a bit about yourself – where have you come from, where are you going, and which people and what experiences have shaped you along the way?
I grew up on the outskirts of a small rural town in the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in the same house, went to school with the same kids, played the same sports as everyone else. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how much my outlook on life was influenced by growing up in this environment. Kids from different socio-economic backgrounds were constantly being thrown together, which gave me an insight into the inequality affecting our community. Interacting with people from different classes – some richer, some poorer – reinforced the importance of acknowledging my own privilege and recognising that my life experiences are not necessarily shared by everyone. I think it gave me a strong sense of justice (although I’m sure some of my friends would say it frequently tips over into an over-developed sense of righteousness).
My family are the most influential people in my life. They are an endless source of stories, loudness, hilarity and passion, which is probably why I keep returning to them as subjects.
We are an eclectic mix. My mother is the daughter of Pākehā farmers from the South Island while my father is the son of Māori shearers from the North Island. From different cultural, economic and geographic backgrounds, the odds of them meeting let alone falling in love was pretty slim. I, for one, am glad that they did.
As my partner, Alex, will tell you, the question, “Where are you going?”, can set off a deep existential crisis. My dream is to buy a block of land, live in a tiny house, put up a water tank, build a massive vege garden and cover the block in native trees (you know, the bourgeois dream du jour). This dream is unlikely to happen any time soon, though, so instead of focusing on where I’m going, I’m trying to pay attention to where I am right now. This involves a lot of mindfulness, breathing and – as the guided meditation I listen to tells me – not judging my thoughts or sounds. I’m not very good at it. Cue the deep existential crisis.
What about your writing practice? What sort of things do you like to write about and how do they take form?
I’m an early morning writer, mainly because I’m also an early riser and figure I might as well use the hours for writing rather than wandering around the house like some demented wraith. It’s also partly out of necessity. I’m rubbish at stringing coherent sentences together after a full day at work, so writing in the morning is really all I’m left with.
I write about my family. Even when I try not to, they still worm their way in. My Nana and Poppa, for example, found their way into an essay on noise that I wrote during my residency. They’ve been dead for years, but made themselves heard. Every time I sat down to write, memories of them rose to the surface. It happened so many times that I eventually gave in and included them in the essay.
Explaining how I write is difficult because, to be honest, I don’t know. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott encourages writers to pretend they’re looking through a one-inch picture frame and write the one inch of story that they can see. I think this is what I do. I visualise a memory or scene in my mind and write everything until I run out of words. Then I go back and cull, cull, cull.
Are there particular authors, musicians, artists or otherwise that have impacted your work?
I don’t know whether authors or other artists impact my work so much as inspire me to keep writing in the hopes that one day – in the distant, distant future – I will have developed an iota of their genius.
I’d love to be able to harness energy as well as George Saunders. I hope against hope my writing about landscape is half as good as Tim Winton’s. Helen Garner’s efficiency with words is something I aspire to. The beauty of Helen Macdonald’s writing in H is for Hawk. Anne Lamott or David Sedaris’s humour. Absolutely everything in Maya Angelou’s series of memoirs. They all inspire and thrill.
When I’m writing a piece, I tend to have a handful of songs on repeat. During the residency, I kept playing Sunday by Joy Oladokun, Love Goes by Sam Smith and Labrinth, Laps Around the Sun by Ziggy Alberts and, mainly because it’s what my Nana played on the piano when I was younger and that’s where my mind was for a lot of the residency, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
What were some of the challenges and joys of writing in a public venue like Drip for extended periods of time?
Things clamoured for my attention while I was at Drip. Music, cars driving along King William Street, works on the train line, people laughing on the table next to me – everything was infinitely more interesting than the piffle I was trying to yank out of my brain and onto the page.
I felt fully part of the Bayswater community while at Drip. I began to know what time parents pushing prams dropped by for their coffees, how long friends loitered over their breakfasts, where Drip regulars preferred to sit.
Did you meet, or see, any interesting people while you were there? Have, or will, any of them make their way into your work?
People I’ve met or seen tend to roll around in my mind for a long time before they appear in my writing. So, while no one from Drip features in the writing that I completed during the residency, they’ll no doubt make an appearance at some point.
