Storytelling school

How I Write: Nicole Titihuia Hawkins and the Magic of Maori Storytelling

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins author of Whai - winner of the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, at the 2022 Ockham Book Awards.


Nicole Titihuia Hawkins author of Whai – winner of the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, at the 2022 Ockham Book Awards.

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa, Ngāti Pāhauwera) is an up-and-coming writer, avid baker, lipstick enthusiast, pro-level aunt, and proud mom of a newborn baby. She lives in Te Awakairangi (Lower Hutt), hosts Poetry with Brownies and organizes side activities with her best friends. Before she began spending her days breastfeeding and changing nappies, she could most often be found teaching English, social studies and Maori activism at a local high school. Hawkins’ collection of poetry, Whai, won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at this year’s Ockham Book Awards.

What books made you cry?

Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English – everyone who lives on indigenous lands should read it. Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila – a collection to heal your heart. Small island by Andrea Levy makes me cry every time I read it.

What’s your guilty pleasure playlist?

I don’t subscribe to the idea of ​​guilty pleasures in reading, or at all in life. Any read is good read and there is room on the shelf for everyone. Why feel guilty about things that give us pleasure, instead we should just enjoy them for what they are!

Where are you happiest with a book in your hand?

There’s only one better place to read than in bed: the beach. Whether I’ve been to Matauri Bay in beautiful Nota or Playa Marlín in Cancun, there’s something about the sun and the salt that makes me feel like words soak up the beach so well. Everywhere I read, amazing snacks and a proper drink are absolutely necessary.

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Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins.


Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins.

What did you read in your childhood or adolescence that made a deep impression on you?

Journey, a short story by Patricia Grace, The Seahorse and the Reef by Witi Ihimaera and poetry by Hone Tuwhare. These texts were my first explicit introduction to Maori literature and they spoke to me on a deep level, about the pain my people had endured and the problems we face. These texts opened my mind to the magic of Maori storytelling.

What is your writing routine?

I write when and where the kupu come: in the shower, late at night, on my lunch break, in the car via voice notes to myself. I mainly write with a pen and whatever paper I can get my hands on until I have a good draft. Before I had a baby, I would often walk up to cafes or restaurants around town, ordering something every hour or so to keep my spot. I usually always ask my peers for feedback before publishing and I’m so lucky to have such a large wāhine Māori writing network.

Can you share a great piece of writing advice you’ve received?

I picked up Victor Rodger’s Māori and Pasifika creative writing paper at the IIML and he gave us two tips that really stuck with me. First of all, there’s no getting away from work, so stop avoiding it and do it. Second, don’t contextualize your writing. If you have to explain it before people read it or hear it, you haven’t done enough. The work should speak for itself.

What advice do you give to writers just starting out?

Don’t waste your time trying to write like everyone else. Write your stories, your way, using your voice. When you’re just starting out, you can feel really lucky to have your work published or included in certain spaces – I get that. I always feel lucky when my work is selected. It’s important to remember though that the editor is also lucky to have your mahi in their project. No matter how prestigious the editor is or however inexperienced you may feel, you bring your tipuna’s stories to their table and gladly share them.