Real Fake White Dirt: Jess Holly Bates

Jess Holly Bates is a Pākehā artist, writer, performer and theatre maker based in Auckland, NZ. She’s bringing her critically-acclaimed performance work Real Fake White Dirt to EWF and we’re thrilled to host its Melbourne debut. Real Fake White Dirt is a critically-acclaimed, deeply moving and savagely satirical love-letter to Pākehā New Zealand’s dislocated past and post-colonial present. Jess spoke to us about the work and about bringing it to Australia.

How are you feeling about your appearance in your first Emerging Writers Festival as a festival artist?

Its always a conundrum – I write work that lives in the body, and it exists on paper like it is spilling out of the mouth – so to jam on my writer ‘hat’ sometimes fits a bit awkwardly. I am delighted to be bringing the show to Melbourne, which has been a hot dream of ours since the show was made.

What does it mean to bring your show Real Fake White Dirt to Australia?

It’s been performed all over – through NZ, Edinburgh, Newcastle, London and has found resonance wherever it went, but Australia is going to be something special. I think there is a deep similarity in the ways Australia and New Zealand exist in relation to their colonial history, like it’s some big ugly night we’d rather forget, but are unable to see through its hangover. It’s kind of like a colonial post-traumatic stress disorder – desperately wanting to both recognise and forget our uncomfortable (and violent) origins. In NZ, our annual Waitangi Day sends our white majority into a defensive mid-life crisis. And Australia is no stranger to that! In the wake of 2016 Australia Day – unsettling to say the least – we HAVE to find ways to laugh and cry at the white anxiety stewing under our national holidays, and in our homes. We have to find a way to move the conversation somewhere new.

Tell us a little bit about the show – its themes and how it came about?

The show is about this generations colonial cringe factor. It came out of an MA Thesis about colonial continuity, and the way our body remembers colonialism, and settling in a place that was someone else’s to begin with. It was thorough, and fascinating, and rich. But two people read it. And one of them was related to me. (Thanks Dad). But this is more than just an academic conversation, everyone can recognise the way this feels. What its like being white, and knowing it. Its about that feeling in your gut when you pronounce an indigenous title wrongly, when you tried to get it right, but got it so so wrong. When you thought you were advocating, but were actually appropriating. Its the wince you suffer when you listen to your racist grandparents. Its about recognising ourselves, and finding a way to see the farce and the faux pas of what we inherited.

Your play is tough and uncompromising. What have been some of the challenges, if any, you’ve faced with this satirical exploration of Pākehā New Zealand?

Recently I heard there had been grumblings about it – ‘who is this white poet with the maori things in her mouth?’ Because satire is like following a line drawn in chalk, sometimes as you walk it, you can erase the very fact that someone else drew it for you. And then its just something offensive in your mouth. Sometimes you run the risk of reiterating something ugly. That has been hard to get right.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for emerging writers, poets and performers?

I think new work is most interesting when the author speaks in a way which doesn’t absent themselves from the conversation. Authors are culpable in the construction of narrative. I think its vital that people are always attending to cultural issues in a way that is self-reflexive, that’s what will keep the spoken word genre strong – the ability to interrogate ourselves. In other words, don’t be afraid to look very close to home. The fact that the show is personal means that people get it. The tiniest specificity can be the most accessible window to understanding.

Jess Holly Bates is a Pakeha artist, writer, performer and theatre maker based in Auckland, NZ. After completing her MA Thesis on critical whiteness and embodied colonialism, she ventured into creative practice. In 2014, Anahera Press published her acclaimed and searing work of poetic theatre Real Fake White Dirt, awarded Best Writing at NZ Fringe (2015), and performed from Edinburgh to Wellington. In 2013 she was awarded the Playmarket Best NZ Script for her short work Lucky C*ntry (Short and Sweet Festival). Her latest work, The Offensive Nipple Show, comes to the Sydney and Melbourne Fringe later this year.

Real Fake White Dirt is on Wednesday 22 June, 7pm, at the Guild Theatre, Ground Floor, Union House at the University of Melbourne. Tickets are $17 full and $15 concession. Click here to book!