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True L(o)ves

Dear Tony and Winnie,

Last night, behind the signing table, is where youse first met. Your schedules conflicted. Winnie, you were in Track 8 sitting front row listening to stories from a ‘sweatshop’. Mate Ma’a Tonga jersey with a snapback cap to match. Shiny cream kahoa smoothed into the shape of Maui’s Hook against your expansive chest. Limited edition Jordans pristine white against the black theatre floor. When the spotlights hit, my ribs tightened over my lungs. But then I looked down and your red silhouette reminded me to breathe. Tony, you were yarning in the middle of a campfire, but it was in a sterile blue lecture theatre that I first heard you spin stories. I can still see you in my mind’s eye with your ancient laugh and yeah-nah smirk: You recalled a tram; carrying a Styrofoam container filled with your father’s ashes. How your bones sharpened under your skin, carved into stillness when you spoke of fists through walls. Despite your calm, I could see your shadow flickering with boxing combinations – a contradiction cut out from a hard life.

Gotta admit, warmth grew when youse met. That ol’ māfana feeling. 

Uncle Tony, your last post saw past the flesh and dirt of the hood. They called us ‘struggle street’, but you found the best in us. Let me tell you all about her. Winnie Dunn is my dad’s sister. She’s the eldest of my aunts, which makes her my mehekitanga, my leader, my mum. That’s why I’m named after her, you see? She calls me Si’i, which means Junior. I call her Lahi, which means Senior. Big burdens give birth to big names give birth to big women in Tonga. Her British/Irish dad left when she was two and she was raised by a single mother inside a beaten-down houso which overlooked the cement streets of Mounty County. Lahi learnt how to mend holes in plaster, unclog toilets and screw back hinges. She learnt how to DJ because she’s still mourning the death of Tupac. And she learnt to hide her love for other girls beneath baggy red t-shirts and baseball caps that said, ‘Die for Tonga’.  Thank you for seeing my mother-aunt true. Many times, Lahi took unjust hidings from my nana. But the funniest one is when she got the wooden spoon for ‘eating’ all the Milo while her little sister, my aunt Margaret, giggled from the hallway – dumpling-sized cheeks covered in cocoa crumbs.

Lahi, your hand sign and closed-lipped smile makes peace with the skin and dust of the lands never ceded. They called them ‘terra nullius’ but you saw time stretch out immemorial. Let me tell you about him. Uncle Tony was all red scarf and black cloaked layered when he walked into the University of Melbourne. I was standing with a Wog named Andonis and a Leb, you know, Mohammed. Swiftly, Uncle Tony wrapped up his layers to reveal a light cotton shirt that showed off his Māori-pattered tattoo sleeve. Hugged me tight, the sinew of his grip knitting us together. And before I could say anything, Uncle Tony nah-yeah smirked and said something like: Young ones think country is just trees and earth. But country for me is the cracked cement of Old Fitzroy. The Doctors of Philosophy tried to make sense of his words as I giggled to myself. After all, we Tongans of Mt Druitt are the bougainvillea that grew from a can of Fanta. Thank you for seeing Uncle Tony true.

Now that youse know each other, I gotta admit… I’m mad jealous!

With all my ‘ofa,


Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer and editor from Mount Druitt. She is also the General Manager of Sweatshop Literacy Movement. Winnie's debut novel is Dirt Poor Islanders.

See here for when Tony Birch will be appearing at the Festival this weekend.

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