“It’s just so daunting to write about my taha Māori and te ao Māori when I still feel like I’m not worthy,” says author Stacy Gregg. (Photo: Carolyn Haslett)

Stacy Gregg has made a name for herself internationally with adventure novels for 8-to-12-year-olds. She’s written more than 30 books, all of them involving ponies. But her latest book, Nine Girls, has seen her storytelling take a turn into te ao Māori for the first time.

In this kōrero with Siena Yates, Stacy talks about being motivated by the fear that her whānau stories were being lost as generations passed away — and her journey to reconnect with her taha Māori, and her identity as a wāhine Māori who grew up in Ngāruawāhia in the heart of the Waikato.

 

Tēnā koe, Stacy. How has it been working on Nine Girls? It’s such a big departure from your other works.

So big! It’s the ultimate pivot, from ponies to talking eels, nē? I wanted to write a book about my whānau and our history stretching back to the Waikato wars — and, in particular, this one pakiwaitara, this story, that my nan, Stella Walters, told us. It was about tapu gold buried on our farm, which is in Ngāruawāhia, next to Taupiri Mountain.

The story goes that two Māori warriors buried it there in 1863. They’d stolen a box of gold coins from British imperial soldiers but, when they got to our farm, they were surrounded by enemy troops and had to abandon the gold. So, to keep it safe, they buried it and placed a tapu on it, so that anyone else who touched it would die.

Then there’s the larger story of how we got the farm in the first place — by being “good Māori” and playing ball with Governor Grey — and everything that happened to my whanaunga leading up to, and in the aftermath of, the Waikato wars.

So, it’s about colonisation and race relations in the 1970s and 1980s — and it’s a coming of age story for the heroine, Titch. All under the arc of a good old-fashioned treasure hunt, with the threat of mortal danger attached.

It’s a real Frankenstein’s monster of a book in a lot of ways. I was putting a whole lot of stuff together that naturally should not go together. And that will be the scary thing when it goes out there is. Do people just go: “Oh, I like this monster”, or do they go: “All I can see are these crazy stitches”?

Where do you even start trying to piece all those things together?

I had to take a real run up at it. A book usually takes me maybe six months to write, but this one took about five years all up. The trouble with telling this story was that I was so afraid of it.

I started out in the early drafts being very reverent and cautious in the way that I incorporated characters based on my tūpuna. So when I sent an initial version of Nine Girls to my agent, she said: “This is all wrong. What are you holding back emotionally?”

That was when I realised that I needed to get past that fear of my tūpuna if the book was going to be any good. And that’s when the character of Paneiraira, the talking eel, came to me. It was like: “I know how to fix this. The eel is her tupuna!” And straight away, the book started to sing. He and Titch had this bond, just like my girls in the other books have with their ponies.

Why were you afraid of telling this story? Was it just the fear of getting things wrong?

It’s just so daunting to write about my taha Māori and te ao Māori when I still feel like I’m not worthy. Plus, I’m writing about my hometown, but I don’t live there anymore. I’m writing about my whanaunga, but my life has often been quite different from theirs. I’m trying to revisit my whakapapa and my family stories, but I’m very aware of treading on the hems of so many cloaks. So it’s really scary. Especially because I wanted it to be honest about the very real racism and opinions of the time, even within my own family.

I grew up on the Pākehā side of town in Ngāruawāhia, and most of my whanaunga were very disconnected from our taha Māori. My nan was very critical of what went on, over on the other side of the (Waikato) river. She had completely turned her back on being Māori. She was of the opinion that you just had to make it in the Pākehā world, and that speaking Māori and being Māori wasn’t going to get you anywhere in life.

My uncle Bill’s kids were Ngāti Mahuta on our side, and Ngāti Wairere on their mum’s side. They grew up spending every weekend on the paepae with their mum, over at Tūrangawaewae marae on the other side of the river. But that changed the day their mum died. Nan walked into their house and said: “This being Māori thing ends now. You’re Pākehā now.”

And that was it. No more paepae, no more marae, no reo Māori. There were no half-measures. You either had to be in one world or the other. It was the same for my tūpuna — you were either a Crown loyalist or you were siding with the Kiingitanga.

Stacy with her nan. (Photo supplied)

Yet you still made the choice to start unpicking generations of displacement, despite the fear. Why was that? How did you do it?

Yeah. Here’s the thing. There’s a lot of premature death in our whānau, and I think the preoccupation with death in all of my books comes from that. My mum died during an angiogram (a procedure for her heart) when she was only 42.

