“Migration is at the heart of our city of Wellington, and our country, Aotearoa New Zealand. For centuries, there have been migrants who have come here by choice and since the 1930’s, those who have come by necessity.”
These words introduce ‘More of Us’, a recent book of poetry by Landing Press. It documents the experience of migrants and refugees to New Zealand; a slim yet well profound collection that portrays “families, language, fear, loss, food and victories that come slowly”. It is a glimpse into the experiences of this diverse group of people living in New Zealand, some of whom made it their home decades ago and newcomers still finding their feet.
One of the poets in ‘More of Us’ is Wellington High School student Reza Zareian-Jahromi. Born in Iran, Reza is not long a Kiwi. Nevertheless, he has a love for Wellington. If you haven’t met another Reza before, he says not to worry: “Other people care more about pronouncing my name correctly rather than I do” he laughs over a long black together. “I don’t mind if people say it Rey-zah or Ruza. The Kiwi accent can make it sound quite interesting.”
Funny and articulate, Reza’s a gifted writer who already has a knack for observing detail in a way that sits outside the everyday. He explains that ‘More of Us’ includes people from 47 different countries, such as Yemen, Iran, Syria, the Netherlands and Germany. The writers range from students younger than Reza to experienced professors, authors and poets. Reza’s work was recommended based on a teacher spotting a poem he wrote in class. “I was supposed to do a portfolio piece for NCEA English and, I read a poem about a cow about to be slaughters. It inspired me to write a poem in the language of an animal. How would an animal speak? I wrote a poem about why a pack of crows would be dissatisfied with how Iran’s government were running the country. My teacher put me forward for a poetry workshop and then my poem was submitted to the editor of the book.”
Reza was born in Shiraz (“…like the wine”) to a pair of Iranian scientists. “My parents work meant that they move around the globe quite a lot so I’ve lived all over” he explains. “My father taught in the University back in Iran and today my mother is currently working in bio-chemistry at Victoria University, here in Wellington.” So is he scientifically minded? “Ha! I have no inclination towards biology myself!”.
Reza holds three snapshots close to him from his early years in Iran: “I am very much connected to my early childhood memories” he explains. “I remember the garden outside my grandmothers house. We had a huge palm tree that was two stories tall. It would give fruit every year or year and a half. A man used to climb it to get the dates off the palm tree. I always would admire him for going so high up that palm tree.” The alleyways in Iran are also a clear memory. “One of my favourite things to do was to get my father to drive me through the alleys on a wet night” he says. He remembers too the downstairs house where he was raised, and his interest in words began. “My grandmother lived on top of us in a separate unit. There was a library room we had and I remember spending hours and hours reading all the books in there.”
Reza’s parents left his home country because “…it was on a downwards spiral…I’m not even going to sugarcoat it” he says. “The Government runs the country in a difficult way, and you can’t thrive in Iran like you can in New Zealand.” The family moved to the United Kingdom and relatives helped Reza and his parents adapt. “It felt more homely than New Zealand.” After that, they returned to Iran and then moved to Malaysia. "That’s where I properly learnt to speak English” Reza explain. “…and why I have an international English school accent with a bit of everything thrown in.” Reza’s family returned to Iran for another two years, before coming to live in New Zealand. “I’ve changed schools seven times” Reza says. “It’s not because I’m a bad kid!”
At first, Reza’s family lived in Christchurch. He went to Riccarton High School “which had a great English faculty” he says. It was only when he moved to Wellington that he connected with his desire to write poetry. “I only arrived last year, but I’m already the student representative at Wellington High School - I don’t know how that happened!”
Reza says Wellington High School doesn’t live up to its reputation. “I haven’t met any drug-dealers at Wellington High” he deadpans. “It’s a mufti school and people run things differently. It’s full of individuals who are self motivated, and if you’re like that, it is the perfect school.” I ask Reza whether starting again in a new place is difficult “It is hard to learn how to make friends - but I have to learn how to be a more social person” he explains. ”I’ve never had roots like my peers, who have friends from childhood and have established relationships. I have to rely solely on myself to navigate situations.”
Reza no longer thinks of English as his second language. “I speak it better than I speak my native language. In Malaysia, I had passionate English teachers who helped me. I don’t think I would have gotten this good at speaking English if it weren’t for my amazing, passionate teachers.” Reza says. “Teachers make a huge difference, for instance, I used to love art, making paintings and drawings, but I had a string of really crazy art teachers. It’s only this year I’ve had a good art teacher who has followed what I wanted to do. Teachers have a huge impact on how much you want to learn something.”
Reza has high hopes for the future but acknowledges the uncertainty facing him. “I think it’s only natural for someone my age to be worried about the future. On top of that, I am waiting to be awarded residency, which could be two weeks or two years. I’ve been applying for a lot of scholarships. That’s my main plan; to get a scholarship and go to university in New Zealand. My parents also want to make a life here; trying to get grounded comes with its own difficulties.” Reza would ideally like to receive a scholarship for Victoria University (“so I don’t have to move again”) and, if he does, plans to study English.
Right now, Reza is working on his own collection of poetry, which he has written, tying it in with his other school work. For instance, in design, he is working on the book cover. He also recently was selected to be mentored in the New Zealand Young Authors Society. “I only found out yesterday” he says. “I want to tie it all in. I don’t know if it will be published but I really want to do it.”
“I find poetry gets me closes to connecting with people. My goal is to find the combination of words, that simple sentence that gets through everything” Reza says, smiling in the Wellington sunlight. If that’s his goal, mission accomplished.
We be pack of crow. Black bird perched upon scorched branch. Perched upon broken
building. Perched upon snapped wire. Perched upon this doomscape.
We be pack of crow. Watched as bomb fell. Crow flew. Man could not fly. Man could not
outrun it. Now it is all nest. Now it is all feed. Bodies of rotting and burnt flesh; once among
living, but now just feed.
We be pack of crow. Watched as man burnt. Woman, child, infant, all burnt. Shadows etched
into wall, as blinding light destroyed all.
We be pack of crow. Pick clean corpses. Woman’s necklace. Child’s buttons. Man’s watch.
All that was once of value, brought back to crow’s nest.
We be pack of crow. Hay men in fields never inspired fear in pack of crow. Hay men did not
kill or maim sheep. Hay men stuck to ground just as rows of corn they watched over. Arms
stuck out for crow to rest. Farmers… men… were crow’s source of fear. All past now. Rows
of slowly rotting corn. Farmer’s eyes blue as sky – now black and dull – all feed… all feed.
And when time for slumber comes, stars are once more seen. No more light but moon and
stars. All buildings fallen. All noise suffocated. Just pack of crow, left to crow and crow and crow…
Come! Terrible dreams!
I hold breath!
I am not fear!
Come! Black horse!
Riding in the night!
I am not fear!
Pray! Priest of the abbey!
Let your prayer wash
I am not fear!
Come little workers!
Who sell their flowers!
On the streets
Become as I have become!
I am not fear!
Come nervous lover!
Whose love goes
I am not fear!
Come from far and come from near
For it is I!
And I am not fear!