Self Portrait: Colleen Maria Lenihan
A New Zealand life
I was born in Auckland in 1974, to Isabella (Ihapera) Te Wake and Michael Lenihan. My mother met my father at St Annes Hostel in Herne Bay, the first home for many young Māori women when they arrived in the big smoke from up north. He’d shown up to take her friend out on a date and caught my mothers’s eye, dashing in his army dress uniform. He’d fought in Vietnam as a bombardier, an experience that left him with hearing loss and PTSD, which wasn’ diagnosed until many years later.
We lived in Herne Bay and Ponsonby, a vibrant Māori and Pasifika community back then, until my father scraped up enough for a house deposit on his traffic cop salary and we moved to Northcote Point on the North Shore. My mother was lonely living in an affluent Pākehā neighborhood. The other mothers would eye her warily when she’d come to pick me up from St Mary’s, Brownies or sleepovers. She tried her best to fit in – she helped with my school projects and baked cakes, but it must have been difficult being the only brown face. People didn’t believe I was her child. I was so white with straight fine light brown hair and didn’t look anything like her. Since I was born strangers would say “That’s not your baby,” and then later, “You’re not Colleen’s mother,” and it always upset her.
An Aunty urged her to go to Te Unga Waka, the urban marae in Epsom, to find her people; so we’d go there every Sunday for church and kapa haka rehearsals with Te Roopu Rangimārie. I hated church but I loved watching Mum do the poi and sing. She was tiny and curvy with thick long wavy black hair. She was very beautiful, very sad, and prone to bouts of vicious anger, but she always smiled there.
Mum was raised by her grandparents on their dairy farm in Panguru in the Hokianga, as her mother couldn’t take care of her, due to being a terrible alcoholic. My great grandmother was a tōhunga from Ngāpuhi who married into Te Rarawa. Mama felt lonely, living away from her people. Her abilities also set her apart, because the locals were scared of her. Mum remembers Mama’s flamboyant male friend who would travel by horse for days to see her, and Papa would know to give them space and go out hunting for the day. They’d hole themselves up in her room for hours while Mama made dresses on her treadle sewing machine. They’d giggle and kōreo while her BFF would try them on and admire themselves in the mirror. Mum reckons part of the reason why Mama liked him so much was because he was an outsider like her. Mama’s friendship with a takatāpui, along with her tohunga practices had to be kept secret in the 1950s as the church wouldn’t approve, and Mama and Papa were devout Catholics. I mention this anecdote because the characters in my stories are often outsiders in some way. I didn’t realize that until my first writing teacher pointed it out, and claimed that I was too an outsider. I was kind of hōhā at the time because I thought I was just living my life in the world. I didn’t like being othered by a Pākehā man and thought wow you must have led a sheltered life, although I came to realize it was a valid observation.
I loved books as a child. I read everything I could get my hands on, including adult novels and encyclopedias. I could read before I went to school, and was assigned a reading age of 16+ at age eight. When allowed to buy a toy, I would always chose a book instead. My library card was always maxed. Now I realize books were an escape from a mostly unhappy childhood. Somerset Maugham said, “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Reading was a far healthier coping mechanism than others I would develop later. My parents didn’t understand each other or get along. They only got married because Mum became pregnant with me as that’s what people did at the time. The cultural and personal differences were too great, and they had their own trauma, especially my mother. She’d suffered profoundly as a child and there wasn’t the awareness around trauma and mental health like there is now. On top of that, being Māori meant being a second-class citizen in your own country. Māori were really looked down upon. No value at all was seen in Māori language and customs by the dominant Pākehā culture. Being white passing afforded me privilege and acceptance within that society. I recognized it from an early age. Apparently I would ask my Pākehā grandmother to put lots of sun block on me so I wouldn’t go brown like Mum. I’m lucky that I haven’t had to experience the prejudice that others in my whānau have. I didn’t feel fully comfortable in either world though. That’s not a complaint, it’s just how it was, and to a degree it’s still true for me.
My parents divorced and my mother remarried. We moved to Otara which was extremely rough in the 80s, during the era of street kids, glue-sniffing and machete killings in the Town Centre. It was quite a culture shock after living on the North Shore. Now I was a minority, one of the few white faces at my school.
