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
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...