Writing Sample All our Occupations

Excerpts from All our Occupations (in progress)


For a long time, when asked after my earliest memory, I would recall a place I’d woken to as an infant. The memory was of my bedroom as I’d seen it from where I slept, a crib most likely, since I was so young, and it must have been tucked into a corner or a nook because the perspective—my perspective—is unmistakably that of someone trying to see from the dark. Above and beyond me, at an imprecise distance, there was a glittering, bright surface, almost as though I slept not in a crib but at the still bottom of the sea. The quivering surface was the window, and through it, light streamed in, eradicating the streaky grays of the room, and as it did, it encountered the only clear objects I remember, which were the curtains: a truly 1970s print: bold block prints, cutout-flowers, I suppose, or the traces of them, in various shades of purple—violet, mauve, eggplant—with the occasional olive green branch, and all of it bold against a cream background, not white.


This wasn’t a memory, though, but a polaroid I saw at some point much later in my childhood, a polaroid that had that analogue blur to it, where indistinction ran together in a fluid way, so different from the ever sharp pixelations that fake blur now. The polaroid was of my room, I think, which may also have been a shade of purple and when I saw it, I remember looking at it and thinking “How New Zealand of it,” that room, when surely, in the globalised economy of the 1970s, that paint, that window, those curtains, that room could have existed anywhere on this earth. But to me the New Zealandness of that room was part of my image of myself as a transplant since I had, by then, moved to Canada. It was in Canada that I would have seen the photograph, and by then I’d started to make a few friends and in doing so, realize that my words and accent didn’t match theirs. My sense of being an outsider was not that I didn’t fit in, but that I was exotic. That photo memory cemented it, made it so: even as a child looking at a polaroid of my earliest home, I knew that exotic was better than excluded.


When I was born, my parents considered calling me Nio, a Māori name, but settled on the one I have, because it had more syllables, or so I’ve been told, and not because either of them had any special attachment to my father’s secretary, also named Jocelyn. I spent most of my childhood wishing I’d had that name, and much of my adult life realizing how lucky I am that I didn’t.




That bedroom was in a house that my parents had built on a patch of land in a newly developed Auckland suburb called Pakuranga, which means “battle of the sunlight.” Maori legend tells of an ongoing battle between mythical nocturnal creatures. One day, a Maori leader caused the sun to rise earlier than expected. The burst of light caused the monsters to die.


In the months after my birth, my mother fell into a deep depression.


Medieval monks called depression the noonday demon, but I wonder how much my mother’s depression had to do with a nightly battle of her own. With what mythical creatures did my mother battle? This is a question I have asked all my life, but there is a strong possibility that, at least in that period of her life, the creature she was battling was me. Later, though, these nightly battles would spill over into the day, and they would have little to do with me or anything I could properly understand. Does the suggestion that those mythical creatures battled again in the person of my mother amount to cultural appropriation? Is that cultural appropriation of the same degree or not as bad as the appropriation that my being named Nio would have amounted to? Can these things be talked about in degrees?




That was in October, 1977. Queen Elizabeth was touring the commonwealth. Both Canada and New Zealand hosted her and both countries claim Exclusive Economic Zones of 200 nautical miles beyond their shores. In both countries, indigenous resistance to colonial rule was ongoing. Members of the Ngati Whatua in Takaparawha protested crown sales of land taken from Maori. In Canada, members of the Nisga’a nation hadn’t quite won the Calder case, but it’d caused an upset: then Prime Minister Trudeau admitted that Indigenous peoples had a hell of a lot more rights than he’d realized.



The first version of this project—the one that existed before I’d written a single word—was a version of my dissertation on shame. I’d followed all the canonized thinkers—white men, practically all of them—and had come to the conclusion that shame was good for us, that it was good for me. Following Derrida who was following Plato, I described shame as a pharmakon: a thing that could, depending on its dosage, heal us, harm us, or get us wasted. Not every poison is a medicine, but many of them can get you pretty high. Shame could do all that. Shame cemented us in community, making us accountable to one another, but it simultaneously conjured the most primal nightmare of deepest isolation, loneliness, rejection and failure. The paradox of shame was that it held us in connection to others precisely when we felt our most estranged and alienated.


When, sitting around a conference table at a prestigious university in an otherwise entirely provincial town in south west Germany, my dissertation committee asked me how my thinking on shame related to the “plight,” of indigenous peoples in Canada, I thought it all fit. If we could not, as settlers, embrace our shame, we would inevitably resort to contempt. We would dehumanize indigenous peoples and, in turn, ourselves. Shame kept us human. I was awarded Summa Cum Laude and after it was all over we partied into the Swabian night.