The general ambiance at Drip fed into one of the pieces I completed during the residency. It explored the theme of noise, which is obviously a key part of any writer’s experience when working in a public place.
Did the residency impact your writing practice in any other ways?
Because there was so much going on at Drip, I found myself writing in shorter, more intense bursts than I usually do. My writing was more disjointed, mainly because I felt a greater need to put words on the page – it didn’t matter what it was or how well-crafted, I just needed words (I can only explain this drive for words as coming from the need to “look” like a writer. When I’m writing at home, half my time is spent staring off into space, trying to wrangle words in my mind before I type them out. But I felt like this would confirm any pre-existing perceptions people had of writers and so, in an attempt to save me and my fellow writers from the “lazy no-hoper” label, I kept on writing, writing, writing).
What have you been reading at the moment, and did you find time to read at Drip?
I have just finished a deep dive into George Saunders. In an embarrassingly short amount of time, I read A Swim in the Pond in the Rain immediately followed by Lincoln in the Bardo. I also listened to every interview I could find where he made an appearance – a level of immersion I don’t recommend to anyone, given that it left me in awe of his skill and a deep-seated conviction that I will never ever be as good a writer, let alone person, as George Saunders.
I’ve also recently finished Auē by Becky Manawatu, which won a slew of awards in Aotearoa New Zealand during 2020. Dealing with gang violence, it looks at all the ways the people we love can both hurt and love us in return. I found it heartbreaking; my sister, who works in corrections and read the book as well, said it was pretty much what she heard every day.
While at Drip, I finished Sam van Zweden’s Eating with my Mouth Open. She’s described it as “a giant braided essay.” It mixes memoir, food writing and cultural analysis, and I picked up the book to see how she structured all these competing genres and voices. Since I read mainly creative nonfiction, it’s probably closer to the type of book that usually graces my bedside table than Auē or George Saunders.
What writing were you working on during your residency at Drip?
I edited an essay, which I had started before the residency began, about the events surrounding the birth of my grandfather. I used family stories, primary sources, and my memories to investigate the idea of place and time and whether there is such a thing as truth.
I completed an essay on noise. I’ve been thinking about silence, sound and noise since lockdown in 2020. I touched on it in Sound Travels, which appeared in the Centre for Stories’ Journal, but it seems there’s more to explore. Working in a dynamic environment like Drip definitely contributed to my decision to revisit the theme.
I also started writing bits and pieces for a book of essays about my family, which I’m hoping will explore what it means to be an indigenous person living outside my country of origin. It’s definitely a work in progress at the moment, but hopefully it’ll develop into something.
Can you tell us more about the sample of writing that you’ve included with this interview?
My piece is an extract from the book of essays I’m writing about my family. It centres around the driveway of the house I grew up in, and the important role it played in my life. The driveway had to be seen to be believed; one of my best friends dubbed it “The Rollercoaster.”
And what’s your go-to residency drink of choice? Coffee? Chai? Tea? Hot chocolate?
A mocha is my drink of choice, mainly because I can pretend that I’m an adult because I’m drinking a coffee. We all know I’m just there for the chocolate, though.
Extract from War of Attrition
By Franchesca Walker
I grew up in a house perched on the side of a shallow valley. It was technically in the country: 100 metres past the speed sign freeing drivers from the 50-kilometre per hour limit in town and surrounded by, at least until they became lifestyle blocks in my teens, paddocks filled with sheep and cattle.
The house had two driveways. One ran behind the property and connected us to Cullinane Ave, a cul-de-sac of overly-large houses and manicured verges and landscaped front yards. Labelled a “prestigious location: by local real estate agents, it looked down on the town like an overdressed dowager. Our second driveway plunged from our house to Sandon Road, where cars towing trailers piled with junk drove every Sunday. In addition to being home to the speed sign and paddocks, Sandon Road was also the quickest way to the town rubbish dump.
