Wasafiri at Large: Name Trails in Aotearoa New Zealand

Wasafiri at Large: Name Trails in Aotearoa New Zealand

By Wasafiri Editor on May 27, 2023 in

Wasafiri works with Editors at Large across South East Asia and Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Middle East. Each Editor at Large during their tenure writes a piece reflecting on an aspect of their literary locality. Here, Anna Knox brings us with her on a trail run round Waimapihi Reserve, on a journey through (re)naming, and histories of place and publishing, in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Whanganui-a-tara Wellington is a small wind-blown city, surrounded by bush-clad hills, on the curled-up toe of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island coast. Recently, while running on the trails in these hills near my house, I passed a bright new sign announcing – almost apologising for – a name change: Polhill Reserve had officially become Waimapihi Reserve. It’s just a few letters on a wooden board, on a piece of council-administered land in a country so pipsqueak it regularly gets missed off of world maps. But it is also a short story, of sorts, about a lot more, including what is happening in our literature at the moment.

Baker Polhill was a Scottish colonial immigrant to these islands best known in the 1840s for cutting down trees from the ancient native forest, on the steep hills of what is now the reserve, to sell as firewood. Before it was a reserve, Waimapihi was a tree-bare, gorse-filled dumping ground. Before that, it was university land slated for a sports field and ‘explosives’ research. Before that, a rifle range, and farmland. Before colonisation, before the gorse and the sheep and the weatherboard house that I live in, it was the home of Ngāti Haumia/Taranaki, Ngāti Ruanui and Te Ātiawa iwi, mana whenua (people of authority over the land) of Te Whanganui-a-Tara; food and flax were grown and gathered in these hills for the inhabitants of Te Aro Pā, the area’s fortified village; people fished and bathed in the streams; the bush was lush with birdsong. And before that, before humans, it was red-blooming rata forest dense with tall stands of kahikatea, pukatea, and rimu. For the Polynesians who first settled here, Waimaphi, the new name of the reserve, was the name of the catchment area and the stream at whose mouth the pā was located. Wai means water in te reo Māori, the Māori language. Mapihi was a female chieftain of Ngāi Tara and Ngāti Mamoe descent who, it is said, used to bathe in a pool in the upper reaches of the stream. Hence, the waters of Mapihi.

I go running in the reserve most weekends. I am always listening to something when I run; music, books, a friend’s conversation, and when I take my earbuds out, or there’s a lull in the conversation, the sound of the birds is everywhere — kākā squabbling and shrieking, tūī clicking and warbling, toutouwai and hihi bleeping electrically, the riroriro song rising and falling, pīwakawaka fanning the air. I am also often thinking about writing while I run, and often writing something in my head (like this essay) while concentrating on the roots, the mud, the stones, the gorse, the mountain bikers, the walkers, and their dogs. My running in the reserve is therefore a very hybrid experience, a cacophony of sounds and narratives. This is also true, I think, of our literature. As a small, predominantly English-speaking, colonised island, we swim in outside influence; most obviously the global currents of English literature that surround us; there are so many voices and canons, past and present, that imprint our writing. But onshore, there’s an increasingly distinct canon, one with its own recognisable patterns.

In the written English-language tradition, these patterns largely began as a colonial longing for other shores, for ‘home’ (usually the British Isles). This evolved into a vigorous effort to define New Zealand in opposition to that — to claim this, here, now as ‘home’. And through writers such as Charles Brasch, Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, and Janet Frame, the outline of a ‘New Zealand literature’ emerged and continued to evolve. But there was little or no Māori literature in this tradition; no sign of the pūrākau and histories that had existed here as oral literature for centuries. Witi Ihimaera, author of The Whale Rider, and the first Māori writer to be published in English in New Zealand, talks about reading a collection of ‘New Zealand short stories’ assigned at school in the 1950s. Māori characters appeared in only one story, written by a Pākehā, and they came off badly. He threw the book out the window and was caned for damaging state property—and determined to write himself and Māori into the ‘Whiteness of the page’. By 1985, when Māori writer Keri Hulme won the Booker Prize with The Bone People, ‘New Zealand literature’ had begun to look very different.

Since then, the literary landscape has continued to reestablish its indigenous roots, and otherwise diversify. In 2020, for example, there was a twenty four percent increase over a year in publications in te reo Māori, the Māori language–– a trend that continues. In 2022, Kāwai, an historical novel set in pre-colonial times and detailing pre-colonial tribal life in depth (it is written by an academic historian), was the best-selling book of New Zealand fiction onshore, and was one of four books short-listed for this year’s most prestigious literary prize, the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, at the Ockham New Zealand book awards, while the poetry shortlistees were exclusively women of colour. Last year, the Acorn prize was won by Whiti Hereaka, for Kurangaituku, a retelling of the Māori pūrākau, or myth, of Hatupatu and the birdwoman, written not from the perspective of the hero, but the monster. The book, published by HUIA, has two covers and can be read in either direction. It has no beginning, middle, or end. Time is a continuum, as it is in te ao Māori, the Māori world.

The book awards are, of course, only a small part of what makes up ‘New Zealand literature’–a concept that is constantly changing and being redefined and which is as varied as the writers that make it. But for the pūrākau to have surfaced on the ‘White page’ – to borrow Ihimaera’s term – in English, in print, at those awards, and to also be redefining what that very page looks like, is a game-changer.

