Five minutes with Selina Tusitala Marsh

Five minutes with Selina Tusitala Marsh

Mophead is Selina Tusitala Marsh’s graphic memoir. The NZ Poet Laureate inspires others to see how their difference can make a difference.

Photo: Tim Page

In her graphic memoir, Mophead, Selina Tusitala Marsh discusses special moments in her extraordinary life. Throughout her life she has become one of the first Pasifika women to hold a PhD. She reads for the Queen of England and Samoan royalty, and then she is named the New Zealand Poet Laureate. Mophead tells the true story of a New Zealand woman realising how her difference can make a difference. 

Good: Can you tell us about your memoir, Mophead, and what readers will learn about your life and your life experiences?

Selina Tusitala Marsh: Essentially it’s all in the subtitle: how your difference makes a difference. Turning my ‘mophead’ of hair into my superpower (it’s now my crowning glory) isn’t just an aesthetic evolving of fashion (what kind of hair is in or out now), it involves challenging damaging or diminishing labels that get put on you, and rediscovering your own strengths, skills, talents and abilities. Choosing to turn them into superpowers, even if you come across them accidentally. I think an excellent and topical example is new generation leader and environmental activist Greta Thunberg whose Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and selective mutism has become her superpower because it means, in her own words, that “I only speak when necessary.” (Wikipedia). 

What was the driving factor behind writing your memoir, and what was the process like? How long did it take?

As the NZ Poet Laureate travelling around the country I realised that most people knew nothing about the award or its role but once they found out they were intrigued, especially by the tokotoko (carved Māori walking-talking stick). Kids especially. So, I wanted to write the story of the Laureateship for the broadest readership possible. Then the story idea came to me one day when a little boy teased me about the tokotoko saying it looked like a mop. I used to be teased as a ‘mophead’ at school and I instantly saw myself standing there, holding a smelly old mop in one hand, and the NZ Poet Laureate’s tokotoko in the other. There was the narrative arc – how I got from one thing to the other. The first initial storyboard drawings were fast – taking about a month working on it off and on. After that first initial draft it took another year and a half to refine the story and its drawings. The final stage was working with Vida Kelly, an illustrator, to get advice on spacing, layout and drawing composition. That’s when I felt my doodles turn into doodle-drawings! Mophead took more time and energy than a standard critical article I’d write for publication. 

If you had to pick one ultimate experience from your life as your favourite, what would it be and why?

OK, apart from family stuff like giving birth to three beautiful sons (not the actual birthing part but you know what I mean), it would be meeting and performing for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Yes, they were our former colonisers; yes, neocolonial politics continue to harangue the rest of the world, but the whole experience was eye-opening and enriching. The most recognisable face in the world and here I was, meeting her.

What words of wisdom can you share with our readers about embracing their differences?

I think making your difference make the difference involves two steps. The first is to recognise what difference you possess and how it might makes worlds richer (your internal world and our external world). It’s often the thing that makes you ‘stick out’ (hence the dedication in Mophead).  The second step is to choose, and to keep choosing, to embrace and embody that same thing which makes you uniquely you. But choosing also involves being open and curious and courageous. In the book, you’ll see that throughout my life I kept asking: ‘Could I do that?’ It’s about seeing possibilities of you in different spaces and doing stuff differently. Check out more of my stuff on tusitala.nz

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