Patricia Grace’s kōrero was one of the highlights at the recent Kupu Māori Writers Festival in Rotorua. She talked about the explosion and variousness of writing by Māori — and the questions that still plague Māori writers.
This festival is the best writers’ festival in the country. It is the most interesting, the friendliest and the most generous. It is the one writers’ festival, convention, book fair, where I can relax, where I want to glue myself to the whole programme because it’s exciting and it’s about us. It’s where I can enjoy myself and have interesting conversations.
One of the most exciting things over the past few years has been the explosion of writing by Māori, of work in te reo and English — of short and long fiction, poetry, non-fiction including biographies, essays, specialist texts, writing for theatre, screen writing, and books for children and young adults.
And there’s writing going on that I haven’t been able to catch up with, which is online, or in performance. There has been some very smart self-publishing happening as well. In every mainstream writing competition in recent years, I see writing by Māori shortlisted, and most often taking out the top prizes.
Themes, genre and storylines have expanded. There is an array of characters to be interested in.
Since 1991, there has been our own publishing house in Huia Publishers which has been dogged, determined, imaginative, courageous and inspirational — and who, with their running of writing competitions, their working with writers, their mentoring programmes, their publishing, their celebration of writing by Māori, will account for much of this burgeoning of writing.
And, I’ll mention too, that the work done by Witi Ihimaera, over the years, over the decades, in gathering in and anthologising the work of Māori from diverse backgrounds, is all part of that too. Mainstream publishers are now sensing that there has been a shift in the marketplace and wish to further expand into titles by authors who are Māori.
In all its diversity, there is work by Māori that incorporates the Māori worldview. Also, there is work by Māori that does not. After all, there are many different ways of being Māori. We are as various as any other people and it’s important that our literature shows this variousness. And it does. One thing that all the writers will have in common, is a whakapapa Māori, which no one can take away.
Recently published — big fat anthologies that I am aware of — are Hiwa: Contemporary Māori Short Stories, edited by Paula Morris, Ngā Kupu Wero, edited by Vaughan Rapatahana and Kiri Piahana-Wong, and Te Awa o Kupu, edited by Witi Ihimaera. They continue to display this wide range, and show the vitality of the work as well. I’ll mention also Te Whē, the online bilingual journal initiated by Anahera Gildea. I won’t continue with this list because one glance at the McLeods’ bookshop stand at this festival tells me that I am not up to date.
But, auē! This question of range, variousness, diversity takes me back to the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s when, as our writing came to the fore, we were the diverity, we were the other.
As writers, we were plagued with questions, from people who were not Māori, both here and abroad. Questions which, I for one, had put no thought to and was not prepared for. Such as: “Who is Māori?” (which implies also, “Who is not?”). There was correspondence and discussion about this. Not by Māori. I suppose because we all knew who we were.
Why do you choose to write, when you actually come from an oral culture?
Why do you write in English?
Why alienate readers by having Māori words, phrases, sentences in your English texts? (Because, as much as possible, I want the language and rhythms, to truly reflect the characters and the situations.)
Why do you not use a glossary for words or phrases in Māori? (Because a glossary is something that is used to translate foreign languages. I was determined that the Māori language would not be treated as a foreign language in its own country.)
What have you gained from your European heritage? (Nobody used the word “Pākehā” in those days.)
Why do you call yourselves Māori writers? (But, of course, we didn’t. That came from other people. We were just writing. We were just writers who happened to be Māori. Not that we rejected the label either, though some later writers did, believing that this description restricted them.)
As for the question, which was usually a statement to me rather than a question: “You’re half Māori and half Pākehā.” It always gave the questioner problems when I said I was not half anything, or quarter, or any other fraction, that whatever else I may be proud to be, I identified as Māori. I’d had no choice in that regard, nor did I want one.
What I am also not, is “a person of colour” unless everyone else is. To be a “person of no colour”, I think one would have to be a kēhua. (But even that’s doubtful. I’m sure kēhua can be quite colourful.)
I’m always taken aback that people would want to tell me who I am. I was aware of other writers, who were not Māori, being free to answer questions about their work rather than their ethnicities or identities.
Labels were, and are, put on our writings as well. Labels such as post-colonial and hybrid. If we were to question these ideas, it would be explained to us how our work conforms to a certain criteria which puts it into this box or that box. All sorts of meanings were taken from our work too, that we didn’t know were there. I remember Witi Ihimaera being surprised when he read that the description in one of his stories, of seagulls picking away at a whale carcass on the beach, was a symbol of colonisation. Witi’s comment was: “Oh, is that what I meant?”
It may sound that I’m complaining. (I’m just saying.) Because I’ve always been happy to have my work examined and discussed by whoever wished to do that, and in any forum. And, after all, it’s the institutions, schools, universities that have disseminated the work and kept it in print over the years, and I’ve often been astounded by the scholarship, even if I hadn’t always agreed with it. I know that I’ve been very fortunate in the places writing has taken me to and in the people I’ve met on the way.
Finally, I am often asked what advice I would like to give to new writers. I haven’t a lot to say about that except that I think new writers who are Māori should put to one side the expectations of others, and write what they want to write, in the way they want to do it.
This does not mean that they should not take heed of good advice or look objectively at it. They will need to examine such advice, shine their own light on it, and understand what works for them.
They will need to work hard, know who they are at a deep level, and what their experiences in life have been — always including the life of imagination, thoughts, emotions and dreams. They will need to read heaps and be observant.
They will want to strive, always, to become better writers.
Published here with the kind permission of Patricia Grace. The second Kupu Māori Writers Festival / Ngā Ringa Tuhituhi was held in Rotorua, from September 17–23.
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