essa + ECHIDNA: In Which a Friend Finally Gives Back

I find myself in a full circle moment; my first encounter with essa as a writer was, an early ECHIDNA poem in 2018, ‘ECHIDNA GOES OUT ON THE TOWN; MEETS TYPHON’. I read it on the bus route incising te Upoko o te Ika a Maaui around the gills. The poem was sexy, glittering, violent and dirty in a way that made me feel at home. The first line is kina sharp:

she’s all ataahua all mana in serpent display
got the fattest green stone around her neck to compliment
her scales	her scars thicker than most; electric wire

No doubt, every single person that has met essa has a typed piece of verse penned just for them; they are a writer who pulls the thing they love about you out when the light is right so that it shines. I’ll admit the first time they did that for me, I cried like a little sook. If you want to know essa, know their friends, know their family, they’re all inside ECHIDNA. That familial connection, that love, feels to me like an honouring of the whakapapa the author holds in their own body from the Roman Empire to Te Moananui-a-Kiwa, and also a mourning of the places that have been erased. But when we as tangata whenua walk into the room, we bring our ancestors; aae, especially the takataapui ones. 

ECHIDNA is designed to exist beyond the author in lifespan and in age which it signals from the start in the dedication:

for my ancestors / for my descendants

I haven’t read poetry and I don’t know what it is, but it seems like essa may have been one of the founding whaeas. I could’ve stayed in a parasocial relationship with essa, the writer and artist, if it weren’t for the fierce landback occupation at Ihumātao, which emboldened me and a whole roopuu of crazy cuzzies to collaborate, then collate, handbind, promote and launch a book of writing for Ihumaatao called, Te Rito o te Harakeke. I suppose it was inevitable that we would meet; you know what they say, everyone is connected by seven degrees of whakapapa. And we were connected even before we knew; we both grew up in Tauranga Moana, we haunted the same suburbs and sulked through the same stores without ever becoming aware of each other; we both whakapapa to Raukawa but our whaanau settled in different areas. We’ve got that whole R last name thing going. 

Aa teenaa, this poet has become one of my best friends, and continually provides me with mountains of poetry collections I have to fucken read; Joshua Whitehead, Jos Charles, Harry Josephine Giles, Keri Hulme, Never Angeline Nørth, Hinemoana Baker, Tayi Tibble. All based and litpilled. Every time I see essa they come bearing new books, or new pieces of verse to read to me. I’ve even received a framed painting, only to discover later a poem has been smuggled into my home behind the backing. What kind of spy fuckery is that?

I haven’t visited essa’s home in a while but when we have our video catch ups, essa is usually sitting at the desk in the spare-room-study; it’s a cozy space with a single cot pushed against the wall covered in quilts. essa appears in all sorts of taonga; sometimes it’s the coveted pounamu earrings I’m going to prise from their dead body if they go first <not going to happen>, or the echidna quills that were gifted to them from a friend living in so-called Ahitereria, sometimes they wear the kapa-haka-mangu lipstain I bought them for their birthday. Their walls are covered in shelves filled with books and art, some of it essa’s, the rest is from essa’s friends, and there’s poetry, from friends, from idols, some typed from their infamous typewriter that fell into their ownership, the case is adorned with sikk Umurangi x YRN stickers. We chat almost every week, and the chats are really confusing metatextual romps through the minds of two disturbed individuals that vary in energy; sometimes we’re hysterically laughing at something from the internet that’s so insane it can only be presented without comment:

Sometimes we’re cooking up something exciting like a homage to our Great Friend Whiro, or talking about how depraved Joyce’s love letters were. 

