So vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope — if not to contain her — to grasp some of her shape, plumage and pain.
— Albert Wendt, Towards a New Oceania (1976)
I’ve been thinking a lot about why we don’t pay as much attention to our Māori and Pasifika literary heritage as we should. Partly because that’s my job, but also because Māori and Pasifika writing is groundbreaking, vibrant, and unique to our many shores. So it’s strange and sad that we’re still some way from realising its potential.
Whenever I’ve spoken or written about this before, there are three points that seem to generate the most astonishment and concern.
Firstly, only a tiny percentage of our published creative works in any given year are Māori or Pasifika. (In a survey which looked at a period of about six years since 2007, the total for Māori was only 3 to 6 percent; Pasifika even less.)
Secondly, right now in Aotearoa, you still can’t take a single university course in Māori literature in English — those that were established having been quickly disestablished as soon as their creators moved on.
And, thirdly, much more research on Māori literature is conducted overseas than in New Zealand.
Why should this matter to anyone outside academia? Because the outcome is so important for our young people and their future.
In general, our children and young people don’t get to read stories that include people like them, from communities like their own. Our children don’t get to hear voices like their own, they don’t see themselves in the literature they encounter, and, therefore, they’re less likely to see literature as something that belongs to them.
If they happen to love literature so much that nothing will keep them from studying it, they’ll have a difficult time finding the teachers and researchers they need at tertiary level to help them read and critically engage with it from a Māori or Pasifika perspective.
It simply isn’t something that we in New Zealand prioritise. Those who are part of the “field” of Māori and Pasifika literary scholarship, such that it is, are stretched thin.
Why is that?
In his iconic 1976 essay, Towards a New Oceania, which I quote at the start of this column, Albert Wendt managed both to capture the extraordinary and diverse creative power of Te Moana nui a Kiwa — and to diagnose some of the issues that keep us from harnessing that creative power.
Sadly, more than 40 years later, those issues are as relevant as ever.
We still grapple with the continued effects of colonisation in our communities. We still struggle to recognise and understand the power of our creative literatures. We still struggle with how to identify ourselves in cultures that are evolving, as they ever have, wanting to hold on to some imagined “authenticity” — a word that seems to help no one.
Of course, there is no single, perfect definition of our identities as Māori or Pasifika peoples. No single way to be who we are. One of the most insidious things colonisation does is take away our sense of ownership over our cultural identities, because we don’t feel that we’re “enough”. Not Māori enough, not Island enough, not brown enough, not enough te reo, not enough tradition in our upbringing.
So we don’t need to make things better just because we should, or because it’s fair, or even because of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We need to make this better because our young people are literally in pain, still feeling the effects of the issues Albert identified all those decades ago.
And while it isn’t going to be easy to make life better for them, I’m 100 percent confident that owning their own stories will help. Because literature can do two things. It can give us a home, a safe place; and it can take us as far away as we want to go, expanding our world beyond what we knew was possible.
Imagine a world in which the vast array of Oceanic stories was available to everyone from birth into adulthood, affirming us in all our diverse realities. Imagine a world in which young Māori and Pasifika people felt comfortable and confident adding their own idiosyncratic, messy tales to the mix. Our shape, plumage and pain.
One pathway I’m happy to be able to make available is a new course I’m teaching called Oceanic Literatures of Aotearoa: Ngā Tuhinga Kōrero o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. Ngā mihi to Massey University and all those who have supported the introduction of the course.
I want Māori and Pasifika students especially to have the opportunity to study the richness of their literary heritage, but I have to be content that the majority of students will probably be non-Māori and non-Pasifika, at least in the beginning. Many of these students will go on to be teachers who will be much better equipped to do the same for their students.
We’ll begin by destabilising the Eurocentric worldview — the worldview through which most university study proceeds — and asking how a Māori and Pasifika worldview might inform our reading.
The Eurocentric university model I’m talking about asserts that knowledge is an objective thing we can collect. But what I’m suggesting through this work is that, in Māori and Pasifika terms, we don’t always need to know everything.
