Maraea Rakuraku: “I write for us. I write to see us on stage.” (Supplied)

Maraea Rakuraku — a poet, short-story writer and award-winning playwright, proudly Tūhoe and Kahungunu — has many stories to tell, and in this kōrero with Dale, she shares just a few of the ones from her life that have shaped her and fuelled her writing.


Kia ora, sis. What an amazing life you’ve had. 

Have I?

You bet. When I look at your broadcasting and your writing and decolonisation mahi, I can see that it’s been especially varied and interesting. So, thank you for sharing some kōrero. Let’s start with you growing up in Hawke’s Bay.

I grew up in Napier with my three younger brothers — Whare, Ivan and Steven — and my parents.

That’s until I was 13 when I went to boarding school. A very private, very white, very privileged boarding school in Wellington. At the time, it was known as Samuel Marsden Collegiate School. Now it’s just called Marsden. I got a partial scholarship which was the only reason that I could go there.

Ka pai. Well, that was a neat opportunity. You must’ve shown some promise in Napier. But let’s back it up so you can tell us a bit about your folks and your whakapapa.  

Ki te taha o tōku māmā ko Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa te iwi. Ki te taha o tōku pāpā ko Tūhoe, Ngāti Pāhauwera te iwi.

My father is Taua Rakuraku, and my mum is Ameria (Meria). She’s from a big whānau — 11 kids. Mum is up towards the older end of her whānau, and my father is the oldest in his whānau of nine, and that includes whāngai.

These were children born during the Second World War. Dad was born at the beginning, and Mum was born towards the end of it. Both their fathers were in the 28th Māori Battalion (companies B and C), and, in some ways, my koroua reflect the impact that war had upon Māori men — and upon the many generations that followed.

Koro Whareauahi (Smokey) Rakuraku must’ve been about 17 when he met my kuia Pare (Polly) Puna, who was 10 years older than him. They met when she went to Te Waimana for a kaupapa and, within two years of meeting, they were married — and then my father was born.

Then my koro went to war. And when he came back, he had what they called “night terrors”. My kuia told me that he suffered greatly. He lived for more than 20 years after the war ended in 1945, and he died when I was a year old of cirrhosis of the liver. Like most vets, he took his pain to the bottle.

Polly was raised in Petane, and eventually her and Koro Whare built a whare across the road from the beach. Behind it was the railway line that ran from Gisborne to Wellington. This is in Bayview, so we called her Bayview Nanny.

Koro and his PTSD contributed to the marriage ending. When I grew up, I learned about the emotional damage that my uncle and aunties suffered from their mother’s violence which may well have been a result of my koro lashing out at his wife. But Bayview Nanny always said that it wasn’t in his character. That he was a gentleman. He was just never the same after the war.

My father had quite a fragmented upbringing. Being the oldest, he suffered the brunt of his mother’s cruelty. He was placed into foster care for a while, then eventually he went to live in Te Waimana with his father’s sister, Nini. Dad often said that saved his life. One of his sisters, Kui, told me she wished she’d been saved as well.

By the time I came along, Bayview Nanny was deep into the church. She’d be all, “Praise Jehovah!” So, she was trundling me off to blimmin’ Jehovah Witness meetings every Sunday. I’d fall asleep or I’d sit there thinking: “Who’s Jehovah?”

Dad was very private. He spoke only if you asked him questions. Or if he felt that you really needed to know something, because he was just such a private man. I mean very, very, very Tūhoe. Quiet, super-observant, and very intelligent. Both him and Mum encouraged us, as kids, to be curious and to keep learning things. He encouraged our competitiveness too.

We were poor, but then, most of the families around us were, even though everyone worked. Freezing works, railways, port, seasonal work. This was in Maraenui, and then in Onekawa, both suburbs in Napier.

When I was growing up, Dale, I thought Maraenui was named after me. Such was my security within my whānau. And I was indulged enough to believe it for an embarrassingly long time when I should’ve known better.

Bayview Nanny and my maternal grandparents, Boy and Hereaka Taunoa, were active in our lives. We’d spend holidays working on their farms in Wairoa. Hereaka had a farm at Marumaru and Boy’s whānau farmed at Ramoto.

I’m quite introverted, and coming from a household of rowdy brothers, you didn’t get much peace. Every now and then, my parents would recognise that — and then I’d head out to Bayview Nanny’s, so I could have some nice, quiet alone time.

We often think of our men who went away to war — and we recognise the trauma that they endured and then carried through their lives. But not many people talk of the intergenerational influence.

That’s right, Dale. It’s been huge. When I went to live back at home in my 20s, within Te Urewera, there were still some veterans around who recognised my surname. They’d ask me about Koro Whare. And I found that, because of their relationship with him, they were immediately accepting of me. It’s like the aroha that they had for my koroua was immediately transferred to me.