Like the mum in Nine Girls, she was in the process of reconnecting to her taha Māori at the time and had taken a job at Waikato University. I remember going on a noho marae with her and Pita Sharples when I was 15, and feeling like it was very important that she’d taken me there — that it was the start of something. But that got nipped in the bud when she died. We left Ngāruawāhia. Dad moved to Hamilton, and I went to boarding school in Auckland. So that organic process that should have happened for Mum and me, never happened.

My grandmother and my nine uncles who feature in the book are also all dead. When I was researching Nine Girls, I would often say to my cousins: “Who knows about this?” And the answer would be: “Well, so-and-so knows, but he’s dead.”

There’s three mātāmua (elders) now: myself, my cousin Bernie, and my cousin Lauren. We’re the oldest girls, the ones who listened the most. When all the other kids were hooning off and playing, we were the ones who sat next to the grown-ups, had the cups of tea, and earwigged in on their conversations.

So I felt like there was a kind of responsibility as an author to be the one to step up and tell their stories. If I don’t capture how we were, who we were, and the stories that we got told — well, who knows how long I’ve got? Longevity is not really on our side. It was like, I’m the mātāmua and I’m a writer, so this is the gig.

Stacy with her mum. (Photo supplied)

You mentioned that you didn’t feel “worthy” to be writing about Māori things, can you talk more about why that was?

I didn’t think I had the right to be Māori.

I remember wanting to learn te reo Māori at Ngāruawāhia High School but feeling like I didn’t have the right to be in the class. That was for the “proper Māori”, not for me. I always thought the kapa haka girls were so hard-out cool and I was so intimidated by them, because I could see that they had the mana that came with knowing who they were. There was a huge gulf between us.

And, yeah, a part of that is just not looking very Māori — when we were kids, my mum would often get asked if we were adopted. Back in the 1980s, being Māori was all about percentages. My dad, who was Pākehā, was very fond of reminding me that I was technically as much Italian as I was Māori.

But, that said, I’ve also had all the benefits of walking through life being able to pass as Pākehā, so I have to take it on the chin when it goes in the other direction.

I’m doing level six Aupikitanga this year at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and someone actually said to me: “How do they feel about you doing Māori as a Pākehā lady?” And I’m like: “You know I’m Ngāti Māhuta, Ngāti Pūkeko and Ngāti Maru Hauraki, right?”

I know from experience that those feelings, misconceptions and judgments can be incredibly hard to shake off. How did you reach a place where you felt you could start doing that?

It was a combination of writing the book and studying the reo. I could never have written Nine Girls without that other journey happening at Te Wānanga.

I’ve had cousins say: “How would your nan feel about you studying the reo now?” And I don’t think I’m kidding myself when I say I think she’d be proud. She was a very flexible woman. She was able to shift her worldview if a good argument was put in front of her. I think if we could honestly discuss now the insidious nature of colonisation and how it makes you hate who you are, there’d be a real satisfaction for her in this moment, in seeing our whānau getting back what was taken from us.

Irihapeti Te Paea Hahau Te Wherowhero (Photo supplied)

When I look back, I can see that, despite Nan turning her back on being Māori, she was actually really proud about who she was. She always called me “mokopuna”, and there was such joy in that word for her, which I understand now. Even though, on the surface we’d swapped to Pākehā ways, underneath, at our heart, our family was still Māori.

It was only once I was away from them and in the Pākehā world, that I saw that. It was in the values we had, the preciousness of family. It was about wairua and bonds — and there was tikanga, too, that I never realised was tikanga at the time.

Nan would show me photos of Irihapeti Te Paea Hahau Te Wherowhero, and she would go: “This is your tupuna. Look how cool she is. Look at what she’s wearing. Isn’t she beautiful?” She also had a quiet pride in the fact that her own grandmother had moko kauae, was fluent in te reo Māori, and was buried on Taupiri Mountain.

This kind of going back and unpicking things is a process, but I really do feel quite strongly that, by going through all that, I’m getting myself back to the mountain, and hopefully taking my whānau back with me. I am a work in progress. I feel like it’s very much still early days, but my urge to honour my tūpuna just gets stronger and stronger.

The most important thing for me now is my reo. Even though I’m doing Aupikitanga, I still feel like my reo is embryonic. I thought I was getting quite good and then I went to my cousin’s 60th a few weeks ago in Ngāruawāhia and a kaumātua did karakia. And I was like: “Oh, there’s speaking Māori, and then there’s speaking Māori.” It was just next level and so astonishing and ātaahua. Could I ever be that good? I really want to get there.

