“Māori deserve writers’ festivals that are designed especially for us, and by us,” writes Chloe Fergusson-Tibble. She and her tamariki went to Kupu, the first Māori writers’ festival of its kind, which wrapped up in Rotorua last weekend.
I was one of those kids who stayed up reading until my eyes went gritty at two in the morning. Stories have held me tightly since I was a young girl captivated by Harry Potter. I cried when my letter of invitation to attend Hogwarts didn’t arrive around my eleventh birthday, as it’s meant to if you’re a real witch or wizard. I’m still unable to fall asleep without reading something.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I discovered Māori writers — like Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme and Witi Ihimaera. I felt as though I’d found writers who were writing for me. Their stories were full of people I’d met and places I’d been.
In this age of screens and phones, my own tamariki have had to be tricked into reading. My husband and I enforced an early bedtime of seven o’clock when they were young. Unless, that is, they wanted to stay up reading.
Our boy is 14 now, and at night his bedroom light glows as he turns the pages. He’s learned what we hoped he would — that he never needs to feel bored, even without a device in hand. He once packed 13 novels and four T-shirts for a summer holiday. When I asked him if he planned to make himself shorts from the pages, he frowned at me.
So, as a lifelong reader and a mother of reading tamariki, I was ecstatic to hear about Kupu, the first Māori writers’ festival of its kind. And it was to be held in Rotorua, where we live. I decided to volunteer — to check tickets, chair a session, make cups of tea. Whatever mahi needed doing.
Kupu took place last week. Whare tūpuna on the shores of Rotorua were teeming with Māori readers, midnight writers and well-known artists. There were over 20 events and more than 30 Māori writers showcasing our command of all genres: fiction, non-fiction, speculative novels, film scripts, research papers, kapa haka, oral histories, poetry, and children’s books.
Te reo Māori reverberated during the events and interludes. Speakers switched effortlessly back and forth between Māori and English, reading the whare at a glance to accommodate everyone from the most fluent Māori speakers through to those with no reo at all. Sometimes it was simply an expression, a gesture, a well-known whakataukī that brought instant clarification to those unable to follow every kupu.
Above all, there was an understanding, driven home by the pounding rain, that we were all inside together — writers and audience. The speakers were not, as is so often the case at conferences and festivals, explaining te ao Māori outwards to an uncomprehending world.
Whaea Ngahuia Te Awekotuku reminded us that our stories are carved into the walls of our wharenui. As she spoke within those walls, there was no need for her to simplify, flatten, reduce or sanitise the whakaaro.
Instead, our most complex and important questions, theories, and ideas were shared and discussed by some of our greatest creators in te ao Māori. There was a palpable sense of confidence in their listening audience, whose world they were reflecting.
Patricia Grace was there. I got lucky when the rain continued and she rode in my car back to the accommodation. Her humility as I gushed over her work confirmed all the good things we hope are true about our heroes. Her daughter, who also rode along, told me that while Patricia is unable to accept all the invitations she receives, there was no way she was going to miss Kupu. After that, I considered abandoning medical school to be her full-time chauffeur.
During Whaea Patricia’s session before an engrossed, note-taking audience, she told us that she writes first and foremost for herself. That way she can take full responsibility for her writing. It seemed so resolute and badass, coming from an 84-year-old kuia, when you think she started writing in a time when it wasn’t at all cool to be Māori.
The whole experience was in stark contrast to the last writers’ festival that I attended. When I arrived there, I sent an urgent pūkana selfie to a friend with the caption: “So. Many. White. People.” I spent my time hopping between the available Māori sessions and stifling the loud “kia ora!” in my chest when I wanted to whakamana a speaker mid-kōrero, acutely aware of the white etiquette required in these spaces. Quiet claps. Silence.
There were so many sounds in the whare at Kupu. Constant feedback of “kia ora” and “tēnā koe” and those grunts our kaumātua make when a kaikōrero nails an observation. Pēpi were welcome with all their delicious baby noises, and toddlers tumbled around the floor. When it was time to sleep, they curled up in fluffy blankets and slept comfortably among excited whispers and raucous laughter.
Kupu provided the rare opportunity to celebrate Māori writing and our impressive writing history in ways that resonate with us.
Throughout the week, the speakers and writers from Kupu went into various schools and kura Māori in Rotorua. I witnessed Māori hands shoot up eagerly to ask questions of these writers. It’s a no-brainer having Māori writers inspiring our tamariki Māori in this way.
Many writers reiterated, both in the school and evening sessions, how expert our tūpuna were at storytelling. They reminded us that we’ve been writers for aeons, from before the arrival of pen and paper — through our own genres like mōteatea.
They reminded us how quickly we grasped and mastered the written word for our own purposes once we acquired that knowledge. They urged those of us with the writer’s itch to write more — because non-Māori have shaped us on their pages, through their non-Māori lenses, for far too long.
These gems could be shared at any writers’ festival, but I wouldn’t have experienced them in the same way. Kaupapa Māori events do that. They call on all our senses.
I ran my hands over the carvings in Tama-Te-Kapua while pondering our oldest stories. I watched my daughter nibbling on whetū shaped biscuits in the wharekai at Te Tākinga after she heard one of her superheroes, Professor Rangi Matamua, talk about matariki.
This is the man who has brought to life the only indigenous public holiday on our calendar. Her excitement was clear on her face when she exclaimed: “He winked at me during his kōrero, Mum!” All the way home, she plotted how we could enrol her into his wānanga.
On the last night, we were captivated for one last time by an impressive performance from Te Kapa Haka o Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao. It was a final reminder that our writing exists so powerfully in our waiata, too.
I came away from Kupu feeling an urge to write. Well, at least to write anything except my school work that is due. I can hear Patricia’s voice reminding me that the story belongs to my characters. I think of Whiti Hereaka’s voice guiding me to consider the why. Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? And why am I (and not someone else) writing this?
I know that I’m writing this piece now to express that Māori deserve writers’ festivals that are designed especially for us, and by us.
Our tamariki deserve culturally-safe literary events where they can experience their heroes first-hand and have their wairua nourished by the wisdom they receive. I have no doubt that holding Kupu each year will be part of forging a decolonised and indigenised future in Aotearoa.
Ngā mihi nunui Kupu, for bringing together such an array of Māori writers, with different voices.
What matters most is that we are holding the pen, using our voices and writing our own stories. Just like our tūpuna have since the beginning of time.
Chloe Fergusson-Tibble (Te Hikutu, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa) is a medical student living in Rotorua with her husband and two tamariki.
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