I met some wonderful kaumātua. And some of the kōrero that I heard, not necessarily from them but from their tamariki, either glorified the violence that was brought home and inflicted on their children and their wives — or showed the ways that these kaumātua still carried the trauma of what they’d experienced.

The men who returned from that war brought back home all of what they’d seen, experienced and done. I also think about how, a generation before, you’re fighting against king and country, and then suddenly you’re fighting for them. That does something to a person. It does something to the community.

Tēnā koe. You mentioned boarding school in Wellington. Sounds like that would’ve been a pretty big adjustment for you.

Yeah, boarding school was a bit shocking for me. All the noise. My only refuge was in the library. And I was sort of a tomboy, so I remember being shocked that the other girls cried so much. They cried about anything and everything. I mean, I cried too, because I was in such a culturally hostile environment. And I was homesick. It was a homesickness that never eased.

Even now, I feel a wrench when I’m away from my people. But I can see now how Bayview Nanny, who was quite proper, probably thought it was good for me to be around a bunch of other girls for my teenage years.

My whānau — my parents and my grandparents and my uncles and aunties — supported me in so many ways to go to boarding school. The scholarship only covered the school fees, so they covered the costs for everything else. The village quite literally came together to support me. They really wanted me to do well while I was there.

The thing is, I didn’t.

I didn’t do well because, for the first time in my life, I became aware of the obvious structural and hierarchical bias within private boarding schools. I’d grown up loving school and loving learning, which came from Dad and Mum encouraging all of us kids. But, when I went to Marsden, I felt I was the dumbest one there — and I was treated that way by the teachers, the boarding staff, and some of the girls.

Eventually, I realised that a lot of those girls were good at French because they went to France for holidays, or they had extra tuition. That’s about resource. And I began to understand the bias, and to see how it was structural, and that no matter how hard I worked, I’d never be able to be successful in that kind of environment.

And it was true. It was true.

Well, you succeeded in spite of your experience at Marsden. What did you do after high school?

I went to Canterbury University, initially to do a law degree, but I soon realised that law wasn’t for me. I eventually finished a BA in art history and history. By that time, I was living in Te Waimana and Rūātoki.

That period shaped me the most. Even though I’d studied history, it wasn’t until I lived on the whenua experiencing matemateāone, surrounded by my relations and doing things that my people had done for generations, that I truly felt connected to my Tūhoetanga.

Dad had always taken us home but living there as an adult, and being taught by Tāmati Kruger, I started to actively decolonise and develop and sharpen my critical thinking. I then poured that learning into creating decolonisation courses that I taught while I was living in Auckland.

Maraea’s dad Taua Rakuraku (in the blue hat) who died in 2022 was “very, very Tūhoe”. With his first cousin, Taane Apihai Rakuraku, sitting outside their wharekai, Ahuaiti, at Rahiri Pā, Waimana. (Photo supplied)

You’ve mentioned a couple of things I wouldn’t mind you fleshing out. One is that you’re very Tūhoe. I know lots of Tūhoe and, don’t get me wrong, but they can have, at times, a sort of gruffness in the way they communicate, particularly with each other. But, when you say your pāpā was very Tūhoe, what are you getting at?

Oh, Dad was very introspective. So, when he said something, it had weight. He never wasted words. No. If you asked him a question, he’d answer you, depending on your age, and he always told the truth.

My father died in 2022, and the grief has been a little overwhelming at times, but the way I was raised was: This is life. This is how it is.

Dad used to say: “Toughen up.” I used to hate him saying that, even more so when he was dying, but he knew I’d take it to heart. What I loved so much about him is that he was always the parent. Even when he was dying, he was still parenting.

And Tūhoe gruffness? Hmm. I know there’s a companionship in silence that I only ever experience with Tūhoe. We can say maybe five words out loud in five hours and still be in conversation the whole time. Tūhoe may not say it, but we’re thinking it!

Now, Mum. She can be quiet, too. But in a way, she’s more extroverted than me and my father. She, like many of those of that generation values physical mahi. Get up, go to your job, do the mahi and come home.

She doesn’t really understand what I do. Dad was the same. I overheard them talking to my uncle one time. He’d asked them: “What’s Mara up to?” And they both said, at the same time: “Nothing. She just sits at that computer, and every now and then she talks to it.”

They’re working class and worked hard all their lives.

When I was younger, I felt whakamā because we had so little, materially. Never of my whānau, though. It’s such a fallacy that if you work hard, you can get ahead. Not in this country. Not when every economic, social, and political tool is used to colonise you for generations.

You’ve mentioned your curiosity. That’s a wonderful trait. It’s respectful to the people you’re talking with, and it increases your own knowledge. There’s a saying that the future belongs to the curious. So, it’s no surprise that you’ve had success with your broadcasting and writing mahi, especially as a playwright.

