In February I was lucky enough to be invited to the Taipei International Book Exhibition as part of New Zealand's Guest of Honour group of writers. In fact, I was one of the last small group to be added to the guestlist - sponsored by Te Puni Kōkiri and Taiwan's Council of Indigenous Peoples. I am really grateful and proud to have been offered a place in the group by these two organisations, because it means I spent more time at the Indigenous Taiwanese Pavilion than our own New Zealand one, and got to spend some time getting to know the Indigenous writers (as did most of the Māori who attended). I haven't been able to write about this in any meaningful way because I was absolutely floored by their generosity, graciousness and the beauty of their cultures, but I do want to share some of our time in Taipei. So here is some of the media from the trip. If you ever have the opportunity to go to Taiwan, make sure you get outside of the cities and spend some time getting to know the Indigenous People if you can. Take your best singing voice, plenty of appetite for amazing food and drink, and gifts from your part of the world to share. No reira, ngā mihi arohanui ki ngā tangata whenua o te motu Taiwan!
Images below from Adam Dudding Sunday Star Times Story & Cultural Survival Article (both well worth reading), also TITV (Taiwan Indigenous Television) & Libro International.
Click image above to see Taiwanese Indigenous Television story about our visit to Wulai (with songs & art!).
With thanks also to PANZ & TIBE.
Tēnā tātou katoa
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
This is simply a response to a review @Mr_orgue aka Morgan Davie wrote for Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings here (warning: spoilers). Morgan didn’t call it a review, so maybe I should call it ‘a few thoughts’ as he does. On reading the post, I was grateful that someone had seen, quite clearly, the meaning or intention for a particularly important passage that occurs near the end of the book. As Davie says about the character Imi:
'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 these 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! ora.
Paula Green is a wonderful poet, children's author, reviewer and anthologist living on Auckland's West Coast. She is also the kind of reader and blogger who writers are lucky to have working away, tirelessly it seems, for the love of writing. I was recently fortunate to receive an impressive, detailed, moving review of 'Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings' from Paula. An excerpt is below. She is continually updating The NZ Poetry Shelf so it's worth keeping an eye on the blog regularly.
He mihi aroha ki a koe, Paula. Me rongo.
"Tina’s extraordinary book embraces all manner of loves and strengths but as it faces the challenging and complex effects and behaviours of racism (amongst other issues), it shows too the power of story to delve deep. To take risks. To refract and reflect. We are raised on stories—from the ones our parents and forbears pass down to those that circulate at a wider cultural or societal level. Yet there is the agony of the gap, such as was the case with the Moriori, where the vital stories were mute, smudged, missing.
For me, the pleasure of the reading experience is multi-layered. Every now and then you find a book that satisfies on so many levels. It begins with the sentence—the way each is crafted with such finesse it is like the invisible stitching of fiction (at times though sentences are ambidextrous and are there to promote a visible and audible delight in language as well as to steer the narrative). Then there is the structure the holds the work together beautifully (in this case the entwined rope) along with the characters that gain such flesh and blood you become part of their world and it is a wrench to leave them. Finally there is the way a fictional work can strike you so profoundly, it enters and shakes both heart and intellect. Tina’s book has done all of this.
Yet the questions raised were the crucial gift for me. How to represent history (fictional or otherwise) in the face of all its clashing and volatile versions? How to live when your identity is ‘braided ropes’? How to move forward when these rope strands all bear the strain of unspeakable episodes (crimes against humanity, racism, intolerance, ignorance)? How to look back in order to move forward? How to forge and reforge personal and cultural identities? How to love and how to grieve? How to forgive? How to remember and how to forget?"
See the full review and keep up with the NZ Poetry Shelf.
Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings had a great start in the world with a wonderful Wellington launch, which included speeches by my dear friend Hinemoana Baker, Random House publisher Harriet Allan, and me. Below is Hinemoana's beautiful speech in full. Mine consisted mainly of thank yous so I haven't reproduced it here, suffice to say that I am more grateful to everyone involved than I can adequately express (details of one of my attempts are in the book's acknowledgements). By way of introduction, however, this is what I said about Hinemoana on the night:
Ko te mihi tuatahi ki a Hinemoana, who not only agreed to launch this book in what I knew would be perfect style, but went far beyond what I had hoped for in terms of making sure the path was clear for this launch. I can say that she didn’t just go the extra mile, she literally went an extra 394 miles, at least. And thanks too to Chris and Tai for making that journey with us. It is a massive privilege to have written something that someone like Hinemoana would go to such lengths for, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start than the one she has given it.
Tēnā tātou katoa kua huihui mai nei ki te whakanui i te taonga nei, arā, ko te pukapuka ‘Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings’. I’m honoured to be here, standing here as I do, as a descendant of Ngāti Toa, of Ngāti Raukawa, of Te Āti Awa and Ngāi Tahu. Of Ngāti Mutunga, and of Ngāti Tama. Tēnā tātou katoa.
To me this book of Tina’s – her first novel – does three things very well. First of all, it’s a beautifully wrought love story, and I’m talking about love of many things, on many levels. There’s the love between two of the main characters – a love fraught with implications and prohibitions, which nevertheless flourishes and takes us all along with it, with ngā piki me ngā heke, the highs and the lows. There’s the love of a daughter for her lost mum – and how she treasures the taonga her mother passed down to her, which is not pounamu or gold or silver, but rēwena: the living potato bug of her mother’s rēwena bread. The book also, seemingly without effort (though I suspect this is not the case), inscribes a deep love of the land, and in particular of Rēkohu. When I finished the book, I felt not only that I’d actually been there – when I never have – I felt like I wasn’t able to quite leave. I couldn’t shake it. I started looking at the hills around me differently when I walked on the beaches at home in Kāpiti, and the mist that’s been a regular visitor to Wellington lately took on a different meaning and texture.
Part of this aspect of the book is Tina’s skill with writing love scenes. There’s probably only one or two actual sex-scenes in this novel, but they are some of the best I’ve read. As any of us who’ve tried here tonight can testify, this is not an easy thing to achieve. There’s a wonderful passage I’d like to share with you here – remembering this part of the story is set in the 1880s.
He ran his fingers along the arch of her wrist.
She stopped her work and returned his gaze. Of all the things that he loved in this new
world, this simple act was the greatest miracle to him.
Mere lifted her hand to his face, his fingers followed hers, and they began to dance
together, fingers entwined, palms pressed. Soon they moved to the bed, following
some ancient rhythm that caused them to breathe and grasp and submerge
themselves in the miracle of each other’s bare skin. That nature had devised such a
way to bring joy into bodies Iraia could barely believe. And how did people walk about
by day with their clothes pressed in tight and their sombre faces, when at night there
was this — the pure thrilling sensation of it? That there was such a way to know Mere,
even as she didn’t know herself, and for her to extract the same nonsensical ache from
him? He couldn’t believe the whole world wasn’t vibrating in awe.
Tina’s book is not only a lovesong, though. It’s also a waiata tangi, a lament, and a wero, a challenge. It recreates a time of great pain for the people of Rēkohu – histories which are often either silenced, badly told or co-opted by others for various political purposes. Tina breaks open the prejudices in the ‘Māoris ate the Moriori’s’ trope that’s used still today in persisting and astounding ignorance to justify all manner of colonial atrocities perpetrated in this country. At the same time, she doesn’t look away from the ugly details of what actually did happen on the Chatham Islands. She goes there. She enters the hangi pits, and imagines, on the page, how it might feel to be not only killed, but beheaded, cooked, and eaten. She stands face-on to these horrors, and she claims all sides of them. She invites us, her readers, to do the same.
One final thing I want to mention about the book is this character here (on the cover) – whose name is Imi. To me, Imi is not only a very compelling voice and point-of-view in this great novel, but he also makes the most astonishing language. Creating any character like this, with their own dialect and accent, can be a big risk for a writer, but Imi won me over right from the first tantalising glimpse/echo. He feels like the ancestor I wish for, and at the same time, a god, a mischief, a wise-one, a red-blooded man’s man, a peace-maker, a trouble-maker. More than anything else, it’s Imi I still feel is close to me in these weeks since I first read the book.
Nā reira, tēnei ahau e mihi atu nei ki a koe, Tina, i runga i tō kaha me tō whakaaro rangatira, nāu hoki tēnei taonga, ēnei kōrero, i tiaki, i manaaki, mai i te pō uriuri, tae noa atu ki te whei ao, ki te ao mārama. Ko koe te tupuna o rātou, ko koe hoki te uri whakaheke, te mokopuna. Tēnā koe, tēnā koe, tēnā koutou ko tō whānau ātaahua. Ko Ngāti Kiritea koe, arā, nō reira māua tahi. Tū mai hoki a Taranaki maunga, kānapanapa mai ko Taupō moana. Ko te Kūititanga o Maniapoto tēnā, ko koe. Ko Rēkohu koe, ko Rongomaiwhenua, ko Nunuku, tuturu whakamaua kia tina!(Tina!) Haumi e, hui e, tāiki e! Kei te mihi, kei te mihi ki a koe e te tuahine.
Lastly, I just want to mihi to you Tina for your strength of purpose and deep commitment to bringing these stories, harrowing as they are beautiful, and these extraordinary and ordinary characters to us in this way, from the deep dark into the world of light, as they say. You have been, you are, their chaperone, their caregiver, their ancestor and their descendant. I mihi to you as a fellow fairskinned traveller. As well as this, of course, you are Taranaki maunga, you are Taupo’s glistening lake. You are the legendary meeting place of Maniapoto. You are Rēkohu, Rongomaiwhenua, Nunuku, these and so many more are all you. So I mihi to you and to your beautiful whānau.
Me mutu rā...
Ngā mihi arohanui kī ā koe, Hinemoana. Ngā mihi hoki kī ngā kaimahi ō Unity Books, Random House, te NZ Festival, me tōku whānau. Mauri Ora! Me Rongo!
Nau te rourou, nāku te rourou
Kia ora koutou
The time has come! I am currently putting together the third and final exhibition in the Magic Playgrounds series at the New Zealand Film Archive. As I mentioned in my launch speech for the first exhibition Ko Te Taiao - Children and the Natural Environment, creating these exhibitions has been an immense privilege and learning experience. One of the things I was inspired by, when putting together my proposal for the exhibitions, was Bryan Bruce's Child Poverty documentary which will be a centrepiece in the final exhibition on social equality. I don't understand how we can have the kinds of appalling child poverty and health statistics we have in Aotearoa when we live in such a wealthy and abundant land, though I think documentaries like Bruce's and In a Land of Plenty might give us some very clear clues.
I need your help. What are your thoughts and opinions about social equality in Aotearoa today? What are your memories about what it was like in the past? What would you like to see in an exhibition of this kind? Do you know of any good films or documentaries that approach this topic? I'd be especially interested in footage of people or communities that may be finding ways to change inequalities, or that did so in the past. Please comment or even send me a private message.
We are planning a special opening for this final exhibition - I hope to see you there.
Ngā mihi mahana - Me rongo.
e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.
I was surprised, over the course of one week not long ago, to encounter two online conversations in which the International Institute of Modern Letters was described as elitist. Despite immediately brushing this off – can’t waste too much time over online arguments and rants when work and family and, if I’m lucky, writing demand focus – the seeming prevalence of such opinions seemed out of proportion to the reality I’ve experienced in my years studying at the IIML. Perhaps I simply felt defensive as a graduate of the place. But perhaps somewhere in the background I was worried – all those years – was I part of an elitist organisation?
Well, yes. But only in as much as any tertiary institution is elitist. And it’s becoming more so, but not due to anything the IIML is doing. By abolishing student allowances for postgraduate students, the Government continues the nonsensical attack on higher education, practically sending our greatest academic potential to other shores. Tertiary education is not easy, and it’s not cheap, and you have to have the right kind of cultural capital to make it work. It is true that certain pre-requisites are necessary to study at a place like the International Institute of Modern Letters – facility with the written word and comfort with predominantly Pākehā institutional practices among them (and let's not forget the money). But even in terms of tertiary courses, particularly postgraduate ones, the IIML is not particularly elitist. All you need to get in is a good writing sample – for undergraduate courses no previous tertiary study is required; for the Masters course the need for a previous degree can be waived. Other tertiary institutions commonly require an honours degree or similar for admission to a Masters in Creative Writing. The main prerequisite for entry to the IIML is the ability to write well, and any rudimentary survey of the writing styles accepted will reveal diversity. This last point is important: there is no writing assembly line.
It may seem elitist when a high proportion of ‘successful’ (published and award-winning) writers in Aotearoa/NZ went through the IIML at one time or another, though that thinking is slightly skewed. If a course has a long history, a good reputation, attracts hard-working new writers with a lot of potential, and allows entry to only a small number in order to ensure excellent teaching and learning, the outcome is going to be high quality. Even then, a degree from the IIML is no guarantee of either publication or awards, and contrary to some opinions, graduates do not develop some kind of umbilical feeding tube attachment to VUP. Every year twenty students complete the MA prose and poetry, but there are not twenty new writers published each year. Graduates will go on to do a variety of things.
But none of this is the most interesting thing that came out of my consideration of this question of whether the IIML is elitist or not. For me it is difficult to see how it could be when I’ve witnessed the kinds of people who find a voice and encouragement and yes, legitimacy of one kind or another by taking an IIML course. When I began the MA and PhD, I was a single parent. There was no way I would be able to find the time, support, community and income (thank you scholarships) to write in a sustained way if I had not entered the IIML. Since then I have written about colonisation, single parenting, being old, being neglected, being young, being Māori, being mixed-ethnicity, Māori spirituality, Moriori spirituality, colonial history, postcolonial history, family violence, family healing, and the power of stories. I have seen my friends write about gender and sexuality and radical protest, jail and culture and different underworlds, historical figures, colonial and contemporary frontiers, pain and things that make us laugh. Sometimes these are worlds we know well, and sometimes these are worlds we imagine, but they are not elitist worlds (following my diversity argument, the odd elitist world may come into view, but certainly does not dominate).
And if none of that convinces, there was another thing that happened the week I saw those references to the IIML and elitism online. In a Real Life conversation with a colleague, we discussed how many mothers of young families were studying towards doctorates in Creative Writing. Two of us have already finished; one is nearly done. At present there are at least three more women with quite large and quite young families who are working on creative theses (and possibly more in the MA). It’s great for women with young families, I enthused, it’s so hard to say to your family, I’m just going to go in here and write now. It means you’re not wasting everyone’s time, that you’re working towards something legitimate. My colleague agreed. Just look at J.C Sturm, he said, she stopped writing for twenty years because of family and children. And I think that’s when I decided to write something about this, because when women have young families there are few ways to continue the writing life – it’s impossible to obtain writing residencies that insist you come alone, and difficult to prioritise the importance of writing over the importance of every other important thing that your children require. When you are a single parent, double those impossibilities. But the IIML made it possible and continues to make it possible for some of us. And if it didn’t our voices would be lost, at least for a time. We work hard, and they work hard, and it is a belittling, inaccurate thing to characterise what we may have achieved as elitism.
One thing I learnt and wrote about while researching my PhD is the continued lack of real diversity in New Zealand fiction. What we have now does not yet even approach a proportional representation of our national ethnic make-up. The IIML may not be the perfect place for all writers, and no one would want all our writers to come from only one place. But I do think that, without it, New Zealand’s writing scene would be a smaller, less colourful, less vibrant place, and possibly just a little bit more elitist than it is now.
I have had some interesting conversations with people since writing this, and some of the responses are more ambivalent than the comments below suggest. That's okay. I said it in the original piece but I'd like to re-emphasise it here: This pathway won't work for everyone, and for some there will be barriers to entering a place like the IIML that perhaps shouldn't be there. There are many ways to go about this business. This way has helped me and others I know. But I know it is only one way, and not accessible to all. I also haven't gone into the negatives of this, which for me at present include trying to find a way to make a living! So it can seem very grand, but in the end can still be difficult and fraught. There is always more that can be done. Kia Kaha e hoa mā.
Magic Playgrounds: Historical Images of New Zealand Childhoods Opening Speech for Exhibition One: Ko te Taiao
Nau Mai Haere Mai. The kaupapa for the first exhibition is Ko te Taiao – The Natural Environment. When I first began thinking about these exhibitions, it was important to me to capture something of what it’s like to experience childhood in Aotearoa/New Zealand, both in the past and now. What are the elements of our identity that make our childhoods distinct? There are many things that come to mind, but few are as embedded in our memories and sense of self as our environment. Whether we are down the beach, on the farm, going on school camp or climbing a mountain, perhaps it’s safe to say that Papatuanuku, Tangaroa, Tane Mahuta, Ranginui and Tawhirimatea all form one aspect of the New Zealand character – that is, that land, sea, rivers, and forests leave their imprint on our childhoods.
Before I go on, I’d like to thank the NZ Film Archive for allowing me the privilege of rummaging around in their databases, viewing all kinds of film in all kinds of formats, requesting all sorts of favours, and generally poking about in areas where I sometimes had little former experience. They trusted me to come up with a decent show, and I’m grateful for that. There are people in this organisation with so much more knowledge than me, but I think it is a visionary thing to allow ‘outsiders’ in to do a project like this. It means a certain amount of risk, but also bringing in a fresh point of view. That can result in the collection being shown in a way it hasn’t been shown before, and for an infusion of energy and enthusiasm around material that insiders already know well. I hope that this project achieves some of these things. I have been awed, overwhelmed and enthralled by the vast collection at the New Zealand Film Archive. This is truly a Whare Taonga, a House of Treasures, and I hope that visitors to these three exhibitions will get some sense of that.
This exhibition has several parts, which revolve somewhat around the main screen – a montage that loosely chronicles historical visions of New Zealand childhoods and the environment. In the viewing room there are five other screens – Te Mahi a te Pāmu or Farming; Ngā Kōrero a ngā Kaumatua, in which older Māori remember the environments of their childhoods; Advertising or Whakatairanga; Patterns of Growth by visionary educator Gordon Tovey; Ngā Kiriata a te Kāinga or Amateur Film and Home Movies. These can be viewed with the assistance of headphones, except the amateur films which are silent. In the television room, Tūrangawaewae, from the precious and iconic 1974 Tangata Whenua series, will play according to the schedule posted. A feature film series including Vigil, The Strength of Water, This Way of Life and Rangi’s Catch also completes the exhibition. It is my intention that viewers will think about all of these different elements in conversation with each other. There may be questions or gaps in the main screen montage that are addressed or highlighted by the other screens, television room show or feature films.
Early on in this project I had to come to terms with the idea that historical film doesn’t tell historical stories the way we would tell them now. Early films reveal the moment of making, and thus are not retrospective and do not have the overlay of analysis that we might put on history now. They reveal us to ourselves in ways we might not have anticipated at the time of making. And it is often not so much the events of those times that are revealed, but our attitudes towards ourselves and our place in the world. The result is sometimes weird, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hilarious and often poignant. Most of all I’m grateful that these records of earlier times in our collective story continue to exist and be cared for by the film archive.
While I found the older footage immeasurably valuable and interesting and exciting, I felt the need to present film that could also act as a counterpoint to those times and ways of seeing the world. What does it all mean now? So some of the more contemporary material presented through this exhibition is one way of thinking about history indirectly – for example The Strength of Water exemplifies a way of relating to the land and a world beyond the physical that has endured through colonial and postcolonial turmoil, This Way of Life addresses many questions around how we raise children, and what the ideal environment for family life is. Interestingly, the freedom experienced by the Karena children in that film highlights a question raised by Iritana Tawhiwhirangi on the Ngā Kōrero a ngā Kaumatua screen regarding how children at play are overprotected these days compared to when she was young. In this way, a conversation is generated. We look at history to understand where we are now, how we got here, and even where we should be headed. Where we are now is intimately linked to the journey we took in getting here.
Finally, I must also mention the other exhibitions. Each will run for six weeks. After this one closes in late July, the Cultural Diversity exhibition will open, and seven weeks later, the Social Equality exhibition will complete the series. These are the elements of historical New Zealand childhoods that I chose to explore because they are elements of our culture I hold dear, but each exhibition will both explore and question these ideas about Kiwi identity. At this stage, it looks to me like each exhibition might be quite different in content as well. A highlight of the next exhibition will probably be culturally diverse short films and animation, because filmmakers have often chosen children and culture as subject matter for their creative work. So do come back again and again – take time to explore.