I do think my journey would have started a lot earlier if my Mum hadn’t died. But, still, any time you start the journey is the right time, right? So, I just think I’m super waimarie (fortunate) to have the chance to be able to work on it now.

Stacy’s mum as a young girl (right) with her uncles. (Photo supplied)

A lot changed for you while writing this book. Did your publisher’s reactions change too, between dealing with Stacy Gregg, the pony girl, and Stacy Gregg, the girl from Ngāruawāhia?

I think it has a lot to do with it being the right time. If I had taken this book to a publisher as a debut writer, would they have wanted it? Probably not. It’s set in Ngāruawāhia and has a lot of reo and tikanga Māori in it. But, 37 books later, what they want now is the brand that is “Stacy Gregg, the pony book girl”. And that’s fine because that gives a platform to this story that it wouldn’t have had before.

It’s being published in the UK at the same time as it’s being published in New Zealand, which was important to me, too, to take our story wider. I worried that it would be a big ask for a book that had five pages of Māori glossary at the front. But my UK editor, Kelly Hurst (who is Jacqueline Wilson’s editor and a big deal over there) was totally up for it, to strengthen their growing Indigenous writers list. And they didn’t dilute the story or make any changes for the UK market either, which was pretty brave considering the British don’t exactly come out smelling of roses.

Did you consider writing this story in a different format? As an adult’s novel, or a biography even?

Yeah, a lot of the experiences in the book could easily be memoir entries. Like when my mum took me along to Rugby Park in Hamilton in 1981 for the Springbok Tour and we stormed the grounds. But I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to write in my wheelhouse which is middle grade fiction, or fiction for readers between the ages of 8 and 12.

That was the challenge: taking all these real-life, historical events that meant something to me, and a classic pakiwaitara passed down through my whānau, and stitching it all together in this format.

What people have never noticed about my work is that even when I was “the pony book girl”, I’ve always hidden vegetables inside a cake, and this is just the ultimate, giant broccoli jam sponge.

What’s your secret to successfully hiding the vegetables in the cake?

I think it’s just being angry when I write. I’ve often sat down in a place of anger. If you look at my book The Fire Stallion, on the surface it’s a book about a girl working on a film set in Iceland with Icelandic horses. But to me, that’s a book about Trump.

I was so deeply annoyed as a woman when I wrote that. So all of the really feminist, kickass bits where the main character is moving back and forth through time and fighting Vikings and what not — those, to me, were completely about Republican American politics.

I’ve always got my own little agenda going on, and with Nine Girls, the agenda is maybe not quite as visible, but it’s definitely there. It’s examining the misery that came from being colonised, and trying to claw back your dignity, your rights, your land, and your identity. But at the same time, it’s a hunt for gold and it’s got a talking eel!

Do you have any advice for aspiring Māori writers, who also have these kinds of stories to share?

Yeah. That there isn’t just one way of being Māori, and there isn’t just one way to experience and cope with colonisation.

I think the struggle for Māori who are trying to write about their lives is that there’s a preconception, often a Pākehā preconception, about what people expect a Māori writer to be. Often that expectation is that we have to write Once Were Warriors or Pounamu, Pounamu, or books about children getting abused or doing manu. And I think that’s just a very Pākehā thing, viewing Māori as what they want us to be, not who we are.

That’s the reason why books like Nine Girls need to be written, because there are different ways to be Māori, there are different ways to express our values and our respect for our tikanga and tūpuna. As a writer, you have to have faith that your unique experience is actually a shared experience, so you need to try and free yourself up from those old versions of being Māori and do it your own way.

I also hope that Māori writers can have fun telling their stories. Because of what we’ve been through, our stories often involve very serious topics. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to step outside of that, if that’s not how you want to tell your story. Like with Nine Girls, I wanted to write something that was uplifting and affirming, but I also just wanted to write an epic adventure, because that’s the sort of stuff I do. And it’s hard to go past a good treasure hunt and a talking eel.

And, finally, having gone through the process myself, the main thing is: Be in awe of your tūpuna, absolutely, and be respectful — but don’t be so terrified of them that you’re hamstrung from writing about your life the way it is now.

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

 

Stacy Gregg (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Maru Hauraki) is an international best-selling author, a Voyager journalism award-winning writer, and a screenwriter. She has 38 titles under her belt including junior fiction and picture books for younger readers. Her latest title, Nine Girls, is her first novel with Penguin Random House and will be released simultaneously in Aotearoa and the UK on March 26. Stacy is currently studying te reo Māori level six Te Aupikitanga at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

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