Story: Māori fiction – ngā tuhinga paki

Page 2. Development of Māori fiction

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Māori, only recently literate in the 19th century, were hot-housed in the development of fiction writing in the 20th. In little more than a century, they moved from the oral recounting of myth and hero legends to writing secular fiction. Access to books and the space to both read and write them were part of the struggle for equality and dignity in indigenous societies across the colonial world.

Te Ao Hou

The magazine Te Ao Hou (1952–76), published by the Department of Māori Affairs and edited initially by Erik Schwimmer, was the first significant outlet for the publication of fiction by Māori. From December 1955 Te Ao Hou regularly published short stories by Māori writers, including Arapera Blank, Rowley Habib and Patricia Grace. Te Ao Hou contributor Heretaunga Pat Baker was the first Māori author to publish a historical novel, with Behind the tattooed face in 1975.

J. C. Sturm

The mother of Māori fiction, the talented J. C. (Jacquie) Sturm (of Te Whakatōhea and Taranaki) was the first university-educated Māori writer to appear in Te Ao Hou. She belongs to the exploratory phase of Māori fiction, when Māori began to negotiate the perils of publishing in the Pākehā-dominated media. Her 1955 story ‘For all the saints’ was the first fictional story in English by a Māori writer in Te Ao Hou.

Sturm experimented against the odds, finding a voice in the delivery of short fiction. She had a good selection of stories ready for publication by the mid-1960s, but lack of a publisher and personal circumstances meant she had to wait until 1983 before her first collection, The house of the talking cat, was published by the feminist Spiral Collective.

Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata) was the first Māori writer to publish a book of short stories and also the first to publish a novel. His first book, the story collection Pounamu, pounamu (1972), recalled a rural world prior to the great urban migration and was received as a breakthrough work for Māori writers. As a university-educated diplomat, Ihimaera embodied the attributes Māori writers needed to survive.

His first novel, Tangi (1973), won first prize in the Wattie Book of the Year award the following year, building on the third-place award he received for Pounamu, pounamu, and cementing his place in the mainstream literary canon. In 1982 Ihimaera edited Into the world of light, an anthology of Māori writing.

Self-imposed ban

At the end of 1975 Witi Ihimaera decided to stop writing because he was concerned that his work was seen as the authoritative literary portrayal of Māori, when in his view it was out of date. His next book was not published until 1986.

From the mid-1980s Ihimaera was at the forefront of politically explicit fiction, with his historically revisionist novels The matriarch (1986) reimagining the East Coast prophet and warrior Te Kooti and The dream swimmer (1997) giving a similar magic realist twist to the story of the Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana. Māori prophets – feared and belittled in earlier Pākehā writing – were now the subject of serious fiction.

Ihimaera went on to write about gay sexuality and the Vietnam War, and extensively revised his early work. His novel The whale rider (1987) was adapted into an internationally successful film (2002).

Patricia Grace

Like Witi Ihimaera and other early writers of Māori fiction, Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, Te Āti Awa) cut her literary teeth in Te Ao Hou. Her first story in the magazine was ‘The dream’ (1966). In 1975 her book Waiariki, the first collection of short stories by a Māori woman writer, was published.

International acclaim

In 2008 Patricia Grace was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a biennial literary award second in prestige only to the Nobel Prize. The Neustadt award is based on a writer’s entire body of work.

She went on to confront mixed marriages in Mutuwhenua: the moon sleeps (1978), land loss and racial conflict in the prize-winning Potiki (1986) and Māori sacrifice during the Second World War in Tu (2004). Tu won the Deutz Medal and the fiction prize at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2005. Grace has written many children’s books, and has been widely honoured at home and abroad.

How to cite this page:

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, 'Māori fiction – ngā tuhinga paki - Development of Māori fiction', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/maori-fiction-nga-tuhinga-paki/page-2 (accessed 19 October 2019)

Story by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, published 22 Oct 2014