Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


One aspect of New Zealand experience that I have deferred is the relationship of the European occupiers to the six per cent minority of Maoris. If it was a tenet of critical theory in the 'forties that New Zealanders had yet to come to terms with a landscape alien and unfriendly, it was overlooked that the pre-European Maori had in myth and settlement already come to terms with it. If M. H. Holcroft could see the landscape as without history it was because the landscape he was looking at was in the comparatively unsettled south: in many parts of the Auckland Province the hills are topped by the sites of old fortified villages whose history, forgotten even in Maori tradition, is accessible only to archaeological excavation. In the Poetry Review, summer 1964, Howard Sergeant quotes Miss M. J. O'Donnell's remark that 'the life and history of the Maori people, with its ancient romantic legends and mythology' is 'as yet page 145 unexplored'. Mr Sergeant says she is wrong because Allen Curnow and others have dealt with Maori mythology. But neither is quite right. Allen Curnow's play The Axe deals with culture-contact in Mangaia, one of the Cook Islands, several thousand miles from New Zealand: otherwise his contribution in this respect has been confined to collaborating in translating a number of pieces of traditional Maori poetry. Miss O'Donnell is wrong in describing Maori traditions as 'romantic'; it was one of the false tracks of the nineteenth-century poets to romanticise such Maori myths as appealed to them—particularly the story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai. But it is regrettable that to most pakehas the traditional Maori myths, prettified and bowdlerised, have no higher status than children's reading.

The recognition (in something like its political sense) of another contiguous culture has not been easy for pakehas generally, let alone their writers. The early colonists, for obvious reasons, were not prone to examine their attitudes to the people they had dispossessed. Double standards were apparent: Alfred Domett could turn his literary character Tangi-Moana into an epic hero, 'a God-made King of men', but as a politician speaking in the New Zealand Assembly in 1860 he could describe an actual chief as a 'marauding cannibal and free-booter'. Alfred A. Grace certainly had human sympathy for the Maori and preferred Maori ways to the self-righteousness of pakeha ways, and in this vein he could write of the Maori as a lovable good-humoured cunning rogue. But in another work he writes a sentimental and romantic love-story of pre-European Maoris, and in yet another he started the comic stereotype, still with us, of shrewd, simple-minded, happy-go-lucky Hori. The three attitudes do not easily fit. Between Grace's last (1910) and Finlayson's first (1938) most pakeha writers turned their attention away from Maoris as many of them were living at the time, withdrawn in rural slums, dispossessed and without much hope or interest in pakeha society. Yet fundamentally in most of the writing about Maoris from after the land wars to the depression, there is a feeling of guilt about and a distaste for the contemporary Maori. The novels of the land wars that show him as fierce and treacherous or fierce and brave seek to justify his current condition: either he deserved his defeat or he lost in fair fight. Only Satchell's The Greenstone Door (1914) sees the tragedy of the conflict. Those who wrote about the pre-European Maori looked away from the present to a noble past, interpreted according to nineteenth-century European literary attitudes, seeing him as a heroic but pathetic victim inevitably sacrificed to Progress. Those who saw him as a comic figure saw him as a kind of pet and implied that his current condition was the way he liked to live. The Australian Henry Lawson's one story of Maoris states clearly that universal brotherhood is all very well, but you can't extend it to Maoris.

After Grace, Roderick Finlayson was the first to see in Maori life an alternative to the coldness and selfishness of pakeha society, though it is interesting to note that this theme, like several others, is prefigured in page 146 Katherine Mansfield, in her story 'How Pearl Button was Kidnapped' (1910). But in Mr Finlayson the Maoris become symbols of a simpler and more 'natural' life. In his story 'The Totara Tree', where electric power board officers try to cut down a tree that is sacred to an old woman, Mr Finlayson is objecting not only to pakeha disrespect for Maori sensibility but to electrification itself, an objection not in fact shared by Maoris. Mr Finlayson is best when he is describing, observing sympathetically; he is less successful when he tries to enter the minds of his characters; their thoughts are too trite and simple, and since their passions are simple he solves their problems by simple, violent solutions—suicide, murder, revenge. His attitude implies a lack of sympathy for what has happened since, the migration of young Maoris to the cities in search of employment, a mixed attitude to the advances in health and education, greater participation of Maoris in the general life.

This migration has enabled a number of writers of short stories to write sympathetically of Maori individuals they have met. There is still, however, an incomplete appreciation of the distinctness of Maori communal life and of cultural features that Maoris prefer to retain—a different kinship system, a sense of belonging to an extended family of 100-odd members rather than to a 'nuclear family' of Mum, Dad, and the kids; a sense of the obligations of aroha (fellow-feeling) towards friends and relatives in need; the desire to congregate; the admiration of courtesy, generosity, sociability, and hospitality; the distaste for pakeha stinginess and coldness, greed and calculation. But the stereotype of the Maori as feckless, jolly and without complexity or stress is becoming less frequent in writing.

Of contemporary writers Noel Hilliard is the only one to realise all of these features and to catch the spirit of Maori life. Like Finlayson he is best when he is sympathetically observing. Netta in Maori Girl is a pathetic victim of social forces, but to prove his point he denies her the victory over circumstances that it was in her character to achieve, and he is not always convincing when he enters her mind. It is significant that Sylvia Ashton-Warner in Spinster is convincing in her Maori children; less so in her Maori adults; and that among the best imaginative writing about Maoris in recent years are three or four children's books about modern Maori children.

