Frank Film meets New Zealand’s first Reading Ambassador Te Awhi Rito. Produced with funding from New Zealand On Air. Video / Franck Film
For Ben Brown, stories are everything.
“They give you the first idea of yourself.
“You know, the stories people tell about you is who you are,” Ben (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Paoa) says, with an easy, almost toothless smile. He is New Zealand’s first Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador, and his job is to inspire a love of reading in young people.
So it makes sense that he was a writer – of poetry, children’s books, plays, short stories and memoirs.
For a child who dreams of being an obscure poet, he did, and some. Ben grew up with stories, on a tobacco plantation in the Motueka Valley. His father, an Australian with a strong spinning tradition, used to quote Shakespeare in the paddocks, and it is to him that Ben credits his love of literature. “I was ten years old and he was standing in my doorway. He threw it [the book] to me, and just said, ‘read it.’ That’s what I did,” Ben told Frank Film. “It was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I loved that book.”
“Mom told stories, in a different way,” he says, recalling his “ma,” who was born in Waahi Pā, Waikato, telling stories from his childhood and raranga traditions as the two weaved a whip of harakeke. So stories have always been important to Ben.
Their reading; a continuous source of joy. The account of them; a captivating art, and which he delivers brilliantly. Writing them; his life’s work.
As well as inspiring a love of reading, his role as Te Awhi Rito, to which he was appointed in 2021, is to champion the importance of stories. Ben travels the country, speaking to children, librarians and parents to pass on his love of words to younger generations.
The name is no coincidence: the “rito”, as his mother had explained to him years ago, is the young harakeke shoot in the middle of the plant – the young generation that must be protected by the outer generation more old leaves, the “awhi rito”.
“One of the first questions I was asked was, ‘How can you, coming from an oral Indigenous culture, reconcile being a reading ambassador?'” Ben explains. “Well, you just redefine what reading is. One way of teaching things through oral culture is still valid.”
Regarding reading, Ben challenges the idea that young people, especially boys, do not read. “It’s not that boys don’t read, you give them shit they don’t want to read,” he says, and again remembers recognizing himself in Tom Sawyer’s ratbag life. That’s what hooked him, and that recognition, according to Ben, is what kids need.
Ben believes that he was a writer before being a reader.
“For some reason I developed a fondness for words,” he says, “The idea that you can mix up a bunch of words and just by the way they sound together, that can make it beautiful.”
A revised version of Ben’s memoir, A Fish in the Swim of the World, about growing up in the Motueka Valley, is set to launch August 10 from Scorpio Books in Christchurch.
As Witi Ihimaera writes, “Ben Brown is one of the brightest stars in Māoridom. We who have watched his takeoff know it.”
Besides writing for a living, Ben has always written poetry – a childhood doodle that never stopped. At Lyttelton, where he spent much of his adult life, he regularly graced open-mic nights with his signature growl. Like Motueka, Lyttelton (the port town known as a gathering place for musos and artists of all kinds) shaped Ben.
“Lyttelton is just one of those rare little places you find by accident. Hardworking and a bit industrial and grimy,” says Ben. “Those are always the places where artists gravitate, because the rent was cheap, at one time.”
When asked if there is money in poetry, Ben replies with a firm no and laughs. Life hasn’t always been easy. Ben has his own stories, like all of us, and not all of them are happy.
But, as he says, starting to take himself and his job seriously has made all the difference. And through his role as Te Awhi Rito, he has a way of channeling his enthusiasm for a well-told story into the same kind of joy for the children of Aotearoa.
Be sure to watch the film, in which Frank’s team gets to know Ben, his work and many fascinating stories.