Vira Paky is a young Congolese-Kiwi-South African woman. She is a Chairperson of the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council, which advocates for, engages & supports refugee background youth around Aotearoa New Zealand. Vira is an outstanding poet who writes about intersections of feminism, race, African identity and many other poignant topics. In this episode we talk about Vira’s poetry, being true to her voice, black-kiwi representation in New Zealand, what it means to be an advocate in this day and age plus Vira's “hot take” about young people and the future.
Vira: To start with, I gotta lay down the foundation. I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa to Congolese parents and we migrated to New Zealand in 2004. I always talk about Congo in this really detached way mainly because anytime I spent there, I can't remember it. And my connections to it are genuinely through headlines and CNN articles. It feels really interesting to describe a place that should be much more connected to you through this really Western sensationalised lens. But I've always identified as Congolese. I feel like I knew I was Congolese before I knew I was anything else [laughs]. My parents were really heavy in it. I have always been surrounded by Congolese food and music and languages. They had managed to create a mini version of it in West Auckland for me, which I really have always appreciated.
And, you know, my parents were in South Africa, through apartheid, dealing with their own versions of racism, xenophobia, classism, all of the different things you can think of. When we migrated to New Zealand, I came with my sister and my mom; my dad stayed back and he joined us around 10 years later. We went through the family reunification process. The early 10 years of my life were heavily shaped by systems and institutions, being in and out of government buildings, paperwork, bureaucracy, social welfare and housing, resettlement camps, the whole deal. And it's really interesting to talk about this portion of my life because I feel like it has very little to do with me specifically, it's really the story of my parents and how they kind of shuffled to build a stable foundation for their family in this really new place.
Elina: I was reflecting on the way I talk about Kazakhstan to others. I left when I was 16, so around 11 years ago and I usually talk to people about things like corruption, the patriarchy, the racism, fraud democracy that we have back home. Even though these things were so present for me, they weren’t something that defined Kazakhstan for me.
Vira: You hit the nail on the head. We end up talking about the worst shades of our homeplace opposed to highlighting all the good things, and I think it’s almost like, at least for myself and my parents, there's always a justification of why you're here. You don't even really get that opportunity to break into the fact that this was a beautiful place for my parents to grow up despite the systemic challenges and the institutional issues, war, poverty. You have to justify why you had to leave so you end up talking about the negatives only.
My dad went back in 2016 and my mom went back at the end of 2019. Every time I talked about it with them, tears welled up in their eyes because they enjoyed it so much. They loved being around family, they loved being around their community, as opposed to being the only black or x person here. They were at home filled with their language, food, music in a way that was just so all-encompassing. So a lot of the time I feel obligated to share the hardship because it shapes how I came here. It shapes why I worked so hard, and why my parents pushed me so hard. But it's not the full story.
Elina: I haven't thought about it like that before, Vira. Talking about the negative parts because we are trying to justify why we ended up here. I actually want to talk to you about storytelling. In 2019 video, you said: “Storytelling is an undervalued resource. Stories can empower people in so many ways. When you get to hear stories of people who don't look like you, you get to practice quality allyship.” How did you get into storytelling? What role does it play in your life?
Vira: So essentially, I had come out of doing an extracurricular programme at my school, and my mum had to sit me down and say: “I know you're really good at this. But this is too expensive. And you have to stop.” I was pretty heartbroken but I was like, you know, we make sacrifices and we move on.
Then the term three rolls around and our English teacher goes: “Hey, guys, we have some vacancies for the debating team. It's completely free. The girl who was the head of our debate team won a competition and secured our school to have free entries into the debate programme for the next three years. So you don't even need to pay, you just need to show up. There's no equipment we will drive you to and from.” And obviously, we just got turned down from what was the dream extracurricular because of money so I wanted to explore this free option. And that kind of started me off!
