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.
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!