Story: Māori fiction – ngā tuhinga paki

Page 1. Roots of Māori fiction

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New Zealand fiction first achieved international success in England around the time of the First World War with Katherine Mansfield, an expatriate writer. Māori fiction of any description did not appear until the 1950s, a generation later.

Foundations

Māori literature was traditionally transmitted orally. Written literature began in the 19th century with missionary ethnographies and collections of Māori myth. Māori contributed to the ethnographies written by Pākehā such as George Grey and Elsdon Best. Their principal literary efforts were in the Māori newspapers, their own histories written in Māori and the literature associated with Māori millennial religions such as Pai Mārire, Ringatū, Iharaira and Rātana.

These writings laid a foundation for later Māori readers and writers, of both non-fiction and fiction.

Late arrival of fiction

Fiction writing arrives late in most colonial societies, and depends largely on educated readers to appreciate and produce it.

Language loss

Mihi Edwards remembered being in trouble for speaking te reo Māori as a schoolgirl in the 1920s. ‘I am called to the front of the class, reminded not to speak a word of Maori at school again. She then gives me the strap around my legs. I am really crying by this time. Someone has told tales on me, for the teachers were not anywhere near. Hone warned me this would happen but I forgot. I vowed then I would not speak Maori again at school’.1

In the early 20th century Māori were still recovering from land and language loss, depopulation and the problem of education in a bilingual world. They were penalised for speaking Māori in schools, and mostly lived in rural areas until the 1940s. Māori had little opportunity or incentive to break through into the Pākehā world of higher education.

With few exceptions, a literate Māori middle class did not begin to emerge until after the Second World War. In the 1940s Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) and Āpirana Ngata collected and wrote non-fiction (anthropology, songs and chants). By and large, fiction was not an abiding concern for Māori writers, and nor were there publishing outlets for Māori fiction, but this would soon change.

Ngata the poet

In 1892 a young Āpirana Ngata wrote a poem in English called ‘A scene from the past’, which won first prize in the Canterbury College Dialectic Society’s poetry competition. The work laments the negative effects of Pākehā modernity on Māori society while celebrating traditional Māori culture and its strengths.

Urbanisation

Urban migration and education were the paths that led to Māori fiction written in English.

After the Second World War, Māori moved from rural areas into cities in large numbers. Māori, most of whom lived in urban areas by the end of the 1950s, gradually began to gain consistent access to secondary and tertiary education. Their children were acculturated into expressing themselves in spoken and written English rather than te reo Māori. A growing number became readers of English literature – and eventually some became writers.

By the mid-1970s, when genuine Māori fiction had unmistakably made its mark, almost 80% of Māori lived in urban areas – a complete reversal of the pre-war situation.

Footnotes:
  1. Mihi Edwards, from Mihipeka: early years. In Te ao mārama, edited by Witi Ihimaera. Auckland: Reed, 1992, pp. 67–68. Back
How to cite this page:

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, 'Māori fiction – ngā tuhinga paki - Roots of Māori fiction', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/maori-fiction-nga-tuhinga-paki/page-1 (accessed 18 October 2019)

Story by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, published 22 Oct 2014