I gave this talk last week at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. They were having a Cultural Difference Week for the Creative Industries students, and were focusing on te reo Māori, so that they could create stop-motion animations about the importance of te reo. I've posted a few of my favourites below (made in only 7 hours). At first I was a bit worried about whether I was the right person to comment, because I write in English and don’t speak Māori fluently. But then I thought about how integral te reo is to how I write in English, how integral it is to our identities as New Zealanders, and what a cultural and creative wasteland Aotearoa would be without our indigenous language. So, I found I did have something to say...
Let me begin by way of some examples.
Here is a word of some contention. Many of you, as contemporary young New Zealanders, will be completely comfortable with this term, while perhaps your parents or grandparents are not. There are still those that find the term offensive, though I have long wondered why. There are various versions of stories about the origins of the word Pākehā, including that it is an onomatopoeic word for the language Cook and his men spoke when they first arrived, and that it’s meaning, when broken down, could mean those of different breath or language. One indication that Pākehā is a term still not acceptable for many New Zealanders, is that on the recent census form, ‘NZ European’ was still the only term available to white New Zealanders to describe their ethnicity. I am half Pākehā. After I wrote in my iwi, I ticked the ‘other’ box on my census form and wrote in ‘Pākehā’.
The reason for this is that I am proud to be Pākehā, just as I am proud to be Māori. New Zealand European doesn’t mean anything to me, and most Pākehā I know are not very European at all. Pākehā only exist in this place, in Aotearoa, and the Pākehā culture was forged on these shores. The name, given to the second people of these lands, says something about relationship to this place and its first people. No one else in the world gets to claim that heritage, no one else gets to have the unique relationship Pākehā have with Aotearoa and Māori. To be Pākehā is to claim ownership of a position in the most extraordinary country I know. There are responsibilities that come with that position, of course, but I don’t want to stray too far from my point. ‘NZ European’ carries none of the rich heritage and history that comes with the word Pākehā. It is part of the story of what makes us, us.
Here are some more terms. My apologies to any speakers of te reo, as I’m going to go over some basic things that are immediately evident when you learn the language, but I’m guessing that many of you haven’t. Last week I asked a class I teach at Victoria University how many knew another language. Two out of around eighteen students put their hands up. I was not even asking if they spoke Māori. It’s a shame our education system doesn’t insist on some level of bilingualism, as is the norm in many overseas countries. Only by learning another language can one gain a clear insight into how a language embodies a different world view, a whole different way of perceiving and being in the world.
Some basic interpretations:
Sub-tribe / kinship group (the main form of societal organisation for Māori – villages were centred around hapū). Also, pregnant.
Tribe – larger kinship group descended from common ancestor. Also, Bone. Strength.
Family – extended family. Also, be born, to give birth.
Looking at the various meanings of these words, we can learn a great deal about Māori culture. That your iwi is your strength, the structure that holds you upright, as deep and eternal as bones, which remain long after the rest of you has passed, just as your people will. That being hapū, creating new life, is intimately connected to the main group through which Māori society is organised – perhaps that each needs the other. That we are attached to the land in much the same way that a babe is attached to her mother’s placenta – that it feeds and sustains us.
As a writer, this means that te reo is indispensible to my writing, even in English. There are certain concepts and ideas that can only be expressed in te reo. English approximations cannot give the sense of place or meaning that Māori can.
An example: I recently sent a query to an American agent. She wanted to see the first 50 pages of my novel, which was thrilling, but I had a dilemma. In those first fifty pages were scattered many Māori words. Some could be exchanged for their English equivalent without too much loss of meaning, but most could not. Is family really the equivalent of whānau? In my first book, I very purposefully did not include a glossary (more about that later), and I did not want my American reader to constantly interrupt her reading to look up the Māori words if I did supply one. For a NZ reader, I can assume a certain amount of prior knowledge, and make context give meaning for the rest. Here I was less sure.
In the end I compromised. Unless I could be sure the context of the sentence gave the meaning of the word, I used the English translation. But this made the story somehow less than it was. For example, I discovered that I’d used the word ‘whare’ frequently. Many New Zealanders will know that a whare is a house. But in this context, the whare were being built for a summer hunting and gathering expedition. It was the 1880s, so timber houses also featured, but here the whānau were travelling to tribal lands and building makeshift whare to camp in. A New Zealander might easily imagine one – made from punga and flax, raupo or driftwood – whatever materials were available.
I couldn’t use the word ‘house’ which for English speakers means a certain solid thing that takes months to construct and contains many rooms. I couldn’t say ‘tent’, because obviously that is a cloth construction. In the end I substituted ‘hut’. It was entirely unsatisfactory. Huts bring to mind buildings in other countries, and colonial descriptions of them. They might be made of mud and cow dung, be painted bright colours, or be thatched with palms. The landscape outside of huts might be desert or tropical island. Everything I wanted my reader to know about the constructions I was referring to was contained in the word ‘whare’ – the materials, the manner of construction, shape, the landscape outside. I did describe the materials, but so much of what I wanted to say was embodied in that word – a word that stands only for something that belongs irrevocably here.