We lost the Cullinane Ave driveway when I was about seven. For years, people had been using our property as a short cut, wandering from Cullinane Ave, through the broad turning bay connecting our two driveways, and out onto Sandon Road. Dad always found these people’s brazenness offensive, but it wasn’t until our lawnmower got stolen from its not-so-secure storage location in our unlocked woodshed that he took a stand. He closed off the top driveway, making a wall from rows of bricks balanced on top of each other and two wooden planks crossed in a giant ‘X’. Some chicken wire was thrown in for good measure. The makeshift wall was low enough for us kids to clamber over but intimidating—or maybe just weird—enough to stop anyone from crossing onto our property.
This solved Dad’s immediate security problem, but left him with another, longer-term, one. The Sandon Road drive, unlike Cullinane Ave, was not concreted. It was a steep shingle affair with a penchant for washing away in heavy rain. Half of it escaped every winter. Water rushed downhill and carved deep culverts in the dirt. By the time spring arrived, its structural integrity was in ruins and we were left with a driveway that was, essentially, a dried-out riverbed.
Instead of tackling this problem like a normal person and hiring a concrete truck to cover the driveway, Dad instead committed himself to a years-long war of attrition. Armed with his tiny portable concrete mixer, a wheelbarrow, a few bags of cement and some water, he began patching it up, bit by bit.
Dad never seemed to worry he was losing the war. No matter how much he fixed, the rain would always return and undo all his good work. To be fair, I’m not sure a fully-concreted driveway was ever Dad’s real aim. It would have made our family too accessible, too easy to get at. As it was, only people we trusted were able to navigate it. Either we told them the tricks – shift into first gear and take it at a steady pace – or they visited us enough to learn through trial and error. Everyone else – outsiders – skidded on the gravel, stalled on the first corner, got stuck in the agapanthus.
The drive was the moat to our castle, the protective barrier between us and them. And considering the world at the bottom of our hill didn’t seem all that welcoming to me or my family, I didn’t mind that it kept everyone at bay.
My parents met at a party held by the Young Nats, the youth wing of New Zealand’s centre-right political party.
Mum was at the party reluctantly. A tall, shy, 18-year-old, she usually avoided any social situation where there was a chance she’d encounter drunk people, strangers, or – horror of horrors – drunk strangers. She also wasn’t what you’d call a Nationals’ supporter. Although she fit their traditional demographic, being both Pākehā and the daughter of a wealthy farmer, her attendance at the party had less to do with her support of the party’s aggressive socialist conservatism than with the presence of a young man on whom she’d developed a crush.
My father, in contrast, did vote for the Nationals. It wasn’t a natural fit for a skinny Māori guy with a mini-afro, which is exactly why he did it. I imagine someone once told him Māori don’t vote for National and, not one to be told what to do, he conducted his own one-man protest against such blatant stereotyping. Because of an annoying innovation called the secret ballot, it was a largely invisible and mute protest, to be sure, but a protest nonetheless.
Dad threw the Young Nats off his scent as a fellow supporter by spending most of the party referring to the leader of the National Party and then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as “Piggy Muldoon,” a nickname the press gave him courtesy of his squinty black eyes, almost spherical face and tendency to act like a swine (he famously called a snap election while visibly drunk, his words sliding into one another as he slurred his way through an impromptu press conference outside his parliamentary office).
My parents’ first interaction involved them arguing about the prime minister. Whether my mother liked Muldoon or was just drawn in by the promise of a debate is contested by the parties involved. “Mum, she liked to argue, as I found out later,” Dad said when I asked him about it. “You say black, Mum’d say white. You say white, she says black.”
Mum, meanwhile, claimed she immediately saw through Dad’s game. “I could tell, even then, that Dad loved getting a rise out of people,” she said. “Little did I know that what I thought was an attempt at humour would turn into a lifetime hobby that was not always funny.”
What is not disputed is that, at some point in their conversation, Dad spilled red wine down the front of Mum’s shirt. Ever the master storyteller, he was waving his arms around to illustrate some point and accidentally knocked Mum’s wine glass from her hand. Mum took one look at her wine-stained top and immediately forgot about the guy who she’d followed to the party and her dislike for drunk people.
They were married two and a half years later in a weatherboard chapel on a sunny day.