I'll be real, I was very average, nothing super exciting [laughs]. But as I kept doing it, I started getting better at it. And I really started to find my stride when we went into the wider Auckland schools competition. That's how I met a lot of the friends that I have today and how I got into more of my political advocacy work and got more involved in the community in general, because the minute you are able to put words together as a young person, people are very interested and excited to hear what you have to say.
It really came all up into that free debate programme at my high school that really started me off and kind of led me into this journey. By the end of my high school career, I think I'd done like four years competitive debating, I had secured the top debater placed at my high school. And I won a national speech competition with the National Council of Women. And that was really all from that one moment.
Elina: Wow, it just shows the opportunities that can be made available to people and the minute you lower that access bar, what can come from it! When it comes to your identity and figuring that out, what role did and does it play in your poetry and storytelling?
Vira: Identity is the water and I'm just a fish in it. It's kind of all-encompassing, when you're coming from such a multifaceted identity, as a black woman, as a black migrant woman, former refugee, you know, child of refugees, there's so many different elements that come to play when I write when I try to tell a story because I carry all of that with me.
Elina: I was talking to a friend recently about representation, diversity work through storytelling especially in corporate spaces, workplaces, universities. And how we want to showcase the depth and breadth of experiences but sometimes might feel these stories and our presence is being tokenized. So how do we not pull our punches in spaces like that?
Vira: It's a difficult line to walk, right? Because you want to utilise whatever opportunity you have to its fullest. So if you're going to get into that space, you really want to make an impact. But there's also a voice in your head that tells you, if you go too far, they're going to switch off, they're not going to engage with your story anymore. They're literally going to stop listening. So how do you reconcile between giving the full, honest, authentic truth that they need to hear and giving that easy, digestible version of the truth that kind of fits in already with their worldview and what they're already doing, that's really a bit more congratulatory.
And for me that conversation really is fueled when I investigate intentions. Before I enter those spaces, it's really important to see who's already there, the work that's been previously done, and whoever is trying to invite me in. I feel like I'm probably one of the most annoying people to have because I email constantly to talk about intentions and goals with this work, and I'm always a big fan of a feedback loop.
As much as I want to go, balls to the wall, and really just go in, I do find myself holding back because you want to make sure that your audience is still connecting with your message. And you want to make sure that it's not so far that they can't reach it anymore. And it feels a bit too hopeless. You ever hear about conversations about climate change and the climate crisis? When people talk about it in a way that's so disastrous, so apocalyptic, where you just kind of disengage and cut off? Keeping it to the point where people can still hold on to what I'm saying where it's still in their hand, and they can still do something with it. It's been really difficult, right?
When people want to tone police you, especially when I was just starting out with poetry, the tone was everything for me. I felt so deeply connected to all of my work. So there was one particular instance where someone had asked me to speak, and I sent them my stuff through, and they told me that it was “too dark”. It was about being black and it was around June 2020, you know, a difficult time to be black in this world. And I wrote from that perspective, and I didn't pull any punches, and it held the fire that I felt was necessary. When I got that, that note, I decided to turn that opportunity away. Because as much as I can accept people wanting to tailor their work for an environment and to make sure that the work is appropriate, I think, at the same time as a person who is creative and passionate, it's also important to just decide where your boundaries are, which was difficult to save the least.
Elina: Being in spaces where you have to and want to talk about your identity is emotional and its labour. You're constantly thinking, okay, am I gonna enforce this boundary? Am I going to shift this a little bit? And you know in New Zealand specifically, when it comes to “kiwi” identity, that’s a whole different level too.
Vira: I feel like my entire life, everyone's been saying that I was a kiwi, especially other African migrants. Because of the way that I talk and my New Zealand education, and I was just very well settled in West Auckland and now I’m out East. But personally, it was only until a couple of years ago that I was really firm, and how much of the kiwi that I think I am. It has always felt like a really exclusive identity to gain access to, and because I get questioned on it by anyone else who isn't in my immediate community.
People always ask me “where are you from? How long have you been here? And the shock when I say “coming on 18 years” is palpable, I can always feel it. So even if feel like I'm a kiwi, that's not a shared reality, with others.
