The second Kupu Māori Writers Festival kicks off in Rotorua today — and one of the driving forces behind its existence is Robyn Bargh, the founder of Huia Publishers. She’s spent a lifetime working to elevate Māori writers and their books.
Here she is talking to Siena Yates about the future of Māori literature.
The marvel of the Kupu Festival is that it supports and encourages a really wide and inclusive definition of Māori writing and Māori publishing.
The writers on the Kupu programme show Māori are in all different genres, writing on all sorts of topics and themes, and doing new and exciting things. It’s not only about mātauranga Māori and te reo, although we do include those themes. That’s the beauty of it.
When I started Huia Publishers in 1991, there were very few Māori being published. I used to try and have panels of Māori writers at international arts and writers festivals, but it was difficult. And very few Māori won awards in the New Zealand Book Awards. The first time one of our writers won, I almost cried because it was so rare and so hard to achieve that.
But in this year’s New Zealand Book Awards, there were 12 or 13 Māori writers longlisted and seven shortlisted. We have such a great number of Māori writers now that I can’t even put them all on the Kupu Festival programme.
I had to pick the award-winning ones and the internationally published ones, while keeping the balance of introducing new or lesser-known writers as well, which meant some people missed out and were quite disappointed. But there’s always next year and we know writers understand the aim of broadening exposure for emerging writers.
We were originally going to hold Kupu every two years but, after the first one last year, more than 90 per cent of those we surveyed for feedback said they wanted it every year. So here we are.
This year, we have people like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, who is a stalwart of Māori writing and whose book Decolonising Methodologies was a groundbreaker. And we have Josh Pomare who writes crime and thriller-type fiction and has been travelling the world promoting his books. And Tayi Tibble who’s just become the first Māori writer to be published in The New Yorker.
We’re also challenging what qualifies as literature.
We‘re including sessions on waiata and mōteatea, which are a rich source of literature. A lot of people would call that songwriting, but I think that’s slightly belittling. That’s our literary heritage. They contain not just words and ideas, but also allusions to our traditional stories, our whakapapa, and our history. And the phrasing, of course, is just beautiful. Really oblique and obscure a lot of the time, and really clever.
We just need to get them from being performed to being written down and captured. That’s what publishing does. It captures the words and the compositions so that people can enjoy them and study them and think about them.
When you think about it, Māori literature is about telling our stories, and I know that sounds sort of trite, but it’s really just describing the world in all the different ways that we see it, live in it, and experience it.
One thing that’s important when we’re planning a festival like Kupu is to remember that there’s no one way of being Māori. Māori have different backgrounds, heritages and experiences in our daily lives — and our literature should reflect all of that, not just some of it.
So yes, we want people with in-depth mātauranga Māori writing about that knowledge. But we also want people who are struggling with their identity as Māori, or who have just come to it, because those are valid experiences in Aotearoa today. And whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry or even mōteatea, those are all valid ways of expanding our literature, so it reflects the world that we’re living in.
I grew up in Horohoro, which is a small Māori community south of Rotorua where we basically just had a marae, a church, a school, and some farms. That’s the environment I grew up in. Then when I went to school and university, I read a lot of books from India or Africa and I marvelled at how they described their whole environment — you could smell it, feel it, and taste it. I realised that we didn’t have that in New Zealand. Not for Māori. There was nothing in our books about the kind of small town I grew up in, nothing that reflected my experience.
I got into publishing through editing and government work. I happened to learn the technical skills of putting a book together, and that came together with my experience as a reader to inform what we do at Huia.
From 1993, we’ve had the Pikihuia Awards for Māori writers every second year — and many of the writers who are being published now have come through that, either as finalists or winners.
We also continually put pressure on the sector — both funders and other publishers — to say: “This can be done, and there are plenty of Māori writers telling different stories and they’re worth publishing.” As time went on, they finally started to think: “Oh, maybe there’s some money to be made in Māori literature,” which is the lens most publishers view the world through.
There’s still work to be done, of course. One thing I’m a bit disappointed about is that there still isn’t enough Māori language being published. The funding that’s available for Māori-language publishing is going into translations and I think that’s unfortunate because what we need are original works written in Māori, by Māori writers. There are a lot of people now learning and speaking Māori, and we need books for them to read.
There’s Kotahi Rau Pukapuka, one hundred books in te reo Māori, and everyone thought that was great — and it is. But while there are some original works, by far the majority are translations. There’s nothing wrong with translated books but it’s wrong if that’s all we have. If we could have similar works with writers imagining a similar scenario in Māori, that’d be amazing. That’s what we need.
We also need our books to explore our multicultural society. The interface between cultures and the way people live in those worlds is really interesting. We’ve got bits of that happening already. For example, Coco Solid, one of our Kupu writers, did it really well in her book How To Loiter in a Turf War. The more of that we have, the better. We need a range of voices talking about living in that multicultural and probably mostly urban world. We need to capture the smells, the tastes, the expressions.
For anyone who wants to be a writer, there are two things you must do — and that’s read, and just sit down and write. You must get into the habit of writing every day. I know we’re all busy and everyone’s got family and demands and washing to be hung out and all that kind of thing, but you need to make time to write.
And you must read a lot, and as widely as possible. I’ve heard young, aspiring writers say: “I don’t want to read too much because I don’t want to take other people’s ideas,” or that kind of thing. But no. You have to read, to see what other people are doing and how they’re doing it — and think about how they’re conveying their ideas.
My hope for Kupu is to inspire young people and to inspire more Māori to write. This year, we have 120 students involved in our school programme. We had to close off the numbers because we couldn’t fit any more. We’re hoping that some of them will be inspired to read more Māori writers, and then become Māori writers.
Robyn Rangihuia Bargh founded Huia Publishers in 1991 and continues to be involved with the company. In her roles as chair of the Māori Literature Trust, and as a trustee and the programme curator for Kupu Festival, Robyn supports the development of Māori writers. Robyn was made a Companion of the Order of New Zealand in 2012.
As told to Siena Yates, made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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