What would you like to see? The inevitable question each time a curator took us to one of Weltkulturen’s storage areas. 67,000 ethnographic objects. 120,000 images and films. What would you like to see? I had no clear objective, other than to find my way to some sort of understanding of the Museum der Weltkulturen and its collections. I already had seeds for stories in mind, and knew that the taonga in the museum would provide the beating hearts to those stories. The conversations and communications I’d had with the museum staff in the previous six months had already provided some inspiration. But what did I want to see? By the time I arrived, Bryce and Hamish had already been through the collections, and the staff suggested I begin in Oceania, moving on to the other regions (Africa, South East Asia, the Americas) at a later time. I got the impression that their experience of Kiwis thus far was that we gravitated to objects from our region.
Tauihu at the Face to Face exhibition. Image: NZ@Frankfurt
Which was, of course, true. Conversations soon turned to the meanings of objects with or without narratives to accompany them. The custodians of the collections had many stories to share, which was brilliant, but without internal reference points for some of the objects, we were viewing something we couldn’t interpret or know intimately. As writers, we wanted the story. Perhaps that seems obvious, but visual artists and designers who had worked with the collection may have been inspired by simply viewing an object, and been able to interpret them purely aesthetically. For me, being the type of writer I am, it was not just the story of what the taonga represented, but the story of how they came to be where they are, and the stories of the relationships people had with them that mattered. One day I approached the tauihu (canoe prow) in the Face to Face exhibition and wrote about all these things, in relation to that particular taonga. I simply wrote what I saw, but realised that what I saw was probably radically different than what was seen by most other visitors to the museum, or even the staff who cared for the objects. From my studies in Māori art, I could interpret in a general way much of the meaning of the carving, but I also saw much of the history of Aotearoa played out in the journey the tauihu had taken from being part of an active waka taua in New Zealand to being stored in a museum in Europe. For me the startling realisation was that the tauihu had been witness to at least the last hundred years of Europe’s history as well (more about this in Part Three).
Face to Face with taonga, director, curator & NZers. Image: Lisa Gardiner
There were other things I saw, which became as central to the experience as the taonga themselves. I saw how the custodians of the collections really cared for them. In New Zealand they would be called curators, but the German equivalent translates more to custodian or guardian. It was not that I didn’t expect them to care about their collections, but that I hadn’t expected to witness a kind of connection and guardianship that was more akin to kaitiakitanga. I saw how one custodian drew strength and guidance from the objects in her care, how another found vitality and inspiration. I witnessed a third’s confusion and desire to understand the strange collecting habits of her twentieth century predecessors, something I myself struggled to come to terms with (a wholesale grabbing of stuff from ‘dying’ cultures – as much as they could transport home. The analogy of the naturalist destroying species in order to collect and study them was made more than once). They saw much more clearly than I had imagined.
NZ Text und Kultur Marathon Poster. Image: Hinemoana Baker
And so the experience became just as much about relationships with the people. Typical of me to focus on this, but it seemed to be a distinctive aspect of the residency. ‘What will you take away with you?’ asked the custodian of the Oceania collection, Eva Raabe, at the Text and Culture Marathon a few hours before I was due to leave. ‘Well, there is all the writing,’ I said, ‘But it’s also the relationships that will continue. It’s the beginning of something.’ We’d just been speaking about how the taonga were alive to us. And I’d been writing about how I suspected Weltkulturen’s staff were already responding, on some level, to the living energy of the taonga in their care. So there were at least three groups connected by the residency: Weltkulturen staff, taonga and NZ residents, probably more if we include both the German and NZ visitors.
I’ve been home a week, and happy to be here. But a strange nostalgia has taken hold now. I’m still unpacking and sorting. Occasionally I see German writing – a receipt, a book or ticket. Then I’ll feel a bit of a squeeze somewhere between my heart and my stomach. The last email I received from the brilliant and striking director of the Museum, Clementine Deliss, said ‘know that you have a museum-home from home in Frankfurt.’ I have more work to do, writing to finish, research to follow-up on. Already Frankfurt has a dreamlike quality. It was immense. I have a huge amount of gratitude to many people. I can’t imagine how I got to have this completely unexpected adventure. And I’m immeasurably chuffed that I have a place to go back to, one day – an enduring link with a place and people who showed me something of themselves by showing me some of their objects / my taonga / our treasures.
View from the top: the balcony of Villa 37, looking towards the Cathedral
My Frankfurt may have been a bit different from the Frankfurt most other New Zealanders experienced in October 2012. I’m not the only one. There were seven of us that turned up at various times during September and October, to take up residence at Weltkulturen Museum’s two apartments in Villa 37. Most of us didn’t know who else was going to be there, or that there would be such a full house. It turned into a little creative Kiwi enclave for a while, with people working on different projects in different parts of the Villa. But sometimes there weren’t so many of us about – poor Bryce Galloway was by himself for three weeks before Hamish Clayton, the second resident, arrived. Bryce's experiences are brilliantly depicted in one of the three zines he developed during his residency, and he now has several new fans of the series ‘Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People’, including myself.
The Weltkulturen Crew at the Face to Face exhibition. Photo: Lisa Gardiner
As the third Kiwi resident, I arrived on a quiet weekend while Bryce was away visiting the other half of his band Wendyhouse. It was nice to be greeted by a familiar face in Hamish, but also enjoy the solitude of the beautiful apartment and city on foot. I walked and wrote and explored, and it came as a bit of a shock when other people turned up to work on Monday. Despite several lessons, my usable German consisted of various greetings, thank you and please and Ich verstehe kein Deutsche – I don’t speak German / Ich verstehe nicht – I don’t understand. One day I went to a café determined to order in German, bowled up to the counter, and muttered something about wanting cappuccino and cake. As soon as I was answered in German, I had to admit I didn’t understand a word. I’d also bypassed some sort of etiquette about sitting down and waiting to be served. In the end it was always easier to let the citizens of Frankfurt speak their excellent English when they quickly sized up my inability to express myself in their language. It was a language that I continued to admire though, sounding to my uneducated ears quite beautiful and funny. Perhaps those sounds will always remind me of the sophisticated gentlefolk of Frankfurt strolling in their taylored clothes, shopping at their delicious organic markets, eating their massive plates of meat at local pubs, with Grüne Soße und Apfelwein of course.
One of Francis Pesamino's portraits for the Face to Face exhibition
Ah, Green Sauce, which Wikipedia puts in the same category as Italian Salsa Verde and Argentinian Chimichurri. The local signature dish, we were soon regularly indulging in the stuff. For the vegetarians among us, Grüne Soße with eggs and potatoes was a saving grace in a land that has such generous definitions and proportions of meat (slaughtered pork plate anyone?) By Thursday following my arrival, we all had new flatmates. Heather Galbraith had arrived to co-curate Bryce’s exhibition of NZ zines, Francis Pesamino had turned up for the opening of the exhibition ‘Face to Face/Fa’afesaga’i/Kanohi ki te Kanohi’ which included his wonderful drawings and items from the museum’s collection, and Bryce’s wife Jakki from the Film Archive had arrived. We often ended up at a local establishment for dinner, quite late by NZ standards. The meals were hearty and cheap. Gourmet, organic, refined and international foods for every palate were easy and inexpensive to procure, but it was just as likely to see people indulge in the down to earth local fare. We were offered very good German bubbly (who knew?) and hospitality that made me think we were not so far from home.
Villa 37 balcony view, sunset.
The youngest of us, Francis, was mothered by everyone. ‘I bet you didn’t expect to have German aunties, eh?’ I asked him at one point. I know I didn’t expect the level of care and nurturing we experienced, receiving the auntie treatment more than once myself. We worked or explored during the day, and came together in the evenings, talked about local customs and personalities, food and culture, ghosts and dreams. The river and city were ever present through our windows, lighting up the night, constant foot and bike traffic accompanying the regular beeping of car horns and wailing sirens. I didn’t learn to sleep well, but it was warm and beautiful and there was plenty of good company.
Es war einmal in Aotearoa, apparently!
I'm heading to the Weltkulturen Museum Residency in a couple of days, so I've been thinking a lot about Frankfurt. I'm beginning to realise how extraordinary the German language is, and find myself wishing I knew more of it (what little I do know is thanks to Emma at the Goethe Institut in Wellington, bitte!) This seems a good time to link to this post from the Frankfurt Bookfair 2012 - An Aotearoa Affair Blog, which includes an interview with translator, Anita Goetthans, and a German translation of my story, 'kaitiaki':
In March of this year I got to have this amazing conversation with these two blokes at the NZ International Festival of the Arts. The conversation between them was so dynamic I often got to just sit back and listen - and their words have stayed with me ever since. Here are a couple of my favourite moments from the conversation. (This has been recorded for Radio NZ so I won't quote too extensively. Hopefully the session will air at some stage).
Juan Gabriel Vasquez: Since I began writing I’ve always been obsessed with this place where individual destinies and private stories cross what we call a public world, or history with a capital H, or big events, and this is what my fiction deals with. History and Politics are very difficult things to write fiction about. There’s this sentence I love by Milan Kundera who says that the novel’s sole reason for being is telling things that only the novel can tell.
So this is the first problem for a writer dealing with historical known facts – that his obligation is not to be redundant. To tell a story about, let’s say, the French Revolution, and tell readers what they already know through Simon Schama’s book about the French Revolution, through documentaries, through myth… it’s just stupid. It’s a waste of time. I mean in order for a novel to be worth my while as a reader, it has to tell me things I can only thereafter find in that novel. This is what Tolstoy does. We can read a thousand books about the Napoleonic Wars, but they will never tell us about what we can learn about in War and Peace. That obligation not to be redundant, to give you something else, to make yourself indispensable. It’s a quite arrogant thing to say.
This is the first thing, and then the other thing is politics. Mario Vargas Llosa said politics and sex are the two most difficult subjects for a writer. Perhaps the reason is that if you’re writing about politics you run the risk of your language becoming political. When your diction becomes political diction, the novel is lost, because political diction and political language and novelistic language are as opposed as you can get. Political language almost always is incapable of illumination, it’s incapable of saying something new. When politicians speak, they want to tell you something you already know, or they want to simplify things. Whereas a novelist wants to make things complicated, wants to tell you things are not as easy as you think. So there’s a tension.
You can have good political novels. Some of my favourite novels could be thought of as political novels, but it is because they assume another diction, another language. They don’t carry messages obviously. They don’t break the essential contract between the reader and the writer, which is – I shall not try to convince you of anything. The writer should say: this novel is not a way of talking you into anything. Whereas obviously with politics, that’s the only thing that matters.
Kim Scott: Perhaps one of the strengths of literature and fiction is – Vladimir Nabokov talks about the importance of enchantment in literature, in the reading and writing relationship, and I think that’s the precious part. One is inevitably political if you’re dealing in the sort of stuff we deal with I think. And people are very keen to put you in one camp or another and to tell you off if you haven’t met their political ends, or if you haven’t been accurate in your social history.
My concern is the possibilities of intimacy and enchantment and emotional engagement, without being soft and sloppy and self-indulgent… So again that enchantment thing - in many ways that’s what I want to get. That’s what I think is special, that’s what I value when I’m reading, and the complexity of that special relationship, as you were saying. It can’t be reduced to a political or power game. Also through doing that you can provoke people to decide their own position politically, or to go and find out more about the history of a certain situation.
Often I find in my writing, you find the juice in a political situation. So in Benang – when I came across an historical tract that talked about the need to uplift and elevate a despised people, and to breed out all signs of Aboriginality, and to create the first white man born in the family line - when I used the phrase I may well be the first successfully white man born in the family line – the political energy that came from using that phrase... I thought, oh I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to use that. But just to use that energy touched all sorts of historical and political buttons. To unpack and sort that kind of energy, and that motivation, not knowing where you’ll end up, or who you might or might not appease, that’s what interests me.
If you haven't read Scott or Vasquez, go now and find some! (not that I'm trying to convince you of anything...)
There are few things better than when life throws something at you that you couldn’t have predicted, just lobs you a fastball without even bothering to yell catch! and watches your face contort as you try to figure out if you can catch this one, or if it’s going to flash right by you, or even smack you in the eye.
Perhaps I should rewind to last year, when there was this list made of 100 NZ books that would be part of a 2011 catalogue in advance of NZ’s 2012 role as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I don’t know anything about how such things were done, but Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa was given a spot in the catalogue and some publicity followed on from that. It was a boost for which I was grateful, though I did wonder what it all meant. Time went on. There may have been a German publisher nibble. Occasionally people would say, I hear you’re going to Frankfurt, and I’d say, Oh no, not me, just the book! And then I found out that no, not even the book would be promoted at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, since no German Publisher had picked it up.
Then, earlier this year, I received a message about a residency in Frankfurt leading up to the book fair, for which I had somehow mysteriously made my way onto a shortlist. Cue fastball. I thought of all the reasons I couldn’t go first: family, fear, family, fear. Okay, so there were only two reasons, but they were compelling. Except, as I heard more about the residency, other thoughts gained precedence: what I could write; what museums mean; what ethnography is and does; what it would mean to be a Māori in a Museum in Frankfurt. Half-formed story and essay ideas kept insinuating themselves into my thoughts like showgirls looking for an audition: I’d be perfect for this! You could take me with you! I’d travel well!
And so there was a meeting, and a little while later there was an invitation. I was going to Frankfurt. I am going. Haven’t been yet. Here’s a little bit about what I’ll be up to:
Weltkulturen is an ethnographic museum with an intriguing approach to a constant issue for all museums: how to approach, interpret and make relevant their collections. In Germany the approach has traditionally been more, er, traditional that it has been in New Zealand for decades now. I can’t comment on attitudes or methods in German Museums, but it’s probably safe to assert that they would not have the kinds of cultural roles and tikanga/protocols in place that have become commonplace in New Zealand museums. As a friend said recently, museums in Europe usually don’t have local indigenous populations to work with, and therefore haven’t developed the kinds of relationships that museums in places like NZ, Australia or Canada are working towards.