The shames of settler life are many: the stolen land, the sins of our ancestors, and the sins of today: the way settler life promises so much more (money, healthcare, access to education, healthy food, childcare) than indigenous life. But I could write this project as an account of my shame. Just thinking about it disgusted me.


And so I started again.




Before my Mom and Dad built in Pakuranga, it was farmland—settler farmland—and before that, Maori farmland. Before the Maori, it was all birds. In Aotearoa, before humans arrived, birds and frogs were the loquacious rulers of a predator-free land. A blessing, yes, but also a curse because once humans did arrive, no one ate the frogs, and the fat, tasty birds were so tame one could walk up to them and knock them over with a stick. So tame that if you missed, they’d hang around, waiting to see what would happen next. Pigeons hung about on branches until you plucked them off. Partridges cried out dolefully when injured so that more were drawn in, and thus captured, too. The whalers, sealers, botanists, and missionaries encountered a land so aflutter that no where else on earth could produce such a chorus. In 1770, the botanist Joseph Banks wrote:

This morn I was awaked by the singing of the birds ashore from when we were distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great; their voices were certainly the [most] melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.

The Maori, having arrived hundreds of years earlier, had found not just pigeons and partridges, but giant Moa who were as dumb as they were tall, and so easy to capture that the Maori seem to have done until they were gone, which they were, by the 1600s, when the Maori returned to farming.




Actually, in order to get to Aotearoa in the first place, the Maori had to follow the birds. The distance between Polynesia and Aotearoa was measured in time: it would take many weeks to arrive and it took faith, or belief—or whatever you want to call it—that wherever the birds disappeared to every (season), and from wherever they returned, would be hospitable to them. The trip would have taken about four weeks, says …. Robert Flannery….which means a brave 28 days in the open seas with, also according to Flannery, a crew of the strongest, fittest, Maori, and some live chickens and kumara roots.

When they arrived, they found the Moa. Towering Moa at 250 kilograms and little ones pecking around their feet, clueless as to the danger they posed. The chickens were miniature by comparison. When, after a few centuries, the Moa ran out, or maybe before, the Maori returned to farming kumura and built pā, which were fortified structures built on volcanic hills and protected by palisades, sometimes multiple palisades. Inside a given pā could be water wells and storage pits for the kumura. In more elaborate pā, ramparts and underground passages facilitated undetected communication and escape; Maori artists carved tools and weapons from obsidian, chert, ivory, and wood sometimes coated in the thick red dye called kokowai. Some pā were simple hillocks and others were works of art.

At least four or five centuries ago, in what today is called Pakuranga, the Ngāi Tai Iwi built their pā on Ohuiarangi and Mokoia Pā, the first a mountain called Pigeon Mountain, the second a cliff.


In 1818, Chief Hongi Hika of the Ngāpuhi acquired muskets and fired them at their enemies. The enemies lived beneath the Northland peninsula, moving south. These were the musket wars.

In 1820, the Ngāpuhi arrived at the mountain and the cliff where the obsidian, chert, ivory and red wood offered no real defense.  In September 1820, the Ngāpuhi attacked the Ngāi Tai Iwi, killing most.




The kumura mightn’t have satisfied like the Moa once had, but it did do something the Maori wouldn’t have anticipated. In the seventeenth century, after the Maori made their trek, but before the settlers had arrived, the political philosopher John Locke wrote his Second Treatise of Government. There, he describes nature as wild and common to all but explains how wild things can be transformed—he gives acorns as an example—through the labor of individuals.

It [the acorn, for example] being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men….

Labour is a kind of fixative, in that it binds the labourer to that which has been worked. Labour transforms an thing into property. Locke’s first example of this is of a man walking through an oak grove. It is a wild, acorned place. Then the man picks up an acorn. Locke asks at which point the acorn is transformed into property:

I ask then, when did they begin to be his? When he digested? Or when he eat? Or when he boiled? Or when he brought them home? Or when he picked them up? And it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. (457)

The acorn, in Locke’s estimation, is the example that will pave the way for where the relationship between property and labour really matters, which is on the land, and how we make it ours:

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth it self; as that which takes in, and carries with it all the rest: I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common.

I say that Locke proposes this, but it’s not really a proposition. He writes this as an explanation of how things work, naturally. I’m always amazed that these men felt equipped to explain nature. Or God for that matter: [God] gave [the world] to the use of the industrious and rational (and labour was to be his title to it) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.


How do you know, Locke? How do you know?




