Aunties Book Review: An essential collection

It was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail.

Book title: Aunties
Editors: Kassie Hartendorp, Ella Grace, M.Newton, Nadia Abu-Shanab
Released: 2020
Review by: Ani White

The Aunties collection was crowdfunded in 2018, a collection of articles bringing together the perspectives of women, transgender, non-binary, and intersex people involved in political organising across Aotearoa. This was an initiative of editors Ella Grace, M. Newton, Kassie Hartendorp and Nadia Abu-Shanab (although they assert on the website that “we’re not editors, we’re organisers”, the collection is well-edited).

Crowdfunding from the community has allowed this collection to be accountable to the community, rather than to NGOs or even corporate funders who tend to downplay anti-systemic perspectives. For example, the decision to include a prison abolitionist perspective from People Against Prisons (PAPA) organiser Emily Rākete goes beyond what prison reform NGOs would allow.

Although the collection took three years to produce after the crowdfunding campaign, this is reflected in the breadth of the collection, with 25 articles spanning 100 pages. Many articles are brief, but rich. The collection is beautifully produced, with excellent design by Natasha Mead, Natalie Thomson and Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho – and many lovely illustrations and photographs throughout.

The cover is Simply Red, and it was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail. Although digital media has transformed communication in important ways, and can’t be ignored, there’s something to be said for a print collection in bringing together diverse articles in one lasting place, rather than isolated articles or fleeting 240-character hot takes. That said, for those who can’t afford the collection, there is a free pdf online until the end of the year – a good decision in terms of accessibility, in contrast to the academic approach which locks away important knowledge in subscription journals. The printed collection is also available to purchase for $30, and if you can afford that, it’s worth supporting the work and expense involved in drawing the collection together (international orders are also included).

The introduction accurately captures the conjuncture this collection intervenes in:

We face a number of challenges to our collective survival. We share an awareness of these challenges. Sometimes it makes us feel heavy and lost as we struggle to find our place.

We came together to make this magazine because you’re not alone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to face these things by yourself. You can’t and shouldn’t.

This emphasis on collective self-determination, as a solution to various interlocked crises, runs throughout the collection. Articles include a brief interview with Ihumātao organiser Pania Newton (for international readers: Ihumātao is a struggle for Māori land against property developers), an interview on organisation with beneficiary rights stalwart Sue Bradford (who calls for a “large scale party to the left of Labour and the Greens”), and an interview with veteran indigenous activist Hilda Harawira, among many others.

The collection takes in the perspective of both leading activists, and other contributors who may be erased even in activist politics. Related to the inclusion of these often-erased perspectives, Ihumātao ‘leader’ Pania Newton questions the very concept of ‘leadership’ in movements, as she has in her public speeches.

Although drawing clear political lines in the sand, the collection reflects the complexity and nuance of the various liberation struggles women and gender minorities are engaged in across Aotearoa. In part this stems from the emphasis on lived experience. The collection is also intergenerational, as suggested by the title Aunties.

Given the feminist decision to include only articles by women and gender minorities, often indigenous and women of colour, some may mutter about ‘identity politics.’ This is a bugbear of both the right and, unfortunately, much of the Conservative Left. However, a simple flick through the contents reveals that this collection transcends the tired identity vs class argument, with pieces by union organisers alongside wider community organisers and writers. Working-class self-organisation is not mutually exclusive with challenging multiplied forms of oppression, such as colonisation and sexism, and this collection reflects that fact. As union organiser Tali Williams outlines at the inception of her article:

A lot of the problems women experience stem from what happens at work. That’s why for centuries women have united and organised to confront the boss.

And as union organiser Shanna Olsen-Reeder points out in her article, the abuse she experienced from a boss “was a symptom of the system in which we operate: capitalism.”

All three union organiser contributors offer practical, useful and inspiring accounts of workplace organising, with Tali Williams writing on organising at a major NZ clothing brand, Shanna Olson-Reeder on organising at JB Hi-Fi, and Jacky Maaka interviewed on her work in the health sector respectively. This practicality of the approach to class is also reflected in the decision to include a WINZ Rights Info Sheet. 

That said, there is one weakness in the collection’s class politics: the articles on workplace organising are written by paid representatives, although at least one of them was first recruited from the shopfloor, and another is an elected paid delegate. In part this limitation is simply a reflection of wider conditions: no large-scale rank-and-file movement exists, so leftists tend to orientate towards left officials. Another underlying issue here is that even organised workers run the risk of facing (often illegal) disciplinary action if they speak up publicly, but a strong rank-and-file union movement should be able to back up workers who speak out publicly – perhaps anonymity is another option. I understand there was an intention to include more rank-and-file union perspectives, but this can be difficult to achieve in contemporary conditions  (as Fightback editors can attest).

The point here isn’t to moralistically condemn paid organisers, many of whom are good comrades. However, although organisers place an emphasis on workers’ self-organisation (Shanna Olsen-Reeder asserts that workplace organisers “didn’t rely on a union organiser to come in to our workplace” and Tali Williams asserts that there are “no experts here!”), we only hear the perspectives of paid representatives. This reflects the complex question raised by Pania Newton about the nature of ‘leadership’ in movements. Across the pond in Australia, I’ve been involved in a rank-and-file struggle against the collaborationist approach of the National Tertiary Education (NTEU) leadership, an approach sadly shared by the leadership of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in Aotearoa – although more militant unions do not necessarily share that approach, the collaborationism during the COVID crisis has not been challenged the way it has in Australia. Bringing in more rank-and-file union perspectives would have strengthened a generally excellent collection, which does tend to otherwise emphasise self-organisation of oppressed and exploited communities.

Another thing which would strengthen the collection is a consideration of how struggles in Aotearoa are interlocked with international struggles, for example the role of labour migration to Australia (recently politicised with the COVD-era backlash against returning New Zealanders, many of whom have lost work in Australia). The question of refugee rights, such as the recent growth of refugees from Syria, also indicates how local issues are interlocked with international ones. That said, even with 100 pages of brief articles, there’s only so much space to include Everything That Matters. Also, work by Pasefika activists and writers, such as Leilani Visesio’s article, does bring an Oceanic perspective to the collection.

Overall, this is an essential collection for anyone looking to learn about liberation movements across Aotearoa, or to strengthen their organising work – perhaps the underlying message of the collection is kia kaha, be strong. We need more work like this, collecting together the experiences and lessons of various connected struggles.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: