Steph Matuku: “You never saw Māori kids in literature. Ever.”

Perhaps you’ve already made the acquaintance of Taranaki writer Steph Matuku through her writing on E-Tangata. Later this month, she will make her debut as a published book author with not one but two new novels: the young adult novel Flight of the Fantail — it’s sci-fi with elements of Māori mythology — and a chapter book for younger readers, called Whetū Toa and the Magician, both published by Huia.

Naturally, both books star Māori kids. Here Steph talks to Dale about why that matters.  


Kia ora, Steph, and congratulations on your two debut pukapuka. Can we start with you telling us a bit about the Matuku clan and where you grew up?

I’m from Taranaki. Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga oku iwi. But I was born in Kaitaia. My parents, Val Kirk and Wi Matuku, moved back down to New Plymouth when I was about six.

I have a younger sister, Alice. My mum, Val, is from Hawera. And my dad, Wi, who has passed away now, is from Waitara-Urenui way. Lots of Matuku out that way. And I have two young children who are at primary school.

I had a fairly typical middle-class Pākehā kind of upbringing. It was back in the ’80s. Lots of running round the neighbourhood. Roller skates. Bikes. Hanging around down the beach. And doing things with my friends without any adult supervision. Which I would not let my children do today. Times have changed, I suppose.

What about your parents’ mahi? Does it give any indication that you would one day put pen to paper?

My mum and dad were both teachers. My dad was quite creative and taught Māori and art at intermediate school.

My mum is a writer, too. She’d published stories and a couple of kids’ books. We were quite a bookish kind of family. I was a big reader from an early age and I inherited all my mother’s childhood books. So, I had this massive collection and I was always reading. I loved Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis.

But those books were all about foreign children. The first New Zealand kids’ book I ever read was an old hardback falling to bits, called His Kid Brother, by Isabel Peacocke.

And I remember being really struck by the fact that all the seasons were in the right place and that Christmas was in summertime, which never happened in the other books. And then reading Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera helped lock that into place for me.

But you never saw Māori kids in literature. Ever.

I often ask people from Taranaki when they became aware of the realities and injustices of the Taranaki settlement.

Not until I was an adult. I’d had a very safe, insular, pale upbringing, and New Plymouth at the time was also very Pākehāfied. So you just never heard about the other side.

When the government decided to change the name of the mountain — not even change the name but include the name Taranaki alongside Mt Egmont — oh my God, the fuss that that kicked up.

That was the first thing I noticed about the politics of that time — the name change. And now, of course, nobody says Mt Egmont. Who would say that?

It’s quite different, isn’t it? You went to Queen Vic, how did that come to be?

I was the class of ’86 to ’89. Like I said, I’d been brought up in a very Pākehā, middle-class environment. And then, suddenly, I was thrust into this brown-girl world with Māori wāhine from all over the country and all walks of life.

And I was completely blown away. I didn’t really feel like I fitted in at first. But then, later, I realised that I probably fitted in better there than I did in my childhood environment, where I was only one of very few Māori in my entire primary and intermediate circle.

Queen Vic was hard. I’m not going to lie. It was a world within a world. It was a little brown microcosm, I suppose, that taught us that we were special and amazing. But it didn’t really prepare us for the real word that told us: Yeah, nah.

You come out of Queen Vic with your head held high: Yay!

And about a month later, you’re like: Oh.

Who influenced you there? Let’s start with the teaching staff because there were some pretty exceptional people there.

Well, clearly, I did not appreciate my teachers enough. Tom Roa was there. He was a great Māori teacher. But my clearest memory of him was him catching me smoking cigarettes behind the school hall.

So, yeah, I wasn’t a great student. I was naughty. I was bored in class. I hated maths with a fiery passion, and I was pretty crap at kapa haka, too.

But I was always good at English because I was always reading. My favourite English teacher was Mrs Goodfellow, who, unfortunately, passed away with cancer. She was really cool, with a very dry sense of humour. She was one of those strict, no-nonsense people that I really responded to.

What did you pick up of the reo? Or was that not something that interested you at that time?