The start of our semi-regular waananga is usually an apology from me for being late, then we kick-off slowly. It’s unwise to ask essa a big question right off the bat or they’ll pierce you right through the stomach with a gaze that could go on forever, if you were brave enough to leave it uninterrupted. You can’t rush a Raukawa bitch. Then maybe, a debrief of the things that have plagued us that week, the woes, the worries, the jokes, the videos we’ve seen, the miserable essays Paakehaa have written. I’ll admit that after the first few polite exchanges I expected to lose essa in the wind. I am continually surprised when a friend remains by my side, like, oh? You’re still here? Okay, let me switch the kettle on. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just that I could stare at a wall for days if no one interrupted me. My inability to concentrate and essa’s warm patience may have inspired our always-transforming meme that records our commonalities and points of tension. I don’t know. It’s a millennial thing.

essa has pictures they’ve printed out of their friends pinned to their walls. Or taped. I’m not very observant. It’s not uncommon that you might spend a day looking out at Tangaroa, and laughing about Milton with essa, and the next day receive a glorious poem capturing the moment.

One such poem is immortalised in ECHIDNA, titled Echidna and the Spider:

Echidna and the Spider both dislike           the same things
and that’s enough to love                            each other over

pointing at something awful and saying             it is full of awful-ness 
pulling out their own teeth                  and trading them in the dark

The work is a vessel, much like a body, for a time that was, a time that has yet to be, and most importantly for ngaa taangata that have been and will be. And like a body, it changes, it is flexible to transformation on a cellular level and is subject to change from the outside; even the permanent marks on it age like ink sunk into skin. Echidna, the serpent, is the supremely old and supremely young navigator of this vessel; in one of my favourite poems, the first glimpses are of Echidna as a babe, toothless, abandoned:

Echidna cries in the meadow
all raw gums and grabby hands
scales chaffing softly
     softly away

another snake
woman	    enters the garden
all the ground folded 		hands gone dry

a drummer hitting the high hat
        as she swaddles the babe

The Snake Woman, for Roma Potiki

I understood this moment as Echidna being nurtured by herself, that she has lived her long and ancient life for such a time that she has looped back on herself, and become the carer she needed as an infant, reemerged as the snake woman, Hinenaakahirua. I spoke with an aunty once who said she was trying to be the aunty she needed as a kid. That’s what us Moana aunties do; we try to heal ourselves by backbending waa.

Echidna makes it to childhood, sucking stones and chasing her brothers, with the first indications of her sexuality and the intense burden sin plays in her life between glimpses of her siblings, her Christian Dad. Like Eve, we are introduced to the shame of nakedness, the shame of our sexuality before we even know what our sexuality is; in our purity, we reach towards pleasure:

they meet underneath the apples	 on the sabbath to fuck in the bushes
she couldn’t help but love 	when the forked tongue made an electric feast
of her soft flesh	    such a division she never felt while being another
man’s rib 	    she knows all the scales in the world	     and knows the
snake is     a liar 	    but why shouldn’t she be able to have some fun

Echidna: Born of Eve & Lucifer

We are offered just this small glimpse into childhood before it sharply ends with the inviting mouth of death, represented as Hinenuitepoo’s front door. Another waa who beckons Echidna through her next revolution. Echidna is grown up and begins to grapple with her shape, her first puberty if you will.

2. What decade is the worst to go through puberty for a trans girl?
She lived through many of them. Her body spiralling outwards.
She gets to choose the second one and the third.

She-viper with Tales Outstretched
(Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio, 1555
after torrin a. greathouse’s ‘Medusa with the Head of Perseus’)

The life of Echidna, the messy takataapui, slips through Greco-Romanic periods with figures such as Prometheus, Narcissus, Typhon, Sisyphus, BC, then diving into to meet Eve, Lucifer, the angel Michael, Jesus (yeah that one), weaving in the ancestral figures of the Moana; Maaui-pootiki, Nafanua, Tuumatauenga, Hinemoana, Kurangaituku, Rona, with blasts of modern day heroes in Pouukahangatus and Gerard Way. Yet, she feels so familiar; she is distinctly Maaori, trans, wahine; she holds the burden of all three in the same way:

she has to sit with people she loves and swallow racist barbs			 we
don’t get what you’ve become 		no real maa-rees left anyway 	      all evil
stems from Zespri or the Indians stealing our orchards	        Echidna feels monstrous at the table for lunch 	next to that chill infection feels like
all evil stems from her

