This interview and photos were taken prior to the current level 3 restrictions in Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland.
Surinam Reddy is a dearly loved community figure in Auckland’s Mount Eden through her role as a bookseller at Time Out. On meeting her for the first time, her lack of pretence stood out as a welcome surprise. Her sentences are punctuated with an honest laugh, and a sense of calm surrounds her when she speaks, thoughtfully, like a well-edited letter.
She won Young Bookseller of the Year in 2019 for her exemplary interpersonal skills, which are evident during our conversation. Her most impressive achievement, in my eyes, is her work towards representation in her industry with patience and intent. Prior to her role at Time Out, Surinam studied a BA in politics and sat on an ethnic committee board for the Labour party.
"I was really rebellious from the age of 12 to my early 20s. I went to a lot of student protests - I remember my friends Finn and Paloma handcuffed themselves to Stuart McCutcheon's door, which I thought was genius. There were a lot of fun forms of political rebellion, the understanding that your peers would have your back made you feel more confident to do the right thing.
Most of what we did as part of Young Labour weirdly prepared me well for my current job. It was a lot of phone banking, door knocking, lots of direct engagement. It taught me a lot about people. I didn't know what to expect when I started. Selling is such a full experience you get quite a lot in terms of the social and academic aspects. No one day is the same."
On representation in the industry
"The bookselling community can be representative of one type of person. There are more POC in the industry now, but for a while, I didn't see myself reflected in it. Books are for everyone and expanding our client base has been a learning lesson.
In certain jobs, it can be obvious why there are few people of colour but in an industry like bookselling, it's so much more complicated. It starts as early as school and how teachers identify who should be interested in certain things, from literature kids to gifted kids, all of those programmes largely consist of white kids. That has a huge impact.
Promoting the work of POC in particular through my role has been hugely important. Our book club has a mix of our loyal customers who've been coming to us for a long time and younger people who have started coming more recently. I purposefully choose the books that say something about the world, no matter what I think everyone else will like.
I remember when we did Jesmyn Ward's Sing Unburied Sing, which is a Southern literary gothic about a Black family and two young children whose mother is dealing with addiction and the father is in prison. Rather than relying on really tired stereotypes, it gives you quite a full picture of how a country can create these conditions for people.
I remember one of our older members saying they never thought about how these things come together to build someone's life. Actively including as many diverse voices as we can, has had a symbiotic effect on customers and it is exciting to see."
On travel, lockdown & the importance of human connection
"I felt a shift post-pandemic, especially after level 4. There was initial freedom in the idea of making five terrible sourdough breads and getting better at it every time. I had just come back from a scholarship in Baltimore and New York before lockdown. As with any trip overseas, it's hard not to come back feeling like, I want to rethink everything! It's so hard not to romanticise your life on holiday.
At the time I went to NY the atmosphere was still, part of that was some of the Covid stuff coming out. It felt like the echoes of Trump were on everyone's minds. It was deeply disturbing.
American people's lives were changed hugely by the Trump administration but in Baltimore, where you can see the wealth disparity and trying to imagine how it impacted the communities after Covid was interesting because I didn't hear people talking about Trump in Baltimore but you heard all the time the ways that his policies affected people. People being scared about their jobs, evictions but you never heard the name Trump out of their mouths. Whereas in NY people were hyper-aware and vocal about it.
Natasha: I guess it turned into a trigger word right? It's so disturbing that even saying it out loud must be painful.
Definitely in Baltimore.
Natasha: He who must not be named.
The orange man.
Natasha: I loved it there too. I love cities that make you feel insignificant.
That's one of the things I love most about travelling. There's something so freeing about feeling like a small speck in the universe. Where strangers don't know anything about you, they don't care. I think that's another thing that Covid highlighted as well is that we are all insignificant in some way. I think that a healthy dose of realising that there are so many people in this world who live some extraordinary lives, some really sad lives and the degrees of difference between me and them isn’t huge.
Natasha: It's a strangely bonding thing.