Like the renaming of Polhill, though, this is not a simple narrative of triumphant reclamation – beginning, middle, end – but one with far messier human complexities. I am wary of essentialising here (or anywhere), so bear with me as I take an alternative route through this question of what our literature looks like at the moment.

The establishment of the reserve, and its renaming, is a long, multi-threading yarn. In brief, here is its short story.

Less than thirty years ago, the reserve was largely a tree-less, bird-less, gorse-infested dumping ground. Volunteers cared for a small section (the original ‘Waimapihi’ area) and undertook plantings, but it was a group of mountain-bikers carving trails through the land who triggered a wider change, carving out a series of ‘illegal’ tracks which attracted recreational use and a (literally) grass-roots community conservation project. Several years later, in 2009, the city council approached the mountain bikers/trail builders to create the reserve’s first official trail, which was named Transient– and the reserve was legitimised. The trail builders’ vision was to build a network that created better access to wild places for city-dwellers. With better access, it was also easier to plant more trees to accompany those now flourishing. As the trees grew up – the invasive gorse protecting them from the wind and providing a rich soil bed – native birds from the nearby Zealandia sanctuary began to return, along with others like blackbirds, thrush, and sparrows. Traplines were laid through the regenerating bush in an effort to eradicate the invasive stoats, weasels, possums, and rats which prey on the native birds who – having lived for millennia without predators – nest habitually low to the ground. The trails connected several suburbs to the city, and increasing numbers of bikers, walkers, runners, and commuters used them. Out of this group, more volunteers started to contribute, increasing the richness of the habitat, and the number of users. And so the story, and the regeneration, and the community, continues, part of a wider urban regeneration project now so successful that there is a plan to release kiwi here as part of the Capital Kiwi project. Only a small number of New Zealanders in the past century have ever seen or heard their namesake in the wild, but soon the bird may be part of my weekly running circuit.

There’s not a parallel with New Zealand literature here exactly, but sometimes when I think about the story of Waimapihi, I’m cognisant of some synapses – the move to restore native flora and fauna, not so as to wind back the clock and erase the recent past, or to return to a purer more ancient past, but to allow what can only flourish here, what would otherwise not exist, to define the environment. (Although there is in fact a group who want to return the habitat to exactly how it was ‘pre-1840’, including native species that didn’t grow here at that time). I’m also conscious of how brief of a moment the present is, and how much of the multi-faceted past, and future, is in it – the story is always drawing from somewhere else.

This is, of course, by and large a Pākehā story of the reserve’s recent history.

The stories of tangata whenua, people of the land, are here too — not for me to tell, but you catch their echoes everywhere. Tāne Mahuta holds the place. Tāwhirimatea gusts through it. Mapihi bathes in the stream. The pīwakawaka tells over and over how his laugh gave Māui away in the demigod’s bid to defeat mortality by crawling into the vulva of Hine-nui-te-pō and was instead crushed to death between her thighs.

And other stories–– of how the original inhabitants of these islands and their descendants have been disenfranchised of land and language, how the fabric of the land and the stories that hold it together have been torn apart by the violences of colonisalism.

The name change from Polhill to Waimapihi is a tiny attempt at a stitch in all this – to acknowledge loss, and more importantly, presence – but the enthusiasm for it is loud. When the vote to change the name from Polhill to Waimapihi was put to the city council, the result was unanimous.

Renaming has been a constant in Aotearoa over the past decades – of government departments, roads, buildings, schools, publications, radio stations, the country itself – and it hasn’t been universally accepted. But by and large, New Zealanders seem to welcome it, and adapt, even if a few complain about the ‘Māorification’ of New Zealand – which is a baffling concept. One name-change worth mentioning here was at my place of work – a university press which, over the past three decades, under the keen eye and ear of Fergus Barrowman, has significantly shaped New Zealand literature and how we think about it. The press is probably best known internationally for publishing Booker-prize-winner Eleanor Catton’s work, along with that of several other critically acclaimed writers including Barbara Summers, Elizabeth Knox, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, Catherine Chidgey, Ashleigh Young, Hera Lindsay Bird, and Tayi Tibble, to name a few. In 2022, just before I started working as an editor there, the press, formerly Victoria University Press (VUP), became Te Herenga Waka University Press (THWUP). Te Herenga Waka means ‘the mooring place of canoes’ (the Pacific Ocean-going sea vessels, rather than the North American ones) and was originally given by Māori teacher and leader Wiremu Parker to the marae (meeting place) which was opened on campus in the 1980s. (It is worth noting here that names are not simply ‘changed’ into te reo Māori, or at least they shouldn’t be. The process is long, involving a lot of kōrerō with the relevant elders and local iwi; a name has to be gifted). Te Herenga Waka became a prominent part of the university branding around 2020, and the press name change followed. Like the renaming of Waimapihi, it was a change with little fanfare or controversy – people were generally very positive.

So – another renaming, another stitch.

But does a tarata bloom by any other name smell as sweet?