Of course the only authentic expression of a Maori view can come from Maoris themselves, and in recent years there has been the emergence of a a group of Maori painters and some writers in English. The difference in attitude can be illustrated by quotation.

Noel Hilliard in this passage is comic, sensitive, and accurate:

Later the children were sent out while the grown-ups discussed whether Wai should wear white or not. Mum and the other relations wanted white but some of the older women, and the vicar's warden were insisting on a colour. 'What's it got to do with all them what page 147 Auntie Wai wears?' Bubby asked. 'It's something you'll find out by and by,' Mum said. So they sat on the veranda playing Last-card while the voices hummed on in the sitting-room for nearly an hour. Towards the end they could hear Dad, and he sounded as if he had his temper up: 'She can get married in her pyjamas if she wants to!' When Bubby was called in to take around the cakes for supper, she could tell from Mum's smile that white had won.4

Mr Hilliard, to some extent an outsider, has recognized his limitation in making the observer a small girl, only partly privy to adult deliberations. In this passage from a Maori writer, Rowley Habib, there is a sense of belonging. It is after a burial:

By the apple-trees a group of women were busying themselves with their shawls. Two of them were lifting their babies onto their backs, and they bounced them around a little to settle them more comfortably in the blankets. Down by the Hepis' fence the priest was talking with old Doc and Tita. He was gesturing slowly with his hands and now and then he would look across the paddock at the sun. Everyone was talking about the beautiful day, everything except the burial.5

A pakeha writer—though not Mr Hilliard—describing the same scene might have been arrested by aspects unfamiliar to him and have sought a metaphor for the women with the babies in their shawls, an image that would make them memorable and fix them, like a tourist's camera, so that no deeper meaning could be penetrated.

And if pakeha writers in the 'thirties and 'forties saw the landscape as alien and without a past, Hone Tuwhare's attitude, always deeply attached, is very different. Mr Tuwhare is indebted technically and personally to R. A. K. Mason, who introduces his first collection, about to be published in New Zealand. In this poem he returns to his ancestral homeland in Northland, seeing land once covered in forest now scarred by soil erosion. I have to provide a few glosses: manuka is a scrub, rather like a tall heath and has white or pink blossom something like a small apple flower; its leaves often have a reddish tinge. Mana means something between authority and prestige: high standing. The marae, here deserted through depopulation, was the open-air site of communal gatherings; it is always adjoined by two halls for accommodating guests and feeding them: it is these that have the rotting eaves.

Not by Wind Ravaged
Deep scarred
not by wind ravaged nor rain
nor the brawling stream:
stripped of all save the brief finery
of gorse and broom; and standing
page 148 sentinel to your bleak loneliness
the tussock grass—

O voiceless land, let me echo your desolation.
The mana of my house has fled,
the marae is but a paddock of thistle.
I come to you with a bitterness
that only your dull folds can soothe
for I know, I know
my melancholy chants shall be lost
to the wind's shriek about the rotting eaves.

Distribute my nakedness—
Unadorned I come with no priceless
offering of jade-and-bone curio: yet
to the wild berry shall I give
a tart piquancy; enhance for a deathless
space the fragile blush of manuka . . .

You shall bear all and not heed.
In your huge compassion embrace
those who know no feeling other
than greed:
of this I lament my satisfaction
for it is as full as a beggar's cup:
no less shall the dust of avaricious men
succour exquisite blooms with moist lips parting
to the morning sun.

Natural elements in Mr Tuwhare's verse are humanised and dramatised in a way that would be false in pakeha convention. (The sea-egg is the sea-urchin; the paua a shellfish.):

and the sun's feet
shall twinkle and flex
to the sea-egg's needling
and the paua's stout kiss
shall drain a rock's heart
to the sand-bar's booming.

That his themes are not confined to his situation in his country is evident from the title-poem of his collection No Ordinary Sun, which is the Bomb, and from this poem which needs no gloss:

page 149

Time and the Child
Tree earth and sky
reel to the noontide beat
of sun and the old man
hobbling down the road.

of sun-drowned cicada
in a child's voice shrilling:
. . . are you going man?

Where are going man where
The old man is deaf
to the child.
His stick makes deep
holes in the ground.
His eyes burn to a distant point

where all roads converge. . . .
The child has left his toys
and hobbles after the old
man calling: funny man funny man

funny old man funny
Overhead the sun paces
and buds pop and flare.

I have spent so much time on Mr Tuwhare not as a culmination or as a prize exhibit but because the entry of a viewpoint of different inheritance will be important to us. The Maori writer will have to draw on reserves of strength and integrity to resist the pakeha image of him, difficult enough amidst the confusions resulting from the pressure of pakeha society, in the name of 'integration', to assimilate him, turn him into a brown pakeha in outlook and aspiration. I once thought that the Maori writer would have difficulty reaching a Maori audience (I do not suggest that he will, or should, write exclusively for Maoris) but having observed the attentive and warm response to Mr Tuwhare's reading from an unprepared and unliterary Maori audience, I no longer think this is so—though he is less likely to reach them through print than through speech. New Zealand life will be greatly enriched if we can learn to see the country and its life through the eyes of a number of Maori writers.

I hope I have shown that as I see it the problem in New Zealand has been the recognition of truths about ourselves, both pakeha and Maori, and about the country; an acceptance of our time and place as a prerequisite to writing that can, if it wishes, take it for granted and forget it.