I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline — as I am wont to do when faced with rapidly approaching deadlines — when I came across a post from a talent agency looking for Māori actors to audition for roles as gang members.
After my eyes had rolled so far back in my head I could see the mess I’d made of my French plait — that familiar, nagging feeling of annoyance and resignation settled over me once again. Yet another story where Māori get to be violent, badly dressed criminals. Yay. I’m willing to bet it has a classic redemption arc, focusing on family and the importance of belonging. But, man.
I write for children and young people. Actually, that’s not true. I’ll write for anyone. I once wrote a radio commercial for a water diviner in Hawera. He went out on farms with closed eyes and a forked willow twig looking for underground streams. He gave me his stick and let me have a go, but all I found was fresh cow poo on my white Adidas kicks. Water-divining is not for everyone.
To clarify. I spend a good deal of time writing for children and young people. And whether that story is set in New Zealand or outer space, I tend to put Māori kids at the forefront. My space story has a brown dude who takes off his moonboots before entering his biosphere.
(I’m convinced that Māori are going to be instrumental in populating futuristic space colonies. I mean, we’re conditioned to survive, to endure, to carry on in spite of every hostile effort to decimate us. Space colonisation will be like *clicks fingers* easy as.)
I write Māori characters, not for a tokenistic high five, but because Māori kids should be able to see themselves on the page. Māori, like most indigenous people, are horribly under-represented by the mainstream publishing industry.
Bugs by Whiti Hereaka is one of the few YA — young adult — novels I can think of that has a Māori teen protagonist. One reader tweeted that when she read Bugs, it was the first time she’d ever seen herself represented in literature. Which I find incredibly awesome, and yet at the same time, quite sad.
When I was growing up, finding a middle-grade or YA book featuring Māori characters was like me finding water with a stick. It just didn’t happen. I never saw myself. And I know all too well that if you don’t have that reflection of yourself in stories that you see, hear and read, you tend to think that what you are is wrong. Abnormal. Lesser. Not worthy of being written about. Not worth the time to portray.
I remember as a kid wishing I was a paler version of myself so that I would fit in. Being a minority tends to do that to you. Most people want to be like most people.
My five-year-old came home from school the other day lamenting the fact that she doesn’t have blonde hair like the other girls in her class. Thanks to advanced hair technology she’ll be able to achieve this goal when she’s a bit older. But still. Moana may be beating at Barbie’s shins, but Barbie still has her high-heeled foot planted firmly on Moana’s brown chest.
So that’s why I like having Māori kids in my stories — because they deserve to have a good, strong voice. And they deserve to have a positive, uplifting narrative, too.
My young Māori characters aren’t drug dealers in training. They’re not the token brown guy who gets killed off in the first chapter. And they’re not languishing in savagery waiting for a white saviour to come along and rescue them from sexy gods and a lack of a written alphabet.
No, my Māori kids represent the best of Māori that I see every single day.
Like, those kids who work hard and try their best. The kids who play fair. The kids who love music, drawing, drama, and dance. The kids who are valued and loved members of their whānau and community. The kids who are kind, honourable, supportive, and generous.
Because seeing characters you like and admire, who look like you and talk like you, changes the way you see yourself.
Look at what Moana has done for Polynesian kids, and our amazing Māori theatre companies who consistently produce challenging, innovative works that inspire young people. And those few publishers, like Huia, who fight for Māori voices to be heard and for Māori characters to exist.
We’re slowly changing the narrative, but can we do more?
I went from a predominantly Pākehā primary and intermediate school to a Māori boarding school. Queen Victoria School has closed down now, but its influence, and the lessons learned and friendships made, still linger on.
Being surrounded by Māori faces every day in an environment where we were constantly told, “You are the best. You will be leaders one day. You are worthy. You are lucky. You are strong,” had a definite impact on how I saw myself.
I came out of that school with my brown head held high. How could I not? I was worthy. And lucky. And strong. And then I went into the seventh form at a college where, out of 70 students, only seven were Māori. My head sank so quickly I got whiplash.
At my new college, there was no positive reinforcement for us brown kids, nobody to tell us how worthy we were. We were the minority. We didn’t count. I don’t think anyone realised how much we needed to be told that we mattered.
And that’s why I think it’s important to create stories that not only resonate with our experience but inspire us to be more than our reality.
I don’t want to get all preachy on it. I don’t want to say that we shouldn’t have stories that feature Māori gangs. They’ve been a part of our communities and our history for decades.
But, man. Do we have to have so many of them? If all the Māori gangs on screen were put together, they’d outnumber the real Māori gangs by about a gazillion.
I’m pretty sure there are other Māori stories out there. I’d like to see some of them.
Steph Matuku is an award-winning writer from Taranaki, New Zealand. She spent 15 years writing radio advertising, before deciding to branch out and write pieces that were longer than 30 seconds. She has a special love for writing stories for children and young adults and has written for film, magazines and theatre. In 2016, Steph won a place on the Māori Literature Trust’s writing incubator programme “He Papa Tupu”, and wrote her first fantasy novel for young people, Flight of the Fantail, to be published by Huia Publishers. She recently won a Pikihuia award for another novel extract. She has two children, a messy house and lots of books.