As Carl Te Hira Mika has argued, a kaupapa Māori worldview not only provides space for uncertainty — making room for the unknown; the mystery behind what we think we know — it requires it. Creative writing requires these things of us, too: to make room for paradox, nuance, and not knowing, and to pay heed to relationship and connection.
For Māori and Pasifika students, I hope that this approach will be a relief. You don’t have to have all the cultural knowledge to be who you are — there is no full-stop, no beginning or end, no “authentic” definition. For Pākehā students, I hope that this approach will be a challenge: You are not the centre of things. You cannot become the centre of things, not in this field.
I also want to demonstrate to my students that, as a teacher, I’m humbled by my ignorance in the face of the immensity of the Pacific and all her peoples. It would be extremely arrogant to claim knowledge over the whole of Oceania.
The other thing we’ll do is flip how Māori and Pasifika literatures are usually read.
We’ll challenge the popular notion that Maōri and Pacific literature only began in the 1960s and 1970s. As suggested, for example, in this quote from a 2014 Mana magazine article: “Before Ihimaera published his first novel in 1973, there was no Maori literary tradition.”
Alice Te Punga Somerville notes that when we make statements like this, we’re missing the short stories that went before this novel, not to mention Hone Tuwhare’s poetry and the creative pieces that were published in Te Ao Hou for some time before that.
But I think this quote from the well-regarded Māori magazine is revealing. We don’t think we had a literary tradition because we don’t recognise a lot of our literature as literature. We’ve been defining our literature in Eurocentric terms, as our education system dictates, rather than defining it on our terms.
If you’re fortunate enough to be studying through wānanga, or Māori or Pacific studies, or schools of te reo, you might receive a different understanding than this, but for the majority in mainstream education, Māori literature is only ever seen as a late addition to a long and illustrious tradition of various English literatures. Pacific literatures are often seen as arriving around the same time.
This lateness to the literary party implies either lack of interest or lack of ability, neither of which is true.
But, defined on our own terms, our literatures go back many centuries too. So instead of placing Māori and Pacific literatures as late arrivals to English literature, we will instead recognise a whakapapa of Māori literature that goes all the way back to Te Moana nui a Kiwa.
This reconnection to our Oceanic whakapapa acknowledges relationships with other Pacific nations that existed long before European exploration of the Pacific. Following Epeli Hau’ofa and subsequent Pacific scholars, we situate ourselves in the Pacific as an ocean continent.
The Latin alphabet, reading and writing, books, and English literature were late but very welcome additions to this cultural landscape. We already had our stories and poems and other forms of literature, but we were very happy to incorporate new ways of transmitting thought. So the European contribution to our literature was important. But from this vantage point, English is the latecomer.
And in thinking about our pre-contact literatures, it’s important to note that they weren’t only oral. Suggesting that we had no visual means of conveying narrative has the same effect as suggesting that we only developed a literary tradition in the 1970s.
As Teresia Teaiwa wrote, if we assume that the roots of Pacific literature are only oral, “we continue to mystify writing as a practice and reinforce it as alien.”
Teresia was trying to liberate us from assumptions that seem to hold us back from claiming and celebrating written literature as something that is “ours”.
Written literature isn’t alien to us, because our ancestors were already using sophisticated coding built into various visual artforms — carving, weaving, tā moko, tatau, tapa — to tell our stories. As Patricia Grace showed us in Pōtiki, our wharenui are libraries where our stories are built into the walls and into the very faces of our tīpuna.
It’s my hope that reframing the way we read Oceanic literatures will help re-invigorate a field that has the potential to show us the way, as Albert Wendt says, “through a genuine decolonisation … explaining us to ourselves and creating a new Oceania.”
Dr Tina Makereti (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Rangatahi) teaches creative writing and Oceanic literatures at Massey University. She is the author of The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (2018) and co-editor of Black Marks on the White Page (2017), an anthology that celebrates Māori and Pasifika writing. In 2016, her story Black Milk won the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific region. Her other books are Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014) and Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa (2010).
Tina’s course on Oceanic literatures starts on July 15. Full details can be found here.
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