Author Lauren Keenan, at an unmarked battle site in South Taranaki. (Photo supplied)

When Māori author Lauren Keenan started out on her writing career, she listened to advice telling her not to set stories in New Zealand. Here she is on changing her mind.

 

Last month, my 10-year-old daughter asked how I felt about Te Ātiawa losing its land after the New Zealand Wars. “Aren’t you angry, Mum?” Her eyes flashed, and she crossed her arms. “Why don’t you look more angry?”

We were at Te Ārei battle site, not far from Waitara in North Taranaki. Walking the land where our tūpuna fought tells a story. Ko te kōrero e kī ana: Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua. People come and go, but the land remains.

The trenches at Te Ārei. (Photo supplied)

Te Ārei is no exception. When visiting, you can still see the trench system the British dug over the summer of 1860–61 to force Te Ātiawa and their allies into retreat. The trenches are deep stains in the grass, ending close to the hill where Māori had withdrawn to. And behind that hill is another pā, Pukerangiora, the site of one of the most significant Te Ātiawa battles of the Musket Wars, and where Te Ātiawa suffered great loss of life. Pukerangiora Pā is tapu, so, in 1861, there could be no further retreat without trampling on that sacred ground. Soon after, the first Taranaki War was over.

The whenua at Te Ārei also tells another story: one of neglect of our history. Te Ārei isn’t marked on maps. The only way to find it is by searching for Pukerangiora Pā. Getting into the site itself involves scaling a wire fence, on which one of my whānau accidentally gave themselves a wedgie. The lone sign is so rotten, it seems one strong wind away from becoming intimately acquainted with the grass below.

Of course, we who visited know Te Ārei is there. We know what happened. We, who lost something in that place. But what about everyone else?

Learning about Aotearoa New Zealand history is as important as ever. Especially stories that shine a light on events that, in turn, help us to better understand our present. We’re also experiencing a moment in time where interest in Aotearoa’s past seems greater than during my lifetime. Our history is finally being taught in New Zealand schools, and more people are reading books set here. This is awesome.

When I started writing, I was told: “Don’t set anything in New Zealand — you’ll never get published if you do.” So, the first historical fiction I ever attempted to write was about a young woman during the London Blitz.

However, what I actually wanted to write was something else entirely, a vague idea that had seeded while doing my MA thesis in New Zealand history. For my research, I trawled through oral testimonies presented to the Waitangi Tribunal in the early 1990s, reading about the impact on Te Ātiawa of the New Zealand Wars and subsequent raupatu. While doing so, I couldn’t shake a question that I wanted to answer through the art of fiction: What did it feel like to live through that?

But, back then, getting a book published about New Zealand history, especially Māori history, felt like a pipe dream. So I gave up on the Blitz book (after realising it was truly mediocre) and then on writing historical fiction altogether. To now see The Space Between in print is a delight. This goes far beyond the general warm fuzzies associated with writing a thing and subsequently seeing it in the world. Its very existence is proof that the earlier advice I received was wrong.

There is a place for books about Aotearoa New Zealand history, including those with Māori protagonists written by Māori authors — a pathway paved by others before me, such as Witi Ihimaera, Monty Soutar and Tina Makereti. I’m excited to see where this pathway goes, and what works other Māori might write and publish in the future. And I can’t wait to read them.

But, alas. There are still many naysayers who don’t see the value of our history. Today, apathy, indifference, or protests from the “I wasn’t there so why should I care” brigade are, in themselves, political statements. Some also claim New Zealand history is less relevant that other global events. However, just because something has happened far away, doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact here.

Ever since contact, we’ve been completely influenced by international trends, the geopolitical manoeuvring of other nation states, and, on many occasions, old European dudes with swathes of facial hair.

Besides, understanding the history of where you live doesn’t mean that all knowledge of other historical time periods gets hazed from your brain. It doesn’t stop you being curious about other places. My own interest in the New Zealand Wars hasn’t stopped me from visiting other war sites and appreciating their significant importance. Gettysburg. Gallipoli. Culloden. Auschwitz. Montecasino. Ypres. The D-Day beaches. That’s the great thing about history. Learning one thing doesn’t come at the expense of another. It complements other knowledge, rather than cancelling it out.

Others complain that Aotearoa New Zealand history is boring, because we don’t have medieval castles, or old churches full of paintings of flying fat babies, or palaces full of bling.

This refrain haunted my teen years, most notably when half of my high school class refused to visit Parihaka for a school trip because, apparently, it was a snoozefest compared to Henry the Eighth’s inability to maintain wedded bliss. My tūpuna were with Te Whiti o Rongomai at Parikaha on November 5, 1881, the day the settlement was invaded by 1600 colonial troops.

More than two decades has passed since I sat in a crowded classroom and listened to my classmates complaining about how irrelevant Parihaka was to them. The feeling in my puku that day was a confusing mix of anger, sadness, and grief, even though, at 17, I didn’t understand what the grief was for. Maybe it was for my tūpuna, maybe it was for me. I still don’t completely know.

Times have certainly changed. My son has just learned about Parihaka at school, and he didn’t have to endure people complaining. I didn’t need to write about the London Blitz to see a historical fiction novel in our own world.

The sign at Te Ārei. (Photo supplied)

And yet. Here is Te Ārei. A rotten sign, a wedgie-causing fence, a place that can’t be located on a map. Te Ārei is a reminder that while we’ve come some way, we still have further to go.

This is not without its challenges. There will always be a group of people who get their jollies from yelling at talkback radio, calling anything that confronts their narrow worldview “woke” or “PC gone mad”. Others are curious about our past, but uncertain where to start their journey and who to ask to find out more.

The question of whose responsibility it is to help and educate these people is fraught. The act of doing so is a burden that ought not always sit on those who suffered from the events in question. And wider interest in our past comes with other matters that require attention and care. Not everyone wants hordes of visitors at wāhi tapu, and old knowledge must be treated with the respect it deserves.

Lauren’s first novel for adults was published this year by Penguin. (Image supplied)

Putting stories into the world can also come with certain obligations to our communities — obligations that some writers take more seriously than others. But none of these are reasons to stop trying to get things right. “Aren’t you angry, Mum?” my daughter had asked at Te Ārei. “Why don’t you look more angry?”

Was I angry? Feelings are complex things. I’m an adult and a writer, but I’m still a teenager hearing her classmates call Parihaka boring. I’m a person who always wanted to write a novel about Te Ātiawa history, but still let herself be convinced to write about 1940 London instead. Whatever feelings sit within that tangle of emotions is something, even if it has too many parts to fully unpick. Anger is one of those strands, for sure. But it’s only one small part of the knot.

“It’s complicated for me,” I said eventually. “I don’t like that the sign is rotten. And being here reminds me of why I write.”

And that was the truth, however cheesy it may sound. Being at Te Ārei did encapsulate why I write and will continue to do so, trying to make the stories as interesting and accessible as possible. Because I firmly believe that learning more about our past will help us navigate the now a little bit better.

Books about New Zealand history may have a noteworthy lack of medieval castles, old churches full of paintings of flying fat babies, and palaces full of bling. But they have something else.

Stories about us.

 

Lauren Keenan (Te Ātiawa) is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her focus is on Aotearoa New Zealand history, told for a variety of audiences. Her first adult novel, The Space Between, is set in 1860 Taranaki. It was published by Penguin Random House in March 2024. She has also written fiction for younger readers, including the award-winning Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time

Lauren Keenan’s novel The Space Between (Penguin, $37), is out now, and Lauren will be at the Auckland Writers Festival this May. For all information and tickets visit www.writersfestival.co.nz.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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