Alice Te Punga Somerville has been on our radar since she published her book Once Were Pacific: Maori Connections to Oceania. She’s one of 24 Māori scholars who’ve shared their personal experiences of what it means to be Māori in their particular corner of the academic world, in a new book, Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface.
Here’s Alice on the study of English — a discipline that “cannot not be about the nation, people or culture we refer to as ‘English'”.
I lose faith in my discipline quite often. English has broken my own heart several times, and it has been used for generations to make our community feel small. It’s awkward.
“English” is the name of my discipline, but it’s also the name of a language (and, let’s be clear: a language that has been shoved into our collective mouths in order to extinguish the language that has been ripped out of them) and the name of a nation (and, let’s be clear: a colonising nation which has wrought incredible violence of all kinds all around the world).
These two “other” meanings of English are, I suspect, why an interface between English and mātauranga Māori might feel uncertain or tricky or, for some, impossible.
In “Education Week”, a poem included in her 1979 collection Opening Doors, Evelyn Patuawa-Nathan writes about taking a group of school children to a “local gaol” where, in an empty cell that surely brings to mind the violently imposed isolation and disconnection at the heart of colonialism, they “reach among comments” on a wall covered in graffiti “for names of cousins/and brothers/and fathers”.
I love this poem. It encapsulates just how entangled our communities are with colonialism, but also the capacity of writing — and reading — to challenge, undermine and reframe it. A class trip that was supposed to be about a colonial site turns into an opportunity through hopeful acts of writing by some Indigenous people — and critical acts of reading by other Indigenous people — for Indigenous (re)connection.
On a good day, this is English.
Despite these good days where Indigenous peoples connect with writing by relatives, English the discipline cannot not be about the nation, people or culture we refer to as “English”.
I feel sheepish to admit how deeply affected I was when I encountered the research of Gauri Viswanathan, a professor in English at Columbia University in New York City. In Masks of Conquest: Literary study and British rule in India, she traces the history of English back to when it was first systematically taught as a secular discipline. I ask my students: where do you think English was first taught as a discipline? “England?” someone will always guess, realising it seems so obvious there must be a trick. And yes, they’re right. It’s a trick.
Viswanathan describes the development of English in India, where the subject was part of a deliberate colonial strategy to teach the Indian people how to be English and to sideline local literary traditions as an imperial bonus; during the same period, people in England were studying religious and “classical” (Latin, Greek) texts rather than English literature.
The relief I felt when I first read this! It was no longer a coincidence that English felt so colonial. I was struck that English as a discipline is nowhere near as old (or politically neutral) as I’d assumed.
So many of the disciplines we now take for granted in Western universities are barely a century old and surprisingly few are older than the Treaty of Waitangi. With the possible exception of anthropology, which has to be upfront about its colonial roots because they’re so difficult to obscure, most humanities and social science disciplines emerged in response to — or as a part of — European colonialism, and yet seldom admit the time and place of their origins.
Many of the parts (and people) of the university that look down their noses at Māori studies, Indigenous studies, Pacific studies, and at Indigenous scholars and students working in other disciplines, as if we were newcomers, latecomers, interlopers, marginal, or johnny-come-latelies, would benefit from reflecting on the history of their own disciplines.
As a student, I never considered that English as a discipline had not been around “forever” because it seemed logical that it was as old as the canon. The English literary canon is the lineup of “greats” we’ve been served up in so many ways.
It’s writing by mostly white men stretching back along a literary timeline from Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf through to Victorians (like Dickens, Thackeray, Yeats and the Bronte sisters) and then to Romantics and next to Shakespeare and his crew and finally back through to Chaucer and the Medievalists and so on.
There’s a way that English has of presenting this lineup of writers and texts as if the canon is based on an objective measure of literary merit; as if people raising questions about race or imperialism or gender or sexuality or class are somehow trying to add something that wasn’t already there all along, or trying to make arguments for texts that might have political merit but dubious literary “quality”.
Canons make certain texts and writers feel familiar to people — ah yes, I know that’s an important text/writer — even if they have never read any of them. Probably most people reading this chapter nodded with recognition at these writers and literary periods regardless of whether they have read (let alone enjoyed) any of their literary works.
Canons — the idea that there are “greats” and “the rest” — don’t only belong to English or to dead white men. We have a Māori canon too: Ihimaera, Grace, Hulme, Tuwhare. Maybe Duff. These are the Māori writers most people have heard of and that most teachers teach. The books most likely to be in your bookshop, your pub quiz, your kid’s reading list at school.