Also black Kiwi representation is so far and few between, that we look outwards at black Australians, black people in the UK or black people in the States, as the shining light to find what it is to be black outside of Africa. And I think for the longest time, I wanted to be black British because I feel like they're a solid example of what it looks like to be a part of a black diaspora that's really settled in their white society. They have a niche and neighbourhoods and community centres. I imagine that’s what New Zealand's going to look like in 50 years with their black communities. I've also come to the realisation that I if I never left New Zealand permanently, I would be pretty satisfied. And I would really love it if it was a reality that I could find a bigger community of black Kiwis hear.
Elina: Tell me about your work with National Refugee Youth Council, Vira?
Vira: I was elected President in 2019 and was supposed to have my 6 months shadowing process when COVID started. So imagine trying to run a national organisation of young people who were just scattered everywhere, trying to work, do uni and not get sick. It was a bit of a mess for the longest time. At that point, I had volunteered for a civics education charity and I'd done the hard yards. And then I was really deep into kind of producing educational material, engaging with high school students and running events for them. So transitioning to the Refugee Youth Council was really exciting because it is fully run with, for and by other refugees, former refugees, and children of refugees. I was in my element with my people, as well as the fact that I was really targeting the issues that were impacting people that I knew, which is really cool, because I had grown up with people who had struggled with employment and learning English as a second language and healthy eating. And now I got to do this work which was really cool!
Elina: When we talk about all these systemic issues like racism, treatment of migrant and former refugees, climate crisis, we can easily get overwhelmed because these problems are huge and complex. Where do you feel like most of your effort goes in this area of social change?
Vira: I have been really lucky to kind of just decide that I'm a problem solver and the area of focus is equity, diversity and inclusion, mainly because that captures a lot of my lived experience. And then applying that to kind of whatever realm I find myself in. Currently, my work is advocating for youth consumers of mental health services. I decided that whenever I encounter something that kind of tugs on the heartstrings, that is clearly a problem that needs a solution. That's where I go. I spent a lot of time thinking I wasn't qualified to talk about things or to do things or to go out and speak to certain people, I would sit there and I'd be like: “Oh, well, you know, I don't really have that much experience under my belt.” And only after getting into university and meeting the right mentors who told me I have 20 years of lived experience in the space which is more than some people's entire careers. I am the exact right person to do this work.
The conversation I always have is about what's visible versus what's invisible. So who's in the room? What are we talking about? Where's it being held? And I always like to talk about what's invisible. What type of barriers exist that you can't see? We're talking about the power dynamics that exist in the room once people get there, and thinking about those invisible things that really have a stronghold on people from marginalised communities, and can really prevent authentic, diverse participation from taking place, because that's what it all is, right?
My big issue has been how active is my activism on social media platforms, which feels like a weird thing to focus on. But my contemporaries, I feel are very, very active. And I've just never really taken to social media quite well. And I've never been the type of person to like share a bunch of information. But looking at people who are my friends who are people who work in the same spaces, the way that they utilise their social media platforms is really powerful, and something that I really respect. So I kind of sit back and ask where I should just push through it and engage more or do I just stick to the work that I do now, outside of social media realm. I run between it back and forth, because I'm thinking that there is potential impact but then what about my own personal comfort, and I don't know what to do about it.
Elina: I love our chat so much, Vira. Before we jump into quickfire, I wanted to ask if there is anything else you wanted to add or dive deeper in?
Vira: I want to situate myself and say, I am 22 years old. So I'm speaking with the confidence of someone who has not been battered by capitalism, and I will continue to do so until it fully happens [laughs].
Oh, can I share my hot take? My biggest hot take right now, just is that children aren't the future. Mainly because the future doesn't exist. And I think anytime I'm in a space where an adult hears me speak and goes: “Yeah, I have no worries for the future now”. I think that is negligent. And I think it's rude. How dare you decide to pass off all your responsibilities? I want to go to the movies and make TikToks. So please, make good policy decisions and vote for the right people.
