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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 1. 6th March 1974

'Tangi' lacks Maori insight

'Tangi' lacks Maori insight

Books header including an image of a man reading at a table

Writing is a bit like having a baby. It takes an awful lot out of you," Witi Ihimaera, the celebrated young Maori writer is on record as having declaimed.

Since Witi is a man, just how much he knows about having a baby is uncertain. After reading Witi's literary efforts, just how much he knows about writing, about Maoritanga and about the real solution of the Maori people today, and just how much he wants to say, is also in doubt. But at least he will be able to find out about some of these things as he goes along.

Photo of Witi Ihimaera

That's what Witi set out to do. One day he read in a book that there were no Maori novelists. The next day, he decided to become the first. Opportunism, no? It's hard not to be cynical about such an entry in to the writing game, particularly as all Ihimaera's results so far are further evidence of lack of sincerity.

His short stories, many of them published in Pounamu, Pounamu and others here and there in Te Maori, Te Ao Hou, and the Listener magazines amount to a bulky but lightweight collection of bits and pieces, few if any of which can stand on their own as works of literature. Some parts of them are based on real recollections, others are examples of an insubstantial imagination. In the main, the only force inspiring them (apart from opportunism) is sentimentality. If you're looking for any depth of description and comment about Maoris and race relations you'll be disappointed.

Take for example the story The Makutu and Mrs Jones" published in Pounamu. It promises to give some insight into the world of makutu, the Maori equivalent of witchcraft, spells and incantations. If the reader manages to ignore the cheap 'literary' device of the narrator pretending to have flashbacks while trimming his nails ( no mention of the old tapu against cutting nails at night), he is lead into a story which builds up to a climax involving the effect of a makutu curse. Now this could be good stuff even in 1974 people are still dying because they believe they they have been makutu'd. But lhimaera, instead of touching on the important, chose rather to give the story a 'clever' twist, and the heroine turns out not to be makutu'd but to be lovesick, lhimaera is witty, but the reader is missing out.

Another story 'My First Ball', published in Te Maori, touches on race relations, an important aspect of reality that lhimaera seems generally to prefer to ignore. Childhood and death are his favourite themes, with only the scantiest treatment of what happens in between. In 'Ball' the hero is a Chap called Tuta except that the pakehas in the tale refer to him as Mr Tutae. The reader is expected to know that tutae mean; 'shit', and is expected to think that this is a comical mistake. I don't.

One of the few, and probably unintentional insights that 'Tangi' affords is also hardly progressive. The narrator now and again refers to his pakeha boss whose employment he leaves to attend the tangi-hanga. And it just so happens that the relationship has to be of the little brown boy—big white father type.

Most of the rest of Ihimaera's stories are like 'The Makutu on Mrs Jones' or 'MyFirst Ball'—a glib writer cashing in on a few memories and not missing a chance to crack a joke, never mind what sort of taste it is in. They may amuse the reader but do nothing to alter his consciousness. They reflect a people whose culture has changed drastically doing little about the enrichment of their culture. Apart from being inaccurate, the reflection is incomplete, because it ignores the economic and legal difficulties that a trampled-over people get into. Ihimaera ignores contention.

Only his story The Whale' really stands out as a work of literature. It goes deeper than superficial recollection, and comes closest to describing the power and beauty of some of the old things. Also, it criticises some of the new. An old man takes an axe to a storehouse door, because the younger people, in defiance of tradition, had refused to feed some visitors and locked the door.

The heralded novel 'Tangi' was published in December 1973. It is 207 pages long so its size alone might warrant an extensive review. But the book doesn't live up to it. It reads as though it was stretched to get over 100 pages and stretched so far it beat the 200 mark. Apart from gross repetition, the bulk of the book is a parade of sentimental overindulgence. Of course, in a book about a protracted funeral ceremony, some sentimentality in the writing is to be welcomed just as the whole emotional experience of the tangihanga is a wonderful thing. But just why a writer has to more than merely recall the past to create a work of literature becomes clear when lhimaera tries to write about experiences of the emotions and only succeeds in wallowing in maudlin, soppy prose.