While changes of name are about more than language, I think they are also all about language. It may seem a small thing, a slip of the tongue, but the pronunciation changes more than the way we say things; it changes how we think things. These changes to the names we speak, the signposts we read, the stories we tell, the pukapuka we publish, and the presses that publish them, are part of an effort to shape narratives of belonging, differently — to turn them from the rigid beams of an inherited colonial linearity into something more supple and organic. To do better at being. Here. But it’s a constant shifting ground, a constant rewriting, never steady, and it’s anything but simple. We reach for something we don’t know the shape of yet. The moment we are in is one of renaming, returning, recovering, restoration —all of these. But more than anything else, it’s perhaps an interrogation, of who ‘we’ are and who we are becoming, and of who we want to become.

A big part of this interrogation is writing about the past – or writing over the past, or writing out of the past – and while this is perhaps something all literature necessarily does, it is a dominant concern in Aotearoa New Zealand literature at the moment, from fiction through poetry through academic writing through non-fiction.

But while many authors write about the past to interrogate (or escape) the present, there is occasionally a writer whose work manages to do this in the here and now. Poet Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Auanui/Ngāti Porou), whose first collection was named one of the New Yorker’s best books in 2022, is such a writer (she is also the publicist at THWUP; Awe’re a very small country), one whose language and thinking is so immediately woven to the moment, and all the past and future caught up in it – personal, political, national, and actual mythologies all colliding – that every phrase is sinewed with meaning. Her work is immersive, rather than reflective, and intensely subjective, so much so that  it tells a bigger story than her own. She’s a writer capable of creating her own mythology, one both deeply personal, and recognisably national.


Visionary like my ancestors I / saw a sky of whales / a pale people / like my
ancestors I / inhaled the bible / swallowed the rifle / like an 8-inch cock /


she writes in the opening poem of her second collection, Rangikura. The poem is called ‘Tohunga’ which means ‘chosen expert/priest/healer’.

And in a poem called ‘Mahuika’ (goddess of fire), she writes:


. . . I’m

The kind of girl who knows
that the real vandalism
happens in the ripeness of daylight, tagged in

 white man’s law
and wāhine blood.

So I shrugged fuck it
and learnt to love the dark
where you can either
shine or disappear.

Wear a tacky plastic tiara
4 a heru in my hair.


i. Goddess of Death


Today the bush in Waimapihi has grown tall and dense, full of native flora and birds, indigenous and otherwise. Kōrua (indigenous freshwater crayfish) scratch in the streambeds, while tūna (eels) bury their bellies in the muddy bottoms. It is a true haven and I’m grateful, every time I run, or even look out the window, for everything, human and otherwise, that has helped to create it. It’s a place with a long, long story – cut down, grazed on, dumped on, illegally built on, fought over, argued for, cared for. It’s not a wild space though. It’s a human space. The flora and fauna thrive and die alongside the bikers, runners and walkers, tree-planters, trappers, and bird-lovers who protect and destroy it, under the tall towers and staves of strings of the power lines and pylons that also pass through. And it’s work to keep it flourishing. The possums find their way back to the trees. The rats evade the traps. The invasive species keep returning, pushing up the broken glass from the earth. Pull the tradescantia back, you might find an abandoned fridge, a car tyre, the ghost of a farmer, a rifle-shooter, a wahine bathing in the water.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Anna Knox looking to cameraAnna Knox is an editor at Te Herenga Waka University Press and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived and worked in Finland, Saudi Arabia, the UK and US, and now, Aotearoa New Zealand, where she was born. 

Title photo by Anna Knox.

You may also enjoy Editor at Large William Tham’s reflection, Reinventing the Book in Malaysia.

Three Sisters by Susie Thornberry

Three Sisters by Susie Thornberry

By Wasafiri Editor on May 23, 2023 in

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays, and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe – in all their diversity and complexity. In this emotive work of fiction, Susie Thornberry offers a poignant, shrewd portrait of loss and sisterhood.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

‘Maybe all that a family is, is the shape of its silence.’ – Kei Miller  

The three sisters share two backwards seats to suburbia. Versions of the same seats that Zahra (32), Mani (30), and London (28) were jammed onto for birthday trips to the SegaDome or Madame Tussaud’s as children.  

Today, they had waited to catch the same train from different stops. It will be the thirty sixth Wednesday dinner with their mother since their father died and they could do without it. At Blackfriars, Farringdon, and St Pancras, each sister had flared their nostrils at the idea of the journey. A collective stress tic on three different platforms across the city. One overlooking the river, one at ground level, and one underground on platform B.  

On the train around them, people are crammed close, swapping air and the smell of the working day now imprinted in their clothes. A commuter rests her Tate Modern tote bag on the side of London’s head.

‘Mani, Mani, do you like my new hat?’ 

She shifts her head so the bag fits more snugly and gurns. Mani cracks up, but the commuter is oblivious, reading the Evening Standard, and, next to her sisters, Zahra is focused into editing Mani’s application for a selective yoga course next May.  

All three sisters are tall with dark hair and shades of light brown skin that shift with who’s been on holiday, who’s taken up running again, and whose current office is in a basement. Their similarities startle strangers but the things they see of themselves – London’s soft jaw, Mani’s blackheads, Zahra’s thinner hair – when they look at what could have been with a recombination of genes weighs heavy on them. The cooking and reshuffling of these genes in the same house, school, twenty minute journey up town, but against different lives mean that London is an activist, trying to save the world; Zahra is an assistant professor, trying to change the narrative on crustacea; and Mani is retraining, Mani is trying harder than them all.  