Anytime I see a Forbes 30 under 30 list and it's a 15-year-old climate change activist. All I think is that her community has failed her. How is it that you've allowed this young woman to take on the burden like this, it's ridiculous, and it's not fair.
I think of being young and being black, carrying the trauma of knowing what it was like to know what happens to black children across the world was awful. Feeling the need to speak on it as a child and try to educate my classmates was awful. And having teachers commend me and tell me that I’m going to make a change is unfair. I'm very strongly pro children being children.
Why can’t black children be painters, but just paint flowers and not like black mothers with no children. There's no space for marginalised people to kind of just be mediocre and plain and simple. I think that just happens when your existence is entirely politicised that you always feel like you have to speak on something and do something. But some people sometimes just want to be mediocre. I just want to be on Netflix without feeling the burden of not speaking up for my community.
I was reading a book on like the Rwandan genocide and then my dad sent me a documentary about the devastation in Congo, and I'm like, you know what, I'm going to watch “Married At First Sight” [laughs].
Elina: Ha! Lesson for all of us - to spend time doing things that don’t need to matter or bring about bigger change. I stopped reading recently because I realised that all my books were quite heavy and I needed space to breathe. And then someone told me: “Well, you don't have to do it, you know?” I feel like well, if we all did a little bit of it, then no one has to do it a lot.
Vira: I don't have to speak on it, but it cannot go unspoken. That's the thing, right? It's either I make myself uncomfortable, or I'm making these people too comfortable. And I refuse to let that silence hang. That's it.
Elina: Wooh, you are so freaking powerful, Vira! Everything we touched on and laughed about, I feel this immense heart warmth having met you and I'm so excited to share all of this with others too! :kay let’s dive into quick-fire questions! Tell me about a dish that reminds of your childhood, something that you love?
Vira: My immediate go-to is fried green banana. It gets to the point where I don't live at home anymore, and my mom will call me if she gets it because she knows how much I love it and she will drop if off at my house. It's chopped up cassava leaves, as many vegetables as you can find, meat bones: usually sit in a pot as big as my body just on the stove for maybe two days. Let it simmer. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.
Elina: Oh, amazing. Where can we find that in Auckland?
Vira: My mother's house? Exclusively! [Laughs]. How were having a conversation that there is not much African representation so I literally can't conceptualise getting Congolese food outside of mum’s house.
Elina: If you could be the main character in the movie or TV show? What would it be?
Vira: “Insecure” on HBO, hands down! If you just wanted to watch young black women doing their stuff: going through relationships, work, career, and they dress so well! And that's all I can ask for myself is that have a good time with my friends and look fly while doing it [laughs]. I also love dystopian thrillers, mainly because it feels it's gotten to the point where dystopian thriller is like really, really close to reality. I want to use my sociological brain and see what I would do if I had the opportunity to build a new society. I feel like every time I watch something of that genre, they end up just replicating what they knew. But I would turn stuff on it’s head, you know?
Elina: I love that. If you could propose one policy to New Zealand Parliament or to like an organisation / company, what would it be?
Vira: My policy would be that whenever something big and negative happens here, no one from the press is allowed to say: “Well, this isn't New Zealand.” Because I think one of the biggest issues that we have is that we don't claim our problems. And we treat every big issue, whether it's racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia like it's imported from somewhere else, you can't even begin to go into the solutions phase before you claim the problem.
Elina: Okay, well, the last question is what makes you feel like a badass?
I think in the beginning of this conversation when you said that you researched me, and the idea that is enough on me online, that I could be researched, I was like: woooo okay, we're not doing too bad [laughs]. Also I got a grant from Amnesty International to take on a refugee mental health project - that made me feel really, really cool. Because I think for a while you kind of convince yourself when you start out that what you're doing is important, but it's important to you. And understanding that, an organisation as big as Amnesty International was interested, that was pretty fucking cool!