Helen Leahy is specialist advisor for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu/Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu (Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency). She was formerly ministerial advisor and Chief of Staff of the Māori Party, and during the 2014 general election, she was national secretary for the Māori Party.
Here is 5 minutes with Helen Leahy!
What are you reading at the moment?
I like to have a few books on the go at the same time: currently it’s Sky Burial, an epic love story of Tibet (Xinran); How to change the world: Social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas (David Bornstein) and Māori Boy: a memoir of childhood (Witi Ihimaera). I love story-telling, dream-making, episodes of innovation – and my reading habits often reflect that – the stories that others like to share always helps me see a little further, imagine more.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I have a favourite line that comes from E. M Forster’s Howards End (1910) about the character Margaret Schlegel, one of three sisters who spends her life endeavouring to protect the rich cultural heritage of the home at Howard’s End, while at the same time doing what she could to bring different families together, to address deep-seated prejudices and to create relationships of strength and beauty. I often think of the two words, ‘only connect’ when I face particular challenges. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
We all have one book we’re a bit ashamed of loving – do you have one?
One of the first books that gave me the space to imagine a different world was The Far-Away Tree by Enid Blyton. Every week, Jo, Bessie and Fanny would climb up the tree-tops and encounter a fabulous new world of fantasy and wonder. Along the way they had to avoid the dirty water being emptied by Dame Washalot; the noise and havoc of the Saucepan Man, or the frequent smacks of Dame Slap, whom I understand has now been sanitised to ‘Dame Snap’. It’s probably not politically correct to say so, but I loved the book – I loved the trees whispering wisha-wisha-wisha; MoonFace and Silky the Pixie, and most of all the everchanging worlds: the Land of Do-what-you-Please; the Land of Goodies; the Land of Spells.
What’s the most unusual item in/on your desk?
I have a Newton’s Cradle – five metal balls suspended in a cradle- and while they demonstrate action and reaction, it also reminds me to think before I speak – to be mindful of consequences, to consider the downstream effects of any decisions we make. And the swinging pendulum is hypnotic!
Is there a book that you’ve never read but wish that you had?
Sitting on my bedside table is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013). I keep waiting for that decent chunk of time when I can immerse myself in the book and not be interrupted by the urgency of daily life. It’s probably what some might say about Crossing the Floor!
Why did you decide to write Crossing the Floor?
I always felt I had the greatest privilege to sit at the table with Whaea Tariana and hear lessons in wisdom passed down, whether it be about policy, politics or personal growth. Her vision and her example was so inspiring – to bring out the essence in who we are, to stay strong to matters of principle, to reach wide and bring others along with us. I felt a great sense of responsibility that her legacy should not remain captured in the pages of Hansard alone. I knew that her story would generate fresh thinking on issues such as cultural competency; on models of self-determination, on the foundation for whānau wellbeing. I wanted that story to be treasured by her mokopuna, but also to stand as a tribute to a great leader; a leader that truly believed that the people are the greatest architects of their own destiny.
Do you have a book that you always go back to?
As a year two teacher, I took up the opportunity provided by teaching seventh form English, to motivate my budding scholars with a recent New Zealand text. I chose The Bone People by Keri Hulme. I’d have to say it wasn’t universally a popular choice but I cherished every word and I hope that some of my students also fell in love with the writing and the writer. Keri Hulme offered us intimate insights into a world of struggle; a constantly evolving journey into relationships; evocative landscapes, and poetic language that was both tantalising and testing.
“They were nothing more than people by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change."
Which writers inspire you?
Patricia Grace, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Walker, Janet Frame, Maya Angelou, Maeve Binchley, Witi Ihimaera, Fiona Kidman, Whatarangi Winiata, Hana O’Regan: writers who tell stories about who we are, whether in this land or beyond; vignettes of daily life, of whānau ora, of values to believe in.
What do you think was the hardest thing about writing Crossing the Floor?
The most challenging aspect of Crossing the Floor was that in writing Dame Tariana’s story I needed to go to whānau, friends, political allies, health workers, academics, critics, politicians of present and past regimes – and each of them had fascinating experiences that frequently reflected more about the storyteller than the subject of my book. The editorial team firmly reminded me that the book was a story about Tariana – not everyone else I wanted profiled within the text – and that I had to exercise some discipline (which I interpreted as a cruel slash and burn of transcript material) if I was ever to publish.