They dawdle up the hill to their childhood home. A clutter of history of who is better at maths, job applications, and baking Victoria Sponge cake; and who wore the same skirt to a school disco first; and who ate the whole box of sweets their father bought; and who held whose hair back over the toilet; and who cut whose hair out of spite because of Laura next door; and who answers when you need them to.  

Mani stops to buy flowers, London wants gin, and Zahra is happy to have the excuse to hang back outside the shop for a moment alone. It’s cold. She puffs her cheeks in and out, and holds her breath hothousing inside her mouth. She waits for her sisters to leave the shop, slaps her cheeks and lets it out in one long breath like a fire-breathing dragon. The hot air shoots out and fogs damp around them. 

‘You’re so disgusting,’ says Mani. ‘I can’t believe you’re my role model.’ But London is laughing so, by blood majority, it was a funny thing to do. 

Their mother (61) pulls them into the house, with thanks for the flowers and one kiss for the group, wearing a fuchsia pink jumper and lipstick to match. ‘Your father’s not here,’ she says.  

The sisters don’t respond. It’s been like this every week since their father died. They don’t look at one another, hoping that if they ignore it, they can keep ignoring it. Three sets of nostrils flare. Every week they talk separately to therapists who are reluctant to give opinions or advice or options, and instead ask questions to try to pull a thread that none of the sisters feel exists within them. What is there is the relation to each other and a hole where they should know what to do and whether they are failing their mother or encouraging her or judging her too much. 

Zahra heads up to the bathroom while Mani and London follow their mum into the living room. The room, like the house, is full of their parents’ life. Things they loved individually pile up into a thronged aesthetic the house can barely contain. Dark wood furniture, miniature buses, ceramic Donald Ducks, cream doilies, sugared almonds tied in a peach mesh puff from a distant relative’s wedding in Leeds eight years ago. Above the door frame there are three clocks with red labels, and the names of their parents’ significant places. London 19.32 – Amritsar 00.02 – Birmingham 19.33. 

This is the room where the sisters learned to grieve together for four grandparents; for Pig the gerbil; and for Princess Diana whose televised funeral they watched eating ham and lemon pickle sandwiches while their mother shook her head that it was a shame, a life lost too soon. The whole town watched. Their friends from school, their families. The world watched with subtitles or different commentators. Somehow it felt better because everyone had lost someone. The local Safeway had to tie more pages into the condolence book with black ribbon until they gave in and finally put out a new one and then another two days later.  

Diana had died six days before London’s sixth birthday. London felt that she and the princess were connected in some way by the number six. Maybe this was the first moment that London felt linked to everyone else in the way that made her now want to save the world when her friends wanted to save their money for a three week holiday to Mexico. Zahra and Mani still sometimes called their anti-monarchist sister ‘Princess’ even though they had all felt sad at the time because school thought famous people were an easy way to teach about death and the sisters’ second generation Indian parents had a relationship with the monarchy that the sisters think is part of the problem. 

The intimate knowledge of every nook of the living room’s jumble holds the sisters together, but in the back part of the room there is a gap. Mani and London spot it at the same time. Where the round chestnut dining table for six people should be, there is a small folding rubberwood picnic table with a bright blue top. It is big enough for one plate, a knife, fork, spoon and glass, which are all pre-set.  

They look again for the chestnut table that their father had bought, with the sisters tucked beside him, at auction but there is only the folding table.  

The two of them look away. Mani messages the group. 

Mani: Mum’s lost her mind. 

Zahra: Why? 

Zahra: Don’t say that. I’ll be down in two seconds. 

London: She has, to be fair. 

Mani: Yup. Wait and see. 

Zahra comes in, sits on the sofa, and follows her sisters’ eyes to the sad little table.  

Zahra: Did you wait for me to come down to say anything? 

Her sisters nod. 

Zahra: Fuck you.

‘Mum, where’s the table?’ Zahra says. 

‘There.’ She points across the room at the folding table. 

‘The other table. You know I mean the other one.’ 

‘I didn’t need it.’

‘We don’t need a dinner table?’

‘What does it have to do with you? You hardly ever visit.’

‘We come every Wednesday!’

‘London comes from Peckham,’ Mani says.  

‘Peckham isn’t far,’ London says. 

‘That’s true. Peckham is far. Thank you, London. But we still don’t need a big table without you.’ 

The ‘we’ stops the sisters’ questions. ‘Okay, Mama,’ Mani says. She moves behind, unties her mum’s hair and begins to replait it. She soothes with her fingers and hopes that each knot she hits will jar her mum into reality.  

London looks down and messages her housemate. 

London: Drink later? 

London: I might need it. 

Zahra looks down, allows herself a moment to visualise – a breath in for three and out for three – and messages her partner in their Filth chat. 

Zahra: Later, I want you to use me and tell me what a good girl I’ve been. 

Sam: You’re being very demanding.  

Sam: What makes you think you deserve it? 

She gets a message in their usual chat seconds later. 

Sam: Are you okay? Hope it’s not too horrible there. 


The sisters’ mother brings out rotis in a tea towel and keema with peas, and touches her husband’s forehead in their wedding photograph. This is the same Wednesday dinner they ate watching Star Trek reruns eighteen years ago. It’s Mani tired from karate and London tired from how boring karate was. It’s Zahra spacey from sitting in the car reading teen horror and looking out for strangers trying to break into their brown Volvo. Today’s Wednesday mince is made from soy composite for vegan London’s sake and their father isn’t here to complain that it tastes like mushrooms.  