Thank you. I’ve always questioned things. Probably made my parents a bit hōhā. Definitely made my brothers hōhā.

But I’ve always wanted to know why. This may sound pretentious, but I have an insatiable thirst for knowing things. And I’ve found that writing helps me to focus.

You’ve referred to sensing injustice and imbalance in your teens, and then, as you got older, helping others to recognise the realities and the inequities, too.

I guess anger is very motivating, Dale. But it’s always better to understand the nature of your oppression, than to be blindly angry at it. Kia ora, Ani Mikaere!

So, when I was confronting the structural racism within Marsden, I realised that I’d have to grow up before I could really address it — but that didn’t stop me from also addressing it as it was happening to me. It’s quite something when you’re a kid and not only are you having to defend yourself, you’re also having to educate the very adults who are oppressing you.

So, I’d be sitting in history classes — which I loved, by the way — learning about things happening in South Africa, and then I’d be thinking: “Huh? The same things are happening here.”

One time, I’m sitting in history, and the teacher is droning on about “Tee Cootee” this, “Tee Cootee” that. Cannibal! Heathen! Murderer!

Then, I go back to Te Waimana for the holidays. Ringatū seemed very visible in my hapū then (although not so much now) and karakia seemed to go on for days and nights. So, the wharenui is full, and we’re in there, and if you know anything about Ringatū karakia, it’s frowned upon if you sleep. Even if you’re a kid. If you’re a baby, it’s okay. But if you’re a teenager, you’re kind of encouraged to stay awake. And you’re standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down.

So, I’m in karakia, and I’m zoning out and falling asleep. And then I hear this story, and it’s so intriguing that I stay awake. I’m the only kid who stays awake all night, and then I have a cup of tea with all the old folk afterwards.

Anyway, then I go back to school after the holidays, and we’re carrying on the session about “Tee Cootee”.

So, I’m sitting there, and then I recognise this story that’s kinda like the one my old people were talking about, only with obvious differences. And I snap into reality: “Huh? Is she talking about Te Kooti?” So, I’m 15, and I’m upright in my chair, and I’m thinking: “Where I come from, he’s a hero.”

That’s when I began to understand.

“The only thing really Māori at that school was me.” Maraea, last row, second from right, at Marsden. (Photo supplied), last row, second from right, at Marsden. (Photo supplied)

When I was in the seventh form, I remember seeing all these posters going up on the school walls advertising a screening of the film PATU! by Merata Mita. It surprised me because the only thing really Māori in that school was me.

Of course, I wanted to go and see it. Well, there was a whole rigmarole, and I was told why we couldn’t go. Then, once those reasons fell away, I challenged the headmistress about it.

And, basically, she said: “If you choose to go to that movie, you’re going to get expelled.” I remember being shocked at the injustice and realising that they’ll say or do anything to prevent you from learning more about yourself — or learning more about them.

And learning those things as a young kid is what drove me to seek out ways of articulating and responding to the injustice.

I was at Canterbury University a few years later when Moana Jackson was reporting back on Māori and the criminal justice system in his groundbreaking report He Whaipaanga Hou. I recall sitting there in the lecture theatre and listening to Moana being so articulate and calm in a room of hostility and hatred. And I was thinking: “I can hardly wait for the day when I’m like that.”

I realised that anger is motivating, but it can also get you stuck when you’re trying to articulate something clearly.

That’s what writing enables me to do, whether it’s for theatre or in my academic work.

How do you describe yourself when people ask what you do? I know you’re a writer — and that you’ve been a broadcaster (working for Radio Waatea and Radio New Zealand), a playwright, and a poet. But how do you describe the mahi that you do?

I generally say I’m a storyteller. And, if I’m teaching, whether that’s with school-aged students or adults, I’m here to help you tell your story. But, first, they must have something to say.      

There’s a rich vein of stories coming through from your kōrero about your childhood and your whānau. I imagine you’ve drawn on that in your playwrighting. Was that the case with your first play The Prospect? How did you come to write that?

I came to write The Prospect after a wero, a challenge, from Hone Kouka, who ran a group called Writers Block, for both emerging and established poets, writers, actors, and playwrights like Hone. We’d meet fortnightly, do writing exercises, front up to events, support each other’s gigs.

I had zero idea how to write a play. Eventually, I did some workshops and learned on the job, but it felt excruciating trying to write what was in my head and putting that into a format that I just didn’t understand.

Maraea’s debut play The Prospect won three theatre awards including Outstanding New Playwright. It was based on her brother Steven.

Well, I know The Prospect won three awards at the 2012 theatre awards, including Outstanding New Playwright, so you obviously did a beautiful job, Maraea. And seeing you went on to win the award for Best Play not once but twice (in 2016 and 2022) it seems like you’ve probably got the hang of this scriptwrighting thing. But just to go back to The Prospect for a minute, why did you write that particular story?

