Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays
Recent Maori Writers
Recent Maori Writers
This essay was first published in Landfall, March 1971, as a review of Contemporary Maori Writing, selected by Margaret Orbell (A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd).
In this attractively designed book, for which Reeds and Miss Orbell are to be congratulated, the general impression of the best writing is of singing that is at once party song and hymn. Traditional European categories do not fit: comic and tragic modes can blend or succeed each other without sentimentality; satire and lyricism are not mutually exclusive, or didacticism and self-mockery. Witi Ihimaera in several pieces published last year in the New Zealand Listener and Landfall (too late, I suppose, to be considered for this volume) is poignant, sensitive, clownish, with a controlling current of feeling that is warm and—dare one use the word in 1971?—good. It is rare for our writers to reveal themselves so trustingly, or (if you prefer) create so disarming a persona. S. M. Mead, a deeply serious man, tells a cautionary tale that if it were read aloud to a Maori audience would fill the air with their laughter. The many-sidedness of response to experience is one of the attractive features of the stories and in some cases runs counter to a single-purpose 'line' of development that has probably been picked up from European models. It is nevertheless no less than their due that the contributors to this volume should be judged by the same ultimate aesthetic criteria as other writing is judged by.
All of these poems and stories are concerned with the experience of being a Maori in contemporary New Zealand or seeing New Zealand life through the eyes of a Maori. If I say little of Hone Tuwhare it is because his work is well known, but one is reminded of his unique combination of gentleness (that is not softness) and durability (that is not toughness) in a tone that claims ready respect and trust. In several stories the theme is the contrast between the old small farming community, its life centring on the whanau, the church and the marae, and the debut, heady, frightening and often hurtful, into the aggressive impersonality of the pakeha city; and these stories can be seen as allegories of the fall or of temptation or of page 156 challenge. Memory—the warm tears of aroha that give joy to the slow hongi with the cousin not seen for years—is a mental operation that older Maoris value more highly than pakehas. Rora Paki who must be nearly seventy recalls her youth in prose that is both narrative fiction and meditative essay. Riki Erihi remembers with warmth and scepticism the currents of religious factionalism and one-upmanship that played in his village; there is a slyness and compassion that recalls the comedy of Chaucer's fabliau tales and of Fielding. There is a story about the conflict between a boy's doctrine and the evidence of his senses when he observes the healing of a sick youth by a tohunga in whom he is forbidden to believe.
Witi Ihimaera, the youngest of the contributors, born in 1944, is a voice one wants to encourage. His 'Tangi' is moving because it is about bereavement, an experience more frequent in any one person's life, more fully encountered and more shared among Maoris than among pakehas, and there is a skilful counterpointing of the memory of an earlier tangi on two separate phases of the one that is the subject of the story. If I qualify my praise it is because Mr Ihimaera has done much better with the same material in last September's Landfall. Perhaps it is pakeha (or personal) defensiveness that makes me slightly uneasy that there is a tone in this story that is vulnerable to an irreverent refusal on a reader's part to be awed by a death. The bereft youth, reminded of an earlier bereavement when his favourite nanny died, is presented as a child left alone in the dark and so the story ends; but one knows that he is of working age and lives in a city and will survive. The tone is not self-pity, it is bewilderment, apparently compounded of guilt at having been away when his father died and a fear of being inadequate to his new role as head of the family. But this is not sufficiently identified or distinguished from self-pity; the mood seems over-simplified and one leaves this story (as one does not leave the Landfall piece) with a feeling that an effect has been achieved at the expense of part of the truth.
Rowley Habib's stories have appeared over the past fourteen years or so and it is a disappointment that the promise of his early work has not strikingly matured. His two stories are competent, but in 'The Boss' it is the incidental detail of life in the linemen's camp that is more interesting than the 'point' of the story which is a sentimental cliche—the tough boss who clumsily reveals a compassionate heart when one of his men is killed. I wonder if Mr Habib has been inhibited from following the trustworthy impressions of felt experience and from exploring contradictions and their implications (as he did in 'The Visitors' in Te Ao Hou, November 1957, and in his moving verse incident 'The Home Welcoming' in Arena in 1962) by some preconception about the attitudes he should take or conclusions he should reach or the role he is expected to fulfil. If so it is the conflict between observation and ideology that Riki Erihi's proper little devil had. Mr Habib for all this is a writer with a good deal of promise, but he needs to settle down quietly with the truths page 157 that only he can tell, wherever they lead him, and to start writing to please himself.
Rose Denness, who has published only one story, is also less interesting in the 'point' of her story—the old man's decision to make a leader out of the illegitimate boy of combined European and Maori ancestry—than in the incidental effects, the unfeelingness of the boy's mother, the comedy of the boy and the old man in the runaway gig, the vulnerability of the boy. Hirone Wikiriwhi's strength is his compassion for the girl who has had a baby from a man she does not want to marry; his weakness his faith in a ready-made solution, that the girl needs the support of a restrictive religion. Katarina Mataira tells a neat moral fable and finds a synthesis of aroha and the economic pressures of city family life. Patricia Grace is economical and amusing.
It was a pleasure to discover that the pseudonymous author of a story I liked when it appeared in Te Ao Hou was Arapera Blank whose alert feminine appraisal of experience is as conscious of the attractions of the old rural life as of those of the city and of the civilised values of Europe. Mrs Blank whose personal perspectives include growing up as one in a large family in the heart of Ngati-Porou country and living in a European city, has a quiet and lively talent I hope we will see more of. Mason Durie's stories were written when he was a student; he has since concentrated on medicine and he may have given up writing. His stories have pathos and some of the sense of strangeness of a modern self-conscious Maori youth in the face of older values. Harry Dansey's poem conveys a sense of being a stranger on his own ancestral land.
No editor can expect every reader to concur with his choice, and if Miss Orbell's is not entirely mine the field from which she had to choose is small, perhaps eighty prose pieces and a handful of verse. I would have omitted Nick Karaitiana's 'Lest We Forget' which (like an Australian war shrine with its coloured glass saints in uniform) manages at the same time to make war beatific and regrettable and to lift us like the old Warner Brothers' Celestial Choir to higher and holier spheres far beyond all human strife. One can see too that the slightly hectoring tone of Rowley Habib's poem 'The Raw Men', earthier though it is, is the consequence of having been written in answer to a foolish question from 'an Englishman not long in New Zealand'—how came these survivors from a destroyed culture to fight so well in the second world war ? The real objection to these two pieces, whose motive I think is to remind pakehas of their debt to Maoris, is that they swallow false premisses, official premisses. The Maori right to social justice rests on claims older and more permanent than a willingness to fight in overseas wars.
It is clear that a question that must engage the Maori writer in English is the choice of moral values, discriminating between the genuine and the spurious in the pakeha world as well as recognising and protecting what is to be preferred from his own, and in a time when internal policies in this page 158 country have been allowed to become increasingly vulnerable to the whims of the stock exchanges of Sydney and Tokyo and New York he is likely to find the track a treacherous one. Most of these stories and poems reflect the optimism of the decade in which they were written, a period when pakeha goodwill and interest were more fashionable than now, when official policy was to encourage 'integration', when in a series of hopeful regional leadership conferences many intelligent young Maoris accepted the 'new world' ideology of adaptation to an urban society that would guarantee an equal place to the hard-working Maori of good will and would value him for his cultural contribution. It came to a disenchanted end about 1966 when Maoris recognized that few pakehas were even aware there was such a contract, that the Education Department was no less concerned than before to undervalue Maori language and culture and the Maori schools and that against almost unanimous Maori protest the Government was determined to push through the land grab of the Maori Affairs Amendment Act of 1967. The mood of the youngest leaders is activist and distrustful and there is a new generation, urbanised, under-educated and culturally deprived who may be more representative of Maori attitudes in the future. They have few of the cultural strengths that sustain the writers of this volume, and it is questionable whether, if any of them choose to express themselves in verse or fiction, they will write with the good will, the confidence in traditional Maori values, the lyricism and the celebration of being alive that distinguishes this collection. If they do not only they but we will have been saved. It is to be hoped at least that the contributors to this volume will continue to write, not only for the strength they can give their people but for the delight they can give us pakehas and the enrichment of seeing our surroundings through Maori eyes.