In 2012, the year my own literary studies book Once Were Pacific: Māori connections to Oceania came out, three other books about Māori literature were published by non-Māori literary scholars based overseas, and they all focused on Grace and/or Ihimaera. There’s nothing wrong with Grace and Ihimaera (Baby No-Eyes remains my personal favourite novel of all time), but what about everyone else? Who’s going to write about them? Who’s going to teach their books?
The point of challenging a canon isn’t to take the logic of the canon (that certain texts and writers are superior to any others) and put it in reverse. Flipping things on their head never undoes power structures — it just reinforces them!
Ihimaera, Grace, Hulme and Tuwhare are amazing writers who have created so many rich, thoughtful, engaging, gorgeous staunch texts and nothing would be gained by challenging the value or significance of their writing.
Instead, we challenge canons by drawing attention to how they work. Canons steal the limelight from everyone else, implying they are not as deserving of attention and/or they simply do not exist, so we undermine canons by seeking out the other writers, trying to understand why other texts have been forgotten or ignored (whose purposes has it served to forget them?), and thinking about how this much fuller view of Māori self-representation enables a more expansive understanding of particular texts, or writers, or communities, or literary traditions.
Canons have real-world effects. When I first talked about teaching Māori literature in an English department in New Zealand, a number of people questioned whether there would be enough writing to justify a whole course, let alone a whole job.
This assumption is not accidental — it grows out of a colonial view that Indigenous cultures are non-literate (evidence of our inferiority), as well as a colonial presumption to know everything about Indigenous people (“if there were any other good Māori writers out there I would know about them, so I will assume they don’t exist”), and is nourished by the overwhelming whiteness of New Zealand literary culture, publishing, cultural infrastructure and book prizes.
There are subtle effects of canons too, which Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in her viral 2014 TED talk as the “danger of a single story”. A narrow range of Māori representations can lead people to think that real Māori people look or act or feel a narrow range of ways.
The colonial project wants us to believe we are not really Māori; once nineteenth-century attempts to extinguish us physically failed, the twentieth century focused on extinguishing us culturally. We find ourselves speaking back to a million voices (including those in our own heads) that tell us we are not really Māori because real Māori people XYZ. Once we are no longer really here our land and waters are available.
This is part of the power and toolkit of the discipline of English: to understand representation, how it works, why it matters. To engage, and seek, and encourage a broader, deeper and wider range of Māori voices and perspectives.
My own research has focused on broadening our understanding of Māori worlds and experiences in two ways: new engagements with familiar Indigenous texts and seeking Indigenous texts with which we have become unfamiliar.
What does that look like on the page? A master’s thesis about Māori/Pākehā mixed-race writing; a doctoral thesis about Māori texts in the context of various comparative frames/relationships (Pacific, Indigenous, postcolonial, New Zealand); a published book about Māori connections to the Pacific region; book projects on unknown Māori writers and lesser-known Māori written texts; and a current project looking at Indigenous published writing from 1900 to 1975 from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Hawai`i.
Through articles and chapters, I have also written about my research on Māori diasporas (people living outside New Zealand), Indigenous biographies, Pacific literary anthologies, the ways that different Māori texts describe returning to one’s marae, thinking about the Taranaki landscape as an “actor” in The Lord of the Rings and The Last Samurai and so on.
And, in my publications related to the other fields I work in (Indigenous studies and Pacific studies), I use Indigenous and Pacific writing to make arguments about things like genealogy, archives, Te Rangihiroa’s (Sir Peter Buck’s) failed application for US citizenship in the 1940s (yes really), how American Studies should engage with the Pacific, Indigenous ecological thought, and the politics of gardening (yes really).
English has given me the opportunity to ask questions, and to engage Indigenous texts, in order to contribute to the ongoing expansion of the way we think about who we are. Just as in other disciplines, in English the difference between Māori and non-Māori scholars (which can also be expressed as “the reason to train, hire, support and retain Māori scholars”) is less about the answers we find than the questions we ask in the first place.
After all these years of reading Indigenous writing from all over the world, I still focus on Māori texts in most of my research, but instead of reading them as solitary or marginal brown voices in a white literary room (this is how it can feel when Māori are only understood as a “subset” of New Zealand) I read them in the company of Indigenous voices from so many times and places.