And that is what te reo gives us, not only through meaning, but sound. I love to read writing by Indian and Chinese writers, which are often scattered with words I don’t know. Invariably, context gives meaning, though I know that what I imagine might not be the fullest sense of the word. But what these words also give me is the sounds of the culture and the place they come from. I value these words because they carry a cultural resonance that cannot be gained by description or explanation in English.
Consider this poem by one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary poets to his friend, one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary visual artists:
by Hone Tuwhare
When you offer only three
vertical lines precisely drawn
and set into a dark pool of lacquer
it is a visual kind of starvation:
and even though my eyeballs
roll up and over to peer inside
myself, when I reach the beginning
of your eternity I say instead: hell
let’s have another feed of mussels
Like, I have to think about it, man
When you stack horizontal lines
into vertical columns which appear
to advance, recede, shimmer and wave
like exploding packs of cards
I merely grunt and say: well, if it
is not a famine, it’s a feast
I have to roll another smoke, man
But when you score a superb orange
circle on a purple thought-base
I shake my head and say: hell, what
is this thing called aroha
Like I’m euchred man, I’m eclipsed.
In the second to last line, Tuwhare plays on the 1929 song by Jazz musician Cole Porter “What is this thing called love?” It’s a magnificent poem, Tuwhare’s trademark colloquial wit mixed with an astute tribute to his friend’s art. Throughout, a tension between more formal abstract descriptions of the art and the warm, loose moments of friendship is maintained, until that resounding question: What is this thing called aroha? It’s a good question – what is aroha and how does it differ from love – because by changing one word of a well-known line, Tuwhare draws attention to the inability of the word love to encompass the world suggested by the word aroha. It’s much more than that, of course, but in the context of this discussion, his choice to use one Māori word in a poem in English shows how no other word would do.
Aroha is not romantic love, of course, it is not parental love or familial love, though it could encompass all those things. Perhaps empathy is the closest English word to aroha. Compassion. Aroha says I see you, I know your pain, I’m here, I understand your world. You understand mine. I stand beside you. I don’t know what it meant for Tuwhare when he placed it in this poem, but it seems to say, there is no greater thing than this.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve had one of those great experiences where things that occur in everyday life inform what I’ve been thinking about, namely, this talk. A lecture I recently attended addressed briefly the topic of glossaries and why a writer might choose not to use them. This is something I’ve already touched on and thought about a lot in relation to my own work, but the lecturer, Dougal McNeill, had a succinct and eloquent way of putting it: A glossary, he said, creates a hierarchy of the familiar and unfamiliar. It highlights an area of ‘foreignness’ that ‘normal’ people won’t understand. He was referring to the work of the late Chinua Achebe, who did not glossarise Nigerian Igbo words in his English language novel Things Fall Apart in 1958.
Thus, if we make glossaries for Māori words or italicise them, we separate them as abnormal, foreign, and not part of our literary landscape. We make them secondary to English. Patricia Grace is perhaps the writer most well known for refusing to explain or highlight her use of Māori words in English language texts this way.
But what responsibility does this present for the rest of us? One reaction is for non-Māori-speaking readers to say they feel excluded when Māori words are not translated. This is almost never the intention of the writing, but perhaps it does perform the function of prompting or discomforting the reader enough to act (or complain). If a New Zealand reader cannot understand simple words or phrases in one of the official languages of his/her country, should he or she not attempt to learn? If there are things that can only be said in Māori, should the writer be compelled to act as translator as well, even knowing the translation is likely to be inadequate?
And should we want them to? What do we lose if we constantly want things spelled out for us, if we refuse to just listen to the sounds the words make, and absorb their meaning from the story around them?
The use and acceptance of te reo Māori in English language writing has the same purpose and effect as choosing to call yourself ‘Pākehā’ rather than a ‘NZ European’. We create a new English that only belongs to this place. Chinua Achebe wrote of the same thing in Africa in 1975. He had been given this English language, he said, and he would use it to communicate to a wider audience. But in doing so the English would not go unchanged. It would be made to commune with his ancestral home and carry the weight of his contemporary African experience. When we incorporate words like ‘whare’ and ‘aroha’ into our writing, we do so recognising that ‘hut’ and ‘love’ would not encompass the wholeness of our experience. We make our most common language carry the weight of our ancestral and contemporary realities.
My offering here today is small – I can only tell you why te reo Māori is important to my practice as a writer in English. I have given you a small handful of words. But if anything I have said today has prompted you to think about the substantial richness of those few words, consider then what would be gained from achieving some fluency in te reo. If the word ‘whenua’ can show the symbolic relationship Māori have with land, consider the insights that might be gained from a thorough knowledge of all aspects of Māori communication. Imagine how your point of view, or our collective relationships with each other, might be transformed by a deeper understanding of the indigenous language of Aotearoa. Imagine then, if someone asks ‘what is this thing called aroha?’ Perhaps the answer would be, in whatever language: ‘I get you mate, I understand.’
