Golriz Ghahraman and Marama Davidson at the Auckland vigil for Christchurch / Todd Henry / Provided
Know Your Place, Golriz Ghahraman’s memoir, is an important book for anyone who cares about the representation of women of colour in New Zealand. If you don’t know who Ghahraman is, you should. She is a current Green Party MP and the first refugee to be elected to New Zealand’s Parliament. If you knew that already, this book will teach you a lot about Ghahraman that you didn’t know.
The book covers her experiences campaigning and in Parliament, but the spotlight is on her experiences as a refugee woman in New Zealand (she arrived with her family at the age of nine). It’s a political memoir but it focuses on politics of representation and identity, rather than party politics in its traditional sense. Up until the later chapters, Ghahraman tells us why she ended up in Parliament rather than how she ended up in Parliament. And her personal story, as our first refugee MP, is more interesting than the stories most MPs have to tell.
Political memoirs are overdone, but that’s mostly because of who they’re about. New Zealand politicians are, mostly, a homogenous group of Pākehā men and women who tell the same stories. Ghahraman’s book is the counterpoint to that. Know Your Place is anything but self-centred. Every person, from old friends to high school teachers to political colleagues, is given an introduction. You can feel Ghahraman placing together the pieces of her life, like a jigsaw puzzle, but also thanking the people who were involved.
The book goes beyond New Zealand politics. The book covers her parents’ experiences in the Iranian revolution in the 80s, her own walks to school along K Road in the 90s, and her professional career as a lawyer in the UN’s International Courts of Justice in Tanzania and in Cambodia. Know Your Place is about a lot of different places, and about learning where you fit in at home based on your experiences elsewhere.
For Ghahraman, those experiences are numerous. They involved facing exclusion at a predominantly white intermediate school in Auckland, turning to the Iranian community for friendship away from Pākehā prejudices, and coming back from a misogynistic work culture in Cambodia to find her place in Green politics. The places change but Ghahraman’s experiences, and her identity, seem to compel her towards those last chapters when she wins a seat in Parliament.
Ghahraman’s politics are inseparable from her story. Every page, the book signals: this is why I am who I am. At times, that is a lot. I wish that I could just be carried away in the story for a few more pages, to enjoy the image of a nine year old walking to the dairy in a new country, barefoot to fit in with the other kids in West Auckland. But this book does not let you relax as a reader, and that’s the point.
A particularly heart-breaking scene in her book is when Gharaman asks her dad to drop her down the road, far away from the school, so that she can go to a Blue Light Disco at intermediate. She is embarrassed and doesn’t want him to come too close to the school (a girl at intermediate has told her “I hate refugees”). Her mother takes her for a drive the next day and tells her how upset her dad was to hear that. “We can’t lose ourselves,” she tells Ghahraman. “I still think hard about whose opinions I value and whose feelings I protect when I have a visceral reaction of shame or a need to fit in,” Ghahraman writes about this lesson.
The tone is reflective and honest. I think you would struggle to read the book and come up with anything but respect for Ghahraman. She writes about her struggles with racism, an abusive relationship, impostor syndrome, a toxic workplace, and receiving a near-constant stream of abuse and threats in New Zealand. Yet she retains her focus on representing the refugee community in New Zealand. The final chapter of the book, focused on the Christchurch mosque attacks, demonstrates how deeply she feels that responsibility of representing a community who have been politically voiceless in New Zealand’s Parliament.
The book is not only the story of why Golriz Ghahraman ran for election. It is also the story of why she needed to run for election, and why refugees so desperately need political representation in New Zealand. Ghahraman has been involved in politics since she was a child, not by choice, but because of who she was as a refugee. Politics were unavoidable. That is the drumbeat of the book.
Those things all make this book very different from your usual political memoir. Ghahraman was involved in politics long before she chose to become involved with the Green Party, simply because of who she was. That’s the beauty and the tragedy of her story.Support Villainesse