Echidna in Kirikiriroa over the Summer

It hurts, doesn’t it? To lie back and expose your soft belly, only to have it stuck with a blade. This waa is full of vulnerability but as she grows and gets to fucking <as she should> I was filled with a weird pride as her vulnerability was rewarded despite the interference from the biblical and imperial forces of shame. Echidna finds a way to embrace sex as noa, as the spice of life that occurs everywhere and in every time; an anchor for the humanity of all our ancestors and heroes of time gone before. Sex is as natural as eating, as common as breathing, as delightful as sitting in a pool of warm water. Each interaction is melded together like an ice cream tub sitting on a hot fireplace; characters from different times meet and makeout; Echidna slivers along, watching history play out, and allows each greeting to feel new by shedding her skin frequently, and coming out with a new body that is as tender as the day she was born. She is open and thirsty to experience rapture over and over, she is shy and wanting, she is me, at thirteen, so horny that the thought of Brendan Urie in a top hat would make me light-headed.

Echidna moves her fingers down
Rona’s side 	      her chipped fingernails
create a squirm

fuck I’m sorry should have cut them before dyking out

Echidna & Rona Fucking in the Back Seat of a Car While the Moon Watches

Puberty rolls over her, and it feels as though she is wishing for her friends to give her permission to be herself. I know how she feels. I once found a white muffin hat with rainbow thread embroidered into the brim in a Glassons bargain bin and before I got a glimpse of it in the mirror I asked my best friend how it looked. They fawned all over me, begged me to get it, and generally wilded out so hard the lazy teenaged workers looked at us with bored interest. They perhaps sensed I needed a talisman, and I felt like I had been remade under their gaze. Us hatchlings, we have pieces of ourselves scattered  everywhere.

Anything new, young, queer is constantly scrutinised and yet, very rarely is there a good faith reading of it. The anti-woke brigade seem to prop up a strawman in every discussion about how identity politics is infecting art, bemoaning the criticisms that come with writing outside of your culture, outside of your actual scope; and yet, I saw a review of this mighty pukapuka that insinuated an ancient lizard waa was some kind of mirror reflection of the living, human author. Reviewers like this might look at a work like ECHIDNA and believe the young writers will all suffer the same fate as Narcissus, constantly staring into the river to summon some mīmēsis; the truth is, those that are fresh to the world stare at their own faces because they’re looking for a crack to exploit. Taa te tamariki taana mahi waawaahi tahaa. ECHIDNA is an instance where life imitates art, the book precedes those it is speaking to, it teaches the reader to understand the beauty of trans-ness, trans-formation, transfiguration, not only ko te tinana, engari ko te wairua, ko te hinengaro.

Echidna feels tears well up
the river making its way out of her face
in here i can be whoever the fuck i am

Echidna & Narcissus 
(for jayy dodd)

But yes, I will concede that Echidna has been inspired by essa’s life and memories, but what they’ve put into the character is a piece of their DNA and then let her run wild. essa is straight edge to the core, but Echidna allows herself a drink. Echidna, the serpent, borrows essa’s perspective from time to time but she punctures the air around her and goes swimming through space-time. Plus I’ve hung out with essa many times and haven’t seen a tail yet to my crushing disappointment.

Further into the book, Echidna starts to reckon with the world outside of her shape, and yet shape is so important to the interactions, especially in her ‘…A WORLD TOUR…’ Echidna & Her Milton has what looks like the shape of a fallen angel punched through the centre, Echidna & Hemi in Rānana allows the Thames to run through it, Echidna Is a Cleaner at Night is parted by a “wet kraken drip”.  A river of poetry sits in the centre of the book, dedicated to myself, Elizabeth Kerekere, Sinead Overbye and Hinemoana Baker titled Hinemoana. We have a not-joke that because so many takataapui waa have summoned our atua o te moana in poetry this is empirical evidence that Hinemoana herself is and was *a listener of Girl in Red*. This river, this shape composed from all of us, feels so critical to the central theme in ECHIDNA; mauri is pliant, it is singular and plural, it can be threaded through others, and stand alone. It  resists a pan-Maaori, or pan-cultural way of viewing individuals by inviting the reader to view how different sources of life can contribute to a whole, then run off again. 