‘Let’s sit on the sofa,’ their mother says. 

‘Before you replace it with a deckchair?’

Their mother hands out the rotis dripping with hot butter. She smiles at them individually and then as a pack. ‘Your dad loves these,’ she says, waving one.  

And to herself, ‘Such a shame.’

Zahra yelps and drops her roti, butter side down, on the carpet. ‘Such a shame.’ The incantation of death on her mother’s lips. Not quite a recognition that it was a life lost too soon, but a move in that direction. The two sisters look at Zahra, the eldest, the famously unfazed, and a crack appears.  

The crack in the order of things grows as they watch Zahra’s first public tears since. In some way it’s a relief. In some way it is a relief not to be sitting at the auctioned table in the same place they have all sat looking at his empty chair for the past thirty five dinners. Them in their usual seats trying to be the same without him. It is not clear what is their own grief and what is all of their grief. Zahra sobs. London stares at the Birmingham clock. Mani’s eyes are on their mother who is tearing a roti like a letter she has read and wants no one else to see. A pile of ripped confetti forms next to the mince. Their mother seems to be in a different room; one where she needs to be alone but she wants the sisters on call. Here, the sisters have lost a name together: dad; daddy; your father. And a truth about him that they can only get closer to when they argue and dispute and add. He liked these rotis but did he love the corn ones more? The sight of parathas stuffed with spiced aloo on the now disappeared table once made him walk his balls straight into the back of a chair and howl for five minutes while everyone’s food got cold. Ten, fifteen years ago. Perhaps. Maybe those parathas were his favourite? Zahra sobs. They all threaten to fall down the crack, but not if one can take the turn to stay up and play the role they’ve been assigned. It is a story. A story. A family is just a story.   


They all jolt at London’s fart. The force behind it, summoned to pull them out, sounds like solid matter hitting solid. A slapped hand on a table or on a cheek. 


The sisters laugh. 

‘I didn’t hear anything.’


‘Me neither.’


She farts again. ‘You really need to sort out this creaky sofa.’

Their mother slaps her on the arm. ‘London, you will soil yourself and it won’t be funny.’

‘Soil! If you shit yourself, London, it will be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’

‘You’ll have to wear a pair of mum’s massive pants all the way back to Peckham.’

‘Fuck off, Mani. Peckham’s not far.’

‘Eff off Mani, my pants aren’t big. That’s a very old-fashioned view of older women. And I’m not old fashioned about the things you get up to.’


Zahra sits at the sad little table on top of the memory of the only thing her father had a hand in that’s now gone. Maybe it’s a fuck-you little table. To life, to him for leaving, to the sisters for leaving home in the first place and for pushing her now, for not seeing what she is beyond them and him. Traitors to their own values.  

On the other side of the wall, Mani and London are scraping torn roti into the bin and boxing up leftovers for lunch tomorrow. 

‘Do you think Mum knows Dad’s dead?’

‘She knows.’

‘She said he was out again. She’s talking about how much he loves things. Present tense. Man, maybe this is the time we need to get help.’

Mani’s jaw tightens. ‘She knows. She knows. She knows. She knows. She knows.’

It is a threat: leave it. 

Zahra appears around the kitchen door. ‘Twenty eight years and you don’t know you can hear everything in this house? Mum’s upstairs but she can hear you,’ she says. ‘She replaced the family dining table with a tray table for one. Yes, she fucking knows.’

She pushes her sisters out the door and back into the living room carrying the guilt of making their mum a problem. Loudly. Their mother joins them in a circle on the carpet holding a Double Decker chocolate bar. Mani smiles, and they all shift closer together, sitting cross-legged so that their bare toes touch the toes of the person next to them. The sisters watch their mother cut the chocolate bar into four equal pieces and put a share in each of their hands. She keeps her own piece in her lap on some kitchen roll.  

‘This is the last one he gave me.’

Their parents had met on a bus at Hackney Town Hall when they had both just moved to London from Birmingham. It took a new city to introduce them. For thirty three years after that, he bought her a Double Decker bar every Friday. Their ‘handsome life’ was built on double deckers, he would say. Every childhood Friday, he bought the girls sour sweets that made them dribble and wipe it on each other, cones of popcorn, caramel filled cartoon characters, but the Double Deckers were for his wife only. 

Now they all sit holding the last piece of him. Their mother closes her eyes and bites the tiniest corner. London thinks of giving her share back – her mum needs it more – and then crams it in her mouth in one bite; Mani gnaws the chocolate from around the edges; and Zahra bites one quarter with mathematical precision.  

Nobody speaks. They press their feet tightly against each other. Holding one another and the story together until Mani gets up to go to the bathroom. 

‘Why are you taking your bag?’

‘I’ve been flushing your blood clots since you were seventeen. You don’t have to hide it. You can just take a tampon.’

‘I started my period when I was fifteen.’

‘No, you didn’t.’

‘You didn’t.’

‘Do you still care about that?’

