Patricia Grace’s second novel, Cousins, 30 years old this year, sings on the screen and compels on the page, writes Kennedy Warne.
Last year, during one of the lower alert levels when going to a movie was possible, I watched Cousins at a tiny theatre in downtown Auckland. There were only half a dozen of us in the audience, dotted around the theatre. It felt like family. We could have all sat together and shared popcorn. But, in fact, I wouldn’t have wanted the distraction. Cousins is such a powerful film that you want to be totally focused on what you’re seeing.
Cousins is on Netflix now, and if you haven’t seen it, you must. Better still, read the book, as I’ve just done. As immersive and moving as the film is, the book has depths and insights that can’t be accessed on screen.
In her memoir, From the Centre, Patricia Grace writes that the idea for Cousins was to tell the story of children brought up under different circumstances, whose lives separate and converge. Her starting point was a character “who had nothing in the way of family, love, culture, possessions, emotional support. I began by putting her on a crowded street, letting her be as lonely and bereft as possible, and from there walked her into the story.”
And into readers’ and viewers’ hearts.
For this is Mata. Mata, “sitting on the road, breathing in and out, having thoughts but not thinking . . . only herself and her name, a dress, a coat, hands in shoes in pockets.”
Mata, who had spent her life waiting and wanting, “until at last I had decided that I wouldn’t wait any more, wouldn’t want anything but what I already had, which was myself, shabby and ugly, my name, my little photo in its frame, my own two feet to walk me.”
As wrenching as Mata’s story is, it is cousin Makareta, the chosen one, the gilded one, who speaks truths that, 30 years after Grace wrote them, seem freshly pertinent today.
I am thinking particularly of some passages near the end of the book, where Makareta speaks of her work as an advocate in the long battle for political, social and cultural justice for Māori. When I read them a few days ago, I thought of the recent passing of Moana Jackson, and his central message of the necessity of decolonisation.
I also thought of the various ways politicians and people are pushing back against that message, claiming, among other things, that restoration of mana Māori through meaningful political partnership is a “radical reinterpretation” of the Treaty of Waitangi. That such thinking is outlandish, disruptive, even — as I was informed by a listener when I spoke about Moana on Radio New Zealand — “seditious”.
We need to hear Patricia Grace, speaking through Makareta 30 years ago, speaking raw truths that haven’t much changed since they were written. Speaking to this moment in history.
Here is Makareta, reflecting on what she has seen, heard, learned and experienced of her people’s struggle. They are painful words to read, but there are hopeful words to follow.
The outward signs of the distress of our people were there in the streets. For years we had been told through statistics and through the media of our lowly position, our poverty, our bad health, our underachievement, our unemployability and our criminality. We didn’t need to have these things spelled out to us, because we were living them, or living next to them every day. They were the things I’d seen and heard talked about when I was a child. Now our sorrow, our powerlessness and our destitution were out there in the streets for everyone to see.
There in the streets groups of men terrorised each other, brutalised the women that lived with them and caused fear wherever they went. They were the beaten, the hollowed-out of our people, the rawakore, the truly disinherited, where nothing substantial was inbuilt and nothing was valued or marvellous — where there was no memory, where the void had been defiled by an inrushing of anger and weeping. . . .
Or, if sometimes they were not the disowned and disinherited, then they were those who had learned to look at who they were in distorted mirrors, had seen awry reflections of themselves and had become traumatised. And their stories of self-hatred were told in their foulness and self-defacement, their maiming and their havoc. They guarded what was left of themselves with weapons, high walls, and dogs.
There were children too, mauled and ravaged, committing slow suicide with petrol, pills and glue. Pretty children in large coats who inhabited the subways, doorways and pathways of the town. None of us could be unaffected by them and no one was blameless.
But we were up and walking, up and talking because we needed our own answers. We were the ones to know the missing pieces that had to be salvaged and reclaimed before they became irretrievable. . . .
There were issues of land, language, health and welfare, money, work, education, customs and culture to be discussed, promoted and worked on. And I began to hear our language in places where I had never heard it used before, in places where I never thought I would hear it. I began to see our rituals and ceremonies used in unusual ways and places, not always in ways that I thought the old people would approve, and sometimes taken over by people who didn’t understand them and who had their own agendas — which is another theft, another treachery. Sometimes, for all the work we did, the hopes we built up, the results obtained were mere dressing that covered ever-deepening abscesses.
There were those among us too, building their own empires, who postured and posed and traded on the mystique of being Maori, and there was, therefore, a need to challenge, expose, confront — the way that women often do, not that women were always the blameless ones. As a people we had our own convoluted minds to straighten out, our own anger to deal with, our own priorities to set, our own hakihaki, our own mortiferous sores to tend to.
But times are changing, Makareta says. People are on the move.
There are meetings all over the country as Maori people attempt to take their lives into their own hands, shape their own destinies. Brave people are demanding of government departments and through the media that our culture and language have recognition in the various institutions, even though it is an injustice, and absurdity, for a language and culture to be pleading its worth in the place that is its home.
There is work in the city that is important — information that needs disseminating to help people understand their history and their lives, help them to know that the position of powerlessness they find themselves in is not through any fault of theirs, because they, and those before them, have fought bravely throughout many years. They need to know that. They need to know that our truth does not appear on pages of books unless it is there between the lines. Our truths need to be revealed. But on the faces the truth is written, on the scarred and broken faces, in the sick, disabled bodies, in the dreamless, frightened eyes.
People need to know that there has been a massive robbery. There’s been treachery, and they, the victims, are receiving punishment day by day. Loser pays. If they have not fought bravely or at all, it is because theft has been complete and includes theft of will to fight, theft of will to survive.
Survival, for those who could still will it, has been a groping in the dark. It has meant a dulling of memory, of the sense, of thought, of emotion, a loss of identity, as people sat at conveyer belts labelling tins, at machines fitting pockets into trousers, as they shovelled coal, rolled roads, cleaned sewers, washed floors, wet-mopped plazas, buffed corridors, carried wood and water, day after day and year after year until there was little left of themselves, little left for the children. Yet it was all meant to be for the children.
Or there was only anger or sorrow left, which became drunkenness or insanity. The lullabies were lost because lullabies take a long time to sing and there has been no time.
There is work to be done because people need to know of the tactics that were used to destroy the economic base of the people, of the weight of legislation by which land and resources passed from their control. They need to know what the yardstick is that they have been measured by in schools and workplaces, which found them always wanting. They need to know there is a health system that endangers them, sometimes puts them in risk of their lives, an education system that withholds knowledge, blunts understanding, erodes self-esteem and confidence. They need to know that people have fought bravely in the past and that they can fight bravely too.
Also it is time to revive the song, written by one of our most-loved composers, that tells us to beware of government welfare, which will control and enslave us and which will quiet our voices.
Yet it is difficult. What is there to live on now, for many, if it is not welfare? How do people become self-reliant when the wherewithal to do it has been robbed from them piece by piece? Should people struggle on and on blindly, each generation emptying itself out more and more, sacrificing their children? Because it is not as though there is nothing owed — yet it is more than money that is owed.
I was brought up by my old people to be a keeper of the culture and a holder of the land. I could look upon that as a privilege. On the other hand, I could look upon it not as a privilege but a right — a right that others, through circumstances, have been denied. . . .
Makareta reserves a few words for Pākehā, for those who are groping in the mist towards something that has yet to emerge into the light, and these are words of encouragement.
Some Pakeha people, those with pride, are genuinely seeking. These few are coming to understand that what they can do in the interest of justice is to know themselves, to understand their own true history, which also does not appear truthfully on pages of books, to understand the promises made on their behalf, to break their own silences, to search out the true meaning of racism and injustice, for which they are responsible only if they are inert.
The seekers, the honest seekers, those taking measures, working out what can be done, are proud people who act from a base of self-worth, humility and dignity. They do not feel threatened, but challenged. They know they need not feel ashamed or guilty, because they are claiming their own, true heritage and their lives are honourable.
At the end of her remarks, Makareta’s thoughts turn to her cousin Mata, and to a moment when they were children. Mata had found a rare and beautiful coloured marble in the ruins of an old house. In a moment of spontaneous generosity, she had given the marble away to a child she barely knew. The other cousins were in awe of her aroha, and never forgot the moment or the gift.
Now, in late life, Makareta is trying to help bring restoration to Mata. She wants her to return to her home, her people, her land.
Now there is Mata to consider. I want her to come home with me to her land. Aunty Gloria has said that I must persuade her, mustn’t take no for an answer. But all that she has agreed to so far is to assist me home. I cannot get her to agree to stay. She wants nothing, she says, which is what she has always had. I keep waiting for a change in her, waiting for something to happen. I don’t want her to walk away from here to walk forever. Gifts are meant to be given, and one day returned. It must be her turn, again, to hold the coloured marble.
Yes, it’s time for those left bereft to have the gift returned, to hold again the coloured marble.
Thank you, Patricia Grace, for your words 30 years ago. Thank you, Briar Grace-Smith and Ainsley Gardiner, for bringing us Cousins on screen. Both are gifts to the soul of this country.
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