When I asked my Mom to describe the years she lived in Pakuranga, she recalled the Marmite—awful stuff—the people—friendly, but cold—and the home they built—how nice it had been to live on reserve land, with its fierce wind and horses grazing just over the fence. What did she mean by “reserve land,” I asked. Well, it’s since become a Nature reserve, she said. I looked it up. We lived on Imogene Way. The backyard looked out onto Pigeon Mountain, or Ohuiarangi, the location of the mountainside pā of the Ngāi Tai Iwi that was wiped out by musket-bearing Ngāpuhi from the Northland peninsula. When the Ngāpuhi won such battles they didn’t occupy the land. From Wikipedia:

Rather than occupy territory in areas they defeated their enemy, they seized taonga (treasures) and slaves, who they put to work to grow and prepare more crops—chiefly flax and potatoes—as well as pigs to trade for even more weapons. A flourishing trade in the smoked heads of slain enemies and slaves also developed.

In the 1960s, Maori remains and artifacts were discovered on the mountain, not more than a kilometre from where my parents would start building a decade later. In the conversation with my Mom, she went off course, saying that if I ever built a home, and if I ever wanted to have a balcony, I should think twice on account of the wind. But you’re not thinking of buying a house anytime soon, are you?

No, I say.

There, on Imogene Way, too far from her friends, her family, her home, my Mom felt increasingly isolated.




In the Maori dictionary, the word Maunga: Mountain, mount, peak, is defined as follows:

Kei te āta āngia haeretia e te Pākehā, āpōpō ake nei piri mai ana i ngā pari, i runga rānei i ngā keokeonga o ngā maunga (TTT 1/3/1930:1992). 

We are slowly being driven out by the Pākehā and soon will be clinging to the cliffs or on the peaks of the mountains. 

Perhaps the authors of the Maori dictionary were referring to Pigeon Hill, to our little spot on Imogene way. I am Pākehā. Some commentators emphasize that the term is not derogatory, but it does establish some limits on identity. Maori can, for example, become too Pākehā:




I live in Canada now, and after years of living abroad, I think of myself as from Canada, or as from this place as anywhere. I’m not from New Zealand any more, and if it’s the Pacific Ocean I have in me, its the green-grey moods as they ebb and flow in the inlets around the territory known as Vancouver, not Auckland. When I arrive somewhere new and instinctively look for landmarks, it’s the north shore mountains I’m looking for. The smell of a place should be of the place I grew up, which means it should smell like shit in the spring time and hay in the fall; when it doesn’t smell like farming it should smell like fishing. Everywhere, something is growing. When I am in Montreal, cycling, for example, up St. Laurent, and I am hit by a gust of wind I’ll make the mistake of breathing in deep, thinking it’s the ocean I’ll swallow and not exhaust issuing from a salt-rusted car. I’ll look for seagulls. That west coast land is in me, but is it mine? Over there, on that coast, I’d never be able to afford to be a property owner, but what if I could?

How is this century going to be different from the last? Can settler colonialism come to an end? Will reconciliation happen before climate change has made the question moot? If my partner and I have a child will that child look back on our lives and think “they knew, but they did nothing”? As I write this, these questions all seem urgent to me, but in a different mood, I can ignore them completely. Nothing about my life demands an engagement with settler colonialism. I despise sanctimony and if someone asked me if I’d prefer to think of my life in ethical vs. aesthetic terms, I’d chose the latter, because I want to be let off the hook sometimes, but also because I have a soft spot for beauty. In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the ethical life is carved out by the one who marries whereas the aesthete—a man, obviously—remains single and in boundless pursuit of all the beauty in the world, by which he means all the young girls.

Lately, though, and by that I mean these last several decades, it has started to seem that ignoring the structural imbalances of our lives is an aesthetic choice. It’s an ugly thing to ignore—or worse: profit from—the suffering of others.




Most blame Locke for the doctrine known as Terras Nullius. He refers to the “vacant places of America,”(459) and describes those wild woods and uncultivated “wastes” as having been essentially unclaimed — nobody’s land since uncultivated. Claiming that land, then, could cause no controversy:

for as a man had a right to all he could employ his labour upon, so he had no temptation to labour for more than he could make use of. This left no room for controversy about the title, nor for encroachment on the right of others; what portion a man carved to himself, was easily seen; and it was useless, as well as dishonest, to carve himself too much, or take more than he needed. (463)


One of the reasons my family was able to buy land on that promontory because it was owned by the state, and it was owned by the state because it had once been owned by Maori, and it was recognized as owned by Maori because the Maori had farmed it and therefore owned it and, in owning it, could sell it. That was in the early 1830s.

The other reason has to do with Chief Hongi Hika of the Ngāpuhi and the musket wars. The Ngāpuhi had savvily united under their own flag in 1834 and, in 1835 had adopted a Declaration of Independence, which stated that “ ‘all sovereign power and authority’ within New Zealand resides with the chiefs of the various tribes,”(Jones 6). These chiefs would meet in congress each year, and they asked the king of England to protect their independence. These chiefs were those who went on to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed six years later. There is an English-language version of that treaty and a Maori-language version, but both agree that “the Crown has the authority to establish some form of government in New Zealand and that Maori property and other rights and the authority of its chiefs is protected,” (Jones 7).


