Selina Tusitala Marsh: from big hair to big success
30 November 2023
Selina Tusitala Marsh's new book takes children's problems and suggests creative ways of approaching them, with pictures, poems and stories.
It all started with big hair. Crazy curls that refused to lie unobtrusively low, a bit like their owner, Selina Tusitala Marsh.
The West Auckland schoolgirl who was constantly teased about her unruly mop by kids with more containable locks has had the last laugh. Her famous hair, and all the trouble it caused, has been the inspiration behind her two bestselling picture books for people ‘aged eight to 80’, and a third has just been released.
The University of Auckland professor of Pacific literature and creative writing, and author and illustrator of the Mophead books, which tell the story of her alter ego Mophead’s progress from awkward, big-haired kid to New Zealand Poet Laureate, has more charm and advice to offer; this time in an interactive self-help form.
Wot Knot You Got? Mophead’s Guide to Life (Auckland University Press) takes 11 ‘knotty problems’, the distillation of a myriad questions Selina received from young Mophead admirers, and suggests creative ways of approaching them; with pictures, poems and stories.
She says the idea for the new book’s format came after she started receiving notes, more than 2,500, “on scraps of paper and Post-its” addressed to ‘Dear Dr Mophead’ and asking things like, ‘How do I know my poem is good?’
“Then I started getting questions like, ‘How do I know I am good?’ and ‘What do you do if nothing is right, not at home, at school, anywhere?’
“So I had the idea to devise ‘knotty’ creative writing and drawing exercises to help kids loosen their knots,” she says.
The book also reveals that Mophead herself has a ‘big knot’ which “the more she ignored it, the bigger it got”.
“I felt that as the children were showing me their vulnerability, I would show them mine; so my ‘knot’ is in there as well.”
She recently also offered to help with any royal knots. As a judge for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in November, Selina received an invitation to attend the awards ceremony for the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition at Buckingham Palace, which received almost 35,000 entries and was hosted by Queen Camilla. In true Selina style, she managed to slip the Queen a copy of Wot Knot You Got? while explaining its knotty beginning.
The exchange follows:
Queen Camilla: ‘Oh, how charming.’
Selina: ‘It will help untangle any knots you got!’
Queen Camilla: ‘Yes. Very good.’
“I see myself as a kind of bridge between two worlds in these colonial spaces,” says Selina, whose second book Mophead Tu: The Queen’s Poem (2020) also involved royalty. It told the story of Selina’s reign as Commonwealth Poet and her invitation to perform a specially written poem for the late Queen Elizabeth II and other dignitaries at Westminster Abbey.
“I call it ‘colonialism 101 for kids’, because the underlying theme of Mophead is really about bullying, and colonialism is a form of bullying.
I call it ‘colonialism 101 for kids’, because the underlying theme of Mophead is really about bullying, and colonialism is a form of bullying.
Challenging themes like bullying are softened by the rhyming style of her latest book, which is filled with Selina’s quirky, trademark drawings and some new characters such as the Gruffalo-type ‘Yeti’, (as in, you might not be able to do something ‘yeti’). What Knot You Got owes some inspiration to both Spike Milligan and Dr Seuss, says Selina, but still retains its uniquely Mophead take on life; sparked not only from childhood bad-hair days but also a distinctive ‘tokotoko’ or talking stick gifted to each Poet Laureate.
“I became Poet Laureate in 2017 for a two-year term and it was a wonderful surprise. I didn’t know much about the role, even as an academic in an English department. So I thought if I didn’t know, the chances are others wouldn’t know either. As it’s the highest monetary award for being a poet in the country, the community needs to know it belongs to them; after all, they’re funding it.”
She says it’s often expected that a book of poems is published after a laureate’s tenure, but she particularly wanted to tell the story of how she was “the first Pasifika laureate, the second youngest and the fifth woman laureate”.
And it was while thinking back to the investiture ceremony in 2017, where she received the special tokotoko, to which carver Jacob Scott had added a distinctively Samoan flywhisk made of coconut fibres to honour that side of her heritage, that she had an epiphany about how she could mark her tenure and also serve the community.
“When I saw that tokotoko with its coconut fibre ‘hair’, I also saw a mop and that made me remember my eight-year-old self at Avondale Primary School, teased for being a ‘mophead’.
“Here I was, afakasi, mixed blood – Samoan, Tuvaluan, French, Scottish – occupying the most prestigious role a poet can have. I wanted to explain how I got here and to honour how I was inspired by the possibilities poetry held for me; it gave me a voice when I felt I didn’t have one.”
I needed to pay it forward to kids like me. You need to start planting those
seeds early, as Sam did with me. I think the emphasis needs to be on primary
and intermediate-aged children.
Then she remembered the man she thinks of as ‘our informal poet laureate’, Sam Hunt, who was to feature in the first Mophead book, because he came to her school when she was ten and inspired her with his poems and distinctive way of reciting them.
“I needed to pay it forward to kids like me. You need to start planting those seeds early, as Sam did with me. I think the emphasis needs to be on primary and intermediate-aged children.”
Hence, the lightbulb moment for her first book.
“I decided to tell the story about how I came to the laureateship, not through a book of poems but through a graphic memoir, aimed at children but accessible to all ages. I knew I needed to get the story arc down quickly so I started roughly sketching it out.”
She had never illustrated anything before, but once she started, the images tumbled out.
“Suddenly I had about ten pages, starting with my mop of hair and ending with laureateship and the tokotoko. I got there faster with pictures than I would have with words.”
Later she discovered a drawing app called Procreate, which meant she could go from paper to digital screen and keep adding layers.
Then came a trip to see AUP director Sam Elworthy about the idea of her writing a type of memoir. AUP had already published her three previous acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013) and Tightrope (2017).
“I was just about to leave, when I said, ‘Hey do you want to see this crazy thing I’ve been working on?’” Fortunately for future fans of Mophead, as well as the publishing fortunes of AUP, the idea intrigued him.
“Sam liked it, he felt it captured the zeitgeist of the nation at that moment, when Jacinda Ardern was just in her first term … just the whole ‘moppy girl-power thing’.”
That first book, Mophead: How Your Difference Makes a Difference (2019), won the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year in 2020, and was described by judges as “a taonga that should be placed in the hands of every child in Aotearoa”, something Selina is especially proud of, being a Mahy fan.
So is another Mophead book in the pipeline? It does seem like the idea that could keep on giving. Selina says first she wants to finish her memoir of her time as Poet Laureate. And then, who knows?
Meanwhile, Selina has a tip for anyone looking to buy her latest book for Christmas.
“Just make sure you add ‘Selina’ to the word ‘Mophead’ on Google or you’ll end up at Plumbing World.”
By Julianne Evans
Selina Tusitala Marsh talks about Mophead on the Faculty of Arts’ ‘Research and Reason’ podcast, on all regular podcast platforms.
This article first appeared in the December 2023 edition of UniNews.
The book will be launched on 1 December in B201.