Weltkulturen has tens of thousands of objects that were collected from indigenous populations around the world mainly in the last century. Extraordinary objects, cared for by dedicated staff. But some of these objects lack significant information or understanding of their function or meaning or origins. And rather than tackle this problem only in a conventional and direct manner, which may have limited success, the Museum has developed an innovative and elegant idea: invite contemporary artists (in the wider sense) to respond to the collection.
So that is what we will be doing for a few weeks later this year. There will be two of us, Hamish Clayton and I, and we will literally be living in apartments in the museum. There is much to say and think and write on the matter. There are many questions raised simply by the idea of living in a Museum, engaging with a collection in this way. I have at least two gut responses to Museum environments, forged by the two main cultures from which I descend. And I have been impressed and inspired by the work of previous artists at Weltkulturen – astute, illuminating work that incites conversations about museums and ethnography and the people and cultures at the centre of them. I hope to contribute to that conversation.
With many thanks to the NZ @ Frankfurt team and Clementine Deliss, Director of the Museum der Weltkulturen.
For more information:
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.
Craig Cliff's award winning short story collection
I always intended to post a link on my website to the interview I did with Craig Cliff for his blog when my book first came out. Looking back, it still strikes me as an interesting conversation to have had, and I love the way the title Craig gave it has different resonances now.
CC: ‘Skin and Bones’ is a fantastic story — I can't imagine the collection starting any other way. Was it always your first choice to open the collection? And what led you to write this story in the first place?
TM: Thanks so much! The only reason it's first is because I couldn't imagine it being anywhere else either. Somehow I ended up with creation at the beginning and death at the end (well, death as well as birth), but that symmetry wasn't apparent until quite late in the development of things. To tell the truth, I think I would have hidden ‘Skin and Bones’ in the middle somewhere because of the 'adult' themes, but it didn't make sense anywhere else.
An MA classmate, Charis Boos, was looking at mythology in her poetry, and for a workshop she asked us to think about mythological traditions we were familiar with. This triggered a bit of a chain reaction for me - an old obsession with mythologies combined with some sort of idea that it would be an interesting exercise to make mythological characters more human. There's not always an explanation given for the actions of godly beings. In the versions I read, it would always say: Tane went in search of the female element or something similar (they were Maori stories in translation). There was never anything about Hine ahu one, the woman he eventually created - it was like she was a blank slate. So I thought about what kind of woman she would have been, and of course, his motivations in creating her. The funny thing was in some of the stories, Tane didn't know how to procreate with Hine once she was made, so his fumbling and experimenting is part of the story. That's a pretty human characteristic - I guess I used it as my starting point.
CC: ‘Blink’ is an interesting story. I enjoyed the way it veers into almost pulp sci-fi territory, but manages to walk that fine line and keep its credibility. It is, in the end I think, a great character study which uses some sci-fi tropes, rather than a sci-fi story which uses characters.
TM: Yes, I think it started with thoughts around relationships and paranoia. Rosie is a pretty neurotic character, and I started playing with her sense of reality. I was also having a go at deliberate humour, which I found a massive challenge, but the feedback I got was to amp up the strange and humorous aspects. So I decided to take it as far as I could. It is probably the most re-written story in the collection, whereas ‘Skin and Bones’ has changed very little from the first draft.
CC: I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see science (both pure science and sci-fi) pop up since you won the Non-Fiction category in last year's Manhire Science Writing Prize for ‘Twitch’, which looks at the similarities between Maori and scientific views of creation. Which came first: ‘Blink’ or ‘Twitch’? Were you conscious of any link between sci-fi and Maori mythology when you were working on ‘Blink’?
TM: Like most of the stories in the collection, 'Blink' was a bit of an exploration of where I could go with a story, and in the beginning it wasn't very conscious! I tried not to categorise what I was doing, so I didn't think 'this is sci-fi'. A few of the stories were structured around particular myths, but for the most part I was just figuring out what I could do with fiction. I was pretty unsure with ‘Blink’, because I didn't think sci-fi or humour were things I would be able to pull off.
'Twitch' came much later, in response to the RSNZ call for entries for the Manhire prize, but the thoughts behind it began at the same time as I first encountered all the mythology as a teenager. I remember the first time I read the Maori version of the creation of the Universe (in English translation), I thought it could be a description of the Big Bang as I understood it. I decided to check out if there was any scientific basis to my thoughts, and it turned out there was more than I had hoped for. Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything was a great source for the scientific side of things. I found it to be almost spiritual, because although it is completely about science, it continuously bumps into the mystery of things - the idea that it is completely miraculous we even exist. Read more...
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...