London regrets bringing it up. Mani does still care about the years of waiting and pretending her body was ready to bleed when people were already fucking and her younger sister had periods. Now she has to care about the unbearable pain every month and what it means for the future. She ignores her sisters and takes her bag out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. On the way up she rummages through the coats on the rack by the front door. Her father’s charity shop rain mac is three jackets deep under a navy duffle and a hideous beige pea coat. She pulls a Double Decker bar from her bag, puts it in the mac’s left pocket and smiles. It will be one more for her mum to find when she is ready to move his things from next to the entrance. A taste of him that is hers alone or a sacred scrap that she’ll keep in the fridge for ten years past its sell by date. 

As Mani walks away up the stairs, she hears London. 

‘Mum, you need a pedicure by the way, my toes got exfoliated from rubbing against yours.’

Mani feels the stairs creak in the places they have creaked for years. 

Susie Thornberry is a writer, producer, and artistic director. Her creative work has been presented with Battersea Arts Centre, WOMAD, BBC Radio 6 Music, and many others. She is working on a collection of funny and unsettling short stories about the lengths people go to hide from disaster, even as it unfolds. 

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

Title photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Papaya by Jimin Kang

Papaya by Jimin Kang

By Wasafiri Editor on May 20, 2023 in

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays, and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe – in all their diversity and complexity. Set against the deceptively simple backdrop of a university party, Jimin Kang’s engrossing short story comments on racist microaggressions and the unspoken social contract with humour, acumen, and a well-aimed plate of fruit.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

I find it entirely justified what I did, to tell you the truth. Mary disagreed. She asked me to leave her party without asking why I had thrown the papaya at Joe, leaving wet, sticky entrails of orange fruit muddying her brand-new carpet. When I looked around the room, everyone’s faces were as blank as plates. It isn’t that I don’t believe what I did was inappropriate, just that the entire affair was less about Joe and more about something deeper that everyone in the room had touched. But as I had on many occasions that day, I found that my mouth would not cooperate with the churning vat of my thoughts, and so I left the party without so much as looking back.   

What happened was that the papayas were on clearance at Sainsbury’s that day, so I had bought the rest of the crate and brought them to Mary’s. Mary was hosting a housewarming party, and her new home was just across the road from the store. By the time I arrived, three other guests had been standing in the kitchen, none of whom I recognised except for a boy who looked vaguely familiar in the way many men do in Oxford: tall and curly-blond with a grey knitted vest. The boy raised his blond eyebrows when he saw me, and whether the expression was one of recognition or surprise I couldn’t tell. But before I could ask, I saw that one of my papayas was leaking and juice was dripping out from a small hole in my plastic bag.   

It occurred to me then that he was raising his eyebrows not because of me, but the bag.  

 ‘Whatcha bring?’ the boy said as I hauled the bags onto the counter. The boy — an American, I gathered from his accent — grabbed a handful of napkins and threw them on the kitchen floor, where I noticed that he had kept his shoes on. Mine were by the front door, where I had asked Mary if I should take them off, and she had said that I could do whatever I liked. Because Mary had her shoes off, I had taken mine off as well, but when I noticed the boy’s shoes and the papaya juice on the floor, I wished that I’d chosen differently. 

They were papayas from Sainsbury’s, I said. 

‘The things you can get there these days!’ The boy laughed knowingly, and I took note of the fact that he spoke as if he’d been in England for a while.  

On the counter, where Mary had been cutting limes for lime soda, I pushed aside the little green wedges to make room for the first papaya, which I cut lengthwise down the centre around the circumference of the fruit. Then I took hold of the shell in both hands and gently teased apart the two halves such that the black gummy seeds wouldn’t scatter everywhere along Mary’s new kitchen counter. The papaya was a larger-than-average fruit, and because of its ripeness it smelled thick and cloying and monstruous. The fact of it taking up so much space embarrassed me a little, to be honest. I hadn’t known Mary for very long. I’d met her at a life-drawing class in Jericho, where she had sat motionless on a chair for several hours as our model. She had invited me and several others to her upcoming housewarming during the cocktails after class. I hadn’t expected her to follow up with me, but she did a few days later via WhatsApp with a line of smiley-face emojis and Hey, nice to meet you the other day! I’m looking forward to catching up at my party, Tuna. Then, immediately after, oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!!!! Yuna*** I meant Yuna — a crying-face emoji — stupid autocorrect.  

That night, I had clicked on the circular icon containing her face, which was heart-shaped and near-perfectly symmetrical. She had rich, dark hair that fell around her shoulders, arched eyebrows, and lips that had been coloured a deep red, the same colour as the collar of her dress. I found her both beautiful and sophisticated, which meant that, before the party, I spent more hours than usual debating what to bring to the event. For a while, all I could think of was food: fruit, umma said, in Korea people brought fruit. In England, bottles of wine. Candles, maybe. A dessert. I realised that my friendship demographic — broke DPhils scraping by on Tesco meal deals — precluded me from any need to impress, so I decided to go the Korean way and buy whatever looked good at the store. What looked good that day happened to be papayas, papayas that were also on sale, but because they were on sale my conscience dictated that I buy at least more than enough. And this is how I ended up at Mary’s party cutting four large papayas beside blond-haired and grey-vested Joe, who told me his name and asked if I was a student at the university. 