We all learned te reo. I did it right through my schooling and then lost it when I came out of school because I had nobody to speak it with. I’m just relearning now, doing a Māori course through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

It’s really nice seeing how much of the language I’ve retained from my school years, even though there’s been a massive gap where I haven’t spoken it. It’s in there. It’s in my head somewhere.

What have we lost with Queen Vic’s closure, Steph?

That’s a hard question. I suppose we’ve lost a place to aspire to go. Queen Vic had a reputation as being the school to go to, the place where you educated young Māori to be leaders. So, we’ve lost that.

Well, it worked for you. You’re a young Māori leader. We don’t have a lot of people in the writing scene. Perhaps you’re fulfilling their hopes for you, anyway, some years down the track.

Oh my goodness. If I was their big brown hope, I’m really sorry that I haven’t done more. That’s so funny. I never think of myself like that. I just scribble stuff.

The best could still be to come. You’re a playwright. A couple of novels on the way. I really like your opinion pieces. Let’s not underestimate how that period of your life can emerge in the things you do and the talents you show later in life. After you left school, I know you ended up doing copywriting. Did you do some other work before that? What’s the worst job you ever had?

I got a summer job at my mum’s friend’s music shop. It was really fun because you got to gift-wrap guitars. But, I managed to drop the vacuum cleaner out the second-floor window. I don’t know how that happened. But that was kind of dumb.

I did business at polytech. I don’t know why. I liked it, but I was only 18. What did I know about business? Nothing. My friend was working at the local radio station. She said: “There’s a data entry job here if you want it.” I was like: “Okay.” So I got that job, then managed to get a creative writing job when it came up.

A year later, the company centralised and I got sent down to Wellington to be a writer down there. I loved it. Finally, I’d found my place. I’d found people I could relate to, who were all a bit crazy and working really hard, but also having a fun time while they were doing it.

I stayed at The Radio Network for 13 to 14 years. And that’s when I decided I wanted to be a real writer.

We used to get free tickets to everything — lots of gigs, concerts, plays and stuff. I saw a Roger Hall play at Downstage, and it was so tight and all the loose ends were tied in really nicely. It was really, really good. And then I went to a Powderfinger gig, but I was oblivious to all the drums and yelling because I kept thinking about the play, and how simple it was.

So I went home and I wrote a play, and it was terrible. I learned that the simpler something is, the harder it is to write. I had no idea about that. I just thought it was going to be easy. And it wasn’t.

It was the most horrible thing I’d ever written. And so, I wrote another. That was really bad, too.

But my third play was a kids’ play called A Story of Rona. And I wrote it in snatches while my own children were napping. It took a very long time to get this play written. I entered it in a Playmarket competition and it won its category.

And that’s when I thought: “Wow, I can actually be a proper writer. They like it.” It was the most exciting moment of my life.

I’m sure having kids might’ve eclipsed that one. I’m waiting for the story of the exploding vacuums aimed at kids and the wonderful phrase that you’ve coined: Choc-lit.

Brown people writing. Brown writers.

You say that you were writing play number three while your children were napping. Do you think being a mum has influenced how you write or what you write about?

I was in radio, and I’d been sitting at the same desk for a really long time — and I thought: “Stuff this, I’m going to quit. I’ve got some money in the bank to keep me for a couple of months, so I’m going to write the great New Zealand novel.”

So I quit my job. And I found out at my leaving party that I was pregnant.

I was like: “Oh my God!” I had no job. No maternity leave. No nothing. And also, all I could think about was having the baby. I wasn’t thinking about writing at all. So, there’s a big long gap for a couple of years where I didn’t do any writing in my dream of being the great New Zealand novelist. It was just crushed into dust.

But then I started getting back into it when the kids were getting more sleep and I was getting more sleep. Because when you write a play, you can just write a scene. So I’d think: “Okay, I need a scene where Rona and the moon have an argument.”

So, while the kids were napping for 45 minutes, I’d write a scene about them having an argument. That’s how I wrote it. Once I had all these major scenes, I wrote the linking ones. And every now and then I’d write a little song or a little poem to go in it. Then, eventually, I had a play.