In book after book, this treaty is described as the most important document in New Zealand’s history. When I first read this, I was moved by the morality of it, as if New Zealanders had wholesale adopted the Treaty of Waitangi as opposed to some other founding document they might have chosen, such as a Constitution or, an equivalent to the British North America Act.


As it turns out, New Zealand doesn’t have a constitution.




I’ve sometimes wondered if Pakuranga was a modern day terra nullius, a place deemed to have belonged to no one. According to the experts, only the South Island fell into that category, the North Island having been recognized as owned, from the start, by the Maori. Hence the necessity of the Treaty of Waitangi. But what is ownership? Did the Maori relate to the land they farmed as if it were their property? Did “selling” seem among the list of things they might want to do with that land?




By the 1970s, Pakuranga valley had been transformed from mostly farmland to a suburban Vim Valley, or so it was called, once a “‘typical Pakuranga housewife’ was used in a television commercial for Vim, a cleaning product.”   My Mom has never felt typical, not in New Zealand, certainly, but not even closer to home. Catch her in a certain mood, though, and one might get the impression that being typical was a lifetime goal never quite attained. In another mood, this failure will be her greatest exploit.





Occupation (n.)

Early 14c. “Fact of holding or possessing;” mid-14c., “a being employed in something,” all “a particular action,” from Old French occupacion “pursuit, work, employment; occupancy, occupation’ (12 c.) from Latin occupationem (nominative occupatio) ‘a taking possession; business, employment,’ noun of action from past participle stem of occupare.


All the same, the labour that made our Pakuranga home wasn’t my mother’s labour—not the labour that birthed me—but my father’s.




If labour and property-ownership are linked in this word occupation, linked in the early political philosophies, and they are linked in other ways, too. My father was an accountant, and,

…like other social constructs, the notion of accounting is itself contested. Conventional definitions stress the identification, measurement and communication of financial information to interested parties. This information is usually assumed to relate to the activities of corporations, and the interested parties are usually assumed to be investors and creditors.

Benign enough, you might say, but what does it obscure?

In particular, this definition downplays both the broader functioning of such techniques and the ways in which they both operationalize and reproduce relations of power and domination …. Implicit [in] this definition is the acknowledgement that power relationships are also measured and rationalized by accounting techniques (Tinker 1980); that the use of numerical and representational techniques rationalize unequal social relationships by ‘inciting’ action through the construction of incentive schemes and funding relations … (Neu…19)

In those years, my Dad occupied himself with the numerical techniques, funding mechanisms and accountability relations of General Foods, a food manufacturer. When I asked my Dad what they made, the first thing he listed was ice cream, followed by pie and potato chips. They also had a big chicken business. Are these just a list of his favourite foods, or were they the specialties of the generalist?




Aotearoa, Maori time


Tangaroa, god of the sea, fashioned paua out of the violets of the dawn, the greens of the forest and the coolest blues of the deepest ocean. All of the ocean creatures were jealous and pecked at its mercurial colours, ruining it. Tangaroa saw this and created a protective shell so that what was beautiful could stay hidden.




In our place in Pakuranga, that historic place of battle, my mother’s depression does not abate. Years later, when I ask what I was like as a baby, she’ll say “you cried non-stop from five until seven, just as your father was getting home.” I hear this variously as an accusation—that I’d made her look bad in front of him—or as an admission of neglect—since his arrival led to my being ignored—and lately, as an honest acknowledgement that early motherhood is hard.


After two years of this, my parents decide that we would be better off in Canada.


Literary critic Timothy Bewes argues that:

the popularity of the autobiographical register in contemporary writing, a register which frequently results in a literature of self-absorption, depression, solipsism, or abjection, may be read as the expression, variously, of a Europe that is attempting, and chronically failing, to process its colonial past; or a West in pathological conflict with its economic privilege; or a male heterosexuality radically ill at ease with its own preeminence.


I wonder over and over what a successful processing of one’s colonial past would look like.




Winter 1979


In the winter of 1979, my parents sold their house, packed up all of their belongings, including our cat, Whiskers, and readied us for the trip to Canada. Our cat ran away before we left; this is an important story in our family and I’ve always remembered it as though we had the cat aboard and, just as we were taking off, he managed to extricate himself from his cage and out onto the runway, so that when I looked out the window my last view of New Zealand was of our cat, bolting across the runway, unwilling to leave.

Our belongings travelled by ship. After an endless flight, we arrived on the West Coast of Canada in the middle of summer, 1979.