Expansion: the antidote to colonial contraction. English by name, sure, but it has enabled me to be anticolonial by nature.
Despite the “good” days where Indigenous students connect with writing by relatives, English the discipline also cannot not be about the language we refer to as “English”.
In a 1991 chapter titled “Whare Whakairo: Māori ‘literary’ traditions”, Hirini Melbourne points out that every word written in English by a Māori writer is one fewer word written in te reo Māori.
This could be extended to scholarly work: every piece of writing in English by a Māori scholar (including this one) could (should?) have been a piece of scholarship written in te reo Māori, and so inadvertently contributes to the structural hierarchy of English over our own reo.
On the one hand, I strongly agree with Melbourne. On the other hand, for reasons of capacity (or, more accurately, incapacity) in te reo Māori, if I did not write this in English there would be no article at all. And, even if I did write it in te reo Māori, that would shape its potential readership — including its potential Māori readership. We are constantly trying to balance on a precipice with a steep drop on either side.
How does one align oneself to the project of revitalising the Māori language (a project that is surely demanded by an interest in mātauranga Māori) when one does not, in fact, have the ability to functionally read or write in that language?
Certainly there are moments when silence — keeping the monolingual mouth shut — is the best form of solidarity one can show for te reo Māori. But how do we tell the difference between the mouth that is shut in solidarity with spaces (including literary and scholarly spaces) in which te reo Māori can flourish, and the mouth that is shut from the whakamā of not speaking one’s own language?
There are only imperfect solutions to this predicament of (working with) writing in te reo or English, which is to be expected because living in colonialism is very much about living in imperfection.
Something I have been thinking about a lot, though, is what can happen when we de-individuate our experiences as scholars. Melbourne’s words hurt when I think he is talking about me — when I think he is saying, “hey Alice, you should be quiet, because of your own flaws you are failing to speak your own language” (something I say to myself quite often already, believe me).
But when understood collectively, we can hear his injunction in a really different way. My work is not to be quiet for fear of speaking too much English, but to ensure I do what I can (yes, using English the language as well as English the discipline) to open up space for people who can do all kinds of things that are beyond my own abilities. I may not read or write in te reo Māori, but many of the students I have taught and supervised do.
After the passing of Tongan writer and scholar Epeli Hau`ofa, Banaban/African American writer and scholar Teresia Teaiwa — who has also since passed away — recalled a conversation she had with Hau`ofa about the purpose of working in tertiary institutions. Teaiwa said that it was a pivotal conversation for her own work, and I am grateful she wrote about it because Hau`ofa’s words have, in turn, become pivotal, clarifying and encouraging for me.
“The thing about it is,” Hau`ofa said, “our job is to make way for people who are better than us.”
I have worked with students and research assistants who move between English and Māori, Sāmoan, Palauan, Cook Islands Māori, Marshallese, Tokelauan, Niuean, Tongan, Hawaiian or Fijian. These researchers have had an inalienable advantage: the size of your bookshelf expands exponentially when you can read in another language.
If I define my best research experiences as the ones I think I’ll be proudest of when I look back from old age, they are when I work with students (many of whom become colleagues in the field) who can do work I don’t have the skills to do. Often, because I’m functionally monolingual when it comes to the kind of facility you need to carefully analyse a written text, these skills are related to language.
I am not alone. In reality, most of the Māori community speaks English as their everyday language. This means it’s not as simple as saying that if I could work in te reo I would. I will continue to be conflicted and sad about not speaking te reo Māori, but there is plenty of work to be done in English.
For two centuries, we have used this language to make sense of our lives including the world that accompanied the new language. The Australian literary scholar Penny van Toorn wrote a book called Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia that I love reading, sharing and teaching because she describes all the ways the English language didn’t just arrive by itself (“naked”): it was brought by particular people, in particular contexts, in particular texts (the Bible, sure, but also on new commodities like flour bags and on currency), and was learned in particular places.
Again, English is inextricable from colonialism, but van Toorn doesn’t just leave us with the colonially clothed language: she seeks and emphasises the many ways that Indigenous peoples made use of this new language (and its accompanying technology of writing) within and between their own cultural contexts.
Back in 1981, when I was still in my first year of primary school, the Acqumeh poet and scholar Simon Ortiz famously argued that we Indigenous people have made these colonial languages our own.
