Reina Whaitiri: Our literature must come from the inside — not from outsiders

by Dale Husband
Sun 11 Mar 2018
11 min read
  • Reina Whaitiri

In this Pathways series over the last three years, Dale has interviewed dozens of writers, editors, teachers and researchers. And here he is once more, this time chatting with Reina Whaitiri, who’s had many years of experience in all those roles — focusing especially on Māori and other Pacific poetry.

Two of the books that she has co-edited are Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola, both of them presenting scores of Māori and Pacific poems in English. Another one is Puna Wai Korero, an anthology of Māori poetry in English.

Reina (Ngāi Tahu-Pākehā) is well aware that not everyone has a taste for poetry. But she has enjoyed the challenge of introducing generations of students and other readers to voices that, through poetry, help explain the depths of us as Pacific people.


Can you begin by telling us what life was like for you as a young person, and talk with us about the people who influenced you?

I have a Māori father, Robert Agrippa Whaitiri, and a Pākehā mother, Ida May Martin. My mother had a large family — eight brothers and sisters. My father was the youngest of three. He had a sister, Reina, who died very young of cancer, and a brother who also died very young. So he was virtually an only child, as am I.

I grew up in Rotorua at a place called Waimangu, where Dad was working as a guide and launch master for the Tourist Department. I've actually written about this in Witi Ihimaera's collection, Growing up Māori (published by Tandem Press).

From Waimangu, I went to St Mary's Diocesan School in Stratford, which was recommended to my dad by Bishop Panapa, the first Māori Anglican bishop. He was the Battalion’s padre and had been overseas with Dad.

So I spent the first seven years of my education at that boarding school, and then, later, I went to the sister school in Dunedin, St Hilda's.

These environments must have had a big impact on you, in terms of quality of education.

Oh, yes. I had a very good education. Both schools were high Church of England boarding schools for girls — and boarding schools are not easy environments when you're an only child and away from your parents. But I survived, and in many respects, thrived.

My parents moved back to the Bluff when I was a teenager, so the rest of my schooling happened there.

Were you mutton-birding people?

My immediate family were never mutton-birders. I've never been, but for those of my people who go down to their islands regularly, they just love it. They wouldn't miss the tītī season for anything, even today.

Māori at the Bluff were tough. They were fantastic seamen, earning their living on the sea in Foveaux Strait and around the sounds and fiords of the wild west coast of Te Waipounamu.

But many of my relatives have been lost at sea. There were several really big fishing accidents where whole families went down, mainly because their boats were overloaded returning from the tītī islands.

That's tragic. We think of the loss of that vessel a few years ago, but this has been happening regularly to you, when your loved ones are lost at sea. What can you recall of those sad situations?

The first big accident I remember happened to the Topi family, and only two survived out of 15. When you live by the sea, and off the sea, such losses are not uncommon. Another of my cousins and his partner were lost at sea. Their boat was found, but they never found the bodies.

You're renowned for your love of words and your work in literature over the years. I wonder if there was a particular time that you were hit by the power of reading. What can you recall is the first pukapuka that had a marked impact on you?

Probably Witi Ihimaera's Tangi and Pounamu, Pounamu — those were the first stories I read by Māori and about Māori, and they were very influential in my journey into literature. Being an only child, I was always reading. My father was a reader too.

I remember reading Pounamu, Pounamu when I was in intermediate school, and it struck me because I thought Witi knew my nana when he wrote about the cards. My nana was a card player, too, and I thought that he had an insight to our family, but it seems a lot of women were like that.

Oh, yes. I married very young, to a young Māori man from Kai Iwi Pā, Feilding. Like many young Māori men from the North Island he was recruited to work in the freezing works at Ocean Beach. His mother and the other young wives who lived at Kai Iwi used to sit around playing cards during the day when their men had gone off to the freezing works.

They were left on the pā, and after they'd done the washing and the cleaning and the housework, they'd all gather at one another’s houses and play cards all day. They’d laugh and laugh, telling jokes and dirty stories.

It was fabulous, and Witi got it just right. And I think that was the attraction of Witi's work, because he painted those pictures. He painted them for all those who didn't know us, and I think that's very important what he was doing. Still doing, actually.

Can you talk us through your later teenage years and where life took you after Bluff?

I got married early but that didn't last very long. It produced one son who was raised by my parents in the Bluff. I went to Christchurch, where I worked for the post office, and then to Auckland, where I worked various jobs, and then I took off to see the world. Went to Australia for a couple of years and then lived in Europe and learned a couple of languages. I saw a lot of the world, had a great time, and when I returned, went to university.

Do you think you were a better student with a bit of age on you, rather than leaping straight from school to studies? How beneficial was that period of letting your hair down, learning some languages?

Yes, I think so. I think having a gap year is a good idea for young people. But also, those people who decide to take up studies later in life bring a lot to their studies, whether it be the humanities or the sciences. They have a maturity which adds depth to their learning.

What languages did you learn while you were offshore?

I did a double major, English and Spanish, and included a couple of papers in German in my BA. I lived in Germany for four years so became quite proficient. German is an interesting language considering our history with that country.

What about te reo Māori?

I did actually take Stage 1 Māori, but didn't go on to Stage 2. I would have had to relearn it when I came back from overseas, but, much to my shame, I didn't. But I ensured that my moko went to kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa, so they're fluent speakers.

Everybody should know some te reo, and it's also good for the brain to learn another language. Te reo is one of New Zealand's official languages, and the radio stations are doing a fabulous job in making te reo normal. It’s such a pleasure to hear Scotty Morrison, and others, reading the news and giving the weather report in beautiful Māori every day.

Your dad was in the 28th Māori Battalion, and, of course, we’re reminded of their efforts annually. How important is it that young people understand and can acknowledge what went on then, and the efforts that your dad and others made on our behalf?

It’s very important. I'm proud of my dad, very proud (and I am a tangi weto, so I'm going to cry).

What did he share with you about that period of his life?

Nothing. He never talked about it. But he had terrible nightmares. I would wake up and hear him screaming and I knew what he was screaming about. It was not an easy time for him or for any of those who served in the Battalion.

He didn't talk about it though. So whatever I know about the Māori Battalion, I learned from reading. I don't know any old soldier who talked about it really, certainly not to their children. Dad would weep, though, each time he heard that one of his old mates had passed away. Being part of the 28th Māori Battalion was a major influence in his life.

Journalism and poetry have become very important to you. Was that your intention when you returned from overseas?

I started varsity to continue my Spanish studies, and then I decided to do a degree. I completed a BA in Spanish and English, because I like reading and I like words, and then went on to do a Master’s in English.

I was fortunate to study at a time when the English Department at the University of Auckland was full of wonderful scholars with international reputations in their field. There were scholars in Shakespeare, New Zealand literature, Irish studies, post-colonial studies, Pacific literature, film studies, a world renowned scholar on Nabokov, and many more.

I went on to complete an MA and then spent one year at teachers’ college. I taught at a high school, which did not suit me very well. I have to say that I don't really like adolescents — they're not for me.

Then I was offered a job back at the English department at the University of Auckland, where I taught a preparatory course for students who wanted to return to formal study.

I did that for about 14 years, and then my partner, Albert Wendt, and I went to the University of Hawai’i, at Manoa. Al was offered a Chair in the English Department and I was offered a position as assistant professor.

We spent four fabulous years teaching in the English department there. We had a strong connection with Hawaiians, the political movement, the people and the culture.

Your tane is very perceptive about cultural matters. You must inspire each other. How much did he learn from you and vice versa?

We have a lot in common. We both love reading, and cultures are so important to us — our cultures and other cultures — so it's been a good working relationship as far as our careers are concerned.

My career is nowhere near as fine as his, and he will leave a much bigger legacy than I, but he's very understanding and appreciative of all things Māori — the language, the literature, the people, the culture. We support each other. It's been good.

It's timely that we celebrate our cultures. We're validating our mātauranga Māori. We’re recognising that there’s a richness in our collective histories as Pasifika peoples that was kept subdued for a long time. How pleasing is it to you that we have emerging writers, thinkers, politicians, and educators that are factoring in the cultural dimensions and histories of our Pasifika peoples — Māori included — into the way we observe modern day life?

Oh, I think it's fabulous that we are reconnecting with all our whanaunga in the Pacific — Hawai‘i, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Niue — all of those peoples.

We’re now rediscovering the ancient connections that we had, and there are so many similarities in our beliefs, languages, values, and histories. But there are also many differences, which we appreciate and respect. As Polynesians, we are an ever-growing force, especially here in Aotearoa.

I think our cultures are going to grow stronger. You can tell that by the number of Polynesians in government now. When I was growing up, there were four Māori members and no Pacific Islanders. So I think we've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go.

You spend a lot of time in Hawai‘i. What are your thoughts on the indigenous Hawaiian perspective, which many would say has been sullied by a materialistic American culture?

The Hawaiian people have got a big battle on their hands. They are overshadowed by America and have had to endure the relentless exploitation of their land, their culture, their language, their beautiful hula, everything.

Hawaiians look to Māori as having achieved a lot in terms of our culture. Their struggle is monumental, and all we can do is support them. I've written about this, too, in a book called Whispers and Vanities (published by Huia Publishers) in which I submitted a paper on Polynesian women and how our struggle is two-fold in terms of culture and in terms of being women.

Our wāhine are emerging from the shadows, aren’t they? They’re quite rightfully taking leadership roles in Māori society. You've been a real supporter and an advocate for women. What's important to encourage here? Why do we need more of their perspectives more widely read and understood?

Because literature is able to convey so much more than what's on the surface. It conveys what we feel in our hearts — what our hopes are, what makes us angry, the damage that’s been done by colonisation.

Literature, and I include film and drama here, enables the reader or viewer to explore the depths of a people which is not readily available in other forms.

It's important that our literature is out there, written by us, not by outsiders or people who aren’t from our culture, because they can only give an outside perspective. Having stories told from the inside is much more effective and much more powerful.

You can tell that just by looking at Witi's work and Patricia Grace's work — those two are Māori writers that stand out, in my opinion — and poets such as Robert Sullivan and the many new poets that are coming through. They tell it like it is, about their families, about tangi, about birth, about relationships, and it's very powerful.

Just a little poem can express so much, and teaching poetry was always a joy for me, because lots of students come to English and say: “Oh, I don't like poetry. I don't understand it.” I took it as a personal challenge to change their minds.

But if you spend some time with the poets that are talking to them, and about them, it all comes to life.

Is it still fair to say that the pen is mightier than the sword?

I think so. Unfortunately, in some countries the sword is doing a very good job of trying to destroy us all.

I'm pleased to see this emerging confidence in our writers. For a long time we thought the only merit was in classic English literature, and now we've got a growing confidence in the literary scene that our perspectives are valuable and valid.

I think that's absolutely true. Besides Albert Wendt, known as the godfather of Pacific Literature, we also have young Pacific Island poets like Selina Tusitala Marsh, who is now New Zealand’s poet laureate, and Karlo Mila and Tusiata Avia.

All of these writers are fabulous advocates for poetry and for speaking in that Pacific voice. There's hope out there of what literature can produce and what we can learn from it.

We can compare the situation to music. Back in the day, if you were an aspiring musician, you'd have to go cap in hand to the big recording companies, who might take you on but probably wouldn't. Nowadays you can self-publish music and it's happening all across the world. Has technology allowed Māori and Pasifika viewpoints to hit the bookshelves independently? I'm thinking of Huia or Bridget Williams, some of the smaller publishing houses that are backing Māori and Pasifika writing and poetry, whereas back in the day, they were struggling to get to print.

I think that's absolutely true. If you read about Witi, when he first started publishing, he was told that there was no market, no readership for his work. Well, he's proved that wrong, the same as Patricia Grace.

In most houses that I go to where people appreciate literature, there's Māori literature on the shelves. Hone Tuwhare's books are everywhere, and everybody loves Hone Tuwhare. He covers so many topics, and uses many, many voices.

I just received in the post the other day a book published by Bridget Williams called Tangata Ngāi Tahu. This is a fabulous book about Ngāi Tahu tūpuna.

Literature like this is so important because it helps those who want to research their whakapapa and history, and also for our young people to know where they've come from.

The literature that young Māori are writing is good, very good. Some of it is very sad, very tragic, because many of our stories are not pretty, but they're honest and they need to be told.

We’re living in a time where technology and virtual reality are on the move, where young people have got access to their Playstations, and everything is very much given to them — they're almost told how to think. Will literature remain a powerful medium to effect change?

Al and I talk about this. He believes that modern technology is a good thing in terms of literature. I disagree. I think that we still need books, and the answer is with good teachers who know how to reach students through literature, and also to develop language skills, reading skills, and how to use your imagination. You can't read without having an imagination.

I think that the skills we used to have as readers and writers are being lost. I never allowed my moko access to all of that technology — but they didn't take to reading either, so I don't know. I do think it depends on good teaching, however. Good teaching and good material to teach.

Are there some must-reads from you, Reina, whether it's an anthology of poetry or other literature? Are there some books that you say all of us need to read?

I think the short stories published by Huia every year are a must read. Also anything by Hone Tuwhare. There's a great deal of non-fiction coming out now from iwi all over the country, and we have a lot coming from Huia and Bridget Williams.

I hope teachers of literature will look to the catalogues of publishers such as Auckland University Press, Huia, and Bridget Williams as a rich source of teaching material. Those publishers are important.

It's a cycle — writing, publishing, teaching, and students — and we have to keep it all going.

What's next for you?

Al and I just chill out on the lanai of our Ponsonby whare. We watch the birds, and the cat, and talk to our neighbour. Retirement is very good. We are both healthy and keep busy. Al's writing poetry still and painting. I'm playing the piano and doing my jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, embroidery, and playing chess — and, of course, reading.

And life's good. We've been lucky.


© e-tangata, 2018

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