We moved many times. I hated always being the new kid at school. Due to her unresolved trauma, my mother didn’t have the capacity to respond appropriately to mine or my brother’s needs, and I didn’t get along with my stepfather either. My father was busy with a new family. I left home when I was 14, moved to Taupo, and put myself on the Unsupported Child’s benefit. Two years later, Tauhara High ranked my parents about my constant wagging and they reluctantly came to collect me and take me back with them to Whanganui. After only one day at school, I left and soon after became pregnant at 16 to my first boyfriend, who terrorized and beat me while I was hapū. On one occasion my little brothers saw him throttle me, something I have no memory of. He ended up in jail for assaulting my mother on Christmas Day.
In Whanganui, I started hanging out at Rangahaua, the Māori arm of the local polytech. I met my best friend Jason there (Rest in Love, bud). We learned how to screenprint with the artist Gabrielle Belz, who welcomed us into her home and fed us. To discover I had artistic talent was a surprise. I’d always believed I was hopeless at art, as I was shamed at five years old by a nun who held up my drawing in front of the class as an example of terrible work. I applied for the one year Foundation art course at Whanganui, followed by the Bachelor of Fine Art programme. I nearly didn’t get in, because my disastrous interview ended when I stormed out. Robert (Bob) Bourdon, the Texan sculptor and head of the school chased after me to ask, “Who are you angry at?” I was taken back because I wasn’t used to being asked about my feelings by anyone, let alone an adult. I had to admit I was angry at myself.
Art school was like doing the best kind of therapy for four years. I think everyone should do it. I loved it. I learned photography with George Krause, a highly accomplished, dynamic artist with work in MOMA’s permanent collection. At our first class critique, he said “Colleen has a natural eye.” That gave me so much confidence and I took to taking my Rolleiflex camera everywhere, and spent long hours in the dark room. I thrived on being creative and seeing my ideas and feelings about the world become tangible. On graduation day, Bob Bourdon pulled me aside to say he was proud of me for having the highest grades in my year. He told me the other tutors were dead set against accepting me to the program but he fought them on it. He was a phenomenal teacher who made a lasting impact on my life. I wish he was still alive so I could properly thank him.
I returned to Aotearoa after 15 years in Tokyo and a year in New York City, a checked working life, two failed marriages and the devastating loss of my much loved and deeply missed darling daughter and only child. The only thing I will say here about this tragedy is that the worst thing that could ever happen in my life, already has. I don’t have anything left to fear.
I also want to express my love and respect for Japan and the Japanese people. I admire their grace, stoicism, work ethics, and consideration for others. I learned a lot from them and their ways are a huge influence on who I am. My daughter spoke Japanese fluently like a native speaker. Japan is an incredible place with a rich and deep culture, and I consider Tokyo my second home.
I came back to New Zealand in 2016 and experienced reverse culture shock, typical when you’ve spent most of your adult life in another country. I didn’t know what to do next, but then I remembered that as a child, I wrote “I, Colleen Maria Lenihan, will be an author.” I wrote it exactly like that; a nerdy and earnest declaration I’d completely forgotten about. I decided to honor that little girl’s dream and took an online writing class while living at Te Henga. The rugged west coast was quite a trip after living so long in megacities. The first story I ever wrote was “Cherry Blossom Girl”, and my teacher, John Cranna, said it moved him, and that he’d read many, many student stories and that rarely ever happened. That gave me the confidence to continue, and I did further courses at The Creative Hub. After being selected for Huia Publisher’s Te Papa Tupu writing program in 2018 and being mentored by James George, I worked on my manuscript for Kohine until I completed it in 2021, with editing by Steve Braunias and Daisy Coles. I found community with other writers, in particular Rosetta Allan, Amy McDaid and Ruby Porter; and my Te Papa Tupu cohort: Nadine Hura, Cassie Hart, Shilo Kino, Ataria Sharman and Hone Rata. I think friendships with other writers are essential. It can be a lonely and precarious career and we need other writers to help us get through.
At the moment I’m working as a writer on Shortland Street and prior to that, Ahikāroa. It’s challenging and exciting working in TV. I hope to help other Māori writers enter the industry, like Annette Morehu did for me.
Writing has saved my life. It’s given me purpose and great joy. It’s fucking hard, but I love what I do. The act of writing not always, it can be like pulling teeth aside from those rare, precious occasions when it flows and I’m in the zone, but I always love having written. Well, usually. I like this whakaaro from my first writing teacher: “Writers are people who finish things.”
The very, very good short story collection Kohine by Colleen Maria Lenihan (Huia, $25) is available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom is devoting all week to the author and her book. Tomorrow: a korero between Colleen and Shelley Burne-Field on their mentoring experiences at Te Papa Tupu.