Yeah. It really is. It doesn’t hurt to take yourself less seriously but take your work more seriously. Not to be dramatic, but it's really helped me get through the pandemic.
Natasha: I found that too, by focusing on your mode of contribution. I couldn't relate to the narrative during lockdown that people were pushing, around their self-image. There's so much narcissism around it. The whole "Be kind" thing, which started as a genuine sentiment, the more I read it I started to hear it in a condescending, snarky tone.
Big time! I'm the same, I'm not really on social media at all anymore and it’s for a similar reason. Post-Covid it felt like there was a bit of discomfort, of people using the language of community and kindness as a way of self-promotion.
I came back home feeling a bit uncertain about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I think lockdown gave me space to think about it and what I value. The uncertainty of everyone's futures physically and economically during the first lockdown made me want to extend my generosity and patience with people.
One of the great things about the pandemic is that it did show the earnest want for community and care. So many people would run groceries for their neighbours and check-in, maybe deriving purpose from those things is healthy for people. The small things that would usually be insignificant to us ended up being the stand out things that brought us joy.
Something as small as being an ear for someone who is having a horrible day can make such a difference to them and you as well. Just to feel connected to a person."
"I think reframing does change your outlook, a lot. When my family moved here in '95, there weren't many other brown families where we lived. We experienced such direct racism and at the time, I felt like maybe I needed to change this or that to fit in. It drains away a lot of anxiety when I remember that there are lots of people who love me and can relate to this. I wish I could tell my 16-year-old self not to worry, it's not going to make any difference as long as you are a good person. That's been a freeing thing.
My mum and dad aren't like this but my extended family has quite an oppressive outlook, particularly on women. I do feel for some of my cousins who didn't have the opportunity to view the world from a set of eyes that weren't their parent's. I think it's still considered quite a rebellion by my aunts that I'm not married.
Natasha: Aunty, please!
Natasha: Yeah, its either when are you getting married or -
"You've gained weight" we laugh in unison.
Natasha: It's either you've gained weight or you've lost weight, you're not eating enough! (five portions of food later)
You can't win!
After 25, I got to a point where people's opinions on anything I do just mattered less. As a teenager, I just wanted to wear what everyone else wears, so there were a lot of denim cut-offs with the black leotard underneath, I don't know if you remember that time?
Natasha: I remember, it was a dark time.
Every photo from a party would be like 5 girls all wearing the same outfit.
Natasha: Some unintentional girl band realness.
Yeah, like every 15-year-old in NZ was part of the same band! I've gotten a lot more confident in my body. I've always been a bit curvy and all of the things I used to pay such laser attention to like curves or my tummy I don't care about at all now. I wear what I want. I'm trying to wear more colours, I usually wear shades of black!"
"The first book that I remember being obsessed with was Rainbow Fish - it was entirely shallow. It was the first book I'd ever seen with foil sparkle inside and that was it!
Most recently, it was Patricia Lockwood's No One Is Talking About This - it's an amazing piece of memoir fiction. The first part is about a writer that becomes popularised on the internet for tweeting 'can dogs be twins?' I read it in the Covid haze of the online world and so much of what we were consuming felt absurd. The book is entirely about that (it also references the best memes).
It becomes a tender look at how the internet leaves us a little bit unable to cope with the reality of human tragedy when it hits us. How do we connect with people outside of the internet and the humanity of sharing a physical space with them? I read it at a time when I felt like so much of our world was becoming about the online realm. It gave me a jolt of joy and a sense of comfort that other people were also feeling a little bit disillusioned by it.
I have thought about writing a book on and off for sure! It's so cliché but it's so hard to work at a bookstore and not to have that thought. There's not much history in English about the Pacific Islands, which is sad. Over the past 2-3 years my dad was quite open with me about the coup in Fiji and how it impacted our family and also quite broadly about Fijians and Fijian Indians and it's been a fraught time since then. I've always been really curious about going back and doing research on what impact the '80s coup had on the diaspora and also the people still living there."