When I affirmed his hypothesis, his face brightened. ‘Studying what?’ he asked, and his eyes lightened up even more when I told him I studied American confessional poets, mainly Plath. Joe confirmed that he was, indeed, from America — Wisconsin, if you must know — then he asked why I would study American literature in England when I could’ve gotten better funding in America. But as if realizing I could technically ask him the same question in return, he quickly digressed, asking, ‘So what’s your connection to the US of A?’  

You must understand that the way he said it — US of A — reminded me of something I’d read on a dating app once, a bio belonging to an American in England, who had punctuated the end of his self-aggrandizing description with an American flag. I took a screenshot and returned to it whenever I was bored from reading or feeling slightly depressed about teaching. On most occasions I found the confidence hilarious, but on the odd night when I would be up late picking through my camera roll for something to send to a friend, I would scroll past the screenshot and feel this hollowness where self-satisfaction had previously reigned.  

I have no real connection to America. Well, not more than the average person who grows up with American media, which seems to be most people of a certain social crust wherever you are, Bangkok or Prague or Rio. Uttering the same Americanisms from all the same movies, describing runs in miles but refusing weather conversions while complaining that Fahrenheit is stupid. At least that was the case at the international school I attended in Seoul, but I haven’t lived there for seven years. In England, I receive a stipend in pounds and manage to lose my 30-day Korean SIM card after each brief trip home, which is in part why it isn’t ever worth making a permanent number. Instead, I make do with returning to the third floor of a near-windowless walk-up tenement in the back alleys of Hongdae, where a woman at a desk issues me a temporary SIM card as she does for tourists. But I didn’t mention much of this to Joe, of course. I continued to cut the papayas, one by one, and when I asked Joe whether he was also a student at the university, he said yes, he studied global and imperial history. I was secretly glad to notice he sounded sheepish when he said the word imperial, which was another one of those shocking Britishisms like the ubiquity of the word oriental for everything that denotes Asianness: Oriental Studies, the Orient Café, and beautiful oriental eyes, for which someone had complimented me on the same dating app where I had seen the cringey American. But who was to blame, really? I could have predicted it all along. On that man’s profile was a picture of him standing beneath the red pillars of some famous shrine in Kyoto, which was artfully placed atop a professed love for K-pop, manga, and Train to Busan. An ex once claimed the same film reminded him of me because I looked like the pregnant woman in the movie. She was also the only woman in the movie with any meaningful role, but he had meant it as a compliment, so who was I to complain? 

As Joe was explaining to me that he focused on Cambodian military history, Mary came into the kitchen and told us that we should join everyone outside. It was then I realized that she was wearing the same red dress as in her WhatsApp picture, except it was less formal than I thought, with its sweeping hem that swayed widely like the petals of a poppy in the wind. I wondered, as I had before, what she saw in me that was interesting enough to merit an invitation to her party. She was older than me, an administrator at the business school, and she was so effortlessly stunning at that. I didn’t know her too well, only that she admired my drawing and that she had friends — ‘literary types’, she had said — who she wanted me to meet. 

Joe and I took the sliced papaya and entered the living room, where by now eight or so people mingled around eating Walkers crisps from colourful IKEA bowls. Save for a girl wearing a t-shirt printed with the Oxford crest, the room felt fairly but ambiguously British: corduroy, suede boots, button-downs, summer dresses with flowers. I looked around and tried to guess which ones were Mary’s ‘literary types’, and noticed that most people were older, in their thirties and early forties at least, and all of them were white. But that last detail didn’t faze me. After seven years, the ethnic breakdown of rooms had become just another observation I made upon entering new spaces, like whether there was free coffee or if it was raining. As I walked in with Joe, several people turned around and gave us soft toothless smiles frozen mid-bite, and an older man wearing a paisley suit said, rather loudly, ‘Ah Joe, you brought your girlfriend!’  

I turned to look at Joe. His cheeks were already reddening to the same hue of the fruit I held in my hands. Mostly I was amused, but a sinking pit in my stomach suggested that I was also deeply horrified about what had happened. In my head flashed a montage of scarlet shrine pillars, which cut to a group of long-legged women in sailor suits, something-something-Naruto, and finally, that pregnant woman from Train to Busan, who was the kind of beautiful that could belong to anyone. But before Joe could correct the old man’s mistake, Mary jumped in between us and flashed a wide smile. ‘Those papayas look delicious, Yuna,’ she said, taking the plate from my hands. She laid it at the end of the table, beside the crisps, and I felt the crawling anxiety that everyone in the room was watching our interaction to see what turn it would take. ‘Where did you get them from?’ 

Sainsbury’s, I said. A quiet chortle went around the room like small fires running along a continuous fuse, which simultaneously served to confirm my anxiety and nullify it. The party quickly resumed, the tension having presumably been broken, and people turned to talk to each other save for myself and Joe, who I expected to speak first although we had been both branded by the presence of the other.  

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he finally remarked, after a brief silence, ‘and trust me, I’m more embarrassed than you are.’ 

By this point we were standing alone, just the two of us in the corner of the room, while the rest of the party carried on. I noticed that nobody was reaching for the papaya. I wondered if I should walk up and grab a plate to show people how it was done. The possibility that no-one in the room had tried a papaya before burned in me like electricity, but I tried not to show it. Even thinking it felt petty, like a child’s game, so instead I turned to Joe and asked who the old man was.  