Certainly Māori writers working in English make incredible use of the language. Writers working in all genres and literary forms push at the different ways things can be said. The massive body of work in English by Māori writers, especially over the past five decades, is simply amazing.
For some writers, their English has a proximity to te reo: people have often commented on Tuwhare’s poetry bearing a strong mark of the other language in his tongue. At a panel discussion on Indigenous publishing, I recall listening to a translator from Huia Publishers speak about translating Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki into te reo Māori. She marvelled at feeling like the novel — at the level of its metaphors and concepts, but also its words and sentences — was poised on the edge of English and all she had to do was nudge it to send it over into Māori.
Although te reo Māori is a vital link in our connections to the complex multidimensional whakapapa networks of which we are a part (to tūpuna, to uri — descendants, to everything in between), however, the language cannot turn back time as if colonialism never happened.
I worry sometimes that we are too keen to claim a continuity with the past to the point that any evidence of the last 200 years — including the English language — is seen as a form of contamination.
Some parts of the Māori world can only be accessed or spoken through te reo Māori, certainly, but that doesn’t make English language a stain that indelibly marks one’s distance from mātauranga Māori. (Some days of the week I am brave enough to argue the reverse, too: that speaking te reo Māori is not necessarily a guarantee of facility with, or commitment to, mātauranga Māori.)
I was tricked into English. I’d done okay in the subject at school but didn’t like it enough to want to take it at uni. I was going to study law — you know, something helpful and practical that would get me a job — but alongside the LLB I did want to do a BA in History (because that seemed useful too), so in my first year of study I just needed to find some other papers to make up some points before getting into the Real Stuff.
I knew I wanted to start the journey of te reo Māori so enrolled into a couple of language-acquisition papers, but I needed two more. My sister had started uni two years ahead of me, and I wasn’t exactly rolling in money, so I decided — reluctantly — to do English, because at least then I could use some of the books that she had bought when she had taken those papers.
My first lecture at university back in 1994 was New Zealand literature, and I sat up the back of the lecture theatre under the Auckland Uni library with a group of others I’d met at the Māori student orientation the week before, and Witi Ihimaera stepped out and started to chant. Wow. English. This was a place I could be Māori.
This trick was played on me consistently while I was an undergrad student, mostly by the people teaching me: Ihimaera, but also Ngāti Kahungunu professor Terry Sturm, Kāi Tahu scholar Reina Whaitiri and Sāmoan writer and scholar Albert Wendt. (Wendt was a professor and Head of the English Department when I was an undergrad — years before I realised the significance of being able to take for granted that a Pacific person could hold such positions.)
When these people are your teachers, you can’t help but think (erroneously, as it turned out) that English in New Zealand is a really dynamic, political, culturally grounded, Indigenous-centred space.
This was also a trick the texts kept playing on me too: I loved reading them, and talking about them in the way we talk about texts in English, and I loved being challenged and nurtured and devastated by them.
That first NZ lit paper had a Māori-only tutorial, and this became a cherished weekly space for laughing and crying and learning flat out about everything — not just about English, but about being Māori, and (because it turned out that all the students in the tute were wāhine Māori) about being a Māori woman.
(I realise that this part of my experience can feel at odds with many Māori conversations about learning or practising mātauranga at home and then experiencing the academy in terms of alienation and whiteness. While I do not look to the university to teach me how to be who I am in relation to iwi and hapū, and have all the same critiques to make in terms of its ongoing coloniality, I cannot bring myself to disavow the profound contribution that some university spaces have made to my understanding of Te Ao Māori and, indeed, to mātauranga Māori.)
Several times that semester Witi was pretty direct: we have plenty of lawyers but need more literary scholars. He didn’t exactly plead, but he talked about the study pathways we might have taken for granted and the benefit of asking questions about whether this was what we really wanted to do. I pulled out of law. My BA was in English and History. My MA was in English.
By the time I started to see how English really worked — disciplinarily, and institutionally — I had already fallen for this generous, lovely, life-expanding trick.
I learned different things about my discipline when I studied for my PhD in the US, on Cayuga Nation territory, at Cornell University in New York State between 2000 and 2004. In North America, English is often one of the more radical, theory-driven, diverse sites on any campus. It was more like the English that my dear teachers had duped me into believing it was in New Zealand.
