History for a new generation

Dawn Raid, by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, Scholastic New Zealand Limited, 2018.

Reviewed by Shomi Yoon

Meet Sophia Savea, a 13-year-old who lives in Cannons Creek, Porirua during the 1970s.  It’s when the minimum wage was $1.95, when milk was delivered every day, when disco music reigned supreme, and when there was the National government headed by hated ‘Piggy’ Robert Muldoon.

This is all captured earnestly in Sophia’s diary, who is drawn into orbit of the Pacific Panthers through her older brother Lenny. We experience Sophia trying to understand the inequities of society; “Dad works in a factory. I don’t think it’s fair that the government is calling Islanders a ‘drain on society’. My Dad works really hard and he’s an Islander, and all his mates work really hard too. On my gosh, I wonder if Dad has a permit thingy”. Through Sophia, we see her growing political awakening as her family, and other Pacific peoples are targeted in “Operation Pot Black” or as it was known the ‘Dawn Raids’, because police were breaking into Pacific Islanders’ houses in the middle of the night in search of ‘overstayers’, immigrants who did not have the correct documentation to stay in New Zealand.

With the downturn in the economy, the Government promptly used the age-old trick of ‘blame the immigrants’. In the 1970s this rhetoric was against Pacific Islanders, who were brought over when the economy was doing well. “The government was happy to have them [Pacific Islanders] when they wanted cheap labour,” explains family friend Rawiri to Sophia, “but now there’s an economic crisis… Islanders are getting the blame for being a drain on society.” Despite the fact that the most number of overstayers were from Australia and the UK , the Muldoon Government wanted to stoke up racial tension and divisions as a way to divert pressure from them.

This novel also prominently features Lenny, Sophia’s brother, who is drawn into the Polynesian Panthers through his school friend Rawiri. Their friendship embodies the power of solidarity and unity across oppressed groups. “How would you feel,” Lenny asks in the regional speech competition, “if someone took something of yours without asking?”. He gives a compelling speech supporting the Land March in front of the whole school assembly. The ‘dawn raids’ affected Māori too, with some tangata whenua being harassed by police to produce a “passport or identification papers”. Sophia recounts an incident discussed between Lenny and Rawiri about Uncle Pipiri responding to a police officer, “How about you show us your papers first? I’m Māori and I was born here.”

Smith is obviously wanting to stress this cross-fertilization of ideas and struggles, and the concepts of solidarity throughout the novel. There is frequent use of te Reo Māori throughout the novel, more so than Samoan. And in one entry, she dedicates a full page to the waiata ‘Tūtira mai nga iwi’, a song about “standing together and uniting as one, shoulder to shoulder and supporting one another.” Sadly, many high schools even today wouldn’t have the level of te Reo that Sophia is exposed to through her school – regular school visits from Mr Parker aka Uncle Pipiri teaching waiata, rakāu, and even hāngi.

Smith also highlights the creative and courageous social efforts of the Polynesian Panthers, like “starting homework clubs to help kids, helping old people with their gardens, and teaching people about their rights, especially if they get bullied by the police”. We learn about the protests held jointly by the Polynesian Panthers and Ngā Tamatoa conducting 3AM dawn raids on hated politicians like Bill Birch calling out over the megaphone, “Come out and show us your passport”.

This first novel by Pauline Smith is targeted for young adults. The political issues are serious and she isn’t afraid to dedicate the time to unpack and detail arguments, debates, and polemics through the family discussions that Sophia has. It’s a perfect first novel for a young person to get a sense of the political landscape during these tumultuous times and learn about the grassroots organisations and movement that were active.

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