When my parents tied the knot, interracial marriage wasn’t exactly the norm. Māori and Pākehā have been marrying for almost as long as there’s been contact between the two cultures but as historian Angela Wanhalla points out in her book, Matters of the Heart, the degree to which it has been accepted by either side has ebbed and flowed over the centuries.
The year I was born, multi-ethnic households only accounted for around nine per cent of the total population. Given I only knew two other families like ours, it was probably much lower in the town where I grew up. It might have been different if we had lived in one of New Zealand’s cities, where there had been a “browning” of the population after World War II, driven by Māori urban migration and a resulting increase in interracial marriages. But we did not. We lived on the outskirts of a small farming town in the middle of the North Island.
British imperialism built the town where I grew up. The tōtara, mātai and rimu which once stretched as far as the eye could see were long gone, obliterated by the British settlers who’d arrived in the nineteenth century and, like a great swarm of desert locusts, systematically stripped the land of its great forests. Acre upon acre was cut down and burned off. The smoke from their autumn fires choked the air.
The settlers largely ignored the existing interests that Māori had in the land. They sowed pasture, introduced cattle and sheep. They built a town with straight roads and clearly delineated sections and named their new surroundings after the cities and people they’d left behind. Just like ranchers branding their cattle, they seared their names into the landscape, attempting – as historian Giselle M. Byrnes puts it – to “domesticate, tame, and ultimately possess the new environment.”
Since our town had its roots in the Pākehā world, it was Pākehā standards that I measured my family against. Other kids in my situation may have responded differently. I know for a fact that my older sister, Gabrielle, never worried much about whether she was Māori or Pākehā. “Your sister was just born with a Māori heart,” Mum used to say. I, in contrast, was born with perfectionism and a hyperawareness of societal expectations. This unfortunate combination meant I not only knew what was required to “fit in” but had an overwhelming drive to meet those standards.
To make matters worse, I could “pass” as white – or at least non-Māori – so Pākehā people didn’t censor themselves around me. I learned early on that many Pākehā saw Māori as inferior. Lazy, unemployed, alcoholic, no doubt harbouring criminal tendencies: these were the messages about Māori I absorbed. They were good sportspeople, to be sure, but this was because they’d won the genetic lottery and not because they’d worked to hone their skills. They could be entertainers, mainly in comedy or singing, but definitely didn’t have the smarts to be doctors or lawyers or hold any sort of position of power.
Nothing in my world seemed to contradict these stereotypes. The only Māori I saw being celebrated were netballers or rugby players, musicians or comedians. It seemed like every other brown face on TV was getting arrested or standing in a courtroom dock, facing trial. As far as I know, none of my primary school teachers were Māori. None of the doctors in town were Māori. The mayor, my ballet teacher, optometrist, drama teacher: all Pākehā. Being Māori in our town was like being a speck of dirt at the very bottom of a snow-covered iceberg.
Other Māori kids might have had relations who could have acted as a bulwark against these stereotypes, but because of Dad’s complicated relationship with his family, this wasn’t an option for me. I could have looked to Dad himself. He was a business owner, Tai Chi teacher and Māori representative on our school board, and offered me a different model of what it meant to be Māori. Don’t get me wrong; the man wasn’t a saint. He drank too much, too often. He radiated waves of silent anger when he was upset, which was a lot of the time. But just as I never blamed any of my Mum’s behaviour on being Pākehā, I never saw anything my father did as Māori. He was just Dad.
Mum tried her best to encourage a sense of pride in me. When my primary school began offering weekly, hour-long te reo Māori lessons in the early 1990s, she signed me up. Māori had only become one of New Zealand’s official languages five years earlier and people were starting to realise it needed to be taught more widely for it to survive. Dad himself hadn’t grown up speaking te reo, courtesy of the physical punishment generations of children had received if they were heard using it at school.
Perhaps to rebalance the scales, our lessons were only open to Māori students and only held during the school day. I had to excuse myself in the middle of maths or handwriting or English to attend and, as a kid who wanted nothing more than to fit in, it seemed like an excruciating and wholly unnecessary weekly ritual. When will I even need Māori? I wondered every time I dawdled to a lesson. Everyone speaks English anyway.