It’s a real skill. Congratulations for honing it. I’m reminded of a saying: There’s no such thing as a dumb idea. You’re trying to be creative. You’re trying to look at the world from vastly different angles. What strengths did you have in copywriting, and how valuable has that background been for your creative skills?

Exceptionally valuable. It gave me a really thick skin, which is the most valuable part of being a writer. If I was writing an ad and the client came back and said, “We hate it”, or “We want to change it”, I’d be like: “Oh my gosh. I spent a whole hour writing that!”

It was torture. I was quite a dramatic person back in the day. So, it taught me to separate myself from the work.

That’s exactly what it’s like when you’re writing something. You put your heart and soul into it, and then you have to leave it. You have to let it go out on its own. And from that moment, you have no control over it. You have no control over what other people think.

So, other people might hate your writing, but you’ve just got to have that really thick skin and go with it.

The biggest skill that copywriting taught me was to harden up and get over it.

The second thing was to keep your sentences really short. Because, you know, in radio you can’t just waffle on for days. Everything is in 30-second bites. You need to write really short sentences and you need to be very clear with what you’re saying.

I think my writing is quite clear and succinct because of that.

That led to Te Papa Tupu, which is doing so much to nurture emerging Māori literary talent. Tell us about that and what it did for you?

It was amazing. It changed my life.

When The Story of Rona won its competition, that gave me the courage to enter Te Papa Tupu because it seemed quite prestigious and flash. It’s a writing programme set out by the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers. I got a place on the programme with five other people.

I was mentored by Whiti Hereaka through the first draft of my Young Adult book Flight of the Fantail. I would write bits every week and send them off to Whiti. She’d give me comments. Which is also where that thick skin comes in handy.

And eventually, I had a first draft. Then a second draft. Then a third draft. I sent it off to Huia and it was accepted for publishing. It was a most exciting moment.

And then, while I was waiting for the editing to come back on that, I finished this smaller chapter book for younger children called Whetū Toa and the Magician. And that got accepted for publication, too.

So, now I have two debut novels with Huia, which is really cool, but a little bit weird. But really super cool.

Steph with her two debut books, launched last week, both published by Huia and both starring Māori kids.

A lot of people harbour ambitions of becoming a writer but can’t get past that first page. They’re screwing up the page, time and time again. What would you say to aspiring writers?

Just write. Just keep going. And if you’re one of those people that constantly looks back over what they’re doing and tries to refine it, then put those pages away and don’t look at them. Keep going. Keep pushing forward. Because you can fix it up later.

They say you can’t edit an empty page, and that’s true. You’ve just got to keep going, and going, and going. You either set a word count for the day, or you say: “I’m going to write a chapter a day,” and you do it. You’ve got to be really disciplined because nobody is making you do it. But if you don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.

Let’s talk about style and Māori storytelling. You suggested in an E-Tangata column that we may have allowed ourselves to be locked into an expected style, such as portraying Māori as warriors or as part of gangs. What are the risks in this?

I want to be really clear that I don’t want to take anything away from those stories. They are valid and are fabulous in themselves. I just think it’s important to remember that there are other stories as well, that perhaps aren’t getting the same kind of recognition because they’re not in that style.

When was the last rom-com you read by a Māori writer about Māori girls? Like, when? Never.

There are other stories out there that need to be told. We don’t have to be locked into that same pattern. We can branch out. We can have science fiction. We can be on other planets. Especially other planets. I always think Māori are such survivors. If we ever go to another planet, we’re going to win because we’ve been through so much already.

And you’re willing to break that mould and write a youth-focused pukapuka that does look at the sci-fi scene. I guess there are few parameters when the world you’re writing about is from your imagination?

Yeah. There are two types of writers, and then people who fit in between. There’s the pantsers and the plotters.

A plotter plots out every aspect of every chapter. They’ll outline the entire book. They know exactly where the story’s going to go, and so all they have to do is fill in the blanks and they’re writing. They know what beats they’re going to hit. They know where the turning points are. They know everything about their story before they even start writing.

A pantser, however, is when you just start writing and who knows where you’re going to end up. It’s always surprising and interesting and amazing. So, people usually fit somewhere on that spectrum.

I’m usually more of a plotter than a pantser because I find it easier to edit. If you’re pantsing, sometimes you get big holes in your story which are quite hard to edit out.

We’re all pushing towards a goal of developing more pride as a people and to move forward on many fronts — educationally, in health, politically. And the development of good writers who can reflect our communities must surely help with the development of that sense of pride. How important do you think Māori writing is in overall Māori development?

It’s so important for me to get Māori kids on the page, which is why my protagonists are always Māori. Because when I was growing up, you just didn’t see yourself.

You need that validation that it’s okay to exist in literature. And I think it’s also important for kids of other cultures to be able to walk hand in hand with Māori characters. Not just to learn about the culture but also learn empathy.

Because when you walk with a character through a book, not a film which is over in 90 minutes, but a book that might take you a week or two weeks to get through, and you share their trials and their joys, you become closer to them and you understand them.

And that empathy that you feel between the pages can translate over into real life, and it makes the world a better place.

Well, that’s how I feel about books, anyway. My protagonists are Māori, they’re urbanised, and they’re interesting. They’re normal kids but they have that little something, that spark that sets them apart as Māori, which is the way they see the world and relate to their peers and the struggles they have. That whole feeling of casual racism on a daily basis. Knowing that their life is never going to be as comfortable or easy as their Pākehā mates.

You’re meeting some really inspiring people by virtue of the area you’re working in. Are there some people whose efforts continue to inspire you?

Whiti Hereaka, of course. She was my mentor on writing my own book. But her new book, Legacy, has just come out. I got a copy of it a while ago and I was up all night. It is so good. And I felt really jealous. Whiti is such a brilliant writer. She taught me little writing tricks and tips about Point of View, and headhopping — where you’re reading from one person’s point of view and then you suddenly switch to another person’s viewpoint, which can make a reader feel a bit seasick. And she taught me to be self-disciplined and to be organised with my thoughts.

Hone Kouka is a big one for me as well. I was writing a film called How Tui and Kae Found Their Mother with seed funding through the New Zealand Film Commission and the New Zealand Writers Guild. Hone was mentoring me through this process of writing the film, which must have been completely painful for him because I’d never written a feature film before. And in fact, I was googling stuff like: “How do you write a film?”

But he was so good. He was such a great mentor and so knowledgeable and wise. And I’m a huge admirer of his work as well.

When he got through my first draft — which was horrifically bad — he asked: “Why are you writing this? What do you want to say?” Which are two very simple questions, but were extremely hard to answer.

It turned out that the film I’d thought was a light adventure story, was actually a really deep metaphor for painful events that were going on in my life. I couldn’t see it, but Hone did. It was a very traumatic process to go through, that digging deep inside myself, but once I’d done it, the script got way better. I’m kinda proud of it. I hope someone makes it. Hint hint.

There’s also my dear friend Kellie Hailes. She writes romance novels and she’s on her fifth now. I just love her dedication and hard work. She’s incredibly inspiring.

Sometimes we end up talking about what people do rather than what they love. I wonder if you’ve got anything to say about things you love and draw strength from — and that could be anything from ironing clothes to riding motorbikes.

I do, actually. I’ve discovered photography. So, for the last few months, I’ve been taking surf photos. It’s my new thing, and I spend far too much time doing it. There’s no hardship standing on the beach in the sunshine, listening to the waves. I have an Instagram called Matukusurf. But that’s what I do. Even though I don’t know anything about surfing — and I still get mixed up between on-shore and off-shore.

Thanks for sharing with us some kōrero about your background. It’s been a fascinating life, thus far, and I’m sure it will be going forward as well.

Thank you. That’s really interesting because I just think I’m the most boring person alive. My story is: I grew up. That’s about it. I’m glad you find that interesting.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2018

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.