It didn’t take long for others to see the value of Robyn Bargh’s role in setting up Huia Publishers nearly 30 years ago. That was a decisive step in helping Māori writers get their stories into the hands of eager readers, Māori and non-Māori.
So the acclaim soon followed. For instance, in the New Year’s honours list in 2012, when she landed a CNZM. And in 2018 with a Book Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. Along the way, she’s also been lauded (and awarded) for her other work, not only in literature but in Māori arts and crafts, and in education, theatre, and television.
But it’s Huia that’s been her special baby, as she explains here to Dale.
Kia ora, Robyn. You and the Huia project you set in motion, nearly 30 years ago, have played a great part in helping Māori writers, scores and scores of them, tell their stories to readers all around the world.
It’s been a wonderful contribution to New Zealand publishing. But what was is it that sent you off in that direction?
What got me into publishing was that I became conscious that, overseas, people were writing about injustice and the experience of black and indigenous people, and we didn’t have much of that publishing here.
I grew up in a small Māori community with a marae, a church, a school and some farms. But, in New Zealand literature, very little of that Māori life was written about.
The experiences I had as a child at Horohoro, just south of Rotorua, weren’t talked about, even though it would be fairly common for us to come home from school in the bus, hop off at the marae, and go to some marae event. Back at school the next day, it didn’t even occur to me to say that I’d been to the marae the night before.
I lived in two different worlds, which wasn’t unusual for a lot of Māori kids. I realised that our Māori world wasn’t in our literature — the dilemmas and conflicts that people like me were facing, and how we were dealing with them.
My husband, Brian Bargh, and I spent three years in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s, and that’s where I had an introduction to publishing. That’s when I saw that there were a whole lot of our stories that needed to be told.
Was Huia Publishers something that you and Brian hatched together?
It was my idea. Brian agreed with it, and we, more or less, just worked out how we could do some work and get paid for publishing annual reports and stuff like that, which could then fund the books. Especially starting off, it was pretty hard to get funding from anyone, but I was pretty sure that we could make it happen. Brian kept working so that we did have at least some income early on.
Why the name Huia?
We came up with a whole lot of names. And a lot of people said: “Just use your name, like Bridget Williams Books.” I thought Robyn Bargh Books or Robyn Young Books didn’t sound too appealing, so we sort of went round and round the mulberry bush.
For a while, I tried various names, like our maunga and our awa and stuff like that. But my name is Rangihuia, and eventually we came back to Huia.
Which is a great name.
We had the notion that it was an idea that might fly. And we got started in 1991.
What was the first book you published?
I think the first two books were Becoming Bicultural by James Ritchie and He Tangi Aroha, a novel by Apirana Taylor.
I suspect that we got them because no one else would publish them. But they turned out to be good choices, and I was pleased to publish them. I was honoured, in fact.
The other early things we published came about because my mum, Hepora Young, was commissioned by what was then the Iwi Transition Agency (now Te Puni Kokiri), to publish some collections of stories and writing in Māori.
These books were called Te Matawai. The first ones were published by Daphne Brazzell, who was a great supporter for me and a very great friend. We took over and published three issues of Te Matawai.
My mother tried to encourage a number of excellent speakers of Māori to write stories in Māori. Waaka Vercoe and Mange Tautari were two of those people who wrote for us.
Twenty-eight years on and we’re looking at Huia Publishers with great regard because of the work that you’ve championed. There’ve been cartoons about the war and captions in te reo Māori, flags of the Pacific, the history of political independence struggles in the Pacific, kids books and other creative writing as well. How proud are you now of the great array of Huia books?
Very proud. In two ways in particular. Hundreds of Māori writers have now been published, so I’m really thrilled with that. And the second thing is that, over the last few years, we’ve published more and more in te reo Māori.
Most of that has been for the Ministry of Education and, as a result, a lot of it hasn’t been available to the public. I know some people are critical of that and, to a degree, I am too.
Nevertheless, that has provided an opportunity for Māori language writers to develop and get published. The next step is for us to find ways to make those books publicly available.
In 2014, we handed the day-to-day running of Huia Publishers to Brian Morris and Eboni Waitere, so they now manage the company. I’m involved as a director, and I get to work on some interesting projects.
Let’s turn back for a few minutes to your early days and to your whānau.
Our whānau home is at Horohoro, about 15 kilometres south of Rotorua — and the family is still living on land we’ve inherited from our tūpuna. My koroua was Raharuhi Pururu, and my mother was Hepora Raharuhi.
She married my father, Robert Young, so she became Hepora Young, and I grew up as Robyn Young. Went to school here in Horohoro and then in Rotorua.
Our hapū is Ngāti Kea Ngāti Tuara, and I’m still involved with hapū activities, like the rūnanga, the Treaty settlement, education and environmental programmes.
In fact, I’m in the process of moving back to Horohoro after a long time away. Brian and I have just bought a little property down the road from our family home, so it’s an exciting time.
Naturally, you’re best known in New Zealand for Huia, but you were a schoolteacher first, I believe.
Yes, I trained as a teacher, but I didn’t teach for very long because we went to Papua New Guinea. Brian got a job working on water quality and I worked in the University of Papua New Guinea’s education department doing research and editing. That was my introduction to editing and publishing.
Tell us a bit about what took you to PNG and what you learned from the experience.
