10 Questions with Jacqueline Leckie


Q1: How did the book come about?

The book follows from my historical research and friendships with Indian people in Aotearoa dating back to the mid-1970s. The book is also my response to the outrage I have long held about our history of discrimination towards Asians, specifically Indians. I wrote a PhD thesis on the history of Gujaratis in Aotearoa and have published several articles on the Indian diaspora here, notably Indian Settlers: The Story of a New Zealand South Asian Community (Otago University Press, 2007). A few years ago at the book launch of India and the Antipodes (an excellent collection edited by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Jane Buckingham), I met Manisha Morar, General Secretary of the New Zealand Indian Central Association. The association had been sitting on a report compiled by Nigel Murphy that summarised some of the prejudice that Kiwi-Indians had been subjected to. Manisha asked me to develop and expand that report. Then came the horror, grief and anger of the 15 March 2019 Christchurch massacre. After talking with two Indian women who grew up in Christchurch, I knew the nation’s untold story of exclusion and discrimination against not only Muslims but also Indians needed to be told.


Q2: The subject of this book is a confronting one for many New Zealanders. Why don’t we talk about racism more in this country?

We like to think that we are a tolerant country. It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, well at least we are not like Australia, the US or the UK. We have Te Tiriti o Waitangi and we are supposedly a bicultural nation. The reality and acceptance of that foundation is still highly questionable. What happened on 15 March 2019 further challenged our complacency towards our identity as a nation; especially how we receive and accept migrants and people of diverse religions and cultures. Underlying this I think is a reluctance to confront and address white privilege. Racism has always been there, even in our caring communities, it is not just ‘over-there’ in other countries.


Q3: What would you like people to take away from reading this book?

The very long history of an Indian presence and settlement in Aotearoa (also superbly documented by my peers). My book summarises this in a less academic style and provides documentation and photos. I would like readers to be more aware of that history and our complicated racist past but also how Indian people challenged or endured this.


Q4: You have done a lot of work in Asia and Pacific studies, but was there something in your research for this book that surprised you or was of special interest?

This research prompted me to consider more closely casual racism. The chapter on ‘war and welfare’ also brought to light for me new evidence about the exclusion of Kiwi-Indians from two key historical narratives in our nation. I could place those anti-Indian narratives within the historical context, but mostly my surprise was about the persistence of really nasty attacks and remarks (‘go back to your country’) — even after the Christchurch mosque attacks and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words about empathy.


Q5: What kind of conversation do New Zealanders need to have about racism, past and present?

They definitely need to be more open about acknowledging and calling out racism. For this to happen there needs to be acceptance of a troubled past and present realities — and of white power and privilege. Fundamentally we must address the racism that tangata whenua experience, but also racism towards Pasifika and other communities. These kinds of conversations are never easy because it forces us to also front up to all kinds of internal oppression that may have been validated on the basis of culture or religion. It is not my place to speak to such issues amongst Kiwi-Indians, but I suggest that internal discrimination, in various guises, might also be addressed. As a Pākehā researcher, I can only really discuss white racism towards Kiwi-Indians.


Q6: Is there a reason that Kiwi-Indians have had so little acknowledgement of their part in the history and society of Aotearoa?

There is no one reason and as the book’s title says that history is invisible. Most Kiwi-Indians were part of the British Empire and so had better rights compared to say Chinese in Aotearoa. The Chinese have also pushed for restitution of a very specific official grievance, the Poll Tax, so this may have raised their profile in our historical narratives. Also, before this century the numbers of people of Indian descent here were comparatively small — a demographic pattern that has substantially changed. I also think that the invisibility of Kiwi-Indian history reflects how these early migrants were on the whole quiet workers who did not seek to draw attention to themselves. Although that kind of class invisibility is to me a major part of our history, it has not tended to attract much attention. So we are talking about silent histories. To be blunt, many Pākehā Kiwis seem to squirm at acknowledging our diverse cultural history especially when this falls outside a bicultural framework.


Q7: The new draft history curriculum has little about diverse migrant communities. Do you have any thoughts on what they should be including?

There is no doubt that the draft history curriculum has overlooked the diversity of migrant communities. I am also aware that teachers can only cover so much — and I do feel that our troubled and complex history between Māori and Pākehā must be the primary concern. But more content on the histories of different migrant groups (outside those from the UK and Ireland) would be great. History can have a limited appeal to young people. If we can broaden this to embrace other students (who might not become history majors but want to learn about their heritage) so much the better.  


Q8: Do you have a sense that things might be changing for the better for new New Zealanders or are we repeating our exclusionary past?

It’s better in the sense that there are now more legal protections, and avenues of complaint for all (including new) New Zealanders but on the other hand social media can be very nasty and unregulated when it comes to racial abuse. Many new migrants are probably more articulate and confident about reporting such abuse than in the past. Although as Invisible documents, earlier Kiwi-Indian settlers were proactive in standing up to discrimination.


Q9: What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a cultural history of mental depression in Aotearoa. I was awarded a New Zealand History Research Trust grant to write ‘There is no depression In New Zealand.’ This follows on from my book, Colonizing Madness: Asylum and Community in Fiji (University of Hawai’i Press, 2020). I think depression has long been there within our diverse cultural landscape and heritage, but it’s been hugely ignored or silenced. I want to explore how individuals and families have coped with depression, and also how depression may have been understood, diagnosed and treated here.


Q10: What are you reading/listening to/watching at the moment?

I am reading some of the old South African ‘white’ postcolonial novels such as by those by Cootzee and Gordimer. I find this a disturbing yet fascinating period of late colonial history that produced great literature speaking to the privilege of whiteness and gender. Also reading Kiwi literature, such as works by Robin Hyde and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, for my madness research. Otherwise I consume any news on the Pacific and listen to either national radio or Niu FM. I like to watch dark psychological detective series or flashy biopics — and I can’t resist seeing out the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of all, I love to go for long walks, whether in the wilds or exploring built heritage.