Patricia Grace from the cover of her memoir From the Centre: A writer’s life, published by Penguin Books.

Patricia Grace is one of this country’s most beloved writers. Her memoir has just been published. Kennedy Warne, an ardent fan, reads it while dipping into one of her earliest novels.

 

It is a rainy winter night, and I am reading the opening lines of Potiki to a friend.

From the centre,
From the nothing,
Of not seen,
Of not heard,
There comes
A shifting,
A stirring . . .
A standing,
A springing,
To an outer circle . . . 

Over many nights, I will read Potiki, Patricia Grace’s second novel, published 35 years ago. Each night, there will be a sentence or a paragraph that moves me, sometimes causing tears to flow. It happens whenever I read Patricia Grace. Each time, I marvel. Who is this woman, who can write this way, strumming the pain of her people, telling their world with her words?

Her life can now be known in greater detail with the publication of her memoir by Penguin Books. The title, From the Centre, is Potiki’s first words. From the centre is how Patricia Grace writes and what she writes about. In a 2016 interview, she said that when she starts a new work, she has a sense of sitting in the middle of something, reaching out for the pieces she needs and bringing them in.

Her stories have that sense, too, of blurring beginnings and endings in the spiral of time. Potiki is full of such circularity. I think of a scene by the urupā, where, in the wake of disaster, the people begin to tangi “for all that had happened, and for family long gone and recently gone, but who were amongst us still.” 

As they stand in the mud and desolation, they sense that it is those who have gone before who can bring them home, those who are not strong who can give them strength. That sorrow and joy are close, so close to each other. A waiata begins. “It spiralled thinly upwards, linking the earth that we are, to the sky that we are, joining the past that we are to the now and beyond now that we are.”

It is as she writes: “Opposites turn near to each other on the many-stranded circle.”

The cover photograph of the new book shows her looking out a window, with her reflection looking back in. The image is appropriate. The opening lines of the book are: “I’m sitting by a big window in the lounge . . .” 

At the book’s ending, 300 pages later, she’s still sitting by a window, in the kitchen, with a self-invited seagull companion named Hamu looking in, impatient for a snack. 

One gets the impression Patricia Grace is often at windows, often looking out, pitching her eyes constantly, inevitably, unceasingly towards the sea, as she writes in the opening chapter of Potiki, “tides of eyes rolling in reverse action to the sea.” Titiro atu, titiro mai.

The sea to which she pitches her eyes is Hongoeka Bay, along the coast from Plimmerton, and out beyond Mana Island to the Tasman. Here she lives on ancestral land, which her Ngāti Toa people had to battle to keep. In childhood, she gazed at a different sea, from her family’s home overlooking Lyall Bay, on Wellington’s south coast.

The beach at Hongoeka. (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

Patricia Grace grew up in two worlds, which she evokes expressively, gently, humorously in the opening chapters of her memoir. We meet her maternal grandmother, a woman of Irish descent with a deep, wheezy laugh, who worked in hotels where Patricia and her cousins would slide down the bannisters or listen to her aunties discussing horse racing while sipping their gins. 

Her maternal grandfather, she writes, could build or fix anything, from mending shoes to restoring chiming mantel clocks. He had the clocks put aside for him by rubbish collectors, who retrieved them on rubbish day. “Each clock had a different-sounding chime, but because these were not synchronised they’d begin binging and bonging one after the other, or over the top of each other,” she recalls. “The most I remember counting in the middle of the day or night was thirty-two o’clock.”

Her grandmother on her father’s side lived at Hongoeka, and was a quieter, more inward woman. “She never spoke much at all except to direct us in our chores and to remind us to keep away from the ripening plums and gooseberries which were needed for jam. I don’t know whether she ever spotted us crawling through the long grass on our stomachs” towards the fruit. 

There are other memories of Hongoeka, too. Once a week, a local butcher would park his van at the top of the beach. Patricia recalls her grandfather walking to buy the week’s meat, followed in single file by his pets: a duck, a cat, and two turkeys.

These were hard years for her Hongoeka whānau, war years following on the heels of the 1930s depression. Barter was necessary because money was scarce. “A drum of blind eels could be preserved and sent by rail to Taranaki. There could be a return of wild pork or whatever else might be available at the time.” 

They were also years in which the awareness of racial prejudice dawned for the young Patricia, although she didn’t learn its full extent until later.

“After my parents married, they found it impossible to find accommodation, and for much of the time during the first two years or more had to live separately at the homes of relatives,” she writes. When they looked for a place of their own, they were shown “only unsuitable and substandard places — unlined basements, sheds, places without cooking facilities.”

Eventually they were able to build a house in the suburb of Melrose. Patricia remembers walking with her father up the steep, gorse-covered hills behind the house to cut turf and carry it back to the house to make a lawn “not much wider than the spread of the revolving clothes line at its centre.”

The love of words came early. Inspired by the comics they read, Patricia and her brother pretended to be orphans Todd and Annie, practising the dialogue: Tee hee, Bah! What a swiz, What’s for tea, Ma? Eeee, daft I call it.”

Perhaps she also imbibed a sense of dialogue from the radio soaps of the era: “Portia Faces Life” and “Dr Paul” (which ran for 4634 episodes from 1949 on weekday mornings). In her family, it was essential that house-cleaning chores were finished by the time these soaps came on.

“Objects can call to us from across time,” she wrote in her novel Chappy. So do these details of childhood life, which charm with their innocence and simplicity. Making bubble pipes out of halved karaka berries with a straw to blow through, using a sudsy liquid made with Taniwha or Sunlight washing soap. Gathering ergot fungus (good for stanching wounds) for the war effort. Collecting birds’ eggs.

A telling incident happened when she was four years old. Wandering along the fence line that ran up the hill from the Melrose house, she started plucking the wires with her fingers, and became caught up in an ethereal music swirling above and around her that transported her soul. “I was the player of the golden harp,” she writes. But when she told her mother about this sublime experience, she was told it was “all in my imagination”. 

She didn’t let her mother’s response shake her self-confidence. Later, she would write a story about the incident called “Harp Music”. As she wrote the story, there was a “sharp image” in her mind of the joyful girl running towards her. “Had I been true to her?” she wonders in the memoir. “Had I allowed ‘imagination’ to serve me well?” Any admirer of Patricia Grace’s stories would agree that there can be only one answer to that question.

Remarkably, given the writer she would become, books were scarce in her school years. She recalls that in her Catholic school there were no books to read for pleasure — only textbooks and school readers, catechisms and booklets depicting the lives of Jesus, the saints, and martyrs. The school had no library. 

What she did have, though, was a father who read to her, and a mother who helped her identify and spell words. The first word she remembers identifying was “Weetbix”. She loved to pick out the words on signs and billboards and in advertisements in the Weekly News. One time, she told her mother she had seen a tram placard emblazoned with the words “King’s Castle”. Her mother corrected her: “Oh no, that’s Knight’s Castile.”

In a chapter on early experiences of racism and other demeaning abuse, she recounts an incident when she was six years old, going to the grocery store for bread. A gang of older girls abused her verbally, then set upon her, slashing her with a broken bottle. Later, she would turn the incident into the story “Going for the Bread”, which she says is her most autobiographical story.

In the memoir, she writes: “What I want to say now is that I don’t personally regret any of it. I do, of course, regret that this happens, but it taught me about life and I was able to survive it. As a future teacher, it taught me to look for the abilities, the intelligence, the talent, the skills in each and every child who walked through the classroom door, no matter how shy, how silent, how distressed, how disabled, how angry, how hungry, how whatever. Not only to look for ability, but to believe in it being there, to find it, to grow it.”

It was at Wellington Teachers’ College, while reading and discussing Frank Sargeson’s short stories, that the revelation came to her that “daily life, everyday speech, contemporary New Zealand family relationships could be made into stories that people would read and relate to. . . . It had never occurred to me that one could aspire to be a writer. Writing had seemed to belong to a different time and a different place. Now I began to understand what real writing was.”

Although teaching would occupy her time for many years — in some schools working side by side with her husband Dick, who passed away in 2013 — gradually the impulse to write came to dominate. 

First to be published, in 1975, was Waiariki, a story collection that includes such elegiac masterpieces as “And So I Go” and “Huria’s Rock”, the fun-poking “Toki”, about a boastful fisherman, and “A Way of Talking”, a poignant story about unconscious prejudice.

A few years later came a novel, then a children’s book. In the memoir, she describes that book’s genesis. “What was missing for a long time were library books, picture books especially, in which children could find their lives, their cultures represented,” she writes. 

A group of women with the intent of publishing high-quality picture books from many cultures asked her if she would write one depicting Māori life. The result was The Kuia and the Spider, a whimsical story about two weavers who seek to outdo each other.

She believed the book should have a Māori language version. The publishers demurred. Who would read such a version, they asked. Who could read it? But the publisher, Longman Paul, did publish a reo version, and all subsequent children’s books by Patricia Grace have a companion Māori language version, “with publishers now always expecting that this should be so.”

Patricia herself can’t speak te reo, but to a reader this is no impediment. She expresses te ao Māori in ways that slide into the soul, sometimes like honey, sometimes like a knife. She speaks with the elemental voice of the land and sea. Her eyes and ears are open to that voice, and the steady pace of her writing invite readers to hear it, too.

Her combined experiences of teaching and children’s writing led her to become outspoken about the racism embedded in early childhood educational resources. 

On one occasion she wrote to the Department of Education, objecting to the proposed inclusion in a children’s reading anthology of the story “The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids”, in which a black wolf attempts to dupe some white kid goats. The association of blackness with evil, she told the department, was “oppressive to people of dark skin.” She said it was an unsuitable inclusion in a book that would likely be read or heard by every child in New Zealand.

In the memoir, she elaborates: “In every infant class library in my teaching days were the Little Black Sambo books,” which she felt were “demeaning, insulting and enslaving”. “How would it be, I thought to myself, if I wrote a story called Little White Miss. . . . What if there was a picture of a white wolf who dipped his paws in coal to make himself acceptable to the black goats? But I only wondered.”

The department was not persuaded. The story was published. And Patricia Grace’s opposition to prejudice in education continued. In 1987, she presented a paper at an early childhood convention with the title “Books Are Dangerous”.

“At the time I gave the paper,” she explains, “New Zealand history was still being evaluated from a Eurocentric viewpoint. It generally glorified the European settler experience and by doing so negated the Māori experience.” 

The vocabulary betrayed the bias, she wrote. “Take ‘pioneer’ and ‘settler’. These referred to British pioneers and settlers. The ancestors of the Māori children sitting in our classrooms were referred to in many less complimentary terms. They were savage barbarians, hostile, cunning. Warlike. Yet the British with all their guns and armoury, sweeping in on many indigenous areas of the world, were never referred to as warlike. 

“In those times, the wars between Māori and Pākehā were still being referred to as ‘Māori Wars’. A British fighting force was an army. A Māori fighting force was a war party (a term still in use). British fighters were soldiers or colonial forces. Māori fighters were rebels and raiders and warriors (again, still in use.) A successful battle by the colonial forces was a victory, by a Māori fighting force a massacre.”

Much has changed in the three decades since that paper was given, the recent draft of a new Aotearoa history curriculum being just one example. But the necessity to tell the stories of the land and the land’s people remains. A line from the mother in Potiki could be Patricia Grace herself speaking, and probably is: “We needed just to live our lives, seek out our stories and share them with each other. . . . I became a teller of stories, a listener to stories, a writer and a reader of stories, an enactor, a collector and a maker of stories.”

How much richer our lives are because of it.

From the Centre ends with the image with which Potiki starts: “The sea hems and stitches and edges the land where houses stand windowing the neatened curve of shore.” 

This sea-stitched coast is now Patricia Grace’s home. “So here I am in the place where I’ve always wanted to live, backed up by bush and hills, a step away from the ocean. The sea, from mirror to monster and everything in between, is different every day.”

One recent winter morning, on a journey home to Tāmaki Makaurau from the far south, I paid a visit to the Potiki shore. It was soon after a southerly storm. The grey beach stones were heaped and scalloped by the waves, just as Potiki describes. Cast paua shells glittered in the thin morning light like eyes. Red seaweed lay strewn about like rags. I could imagine a woman standing at the sea’s edge, about to heave her newborn baby into the waves — a Potiki image — but there was no one on the shore but me. 

I looked towards the cluster of houses, the marae, the urupā, and thought of the life that continues there, evoked in Potiki. The people work and watch and wait. They pace the tides and turn the earth. They stand, listening on the shores. They listen, hearing mostly the quiet. It is the quiet that is trees growing, the sidling of fish through water, the hovering cloud, the open-eyed quiet of the night.

There is a patience and quiet at the centre of so many Patricia Grace stories. It must come from her centre, I suppose, the way she gathers her words. “The ones who work in words or wood listen for the beat that words and wood have,” she writes in Potiki. The beat of a tree is slow, and it takes time for a wordsmith to align to that rhythm. 

“It’s what I like to do,” she writes near the end of the memoir. “Describe settings and circumstances, create images, and in so doing expose my own emotional responses to time and place.”

“And now that’s enough from me,” she writes.

I beg to differ.

 

Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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