Actually, it was even better — because while there was only a small number of us Māori and Pacific students doing MAs in English at Auckland when I was there, my PhD cohort at Cornell was diverse in all kinds of ways. Cornell also had an American Indian Studies programme that offered a “graduate minor” in American Indian studies, which brought me into a classroom, and more importantly a community, of Indigenous students from across the university and across so many Indigenous nations.
It turned out that English has been central to the development of American Indian studies (or its equivalents, often now bundled into the helpful umbrella Native American and Indigenous studies) and most people in Indigenous studies in North America are familiar with the work of the major Indigenous literary scholars, as well as the creative work of key Indigenous writers.
During my doctoral studies, I also spent a year at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa where I got to connect with Hawaiian and other Pacific people who were working in literary studies and allied fields as students and scholars.
After finishing my PhD, I moved to Victoria University of Wellington where I taught in English and then (less officially) Māori studies; after that I had a sabbatical at the Aboriginal Studies programme at the University of Toronto; after that I was based at the Department of English at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa where I was also an affiliate faculty member in Pacific studies; after that I taught in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney; then I moved to where I am now, at the University of Waikato.
Wait — how can going overseas to study and work have anything to do with mātauranga Māori?
People generally tend to give advice that would help you be more like them rather than more like yourself. Many of the helpful things well-meaning people told me when I decided to study overseas for my PhD were based on the assumption that Māori people doing Māori projects would need to be in Aotearoa to do them.
This idea that Māori research is ideally conducted in New Zealand is tied, for most people, to ideas about location of expertise (this is where the experts would be) and location of subject (this is the research “field”). I continue to hear versions of this argument when people say, for example, “you need to do your PhD in Aotearoa if you’re doing a Māori topic”, or “Māori academics must work in New Zealand because this is where our research is based”.
It also gives rise to the inverse assumption: if all Māori academics are in New Zealand, then there can’t be any overseas. This assumption takes the form of “Māori are disadvantaged by the need to have overseas examiners because what would someone overseas know about this topic?” or the idea that the Māori people working at New Zealand universities (and perhaps wānanga) are the only Māori people in that field.
Literary scholarship both is and isn’t constrained by location. The portability of writing (especially, but not only, in the era of e-books and pdfs and online archives) is one of its central appeals, so there is no reason for a researcher to be tied to a particular location.
For the purposes of my doctoral studies at Cornell, with an amazing library that has as many Māori books as any university library in New Zealand, location of resources wasn’t a strong argument to stay in New Zealand. Of course, this is only a partial answer, because while writing is portable in theory, in reality (as a lot of my research highlights) most writing travels along well-trodden and expected colonial networks, and most Māori writing (with a few notable exceptions) stays pretty close to home.
But one of the key directions of my research, especially over the past decade, has been to go overseas because that is where our writers have gone. If you want to find the first published English language text by a Māori person, then Mowhee, the writer who learnt to read and write in Norfolk Island and Sydney and whose Memoir of Mowhee was posthumously published in London in 1818, will drag you beyond our national borders.
As will so many of our writers ever since. (First Māori woman to publish a book of poetry in English? Vernice Wineera in 1978, based and published in Hawai’i. Who was next after Vernice? Evelyn Patuawa-Nathan, who was living in Sydney and published in Fiji. Place where Witi Ihimaera wrote The Whale Rider? New York. Home of prolific and influential Sāmoan/Māori novelist Lani Young? Sāmoa.)
There were other reasons I wanted to study overseas: I had a strong sense that, for my doctoral studies, I wanted to understand how we can think about ourselves and our texts alongside other Indigenous peoples and their texts. While literary scholars were thin on the ground in the Māori scholarly community, the comparatively large cohort of American Indian scholars had produced an impressive bookshelf of critical work and there were several overlapping networks of Indigenous scholars working with written texts.
Being a part of these conversations has made my own work stronger, and reading Māori texts alongside other Indigenous texts can produce a whole lot of insights that are less visible when Māori are only considered within the nation-state context of New Zealand.
For example, Keri Hulme’s Booker prize-winning novel The Bone People can be read as a New Zealand novel alongside other novels produced here, but we can see different things about the novel (and about New Zealand) when we read it alongside American Indian author Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel The Almanac of the Dead and Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria.