Perhaps there are readers who will encounter ECHIDNA and not understand when a joke is being told. Sucks for them, I guess. Unlike a public school curriculum, I have no ability to force a group of people to research cultural context to understand an author’s work. But it’s better if you do. I suppose the fastest way to explain what this generation thinks is funny is incongruity; like a Dramatis Personae that lists Mauao as “a sad boy maunga. (he/him)”. That being said, I once watched thirty minutes of raw unedited footage essa had filmed of themselves sincerely rating illustrations they’d found of echidna’s (Echidna (/ɪˈkɪdnə/; Greek: Ἔχιδνα, “She-Viper”), so I think my sense of humour might be broken. As it went along they’d clearly become really tired of it, and the commentary descended into mostly, shrugs and eye-rubbing. Like, they’d made themselves a hostage of their own joke.

One of the higher rated echidna’s from this tier list was one that had delicious rolls and was aged, and terrifying. essa disliked the ones that depicted echidna as 20-somethings with abs and flowing hair. They liked ones that looked fierce, fattened, and fucken haati.  

Echidna, mother to all monsters, is an aunty. She lives for ages, which inspired some long cry-sessions that would make the moon pity me. How many trans whaanau make it to their golden years? How many of our dear friends get to experience their second, third puberty with the wisdom of an aunty that has seen it all? Aae, the old tran, he ataahua whakairo teenaa, who rests on her walking stick and points out to the holes she chipped out of whenua for us to sleep in. A good aunty is one that knows the sting of the world well and Echidna does; each wave of transformation seems to be an experiment in reliving the highs and lows of whakawhanaungatanga; domestic, platonic, tense, intellectual, unrequited, enthusiastically requited, revolutionary. It’s a privilege to live long and wear wrinkles on your face like mighty canyons carved by Taawhirimaatea, Tangaroa and Ruuaumoko, especially when the world wants you dead. I can’t help but think of Echidna on her back with her feet pressed against an oppressive black sky to allow sunlight to stream through.

Much like most New Zealand literature, I’ve yet to address the coloniser in the room. But it is present in every interaction, its ash settles across ECHIDNA in the form of capitalism, religion, and state-sanctioned violence. It bears down on Echidna, the dangerous animal, when she tries to change her name, it’s in the sting of bleach on her hands as she cleans at night, it’s in the stench of death enacted falsely in the name of Tuumatauenga, it exerts its weight on me as I read how Echidna yearns for freedom for herself and her companions:

Echidna tries to stretch herself over the silence 		    of not understanding
here in Wīwī      they find an intimacy         called alone      combat an ennui made
of state control 	    does death make things better in the books	   Herculine
is already shaking 		   Echidna turns towards them 	           holds the back of
Herculine’s head like an egg she’s scared of cracking 	     they meet at the nose
Echidna can feel the hair growing like fingers on Herculine’s upper lip              the
physicians tell her it is wrong	      Echidna isn’t sure that’s even the right way of
looking at it 		they sit like this for a while breathing each other in

the stove turned off at the wall

Echidna Tries Her Best to Console Herculine
(for Aaron Apps)

Te tangi o te ruru comes every night, heralding a new soul captured in the canoe of Rangi. It would be a mistake to say this is a book that is only concerned with Echidna’s identity when that identity is the tool that allows her to locate others. Echidna angles the stories of others by wetting the fishhook with her own blood.

I could be accused of having some sort of bias towards a friend’s work <boohoo> but I knew essa’s work first and their friendship second. Thirdly, I came to know them as a leader for Takataapui, a lightbringer for a community that still has to fear for its safety. Whenever I shadow essa around a literary event, I see beautiful little puggles creeping out from the corner to shyly admit they’re monstrous too. You don’t know how vital a work is to the world until you see precious bubs, clutching a poetry book to their chest like a liferaft. I hold essa’s work like that too. 

Right next to my heart.


In a dream, you saw a way to survive, and you were filled with joy.


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