2014 was an amazing year for Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, and an incredibly busy one for me (too busy – I’ve learnt a lot). I am writing this post to respond to a blogpost made by a reader last year, but this might be a fitting time to acknowledge what a year it was. So before I go on, a big thanks to everyone - readers, writers, students, publishers and booky type workers. Kia ora.
An Important Review
'for the spirit this is an awakening of unpleasant memories, recounted in two powerful
sequences. First, we relive with him his death at the hands of invading Māori, an intense
build-up to a battle that ends almost immediately in his death. The second section is the one
that gave me pause. Here, we stay with the spirit as he finds he does not move on into the
afterlife, but instead lingers, attached to his body. And the narrative follows what happens to
that body, in careful detail.'
As I read Davie’s thoughts, I realised I had been waiting for someone to discuss this passage in these terms. For me, this was the crux of the novel – I remember working on this passage, and thinking about how this was a crucial moment for the character Imi, for me as writer, and hopefully, for the reader.
I had read and thought and worried for a long time before Imi came to me. How would I represent such a violent episode, and how would I do it in a way that did not vilify the perpetrators of the violence as they had been vilified by other writing and speech and letters-to-the-editor in so many other places? I could not deny that the actions had been awful but the offenders were my ancestors also, and our culture did not support actions that were simply vicious or evil, without context. There was so much that didn’t make sense in those terms. What could motivate such actions? When Imi developed the ability to see through the eyes of others, and thus to empathise with them, I was able to see through their eyes too. My purpose was to convey the humanity I felt must be there, even in the midst of the most brutal violence. There is an image of a kuia in Michael King’s Moriori: A People Rediscovered, who as a child was said to have taken part in the feasting after the invasion. What could be more innocent than a child?
It has puzzled me, as has been noted in interviews and speeches, why I felt so put out that reviewers consistently described Imi as a narrative device. Almost without exception. At a gut level, this is because Imi was a very real character to me, as real as the made-up ‘living’ characters (if not more so, since he arrived very urgently and insistently and made me begin writing), and I was slightly offended on his behalf that anyone should see him as less than that. However, Davie’s post reminded me what might be at stake at a deeper level here: the whole book is about the humanity of the various participants. Imi is the voice of those who aren’t usually given voice: the dead, the victims, history’s ‘losers’. The story is his, he owns it, he speaks it, and thus the story is somehow given back to him. Rather than using it to put down his enemy, this power gives him the ability to see his attackers in their humanity. And this might be the most important thing about Moriori culture, perhaps this is the heart of pacifism – the decision to see everyone as human and therefore ‘just like me’ somehow. And to know that you don’t have the right to take that away.
So when we read a character like Imi as simply a narrative device, do we not take another step away from that humanity? Do we miss the point?
Davie’s post is really eloquent and insightful, and explains the dynamics of the politics surrounding Moriori and Māori Rēkohu history better than I have here. Well worth the read. Thank you so much, @Mr_orgue, ngā mihi mahana ki a koe.
Readers are what makes writing a great conversation. Me rongo!