If comparative Indigenous work involves travel beyond Aotearoa, is it somehow at odds with mātauranga Māori? I’ve never thought so. To me, approaches to Indigenous–Indigenous connections can be related to the tikanga of how we conduct our relationships with others. I strongly believe that relational, connecting, interlocking Indigenous–Indigenous work that moves across and beyond colonial nation-state borders can be grounded in, and indeed can be an exercise in practising, mātauranga Māori.
While the location of texts and Indigenous networks in my discipline encouraged me to leave New Zealand for my PhD, and to then pursue academic postings overseas, proximity to cultural expertise in Aotearoa is one good reason to stay or, at least, to maintain good connections with home. After all, we can think about Māori writing alongside and through other Māori cultural forms and concepts; we can derive structures of analysis from within the Māori world.
This kind of scholarship assumes that there are appropriate tools for critical analysis and theory within our own knowledges. I am excited about the new generations of students and scholars whose proficiency in Māori language and culture means they have a much deeper well on which to draw for their thinking about Māori texts, and enjoy tracing the work of the people who have been doing this for a long time.
To choose an example of what this approach to literary studies looks like, Melbourne’s aforementioned chapter on Māori literary traditions draws on the architecture of the wharenui in order to think about the relationship of Māori writing to New Zealand writing; this metaphor was engaged again, more recently, by Tina Makereti in her 2017 lecture “Poutokomanawa — The Heartpost”.
We can find another iconic example in a book review in the Listener where Arapera Blank describes Keri Hulme’s The Bone People as “a piece of kuru pounamu”, a description that communicates something about the significance, value, complexity and beauty of the novel to people who understand that metaphor, who understand why pounamu is a particularly apt way to describe a novel by a Kāi Tahu writer.
This latter example demonstrates one consequence of what could be described as drawing on mātauranga Māori to engage Māori texts: describing a novel as “kuru pounamu” centres a particular readership (those who know or can guess at what it means), implying to any other readers (of the review or of the novel) that there may be elements of the text that they cannot know or appreciate.
For readers of all kinds, suggesting there are limits to one’s engagement with a text is a radical move. Within colonial structures of knowledge, the reader has a right to know and understand everything. Knowledge is related to possession and privileged readers are used to knowing (and thus possessing) everything, while marginalised readers are used to having the sense of reading over someone else’s shoulder.
To choose an example related to gendered structures of power, the term “mankind” can only mean “humankind” when women are reading over the collective shoulders of men. Men are the real humans here, and women are conditioned to understanding that we are not as human as men to the extent that we can identify with “mankind” as if it refers to us when it clearly does not.
To return to our example of describing a novel as kuru pounamu, then, readers of the review who do not understand what that means are faced with the limits to their knowledge. Conversely, and unexpectedly (and happily), though, other readers — Māori readers — are suddenly thrust into the frame, holding a piece of paper that expects to be addressing them, that expects a Māori person to be a reader, as opposed to all the other bits of paper in their lives.
Likewise, although Melbourne and Makereti provide helpful explanations for readers who are unfamiliar with wharenui (Melbourne even supplies a diagram), those of us who have spent time sitting, talking, listening, singing, learning and sleeping in many different wharenui will draw on all of that knowledge as we consider the claims they make about Māori literature.
And, to take this argument on one more twist, spending time in so many wharenui trains one to feel comfortable with the idea that we as individuals do not need to “know” everything in the first place.
So, drawing on metaphors and aesthetic theories from mātauranga Māori can provide us with ways to engage with Māori texts that we might not have gotten to through other pathways.
In addition, thinking about how we think about English language texts from within a Māori worldview also pushes back against the colonial story that says contemporary (or maybe post-contact) cultural production is a departure from, or proof of destruction of, Māori worlds.
This is important because a surprising number of literary critics spend a lot of time obsessing over how or whether Indigenous writers who write in English (or who write novels, short fiction, poetry, libretta etc) are even Indigenous any more; they come up with diagnoses of fatal Indigenous illnesses like “walking between two worlds”, “cultural loss”, “dislocation”, “urban Māori” and so on.
By contrast, I would argue that approaches that draw on mātauranga Māori confidently assume that texts written or composed in English are yet another extension of the longstanding, dynamic, rich legacy of Māori expression that reaches all the way back to Te Kore (the nothingness that existed before the world was created) and all the way forwards and outwards to forms our mokopuna will be using that we can’t even yet imagine.
It might be surprising that a chapter about English focuses so much on colonial power relations, and on te reo Māori, but these are important considerations both in relation to mātauranga Māori and in relation to where I currently work as a literary scholar.