I was trying to understand how gangs have such a grip on Māori, and within Tūhoe. Doesn’t that fly in the face of mana motuhake and Tūhoetanga?

The story follows a whānau after one of the young fullas is prospected into a gang, and the heartbreak that causes. Most of my whānau will recognise the story is about my brother Steven. It also features an amalgam of my other brothers, Whare and Ivan, and their many childhood friends.

When I lived in Waimana during the 1990s, one of my cousins, Claude Takao, was killed at the Waimana rugby field during a game, by a rival gang associate from Rūātoki. His children and most of Waimana witnessed it. We’re a small iwi, and it turned out the person who shot him is a relation.

What is traumatically heartbreaking about that event is that last year, some 30 years later, Claude’s son, my nephew Mana, was killed — and again it involves gang-associated relations.

Those are the take, the subjects, that I write about in my plays. The effects of intergenerational trauma of colonialism. The expansiveness of aroha. The ingrained misogyny. And the beautiful ways we try to manage all of that in our lives.

Kia ora. I wonder how you see our creative sector. How important is that in our future as a people?

When students come to me for advice about writing, I ask them what they think is the right medium for the story they’re trying to tell. A poem? An animation? A whaikōrero? Those are the things that we need to ask ourselves so that we’re not being overly self-indulgent.

It just depends on why. Why are you telling it like that? Why are you telling it here? And why are you telling it in that format? We, as Māori, can be super-conservative, so I push against being silent.

What I find with Māori in the arts is that we can be so judgmental and conservative about what a Māori is. But who are you to say what a Māori is? I’ve seen creatives shut down other creatives by basically telling them they’re not Māori enough.

I came into theatre as an adult. I wasn’t an impressionable 19-year-old or 23-year-old who’d just finished my first degree. I was already fully formed as a person by the time I entered the industry, and I was appalled by some of the behaviour that I encountered, and still encounter.

Māori creatives were running down other Māori creatives who perhaps weren’t as strong in their taha Māori. I’d pull them up on it: “That’s just bullying, mate. You can say whatever you like. Perhaps you don’t like their style of writing. But I recognise bullying when I see it.”

Do you write for our people? Or for everyone? 

I write for us. I write to see us on stage. When I did my PhD, I was thinking: “Okay, Maraea. You really don’t thrive in institutions. So why are you now wanting to do a qualification that means you potentially have a relationship with an institution forever?” What I came to was: “Look, when I graduate, I’ll be the first PhD Māori screenwriter at that school.” That’s the International Institute of Modern Letters, where I did my master’s.

But how the hell, in 2023, am I still the first? Part of me doing the PhD was just for me. There’s some mana attached to it. But it’s also because it’s like holding up a flag and saying: “Look. You can come to this place, too. You can do this, as well.”

Of course, I’d love to be the person standing there greeting you, although I won’t be. But it’s just to say: “This is a space for you, too.” So, when I write, I write about our people, and about experiences that say: “Here we are.”

That may seem very lofty, but that’s my motivation all the time. I want to see people on stage and screen who I recognise, who are our people, having complex, diverse, amazingly difficult, fantastic lives.

I’m writing all the time, and I challenge myself to get stronger and more articulate, and to encourage others to tell their story — encourage other Māori, other Tūhoe, other wāhine.

You should tell your story. Yes, you should. Many of our people don’t think that way. They’re inclined to say: “Nah. Who wants to know about me?” Well, I do. Your stories interest me.

Have you graduated with your PhD already, Maraea?

I graduate this year.

Congratulations on all that you’ve achieved in your career. You mentioned Moana Jackson, and there are probably others, but what about your role as a mentor to emerging talent. That’s almost a given, but do you take that responsibility seriously, Maraea?

Always. I love it. I find it very healing. Just recently, I’ve had some young playwrights approach me. They’ve been traumatised by things that have happened to them, and I’ve tried to be encouraging to them. You don’t want that behaviour to be repeated. You want to be the change.

So, I encourage them to tell their story in their words, in their time. And, ideally, I give them the skills to be able to do that. Or I have enough expertise that I’m able to pass some of that on. Or, if things are hard or if you’re not enjoying something, don’t do it.

You’re not going to write a masterpiece first off. You’ve just got to build the craft. If it’s becoming torturous, there’s a reason. So, look at it, maybe abandon it, do something else.

Maybe it’s not the right medium, so put it into something else. But, if there’s a story that you’re trying to tell, it’ll come. It will come. Just have faith that you’re able to extract it from yourself.

My job is to help you do that, if I’m able to. Or if you’ll let me, because it’s a trust thing.

Thank you for having this kōrero, Maraea. Keep up the good work.

Thank you, Dale. Ngā mihi. Kia ora.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2024

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