My feeling of being an outsider intensified when I arrived at the lesson. The other kids in the class were a couple of years older than me and following a completely different set of rules. Admittedly, my scholastic career was in its early stages but in my short time at school, I thought I’d figured out that, if a teacher asked a question, you were meant to raise your hand and give the correct answer. This is not how my new classmates saw it. They sneered at me when I answered questions, called me a teacher’s pet under their breath.
I also sucked at speaking te reo. Every word I uttered sounded plastic. My pronunciation was too careful, my vowels over-exaggerated. My classmates giggled when I stumbled and, like a covert radio operator listening to enemy broadcasts, I heard the message I’d been waiting for: not Māori enough.
After a few lessons, I began nagging Mum to withdraw me until, finally, she did. It was 18 years before I stepped into another te reo Māori class.
The bottom of our driveway marked the end of enemy territory. When the soles of my shoes met its gravelly surface after school each day, an invisible weight lifted from my shoulders. I heard Dad’s grinder buzzing in the garage, finishing off an order for a customer. A warm woody smell, released by the afternoon sun, wafted from the fence posts. Annelise, the baby of the family, called to me when I was halfway up, her disembodied voice drifting down from a nearby tree. “Hello,” she said cheerfully, while I craned my head and tried to spot how high she’d climbed. I smiled and waved back. I was safe.
At home, I could be whoever I wanted to be. I wore gumboots and skirts and hooned around on my bike. I spent whole days reading on the veranda, moving my chair to follow the sun. I played in the sandpit and leapt like a ballerina across the room I shared with Gabrielle. I made up songs in the bath and dreamt of the day I’d become a famous country singer. I built tree huts with the neighbours and played rugby with my brother, Jarrad. I spent hours playing teddies with Gabrielle when I was little, then yelling at her when I was a teenager. I changed constantly, switching hobbies, personalities, feelings – all without worrying my actions were somehow betraying one of my ethnicities.
I wish I could have shown myself some grace when I was younger, the same grace I’d shown my parents when I refused to see their strengths or weaknesses as inherent Māori or Pākehā traits. The standards I was trying to meet were the product of my own brain, a mix of stereotype, myth, history and a good dose of my personal insecurities. I didn’t have the perspective necessary to see them as unrealistic. So I spent my childhood contorting myself – my interests, my personality, my very being – to embody an ideal of Māori and Pākehā-ness that never really existed.
It was exhausting. The driveway was the only thing that saved me. It kept the world at bay and temporarily silenced the internal voice hounding me to prove my self-worth. Up the driveway, in our house on the hill, I never had to be wholly Māori or wholly Pākehā. I could exist in the in-between space with one foot in the Pākehā world and one in te ao Māori. My siblings and I, with our mixed genetic data and respect for our entire whakapapa, couldn’t choose one ethnicity over the other. And, more importantly, no one at home expected us to.
Dad told Annelise she could write her initials in the concrete when he finally completed the whole drive, but that day never came. In my last year of high school, Dad packed up his life in New Zealand and moved to Australia. The driveway was never finished.
Five months after Dad Ieft, we sold our house on the hill. Two months after that, I moved to Wellington for university.
I wish I could say I was ready to face the world alone by then, that the driveway had served its purpose and I’d somehow managed to develop an identity that wasn’t based on how other people saw me. But that would not be true.
b I know it’s an impossible dream. No physical location, no group of people can give me what I want; the acceptance and belonging I’m looking for does not exist outside myself.
I am the product of two people who should not have met, let alone fallen in love. I am the product of two people who got married and had four children, despite their families telling them not to. I am living proof that the impossible is possible and that even dreams become reality. So I keep searching and hoping. When I leave my house and go out into the world, I wonder if today is the day that I win my own war of attrition.
[i] Angela Wanhalla, Matters of the Heart: A history of interracial marriage in New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2013), xiv.
[ii] Giselle M. Byrnes, “Affixing names to places: Colonial surveying and the construction of cultural space,” New Zealand Studies 8, no. 1 (1998): 22.
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