Brian has a degree in agricultural science, specialising in soil science. Water was a big issue at that time, the 1980s, because there was gold mining and copper mining, and the environmental standards were pretty poor. His work was monitoring water quality and trying to raise the environmental standards.
What I learned from there mostly was the true meaning of tino rangatiratanga. Papua New Guinea had been run under Australian administration for a long time, and even though the country had become independent in 1975, the Australians were still running everything, and they tended to look down on the Papua New Guineans — and make derogatory comments about them.
But what I learned was that the PNG people still knew it was their country. They were the mana whenua, and it didn’t matter how many times other people threw off at them, PNG belonged to them, and they could run it however they wanted.
This has been helpful for me in dealing with Māori issues, in particular Treaty settlements.
Another vivid memory is the environmental degradation at the Bougainville copper mine. The water that came out of that mine was copper blue. The whole river was that colour and the fish were dead. It was really shocking, and it was Brian’s job to try and improve the situation. There were huge battles over that.
In your younger days as a young mum in PNG and then on your return to Aotearoa, who were the major influences on the type of person you’ve become and on the political thoughts that you’ve carried ever since?
The 1970s and ‘80s was the time of Ngā Tamatoa and other Māori activism. So there were political influences on our generation. Then, of course, overseas there were the movements of black people in the States and in South Africa. We always gravitated towards those movements.
But I got into publishing because I’m a reader, and I was reading a lot of stuff about civil rights and social justice. Awareness of those things was growing, and Brian and I were also involved in the environmental movement.
When we came home to New Zealand and saw what was happening to native forests, we joined in environmental protests and certainly followed those movements closely. And still do.
When we look at Māori development and the many strands that encompasses, where does literature fit in?
At the time Huia was starting, there was other stuff getting going in Māori media, such as Māori radio stations, Māori newspapers, and, of course, Mana magazine.
I always used to think that the work that we were doing was adding another brick to the wall — the wall of tino rangatiratanga.
That’s a great analogy. When you launched Huia, publishing was a foreign concept to most of us. But young people now, with their desktop technologies and their interactive cyber capability, probably don’t see the publishing world as challenging as we did. New technology has had a big impact, hasn’t it?
There’ve been huge changes in technology in the way books are produced, but one issue that I’ve become conscious of recently is that it’s so easy now for writers to be “published” on the internet. You can write an opinion piece or a story or have a view on anything under the sun and put it up online and say that you’ve published it.
Not long ago, at a workshop with some Māori writers, I told them I thought they should make a distinction between those off-the-cuff, random opinion pieces, and stories written in a literary form, as I would call it, where you’re thinking carefully about the words you’re using, and you’re conveying descriptions and creating characters and developing plotlines and stories.
That’s quite different from having an opinion about something that’s happening in the moment, and when you just rattle off an opinion and publish online.
How do we encourage people to get past this blog-and-blurb writing to the more considered, professional style? What are we doing to bring through the next wave of creative writers and thinkers, and how do we get more people interested in the craft?
Well, I’m also involved with the Māori Literature Trust, and we run the Pikihuia Awards for Māori writers. We also run an incubator programme, Te Papa Tupu, where we select six writers and match them with mentors for six months and try to develop their skills.
This would be a good place to acknowledge Patricia Grace, who’s been a beacon for us for the whole time I’ve been doing this. In fact, I can remember the first time I rang her to ask her if she would come to some event we were running. And I remember just quivering and saying: “Is that Patricia Grace?” I was petrified.
But she’s been an amazing role model and, when I think of good writing, Patricia’s stories are still just the tops.
She’s a wonderful person, isn’t she? Part of E-Tangata’s focus is to acknowledge the historical connections between Māori and our Pasifika cuzzies. And, as we push along the Māori writing kaupapa, we’re also charting a pathway for emerging Pasifika talent as well. Do you have a role in encouraging Pasifika writers?
We’ve published quite a few Pasifika writers, mostly through books about issues in the Pacific. So, yes, we do have a role in supporting them, but, although I feel confident in speaking about Māori issues and Māori kaupapa and Māori writing and everything, I think we have to be careful not to generalise and assume that Pacific issues are the same.
My biggest push these days is still to try and get more written and published in te reo Māori. But I think the same thing can apply to Pacific languages too.
I’ve noticed that words aren’t your only focus, Robyn. You’re a weaver as well. Perhaps you’ll share with us what it is about that mahi that you love.
When you say weaver, I must point out that I’m a very beginning weaver, even though I started learning 10 or 15 years ago. I began by making kete, and then a few years ago I started on korowai. I’ve made two and I’m on to my third.
I suppose what I like about weaving is that I love everything about harakeke. I like working with it. I like the sound of it, the feel of it, everything about it. And I suppose I do like the idea of reviving Māori crafts — art forms, actually.
There’s been a fabulous exhibition of weaving in Rotorua, and some of the pieces just bring tears to your eyes, they’re so fine and so beautiful. When I saw the exhibition, I thought, I’ve just got to get back weaving.
But my main occupation is looking after my mokopuna. They are really the star of my life, and my whole life revolves around them these days. I have two mokopuna (Tui and Te Aokawhai), who live with their mother, Maria, in Wellington, and two (Audrey and Zach) who live in Hong Kong. Our son Kapua works over there.
And other plans for your future?
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of historical research about the lands and the stories of our tūpuna. So I’m in the process of writing and publishing some of that. As we relocate to Horohoro, I’m getting more involved in iwi affairs.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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