The discipline of English, as much as it has broken my heart, continues to sustain and inspire me, but I’m not currently in English. Or at least, that’s not the name over the door of the place where I work and it’s no longer anywhere in my email signature block.
To be frank, the departments that represent my discipline in Aotearoa need some decolonisation work. I still teach Patuawa-Nathan’s poem, and teach students to “reach among comments” for “names of cousins/of brothers/of fathers”, but I am doing this in a Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies where I teach into Māori and Indigenous studies as well as into Pacific and Indigenous studies.
It feels important to distinguish between a discipline and a department (or programme or faculty or whatever): one is an intellectual thing and the other is an institution/organisation thing. I still write, and publish, and speak, and am included in literary studies conversations globally, even though people in English departments tend not to remember that one of “their own” might be nearby — in another institutional unit just across campus.
I still dream of many diverse Māori scholars in every English department in the country, and maybe one day I’ll be one of them again, but I am also suspicious about institutional dreams that are assimilationist — which is to say, institutional dreams that involve little structural change and a massive price to be paid by Indigenous people.
In Indigenous studies, I have colleagues, contexts, students, questions and tearoom conversations that nurture me and my work in ways that never happened in English. Here, I feel far away from English, like its out-of-place diplomat in a foreign country who hasn’t been home for a while and isn’t sure she’d fit in there again anyway.
At the same time, though, in Indigenous studies, and in dominant conversations about the nature and purpose of Māori research, including the conversation in this volume, I feel like the embodiment of that Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others”.
Some of this anxiety is the nature of working anywhere in the humanities, especially in the era of STEM orthodoxies and popular ideas that university study should train students for a particular job, but this feels particularly sharp in the case of my discipline because of the sheer Englishness of English.
It can seem that people working in other disciplinary spaces are busy working on really important kaupapa: Indigenous language revitalisation; demographics and statistics about who we are; health and well-being; reckoning with Māori economics, politics, history; sciences; Indigenous knowledges and climate change; and so on.
Other people’s research methodologies require them to rush out to our communities, ask questions and seek knowledge and conduct interviews and engage with the knowledge held by elders and youth and everyone in between.
Other people are doing things that address our suicide rates, our crime rates, the number of people who can serve on the pae at our marae, our constant struggle with the Crown in so many ways, our food sources, our traditional expressive forms, our healing.
Meanwhile, off goes Alice to the library to read some books. Or maybe to a classroom or a supervision meeting where we will talk about some poetry. Or perhaps to a café with her laptop to write an article that analyses a novel, or a chapter about the context of a literary journal, or a book about forgotten Māori writers, or a letter of support for a writer’s application for funding.
So much of the work I do feels at odds with the urgency and applicability of so much other Māori research. Sometimes I feel resigned: I am not doing real Māori research. Sometimes I feel defensive: I try to justify my discipline, but this can sound like I am throwing shade on others. Sometimes I feel guilty: I am swallowing up resources that could be used to save lives.
But then I look at my students who are doing incredible things — in classrooms, on social media, in research projects — with texts written by Māori (and Pacific and Indigenous) people. I listen to the way they revolutionarily frame and reframe their world in response to what they are reading and writing. I read the ways they are drawing on the depths and breadths of mātauranga Māori as they think about the nature of our collective literary legacy.
I think about Mowhee writing his memoir in London, and Wineera writing her poems in Hawai`i, and Makereti writing her lecture about poutokomanawa, and Grace clearing the kitchen table to write her early fiction, and Patuawa-Nathan’s students reaching among comments for names.
I look at the incredibly diverse texts written by our own people: the texts and their writers standing in front of me, on my bookshelves, all around me. Something happens when we as Māori engage English — the language, the nation, the discipline — on our own terms.
It’s a trick, yes. And I am committed to doing what I can to play this trick on students, readers, thinkers and writers yet to come.
Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface, edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, and published by Otago University Press, is now in bookstores for $60.
Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) is Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Academic), Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato. She is a scholar, poet and irredentist who writes and teaches at the intersections of Indigenous, Pacific, literary and cultural studies. Alice’s book Once Were Pacific: Maori connections to Oceania (University of Minnesota Press) won Best First Book (2012) from the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. “Indigenous conversations about biography”, a special issue of Biography she co-edited, was awarded Best Special Issue (2017) by the Council of Learned Journals.
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