The other animations that were made during the Cultural Difference Week at NMIT can be viewed at
Our literature is not whole, it is not showing fully who we are in this country
– Patricia Grace
In my creative work, I’m looking back to understand and possibly heal and possibly rewrite history, so that I feel better about it really – Kim Scott
In a less than two weeks, I'll go through the final stages of examination for my PhD. The entire process has taught me much more than I could have anticipated, particularly about the value and possibilities of fiction and Indigenous writing, and about craft. I haven't been able to say or write much about the thesis because, right up to the latter stage of writing it, I think I was still discovering what it was really about. The fictional project began early on, but the big picture took some time to nut out.
To celebrate the upcoming conclusion of this project, here is an edited excerpt from the introduction that explains a bit about the subject matter of the thesis and why it was written.
My thesis consists of two parts. Part One is the critical component, called ‘Grappling with Space: Going Beyond Historiographic Metafiction in Baby No-Eyes and Benang (From the Heart)’. Part Two is the creative component, which consists of a novel, Rēkohu Story. My work in this thesis addresses questions I had about how to write a novel that both reveals a history that has not been well understood or represented in the past, and also explores the complexity of contemporary Indigenous cultural identity. Conducting a close reading of specific texts by two Indigenous writers, Baby No Eyes (1999) by Patricia Grace, and Benang (2002) by Kim Scott, using the characteristics of historiographic metafiction as a frame, provides greater insight into how these texts operate as fiction and explore wider issues around cultural/historical identities.
This thesis engages three possible audiences: writers; Indigenous People (engaged in the project of cultural reclamation / decolonisation); literary scholars (with an interest in Indigenous or historiographic metafictional literature). Of course these groups are not necessarily distinct and are best envisaged as overlapping spheres. To varying extents I am situated within all three groups. In addition, as a New Zealander of Māori, Pākehā and Moriori descent, I had questions about why certain histories in New Zealand had been misrepresented over long periods of time, and why, even after these representations were revealed to be erroneous, they still continued to hold precedence. For example, I contend that despite comprehensive historical writing and work by the Moriori people, Michael King, The Waitangi Tribunal and others, distorted understandings of the history of Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) persist.
Finally, the thesis asserts the potential of fiction to challenge and enrich understandings of history and self (personally, culturally and nationally). The creation of stories that investigate history from different points of view and different time periods allows for Indigenous perspectives to continue to gain new cultural and societal life and replace long held national myths.
(The following article describes myths still prevalent: http://www.stuff.co.nz/archived-stuff-sections/archived-national-sections/korero/498166/Moriori-revival as does this article that describes the necessity of producing new school journals to refute the inaccuracies expounded in older editions: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/4789044/Rewriting-the-history-of-Moriori. Scott Hamilton, on his studious blog Reading the Maps, has written several long pieces on the myths that persist, including: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2009/04/myth-that-wont-go-away.html, http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2008/06/pseudo-history-in-onehunga.html)
I can't say too much about the novel yet, but it consists of three intertwined narratives: a contemporary young woman of Moriori, Māori and Pākehā descent seeks her family’s origins; a Moriori slave and his Ngāti Mutunga mistress run away together in 1882; and the spirit of a man who died during the invasion of the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu) is stuck in the realm of the living, watching his people suffer slavery and the loss of their lands and waiting for the time when his descendants will discover the truth of their origins and reclaim the powerful legacy that has been buried by multiple colonising forces.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to write this thesis. And more passionate about the subject matter now than when I began. As usual, there is an extensive list of people and organisations who made the project possible, including the International Institute of Modern Letters, Maui Solomon and Susan Thorpe, the Hokotehi Moriori Trust Board, my supervisors and workshop mates, and of course my whanau.
ME RONGO - IN PEACE
Confession #1: I don’t know what the Frankfurt Book Fair was like. People keep asking and I keep muttering inadequate semi-descriptions and feeling like I’m letting the side down. It’s only fair, since I had the opportunity to go, that I pass on some kind of insider’s perspective. All I have is an insider’s lack of perspective.
#2: That’s why I’m writing this blog – to share and make sense of the experience. Except when people ask what it was like I often can’t bring myself to tell them about this blog. It’s a self-defeating cycle. Luckily other people have produced interesting accounts of the NZ Pavilion and the NZ stand and other aspects of the book fair here and here and here and here. I was focused on a number of talks in that last week, so perhaps I can write about those, though it really only grazes the edges of the whole NZ Guest of Honour experience. Here it is then, my humble contribution:
Rosie Goldsmith, Anna Jackson, me, and C.K.Stead Image: Lisa Gardiner
How You Know You’re in Some Other Country: My first panel is with Bill Manhire and Eleanor Catton. There is something slightly odd, right from the beginning. Our moderator has interesting questions about the short story collection Ein anderes Land that we’re meant to discuss, but seems only to be aware of my book and no one else’s other work. I’m not sure that my impression is correct because there also seems to be a language problem (surprisingly rare occurrence throughout the trip and the fair itself). But then on stage he says to Bill, who is there as editor of the collection, ‘so you are a writer as well?’ Bill says yes, but he tends to write poetry . . . Still, it's a really good discussion - it's always so invigorating to have these talks with other writers, even though it takes place on a stage.