‘He’s an old friend of Mary’s,’ he said, still looking away. ‘I house-sat for him while he and his wife went on vacation last year, and my girlfriend at the time came to stay with me.’  

There was another brief silence. Then— 

‘Sorry, is this awkward?’ He turned to face me.   


He sighed.  

From across the room, I noticed Mary stopping by the papaya with a plate in her right hand. But instead of loading the fruit onto her plate, she took a half slice before moving on to the cheeses and crackers on the table. At the end of the line, she started chatting with the girl in the Oxford t-shirt. Watching them made me feel like I had somehow left the room and re-entered it in someone else’s body, with someone else’s reason to be present, watching the scene unfold like a cloth without being able to stop its seams from falling apart.   

‘Look, I know what it’s like,’ Joe said. ‘I’ve been confused for other Americans before. And all because of what I sound like, apparently.’ 

After talking with the girl, Mary stood alone, for a moment, at the end of the table. Daintily, she slid the tines of her wooden fork into a papaya slice and lifted it in the direction of her face. But where I had expected the papaya to enter her small, elegant, red-lipped mouth, it went instead to her nose, and I watched as Mary sniffed the fruit once, drew her head back with a furrow between her brows, and again, before she put the fork back onto her plate and disappeared into the kitchen.  

‘Now I’m not trying to say it’s the exact same thing, of course,’ Joe went on, but his voice entered my left ear and reverberated in a chamber deep in the back of my brain, where thoughts would not register coherently until much later. ‘But people get confused all the time, and it’s mostly in good faith, you know what I mean?’ 

Mary returned, this time without a plate in her hands but a paper cup. She looked around the room, appraising the party for what it was. Suddenly our eyes locked, her doe-eyes flashing bright, and she swiftly broke into her beautiful business-school-Mary smile, life-drawing-model-Mary smile, and I knew then that she was the type of woman who never had to doubt the power she held. The type of woman who could go her entire life without trying a papaya because no-one exhorted her to be more than what she already was, which was the skin and the country she was born into, and it would always be this way, no matter how many foreigners were invited into her home, or who etched her beautiful face onto their canvases until they got it just right. 

How to say it? Seeing that untouched papaya nauseated me. As Joe continued, feeling increasingly sorry for himself, I could see myself as if from the perspective of those standing around me, except there was little to see because I was quite literally gone, dissipated into Mary’s new walls, new kitchen, new carpets covered in old shoes and older feet. It was like getting sucked into a vacuum or flushed down the drain, except on each occasion my hands were wielding the vacuum, my fingers pulling down the plastic cord. What it would mean to be able to slide a peeler down the sides of my body, letting the speckled orange flesh fall, to reveal the pungency of all that I am in a space where I have never been or perhaps never meant to belong.  

Do you know what I mean?  

‘Let’s talk about something else,’ Joe was saying, ‘Would you like something to eat?’  

But I wasn’t listening, not really. Instead, I noticed that Queen had begun to play on the sound system. From the kitchen, there was the sound of a cork popping from a bottle of what I presumed to be prosecco. There was laughter. There was unintelligible talk. And then there was Joe walking towards me with a plate full of papaya and two forks, but what did it mean? Was it supposed to be reconciliatory? A triumph I could claim as my own? He slid a fork into a slice of fruit and brought it towards his mouth. He stopped, lifted the fork to his nose, and sniffed as Mary had done. I felt a deep freeze clenching my throat. I looked at the papaya. I sniffed. It reeked. 

‘Yuna, I think these are off,’ he quietly said. Then I looked at his face, teeming then with endless apology, and I felt the impossible need to believe that the fault was purely his. I took the plate from his hands. And you already know what happened next.  


Jimin Kang is a Seoul-born, Hong Kong-raised, and England-based writer and journalist now studying environmental theory at the University of Oxford. Her work has previously been published in The New York Times, Asymptote, Off Assignment and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, among other outlets. She is also an editor at The Oxonian Review. Find her at

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

Cover photo by Isaac N.C. on Unsplash

Jummah by Sanah Ahsan

Jummah by Sanah Ahsan

By Wasafiri Editor on April 14, 2023 in

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays, and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe – in all their diversity and complexity. In this poem, Sanah Ahsan brings love, companionship, devotion, and religion shoulder to shoulder.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

after Jericho Brown   


although I have not covered my head  

nor tucked free-flying hairs   

friday comes to me like it did back then  

god’s kiss on my forehead tiny  

my lover presses   

her lips on bare temple   

whispers Jummah Mubarak   

before playing Omar Hisham’s Surah Al-Kahf   

his voice pools around our cave    

like the smoke from    

the palo santo she circles   

we take turns to do wudu   

rushing three rounds of rivers   

over familiar routes   

our water meets   

at the bottom   

of the plug hole   

in a paint-stained sink   


with still wet feet 

we lay the janamaz horizontal   

wide enough to hold us both  

shoulder to shoulder   

we are two sundered suns   

kneeling into the horizon’s holy mouth   

Sanah Ahsan is a poet, liberation psychologist, writer, educator and presenter. She won the Outspoken Poetry Performance Prize (2019) and shortlisted for The White Review Poetry Prize (2022); Bridport Poetry Prize (2021). Her non-fiction writing has been featured by The Guardian. Sanah is currently writing her debut poetry collection. Find her at 

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash