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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

A Parable of Exploitation

page 94

A Parable of Exploitation

This essay was first published in the New Zealand Monthly Review, September 1961, as a review of Noel Hilliard's Maori Girl (William Heinemann 1960).

Noel Hilliard is the first pakeha novelist to write at length with an intimate and extensive knowledge of Maori life, and at the same time to write without attitudes of patronage or indulgence. The problem for a pakeha writer at present, if he wishes to write of Maoris, is to have some initial understanding of their traditions and their rural upbringing, to write without preconceptions, and to write with a recognition of the rapid changes going on in Maori society.

It is this that Noel Hilliard attempts in his novel Maori Girl. He knows the home background of his heroine Netta Samuel in back-blocks Taranaki in the 30's and early 40's. She and her family are credited with as much depth and complexity as any other character of comparable importance in the novel. And he tackles the problem, as it affects one girl, of the current migration of the young to the cities—an inevitable migration, often foolishly called a 'drift'.

In the first eleven chapters of the book Mr Hilliard describes the life of the Samuel family: Netta's schooling, her jobs at home and on the farm, an eeling trip, her father's mortgage and his struggles during the depression, his drinking, and his severity to the children, her thoughts on religion, their first wireless, a visit from Granny, the older children leaving home to find work, the new milking-shed, Netta's sports, rows with neighbours, her extended social life as member of the tennis club, the tennis dance, the pakeha fellow who is after her and the one that she likes who takes her into a paddock and goes straight on to a party with the boys, her shame and her fear of a scandal, her sudden weariness with home and the valley, her departure for Wellington.

That this section is authentic and trustworthy as an account of back-blocks Maori life (at least in the 30's and 40's) I have been assured by about five Maoris who have read it: many of Netta's experiences they could page 95 claim themselves. It is, for a pakeha writer, entirely new ground, and for pakeha readers it will be new to read an account representative of the background of many of the compatriots that, to their own loss, they know so little about. It is in fact the commonest failing in the attitude of people who claim to be sympathetic to Maoris that they will not appreciate that there are differences in the traditions, the outlook and the aspirations of Maoris, and further, that many of these differences are an advantage in that they enable Maoris to cope with the changes that social, economic and policy pressures are forcing on them. Many socialists, like many other pakehas, assume that such differences are inferiorities; and one is likely to be called a racialist if one insists on them.

This introductory section—originally, the author has told me, much longer—is important to the rest of the novel, even if that importance is not as apparent as it might have been, since a good deal of Netta's difficulty in coping with the assaults and temptations of city life can be explained in terms of her life at home, the gulf between her parents and their children (a gulf that is to be expected in any people on whom fairly rapid adaptations are forced), her parents' affection and yet their uncomprehending severity, her quarrels with her brothers and her sisters and yet their affection for one another, the way when they leave home they each go their own way and maintain only casual contact with the family. At heart Netta as an adolescent is very lonely and there is no one in whom she can confide: it is not her parents but her oldest sister Rebecca that she tells of her seduction, but only because Rebecca has recognised the signs, and the advice Rebecca gives her is the sort of worldly-wise advice that she has picked up from her own 'lonely fumbling'. Emotionally, the Samuel family, like many other young Maoris, are orphans.* Though Netta writes home from the city she could never tell her people what has happened to her.

But it is the subsequent and much simpler sequence of events that most pakeha readers will remember: and socialists should be careful not to fall for the temptation to take this as simply an indictment of landladies and restaurateurs who either discriminate against Maori girls or exploit them: the contemplation of such practices, because one condemns them, can give one a very smug conscience. For this section of the book is an accusation against pakeha society itself, the assumptions of which are shared by a great number of those who condemn racial discrimination.

Netta, arriving in Wellington, without friends or relatives, is rooked by her first landlady, finds a job at a private hotel where she can live in, meets up with a boy-friend Eric, who lives by his wits and soon has her selling lottery tickets for him, to whom she gives herself too casually page 96 because she takes the relationship seriously, and who ditches her out of jealousy; though there is some calculation in his jealousy, because he is afraid that if the affair goes on much longer, there might be a baby. What he represents is one side of the face of the pakeha society as it first presents itself to Netta—a very unpleasant face: from the men, exploitation; from the women, disdain. There is hardly a pakeha woman in the novel who doesn't claim an automatic moral superiority to her, and most of the men exploit her in one way or another. There is the boarder at the hotel who, when his wife is away, tries to pull Netta on to his bed, there is the drunk who tries to pick her up in a restaurant, and Eric's is only a more explicit example of a kind of exploitation far commoner than discrimination by employers and landlords. He is ashamed of her at heart and walks ahead of her on the street; the only outings he is prepared to take her to are to the pictures where it is dark. In effect he sees her as something between a mistress and a prostitute, a mistress who doesn't need to be kept, a prostitute who doesn't charge and is for him alone. Fundamentally, in his mirthless puritanism, he is contemptuous of her for giving herself so easily, and it is his neurotic suspicion that she is as free with her body to others that causes him to break off the relationship. What he wants is all fun, no responsibility, only he doesn't enjoy the fun. It is difficult to imagine Eric being nobler with any woman; and yet I suspect that like the other men in the novel he acts towards Netta in a way that he wouldn't to a pakeha girl. Netta has not been trained to cope with such a man.

She makes a fresh start, takes two jobs as waitress, and in the second her employer lets her a room in an apartment-house he owns. She meets her second boy-friend Arthur, a watersider. He treats her decently and he loves her, and she finds the relationship satisfying. But he is like Eric in two ways: he moves in with her in a way that one suspects he wouldn't with a pakeha woman, and he walks out on her when he finds that she is carrying Eric's baby. The day he walks out on her, she is sacked and has to find a new room. Months later he sees her in a hotel lounge in the company of Minnie, a girl who had once been in the dock after a police raid on a ship. He hears that night of a Maori woman taken drunk to the police station, and thinking it might be Netta, he goes to bail her out; but the sergeant will not reveal the woman's identity. It is finally clear that it is not Netta, but the author leaves this slightly uncertain, because the point of Arthur's guilt and dissatisfaction is to pass on to the pakeha reader the guilt and dissatisfaction he should feel at what his society has done to Netta and to the woman in the cell, and any one of dozens of other Maori girls.

Maori Girl is a novel of social protest, and its purpose is to awaken the conscience of pakeha society to the way it corrupts girls like Netta and blames them for it. It is honestly written—the writing is not carefully worked, and is sometimes clumsy, but it is often powerful; the novel is realistic, and Mr Hilliard knows the settings in which Netta moves.

Nevertheless there are some questions I want to raise. The first is to page 97 ask whether Netta's case is representative of Maori girls in the cities now. A novelist, of course, isn't obliged to be representative, to produce a fictional social survey, and it would be no criticism of the book if Netta's case was exceptional. Nevertheless, since it is a novel of social protest, it is as well to be clear on this question. Netta arrived in Wellington in 1949; and in that year there would be few Maoris in Wellington, fewer than in Auckland, and fewer than now. Since then there have been changes in urban Maori society. There are far more girls in skilled and professional work and training: nevertheless, they are exceptional, and there are, by the same token, far more girls without skills in the cities. In Auckland at least one will meet plenty of girls tastefully dressed and discriminating and composed in their behaviour; one will meet plenty of wives who are settled and happy. On the other hand, on any Saturday afternoon one can find in any 'cat's bar' in Parnell or Freeman's Bay plenty of drunken women, some of them married, and mainly mixing with other Maoris. There are the girls, too, who sit in the hotel lounges waiting for seamen to buy them drinks and take them to parties. A Presbyterian clergyman working among city Maoris tells me that Netta's case is typical of at least this kind of girl, and of all the Maori women in a city, this kind of girl forms a proportion big enough to be important. And unless they come into contact with a welfare officer or warden or a clergyman, such girls are like abandoned children; without guidance or guardianship, seeking affection and enjoyment, they drift casually from one relationship to another until they sour. Some of them have been in Child Welfare receiving-homes and some sociologists blame their earlier upbringing—an upbringing that throws too much responsibility on children at an early age so that their only moral guidance is from others of their own age or slightly older.

Yet it is as well to realise that, even if she represents a sizeable number of girls, Netta is not representative of most Maori girls in the cities in 1961. She is exceptional in that she has no friends or relatives in the city to give her a start: she is exceptional in that she has no Maori boy-friends, except the three freezing-workers from Moerewa who are passing through. (Her day's outing with them is the most relaxed and pleasant chapter in the novel, like an oasis in an asphalt desert.) She is exceptional in that the only parties she goes to are in Myra's room with pakeha boy-friends—none of those pleasant parties that so frequently upset pakeha neighbours where everyone sings and all the drink is shared and if it cuts early the singing doesn't and there's pork-bones and water-cress to follow. And she is exceptional in that the women she knows are nearly all of a kind—Myra, who has boys to stay the night in her room; Mona with her hangovers; Minnie who specializes in seamen and sometimes asks for money; Hannah, twice separated and alcoholic. Only one, Shirley Whanau, is happily married and proof to the city's corruption. Nor would it be usual in 1961 for a pakeha boy to walk ahead of his girl-friend or for her to stick with him if he did.

page 98

Nor does her fate strike us as inevitable. It is rather much of a coincidence that all on the one day Arthur leaves her, she loses her job and her lodgings so that when he reconsiders he knows no way of finding her.

My point in this is not to object but to show that although Mr Hilliard is using realist terms, this is not a realist novel so much as a moral parable, and that his purpose is not to work out Netta's problems so much as to indict pakeha society.

His purpose prevents Netta from becoming a triumphant or a tragic figure. She has sufficient moral and spiritual strength to have come out on top, or a least to have gone down fighting. She has made gestures of protest before, even if they were negative and violent, when she threw a nailhead through the glass door of a boarding-house that wouldn't take Maoris, when she gained her rights by threatening her boss's wife, mock-seriously, with a meat-knife. But the protest she makes at the end is ineffective: drinking in a bar which has a notice to say that 'Native Women' will not be served. It is a feeble protest in that the hotel makes no attempt to enforce its regulations, which had been put up at the request of a welfare officer; but worse, it is irrelevant to her own situation. Netta could have been a more memorable figure than she is. Mr Hilliard has tied himself so closely to the actuality of Wellington of 1949 that he has prevented her from realizing the potential truth of her nature. Nevertheless, one cannot object if he has stuck to an outcome more probable than admirable.

There is some contradiction in the character of Arthur. On the one hand he is seen as a decent working chap, interested in football, races and beer. On the other hand, he acts like an intelligent, left-wing trade unionist, a man who organizes a tenants' petition to their landlord and knows how to meet their objections to signing, a man who calls in the Health Inspector, who is intelligent enough to analyse his own feelings for Netta and know what it is that attracts him to her, and to speculate on the relations existing between the European immigrants who are Netta's fellow-tenants. His intelligence and sensitivity make it hard to accept that he should, at the end, taunt Netta with her colour. If Mr Hilliard's point is that even well-disposed or socialist pakehas often have an unconscious sense of racial superiority, it is a point worth making. But coming out of the blue as it does it is improbable, since Arthur has been genuinely in love with her.

Mr Hilliard has told me that his book was considerably longer and was shortened at his publisher's request; and that as he conceived Arthur and presented him in the longer version of the novel, he could see no inconsistency in Arthur's character. But a reader can only judge a novel from the words that remain when it is published, and Arthur as we have him is not a satisfactory character.

Again, while I have nothing but respect for the author's purpose, I don't think it a good idea to work to a preconceived conclusion. It prevents a writer from making discoveries as he goes. It prevents him from exploring page 99 issues that arise in the course of writing, or the implications of his characters' attitudes and the consequences of their acts. For example, the author uncritically accepts the universal dislike of the nosey, self-righteous tenant Arthur calls the Eyes and the Ears of the World, and in never allowing her to appear in a sympathetic light, he shows a Kiwi intolerance of non-conformity, which is basically the same as the prejudice of some pakeha characters against Netta. More fundamentally, certain issues raised by the novel are not examined: how should Arthur (who was casual enough in the way he moved in with Netta and never gave any thought to marrying her till he knew there was a child) have reacted when he found that the baby wasn't his? There is no easy answer; and Arthur's angry rejection of her, though he half-relents, is not the answer. But the author does not follow up his question because he wants to concentrate on Netta, simply as a victim of racial, not sexual exploitation. But since half of the subject-matter of this novel is sexual exploitation it is a pity he didn't explore it more freely.

And again, writing as a socialist, Mr Hilliard prefers to be uncritical of Arthur's friends who gather at the house of Harry Hawkins the unionist. How dull they are and how barren their talk with the nervous compulsion to make cliche jokes to prompt other jokes in rejoinder and laugh nervously as a matter of etiquette, on the assumption that if everyone is laughing the party is a success. And how complacent are their thoughts, how bound to the provision of physical needs and nothing more: I find Harry's definition of the qualities that go to make a good wife smug and unimaginative. In introducing these people the author's point is to introduce Netta to some decent kindly-hearted working-people in contrast to Eric and his cobbers, but because he favours them he has refused to imply any criticism of them. Netta would have found more satisfaction in a Maori party. If the author had no model for their behaviour but that of actuality, the kind of talk and behaviour you would expect from a decent union-minded watersider in 1949, then he had the choice of harnessing his sympathies to his imagination, and creating a better model—one that did not rise too far from reality and yet revealed a depth not apparent in the actual model. I don't mean that he should have made Harry a cardboard figure, voicing progressive slogans and setting an example to his work-mates and to readers. I mean that the author had the choice of either presenting Harry as he is, but with his limitations apparent, or of presenting Harry as he might be in a way that would bring out real strengths that are in Harry but are hidden.

Nevertheless, this last is not a point that seriously affects the novel as a whole. And all of my criticisms are in terms of Mr Hilliard's intention, which I respect and approve. Maori Girl impressed me because it is an honest novel and, tackling a difficult subject, it is without any falsities; not only is it new ground for a pakeha writer, but further it makes a pakeha examine his conscience, and helps him to understand his fellow New Zealanders.

* There is only a small proportion of Maoris over 50, and though they are physically close to the young and tolerate their behaviour, it is doubtful if they understand them.