Weltkulturen One: Eva Raabe (Custodian of Oceania collection), Hamish Clayton and me. A very quick rehearsal of the longer talk we’ll do on Saturday at the museum itself. We talk about expectations and outcomes from the residency (see Parts One & Two), but each read something pre-residency. Somehow Eva isolates moments from Wulf and Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa that link to our interest in, and time at, the museum.
Weird Combinations That Work and Preconceptions That Don’t: Rosie Goldsmith gets the interesting task of connecting the work of C.K. Stead, Anna Jackson, and myself. Anna and I are slightly puzzled about how this will work (thematically the link isn’t obvious, and Anna is primarily a poet in a session about short stories). Earlier in the week I witness Rosie pull off another weird combination that includes Nalini Singh, Elizabeth Knox and Lawrence Patchett. It actually works very well, with a continuum of perspectives and styles that delve into the fantastic. There is a lot of blood spilt during the readings in that session (characters’, not writers’!) I feel we’re in good hands. Knowing more about C.K. Stead’s criticism than his creative work, I have the perhaps erroneous impression that he might not like the more fantastic/mythical elements of my own work. I decide to go with this idea rather than against it, and choose to read one of my more gritty realist stories. It’s a story I’m really fond of, and have never read publicly. All good. We touch on mythic Māori stories and the work of Katherine Mansfield. Mr Stead* then reads a fantastic (in both senses of the word) story about a man who figures out the principles of human flight. Later, Anna manages to traverse the territory between fiction and poetry by reading a poem based on a long short story she wrote. It's very moving. I am reminded that preconceptions are rarely useful, although it's fun watching them being broken down.
Huia Publishers at the New Zealand Stand, Frankfurt Book Fair
Keeping It Real: Unfortunately Patricia Grace is unable to attend FBF and I have been asked to step in to one of her sessions at the Pavilion. I have the privilege of both reading some of her work and discussing the very important kaupapa of Māori Realities with Robyn Bargh of Huia Publishers. We discuss Māori fiction, publishing and diversity with the moderator, Rowan Payton. So far moderators fall into three categories according to how much pre-show communication is received from them. This ranges from none, to a little, to a great deal. Rowan has put in a lot of time and has met with me and Robyn to go over the session in detail. Māori Realities is a big and complicated topic, and we decide to isolate the issues we can reasonably cover in half an hour. So perhaps it’s a little alarming for Rowan that I can’t contain a sudden uncontrollable urge to cry when he throws me an unanticipated and quite ordinary question. It is Friday, and I am due to fly out the next day. ‘How has your time at the Weltkulturen been?’ he asks. I say something about the amazing hospitality and how special Frankfurt is. I try to stop the tears from building to full force but by then I am utterly choked up. Some ladies in the front start to applaud and others join in. It feels nice in a way – a real sense of connection to the place and people (in a marae setting the same sentiment might be expressed by someone calling out ‘kia kaha’ or ‘tautoko’). I guess I really do end up bringing a bit of Māori reality to the session (I’m sure my propensity to cry in public comes from that side).
Image: Lisa Gardiner
Weltkulturen Two: To be honest, I have been thinking about crying all week. Or specifically, how to avoid it. Except I'd anticipated it would happen at the Weltkulturen Text and Culture Marathon the next day. I’d written a piece that focused on a tauihu (canoe prow) in the Face to Face exhibit, and while proofreading, it hit a couple of emotional nerves. I had also suggested that I read the piece as an address to the tauihu, so that the audience could see the taonga I was writing about and we could embody the Face to Face theme of the exhibition. Together with my tendency to tangi in front of a crowd and the fact that I am due to leave only hours after the session, I am sure to tear up. It’s all very well to have these ideas, but the piece is new, unread by anyone else and possibly a bit sentimental. I have no idea whether the whole thing will work and I’ve volunteered to test it in a very public way.
On the day I throw myself into the talk as I do in these situations – you do your best you know? A short account of the session can be found here. I am so intent on performing the piece without tripping over nerves or emotions that I make it all the way through to the end. As I finish I look up and make eye contact with one of the kiwi crew who has tears in her eyes. I am suddenly aware that my own intensity of feeling around the story I have told has transmitted to others in the room. It is only then that I tear up, though when the feeling is shared, it is not such a big deal after all.
This final day at the Weltkulturen is great - full of interesting conversations by and with other writers and Frankfurter audiences. This blog post doesn’t really begin to cover it. And then I am in a taxi just as I had been on my first night in Frankfurt, watching the river and the lights of the city go past, thinking this is it now, and feeling okay about it. The driver checks off the names of other people he needs to pick up over the next few days, all the Kiwi writers leaving town. I think next time someone asks me what it was like I’ll just say it was magic. It really was.
With many thanks to the Frankfurt Museum der Weltkulturen as well as the NZ@Frankfurt team, PANZ, CNZ, and MCH.
*I don’t feel like I can call him Karl – he turned eighty while we were there and I barely met him, and is C.K. the proper way to address him?
Kōrerorero - Conversations
From time to time I'll post things here that haven't found a home anywhere else, or have been used in other formats. Occasionally I might even blog...