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Māori fiction – ngā tuhinga paki

by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

Māori fiction did not emerge until the 1950s, but since then Māori writers have made their mark in New Zealand and internationally. Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace published the first of their many books in the 1970s, and Keri Hulme won the Booker Prize in 1985.


Roots of Māori fiction

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
    • Mihi Edwards, from Mihipeka: early years. In Te ao mārama, edited by Witi Ihimaera. Auckland: Reed, 1992, pp. 67–68. Back

Development of Māori fiction

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.


Confronting reality

The Māori fiction that followed Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace assumed a darker tone as writers tackled the harsh realities of Māori life in the cities.

Ihimaera and Grace’s urban characters maintained links with their rural whānau and travelled back to their ancestral marae, but these connections were not available to the culturally alienated characters of their successors. The fiction of Apirana Taylor, Bruce Stewart and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, who rose in prominence in the 1980s, deals with themes of violence, poverty and hopelessness. Renée’s fiction and plays explore feminism, class and sexuality.

Keri Hulme

Keri Hulme (of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe) has written in a wide variety of genres, including poetry, short fiction and non-fiction. Her poetic gifts are manifest in the language of her only novel, the bone people (1983), which was published by the Spiral Collective after difficulties with mainstream publishers, who wanted to heavily edit the book. Hulme’s reclamation of Ngāi Tahu identity and female power are clearly evident in the creation of the novel’s protagonist, Kerewin Holmes, a bookish recluse who lives on the wild margins of the coastal south.

The book is a heady brew of violence, dysfunctional relationships and a search for belonging. Its triumph at the 1985 Booker Prize has remained a seminal moment for both Māori and New Zealand fiction.

Alan Duff

Alan Duff (Ngāti Rangitihi, Tūwharetoa) has also confronted the reality of violence and alcohol abuse in Māori communities. The grandson of founding Listener editor Oliver Duff, Alan Duff was a state ward and borstal inmate as a teenager, which equipped him with the raw material for his 1990 novel Once were warriors. Duff’s disturbing and visceral exposé of habitual violence and alcohol and drug dependency among urban Māori families sent shock waves through the community. The film Once were warriors (1994) was acclaimed in indigenous communities worldwide as a graphic account of colonisation’s destructive legacies.

Books in Homes

Alan Duff set up the Books in Homes scheme in 1992 to ensure that disadvantaged children had access to reading materials even if their families could not afford them. The programme was officially launched in 1995, and since then, 8 million books have been distributed.

Duff continued to follow the fortunes of the Warriors Heke family in What becomes of the broken hearted? (1996), which received the Montana Fiction Book of the Year Award in 1997, and Jake’s long shadow (2002).

Te ao mārama

Between 1992 and 1996, five volumes of Te ao mārama were published. Edited by Witi Ihimaera, and containing fiction and non-fiction in English and te reo Māori, Te ao marama remains the most wide-ranging collection of Māori writing.


A new breed of writers

The post-baby-boomer Māori writers of fiction in the 2000s expanded on the range of subjects and styles set by their predecessors. Some moved beyond the shores of New Zealand and set their work in other parts of the world.

Inspiration

James George began writing seriously in 1995 after ‘an epiphany, when my mother's death came as a reminder of my own mortality and served to get me thinking of things I'd wanted to do but had never had the time (or guts) to try.’ He attended a writing workshop with author Judith White, which he found ‘set my imagination afire’ and propelled him along a literary path.1

James George

James George’s first novel, Wooden horses, was published in 2000. It was quickly followed by the critically acclaimed Hummingbird, a finalist in the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and Ocean roads (2006). In 2013 George (of Ngāpuhi) was a committee member of Te Ha, which was established in 1991 under the umbrella of Toi Māori Aotearoa (a charitable arts trust) to promote and support writing by Māori.

Paula Morris

Paula Morris (Ngātiwai) had a successful academic background and worked in the music and marketing industries overseas. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington and in 2003 was appointed writer-in-residence at the prestigious University of Iowa Writing Program. Morris – in one literary generation – proved the point that access to education opens up opportunity for creative work by Māori writers and artists.

Her novels and short stories – Queen of beauty (2002), Forbidden cities (2008) and the award-winning Rangatira (2011) – have been fêted from the outset. Morris also edited the Penguin book of contemporary New Zealand short stories (2009). An internationalist and expatriate, she lived in England in 2013. Her work reflects the increasingly urbane and mobile experience of many Māori who settle overseas.

Kelly Ana Morey

Kelly Ana Morey (Ngāti Kurī, Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri) originally worked as an art historian. Her first novel Bloom appeared in 2003, after a retreat to Northland, where she had spent time as a child. Grace is gone followed in 2004. Quinine (2010) draws on Morey’s experiences as a child growing up in Papua New Guinea and her background in the art world. It transplants an account of colonial tensions and the artist’s life from a New Zealand setting to a related location.

Tina Makereti

Tina Makereti (Tūwharetoa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto) has published short stories in literary journals, magazines and anthologies. Her collection of stories, Once upon a time in Aotearoa (2010), in which mythological beings and happenings are woven into stories of everyday life, won the inaugural fiction prize at the Ngā Kupu Ora Book Awards in 2011.

Alice Tawhai

Alice Tawhai (Tainui, Ngāpuhi) was inspired to write fiction after reading Keri Hulme’s the bone people. Her three short-story collections, culminating in Dark jelly (2011), explore a variety of marginal worlds much like those of Hulme’s outsiders, where the underbelly of contemporary New Zealand is explored. A far cry from her literary forebears Katherine Mansfield and J. C. Sturm, she nevertheless employs the same modes and genre, realist fiction and the slice-of-life short story, to present a wide variety of characters in local 21st-century subcultures.

Huia Publishers

Huia Publishers was established in 1991 to promote Māori writers and writing in te reo Māori. In partnership with the Māori Literature Trust, an award for Māori writers (now called the Pikihuia Awards) was established in 1995. Huia has published anthologies of short stories from the best of the Pikihuia entrants.

Huia also publishes and promotes Pacific writers and supports the Te Papa Tupu mentoring programme, established by the Māori Literature Trust to foster new writing by emerging Māori writers.

Fiction in te reo Māori

Most fiction published by Māori writers is in English, but some of the Pikihuia Awards categories encourage fictional writing in te reo Māori. There is an award for the best short story written in Māori and a similar award for secondary-school students.

Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira’s Māori-language novel Ngā waituhi o Rēhua (2012), a science-fiction tale of four teenagers living on another planet, won the 2013 NZ Post Māori-language book award.

Fiction by Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace has been translated and published in te reo Māori.

Ngā Kupu Ora Books Awards

In 2009 Massey University established the Ngā Kupu Ora Book Awards to mark Māori Language Week. A fiction category was added in 2011.

Footnotes

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources


How to cite this page: Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, 'Māori fiction – ngā tuhinga paki', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/maori-fiction-nga-tuhinga-paki/print (accessed 17 November 2019)

Story by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, published 22 Oct 2014