It may be time you got to know Paula Morris — through her writing anyway. And there’s a good supply of that as you can see in the footnote at the end of this interview with Dale Husband.
After 30 years of overseas travel, she’s back home now, writing, teaching writing at the University of Auckland, and encouraging young writers.
In the course of her travels, she’s been, well, almost everywhere, sometimes working in marketing but then focusing on writing, teaching, gathering academic qualifications, having books published and reaping rewards through fellowships, residences and prestigious awards too.
It’s too complex a CV to spell out here. But it definitely is some CV. Not just London, York and Sheffield in the UK, but New York, Iowa and New Orleans in the US, and other spots such as Latvia, Italy, Belgium and Denmark.
Tēnā koe, Paula, or, if we were to go slightly more formal for the moment: Tēnā koe, Dr Paula Jane Kiri Morris — and thank you for being our guest on e-Tangata. Your name suggests that, like so many New Zealanders, you’re a combination of Pākehā and Māori.
Well, the Māori side comes from my dad, Kiri, who went over to England in the late 1950s. He travelled around Europe with a friend in a campervan and worked in London at various jobs — as a printer, and as a security guard, too — and whatever other work he could land.
But his great claim to fame was that he was an extra in the film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. Not that we ever spotted him when we saw the movie. He was just one of many, many soldiers.
In London he met my mother. They got married and came back to New Zealand in 1964. Her name was Deborah — never shortened. Not Deb or Debbie. She was English and, although she lived here until she died three years ago, she continued to think of herself as English.
Settling here must’ve been quite hard for her after living in London. My father’s parents, Jane and Alf, had moved down to Ponsonby from Pakiri, north of Auckland, during the Great Depression when my grandfather just couldn’t make a go of it on the farm anymore.
They lived in Ponsonby and then in Herne Bay which, in those days, were more working-class neighbourhoods — mixed class, mixed ethnicities. Very much at the centre of life in Auckland. My grandma worked in the staff cafeteria at Rendells, the department store on Karangahape Road. My grandfather was a storeman at the New Zealand Herald. They became very Auckland people.
Through my grandmother, though, we have really strong ties to Pakiri, Leigh and Omaha. We whakapapa to Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Whātua. Our Omaha marae is there at Leigh. And Little Barrier is very much part of our Ngāti Manuhiri inheritance as well. I still get a buzz every time we go to Leigh, cresting the hill and seeing Hauturu (Little Barrier) there in the distance. It has a very powerful place in our family.
Let’s move on to your school years. Were you a good student?
I grew up in Te Atatu South in West Auckland and went to Freyberg Memorial, Rangeview Intermediate and then Rutherford High School, now Rutherford College. A massive high school then and even more massive now. My sister (Lynn-Elisabeth) and brother (Stephen) and I all went to Rutherford even though we lived out of zone because it was considered a very good school.
It had an advanced placement programme that my sister and I went through. Was I a good student? Well, good at some things. But I wasn’t an all-rounder. I was hopeless at maths and science. Really, really hopeless. But I wasn’t bad at English, history and languages. Art history and geography, too. And we had excellent teachers.
It was a great school, but I didn’t take advantage of everything. I wasn’t a sporty person. I wasn’t in kapa haka either. I wasn’t doing anything much except reading and writing. Those were the things I liked.
Then you went on to Auckland University where you did a BA in English and history.
My parents were very keen that we should all go to university because they thought we were bright enough. And we were lucky to have that support because these days I see students at university who don’t have that kind of backing and some of them really struggle.
Being at university is like having a job. You have to give it 40 hours a week and you have to work really hard at some points, in particular with your assignments and leading up to exams. I think I was lucky as well in that I went at a good time, made friends quite quickly — and then had a great experience in the English department.
The teachers then included Karl Stead, Sebastian Black, Michael Neill, Roger Horrocks, Wystan Curnow and Aorewa McLeod. She was very important to me because she was the first explicitly feminist person I’d met, I guess. That was all new for me. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I realise how important you can be as a teacher, opening your students’ eyes to new things — new knowledge, new experiences and new ways of looking at the world. The importance of our teachers, like the importance of our families, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Then you were off overseas for much of the next 30 years. Judging by the time you’ve been away, that must’ve been a high priority for you.
Oh, yes. I think going overseas can be important. It unmoors you. It unhinges you. You don’t have your support systems so you’re forced to sink or swim. And, for me, it was really good because I learned how to be independent and how to solve my own problems.
I was lonely and homesick many times but I was determined to make a go of it — whatever it was. Whether it was a course at university or jobs. I had a series of low-paid jobs in London, leading on to others with slightly better pay. And then I went to New York and got much better paid.
Along the way, I realised that it’s very important to have a strong work ethic, to give your all to whatever it is you’re doing and not sell yourself short. I saw that there was a challenge for me as a writer when I kind of rediscovered that writing was what I wanted to do. And that challenge was to apply a strong work ethic to my writing and not slack off. To be determined and professional.
Those years in London and New York were valuable for another reason too. They were a good preparation for dealing with people anywhere, including on social media these days, who try to tear you down. While I was away, I worked in some really cut-throat cities and businesses, and I learned not to be put off by criticism or by bullying.
I’ve been home for two years now and I meet a lot of people who don’t say or do things, or write a particular book or essay, because they’re afraid of criticism. But you have to do what you feel is right — and stand by that, regardless of the criticism.
That doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a bit of a softie. I’m very emotional. Part of me would like to hide away and just get on with my own stuff and not engage with the world at all. But, through the years, I’ve learned some lessons about the importance of standing up and being heard.
I see that as well as tackling all sorts of jobs — such as with the BBC and the New York Times — you’ve gathered overseas academic qualifications too. But you also shot back to New Zealand in 2001 to do a Masters degree in Creative Writing.
Yes, that was in Wellington, at Victoria, where Bill Manhire was my teacher and mentor. He’s been very generous with his help for up-and-coming writers. Just as Witi Ihimaera has. I haven’t studied with Witi but I know him through the writing community. Very supportive and encouraging.
So I have nothing but admiration for Bill and Witi. And for Pat Grace as well. She’s getting older now but she’s still willing to come out and be supportive of other writers. She understands how much support a writer needs to sustain any sort of life.
My experience of Victoria was fantastic. It was there that I wrote Queen of Beauty, my first published novel. And it was a great gift of time, although my husband, Tom Moody, and I were horribly broke — and freezing because we lived in a very cold house in Wellington and hadn’t known what it meant to be in the path of the southerlies.
That’s when I realised that I’m very much an Aucklander. I much more belong here, up north where my roots are — and where the city that’s reflected at me is a city I’m more familiar with.
You’re one of our Māori storytellers who’s had success in writing novels and short stories. Essays as well. But Māori have had great success in making movies too. For starters there’s Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider and Boy. Is that an area where we should be directing even more of our writing talent?
I’d like to see more Māori books turned into movies. Witi has a good track record with his books being made into movies. But some of Patricia Grace’s books should also be films. Tu, her World War II novel about the Māori Battalion, is brilliant. It’d make the most fantastic movie.
I know it’d be an expensive movie to make because you’d have to film battle scenes, and go over to Italy, or somewhere that looked like Italy. But it’s one of many stories already in print that I’d love to see our filmmakers turn to.
It’d be interesting to see what they could make of, say, the dark stories of Alice Tawhai. Or what they could do with Kelly Ana Morey’s Daylight Second, a fantastic novel about Phar Lap. It came out last year. So, I’d like to see some more decision makers high up in the TV and film world really look to the books and stories we’ve published and see what rich material is available to them there.
I suppose there’s the question of what constitutes a Māori story. And whether a Pākehā can write a Māori story.
Generally, when I talk about Māori literature, I’m talking about writers who are Māori. To me, if you’re a Māori writer, you’re part of Māori literature — no matter what you’re writing. Overseas, people understand that. If Ernest Hemingway is writing a book in Spain — he’s still an American writer. If Graham Greene is writing a book set in Haiti or Cuba — he’s still a British writer.
Here, sometimes I think that, because our literature is younger and a bit more anxious, we worry about who’s in and who’s out. I do think really good Pākehā writers can write a Māori story if they really understand what they’re writing — and if they have the empathy, imagination, and skills, and if they’ve done their research. Then, yes. Absolutely.
And, of course, Māori writers can write about whatever the hell they want to. So Kelly Ana Morey can write about a racehorse in a book largely set in Australia — and still be part of Māori literature because she is a Māori writer. Our national literature is like other art. It’s to do with the painters or the sculptors themselves. It’s not to do with the actual work having to fit a particular theme or subject.
The good news is that there’s so much potential for growth. For example, through Huia and the Te Papa Tupu Writing Incubator, set up by the Māori Literature Trust, some other writers and I mentor new Māori writers.
Some of these new writers may want to write a commercial novel rather than literary fiction. And why not? Why can’t they? They should be able to. Māori people like going shopping as much as anyone else. Why should our literature be prescribed? Why must “real” Māori writing have a rural setting when the majority of us don’t live rural lives?
Or why does it have to be bleak and urban, in the manner of Once Were Warriors, when a large number of us don’t live bleak lives? Some of us are middle-class. Māori aren’t all beset by drug problems and violence.
All aspects of Māori identity and Māori experience need to be represented in our films and our books, our movies and our TV shows and plays. Not just the narrow view of what Māori experience is. So, the more our literature can roam and our writers can feel free to roam, I think the more robust and complex and enticing our arts will be. And the stories we tell and the audiences we reach will be wider.
Not surprisingly, you give the impression that you believe writing and reading should be playing a big part in all our lives — particularly the lives of our young people.
Well, I believe that reading and writing are the most essential skills we can teach our young people. Whatever they do in life, they’ll benefit from feeling confident in reading and writing. So they can register to vote. So they can get a driver’s license. So they can sit health and safety tests at work. So they can read the news and their children’s school reports, and so they can read books to their children. And on and on.
Everything comes back to reading and writing. It breaks my heart when I meet Māori children and Māori adults who don’t feel that reading and writing is a part of their life. When the missionaries came here in the 19th century and started teaching the whole notion of a written language, Māori readily adopted it. It started a massive craze for reading and writing.
Māori were always very technologically savvy. They wanted to know about the next new thing that they could use and adapt. And reading and writing were seen as a new technology. It was a way of communicating in a way that they’d never been able to communicate before, in detail and at a distance. So they saw it as a powerful tool.
Of course, the missionaries were only trying to communicate biblical things, but the possibilities of reading and writing soon outstripped that. That’s unsurprising: we’re storytellers. It’s so essential now that I get really frustrated when some people don’t see the importance. The problem is, if you can’t articulate, in language, your view of the world, your point of view, your perspective, your experience — then you can’t be heard. You just simply can’t be heard.
Oratory has been our traditional way of doing that, and that’s still very important as well. But to me, oration skills and writing skills can go hand in hand because they’re both about having the confidence to express yourself clearly through language. And you’re at a great disadvantage if you don’t have a mastery of those skills.
The great orators, the kaikōrero, had a mastery of language. A way with words. And that way with words is our inheritance as Māori people. We shouldn’t lose sight of it and accept, or put up with, expectations of a low level of literacy. That to me is renouncing our heritage of being a people who absolutely cared about words and named things very precisely, in a language that was rich and descriptive.
So the onus is on our families, the parents out there, to encourage their kids to read. Even if they’re not very good at reading themselves, they need to make sure their kids are reading. And, if it’s possible, to read out loud to them at home. Getting books from the library and making time for reading will benefit their kids so much.
Paula Morris is a senior lecturer in English, Drama and Writing Studies at the University of Auckland.
Forbidden Cities (2009)
Trendy But Casual (2007)
Hibiscus Coast (2005)
Queen of Beauty (2002)
Young Adult Fiction
The Eternal City (2015)
Hene and the Burning Harbour (2013)
Dark Souls (2011)
On Coming Home (2015)