Broadcaster and writer Miriama Kamo introduced the lineup for WORD Christchurch’s final session by prefacing with a definition of the topic:
adventure (n.) a wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful)
All four women featured fully fit the description, from extreme endurance to joyous risk-taking while travelling. The only thing I have in common with these ladies and their incredible lives is our gender, but while I won’t be running off to the Greenland ice cap anytime soon, their talks have inspired me to be a little more adventurous in my own life.
Hollie Woodhouse began her adventures with an Outward Bound course in her late twenties. While alone in the bush she wrote down four goals she wanted to achieve:
- Start her own business
- Go to the UK and do her OE
- Sign up for an event each year that would challenge her
- Get a tattoo
For me a challenging event would be speaking in front of a crowded auditorium at The Piano, but for Hollie that meant signing up for the Coast to Coast with no prior experience, after which she headed to London and now publishes a magazine called Say Yes to Adventure, which combines her love of design, adventures and the written word. So that’s three checked off her list, but instead of resting on her laurels she decided to apply for an expedition to the Greenland ice cap — a natural next step, I’m sure you’ll agree.
This part of the talk had me putting multiple question marks and exclamation points next to my notes: for 29 days Hollie and three others would walk from 8-14 hours on the ice, pulling a 60kg sled behind them. The weather was unseasonably bad, causing at one point a hurricane that kept them shut up in their tents for so long that a necessary toilet break was made, and in the 20 seconds they were outside the frostbite already set in. The delay caused them to take longer than anticipated, resulting in a grueling 30+ hour trek on the last day to get to the helicopter. (Who does this to themselves?!) Really puts my holiday food poisoning in perspective.
Our next speaker, Lilia Tarawa, thankfully began her talk with something I could relate to: growing up on the idyllic West Coast, surrounded by rivers, trees, bush, and mountains. She was close with her friends and family, loved going camping, and excelled at learning musical instruments. At age six she was proud to receive a glowing first school report with excellent grades and the comment that “Lilia demonstrates leadership qualities which could be useful when she gets older.” Lilia’s grandfather read this out to their gathered community at the evening dinner, and as her heart swelled with pride he popped it by saying: “We don’t need women like you.”
Lilia grew up in the cult of Gloriavale, and this was her first inkling that her world was not as wonderful as it seemed. The use of shame and humiliation to control others made it difficult for her to see herself raising children in that environment, and after the mistreatment of her best friend as an older teen she resolved to leave. Luckily the rest of her family were already on board (her two elder brothers had already left) so they were able to escape together. Despite leaving the environment it hasn’t been easy to shrug off her upbringing:
They began by using shame and guilt to degrade my self worth. Every day I was told I was a worthless sinner so when people treated me badly I thought maybe I deserve this, maybe this is my fault. My love for others broke the chains that shackled me — why was I willing to stand up for them but not for myself?
Lilia now fulfills the prediction of that early report card, standing up for both herself and others as a strong leader. “I want to tell my six year old self that she can do anything she wants to do, and never let anyone tell her otherwise.”
From the sobering reality of escaping a cult to the wry humour of Margaret Austin, who prefaced her speech with two confessions. 1) She is not Margaret Austin the former Labour MP, and 2) She grew up in Palmerston North. I forgave her these defects when she continued on to detail her escape, first from her home town and later from a cottage in Port Chalmers, fleeing overseas for 14 years. After some good experiences (Amsterdam) and bad (Athens), she ended up on a street in Paris described by Henry Miller as full of pimps and prostitutes. Perhaps that explains why, when looking for a job as a dancer, she was directed to Les Folies Bergère. (If you’re not familiar, think Moulin Rouge.) It wasn’t until she saw the picture of topless dancers on the wall of the director’s office that she realised quite what she was auditioning for. Luckily Margaret is nothing if not game, and that is how an ex-Sunday School girl from Palmerston North became a Paris cabaret dancer.
I’ve taken a lot of risks, and most of them have worked out well. If you’re going to take a risk, why take a calculated risk?
Her parting shot to the audience was the advice that if someone tells you that you shouldn’t do this or can’t do that, do it. An appealingly contrary attitude that describes Margaret perfectly.
After three incredible speakers you might be thinking that the fourth couldn’t possibly live up to the others, but Dr Michelle Dickinson put that thought to bed with the revelation that not only is she a competitive kitesurfer, she also does snow-kiting, mountain biking, runs ultra marathons, swims with sharks, goes rock climbing, and used to do competitive martial arts and cagefighting for money(!!). This is all in addition to her work as an engineer, nanotechnologist, lecturer, and now founder and Director of Nanogirl Labs Ltd. Whew! Despite being intimidatingly smart, Michelle didn’t come from a home of academic excellence — both parents dropped out of school early and Michelle herself failed the exams needed to get into nursing college, the only career option the school advisor recommended for girls. No one recognised her skills with a soldering iron and electronics at home as being valuable, or that being bad at tests didn’t mean you weren’t smart. Luckily she got into university a couple of years later and studied “the art of breaking shit and never having to put it back together!”.
Despite her many challenging hobbies, Michelle says one of the hardest things she’s done is be a woman engineer. It’s a lonely position to be in, with only 11% of engineers in Aotearoa being female. Often she has literally been the only woman in the room. As a lecturer in Auckland she struggled with letting her female engineering graduates out into the workplace, as she recognised that many won’t be safe in their jobs. The audience was treated to a range of sexist adverts and logos from engineering firms across New Zealand to illustrate her point. This situation is unlikely to change while we continue to reinforce job stereotypes, confirmed by a survey done on age 5-8 year olds where they were asked to draw a picture of an engineer. 100% were of a man. Since Michelle has started Nanogirl Labs Ltd and has brought female engineers into schools to talk about their jobs, the survey results have changed drastically. “Every one of you is a role model,” she told us (no pressure), “Every one of us can do a tiny thing that shifts New Zealand into a brand new space.”
We’re so afraid of failure in New Zealand. Take a risk! If it works, you’ll be happy. If you fail, you’ll be wise.
The perfect conclusion to a literary festival celebrating adventure and the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, recognised by a standing ovation by the audience. I’m already looking forward to the next one.