2011 Nga Kupu Ora Award Winners
This kete was given to me in 1997 (I believe) by Pare Richardson and the whānau of Māori Studies before I left my job here to go and do other things. I chose to bring it tonight because a decade later, when I began writing this book, among other things it was the stuff I had learnt in my first years at Massey that came back and made themselves essential parts of my stories. Perhaps I thought I was going to write like other writers that I enjoyed reading - like the Americans, or British immigrant writers, or contemporary Pākehā New Zealand writers. With the exception of Keri Hulme, I’d hardly read any fiction by Māori authors. So I was surprised that when I began writing, even though I experimented a lot, it was the stories that took Māori mythologies as their inspiration that carried the most juice.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. As an undergraduate, I found culture and mythology the most fascinating areas of study. I came here knowing nothing. The first year pōwhiri I attended at the little building next door was the first pōwhiri I had ever been to. Pare Richardson was my first te reo teacher. When the papers I took didn’t cover my interests, I used Massey’s Library to continue my own research. I joined Maori student groups like Manawatahi and learnt some kapa haka.
In Bob Jahnke’s Māori Visual Arts classes I learnt more about the Māori universe, and how it was embodied not only by carving, but by buildings themselves. Being a visual person, this conceptualisation of the universe has stayed with me ever since. I haven’t found a better system for understanding most things.
I also remember a handful of us meeting in Mason Durie’s office each week for 150.401 or 701. We had the privilege of having immediate updates on the new Treaty settlements and new Māori MPs in Parliament, as well as a myriad of other incredibly important and momentous, it seemed, events in Māori political spheres. It was in this class, or perhaps 301 before it, that Mason drew a line on his whiteboard, and told us that there is no one Māori reality, that there is a continuum of Māori identities, that Māori are a diverse people, and government should not expect only one response from us about things like Treaty settlements. Though I have used it again and again in my work, it has taken me a long time to really grasp the simple wisdom of that statement in terms of my own identity.
These were some of the influences that came out when I opened myself up to writing fiction. The writing taught me what is fundamental to my identity. Diversity. Culture. History. A belief that our traditions and myths still offer us a way of understanding our contemporary challenges. That some of my characters are obviously Māori and some obviously indefinable is important. And there are things that are not pretty to look at, but hopefully when we do look at them we can do so with humour and an ear for the wisdom that is still available to us.
Universities are sometimes maligned, I think, as inferior places for learning tīkanga and reo. There may be some truth to that, but for people like me, they are a door that opens toward an understanding of Te Ao Māori. In addition, my first steps into creative writing were made here. So this is why, in more ways than one, this is like being given an award by family – of the multifaceted influences that went into the creation of Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, this whānau certainly has a significant place.
My thanks also to those directly involved in creating and maintaining these awards. For me the important thing about these awards is that they encourage diversity in writing. This both shows vision and implicitly critiques the current national literature awards, which reward excellence, but can be limited. The Nga Kupu Ora Awards are a great model for how we can have more diverse ways of recognising writing, and it’d be great to see more events like this, not just for Māori. While awards might be seen as simply kinaki or embellishment to the achievement of getting work published, awards and nominations can have a surprising effect in terms of promoting and encouraging new writing. So thank you for encouraging me.
I’m particularly pleased that Fiction by Maori is now firmly back on the agenda, when it was so conspicuously absent in the first two years of these awards. In 2010 there was a handful of fiction books by Māori, and this year a handful more. I hope that continues & grows. As a Māori, it was tempting to think that my voice would be more effective in social sciences or other forms of research. But I found that those disciplines alone could not address the full complexity of my reality. Fiction gave me permission to explore issues in a way that was non-didactic. That is, fiction does not come up with theories or definitions, it simply allows you to explore what is – to go deep into the paradox that is all of us – to suggest that a being can be more than one thing, that an idea or action can be both bad and good. My current research and writing suggests that fiction can give us a more direct and visceral relationship with historical and contemporary challenges, and thus deepen our understanding of issues that affect us. Further, it offers others a version of our stories that speak directly to the heart and imagination, thus creating a bridge between cultures. I sometimes think it is difficult for many Māori to prioritise creative writing, when there is such urgency in our other work. I would like to suggest fiction is an important tool for the reclamation of histories and identities, and for the imagining of alternative possibilities. It is my hope that this inaugural award will be the first of many fiction awards to Maori writers.
Kōrerorero - Conversations
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