I respect and cherish the tangihanga as an institution and as an experience, but found it impossible to relive the experience through the pages of 'Tangi' when my literary sensibility, dim as it is, was being constantly assailed by lines such as: "There are obsidian splinters at my heart, tearing at the greenstone landscape of my mind" and "Mum weeping over dying plants and the maize taking the moisture from her tears to grow again" and "He was a kauri....But lightning has struck the tree", and so on.

I could cite numerous cases of surpassing banality ("This would be my life. Some pain, mostly happiness.") but it is enough to warn any prospective reader that they are there, in their multitudes.

With a book as limited in scope as 'Tangi' it would be tempting to suspend the 'critical faculties' and merely indulge onself in the sentimentality of it all. Certainly, any reader who can do this, and who likes hearty dollops of banality and repetition thrown in, is assured of an enjoyable time. The book is real enough, and tangis are powerful enough for the uninitiated to get a glimpse of a fine thing.

I found myself unable to do this. The various spurious elements in the book were enough to put me off. One quaint memory the central character of the novel has it of when he was a child, giving his sister a sandwich of paraoa rewana, a type of Maori bread, if there were any left over from school. This clashed somewhat with one of my own not so quaint memories of schools with a high percentage of Maoris in them. Poverty among Maoris was so widespread that many of them had neither sandwiches nor money to buy their lunch. So they had to to come begging to us richer pakehas, not asking for 'paraoa rewana' (they had never heard of that) but demanding "Hey you jokers, you got any spare breads for us".

It was hardly quaint then, and the fact that the Maoris are still more poorly off economically than whites, and still widely undernourished, is to me proof of the need for political and educational action, not mawkish indulgence.

Drawing of Maori wearing piupiu

There are a number of other parts in 'Tangi' that just don't ring true, and often important Maori concepts such as aroha are introduced or used gratuitously, with only a hint of their real meaning.

Reading Ihimaera's works one is invited to forget reality and to forget politics. But the falsifications of reality in them suits the interests of only a small section of society, the middle and upper classes, rather than serving the interests of the oppressed sections of the Maori people. It is only the entrenched (institutional) white racists who are patting lhimaera on the head. The Evening Post for instance called him 'a living example of his grandfather's wisdom' after he had fed them with an improbable adage from his grandfather: "Intermarriage will create a fair and gladsome people in the land".

A reviewer in a provincial paper described Tangi' as a "useful corrective to any sort of racial hysteria". He went on: "Read it and you will understand the Maori as you never understood him before".

Sir Wattie patted Witi on the head and gave him third place in his book awards. During the ceremony Wattie apparently said that he couldn't pronounce Ihimaera's name properly because he didn't have his interpreter handy, adding that he had a lot of Ihimaera's people, meaning Maoris, working for him. Indeed lhimaera affects to write about working people as if he were one of them. In fact his father has just sold his 2000 acre farm and Witi and his family are all chipping in to buy a bigger one. Hard to ignore, eh?

But Ihimaera's work can be evaluated and condemned on literary standards alone, never mind the class interests it serves. Apart from the lamentable tendencies listed above, perhaps the best criticism of his work comes from simple comparison with the other Maori writers whose thunder he has stolen. Contemporary Maori Writing (edited by Margaret Orbell, published by Reeds, $2.95 if the price hasn't gone up) contains an excellent selection of Maori writers who write about Maori things and leave lhimaera in the dust.

Riki Erihi, Rora Paki, Arapera Blank, S.M. Mead, Hirone Wikiriwhi, Mason Durie, Katarina Mataira, even Rowley Habib, these are potentially or already brilliant writers whose work should be read by all New Zealanders. Unfortunately, many of them are too old to be beginning a writing career, and have spent the better parts of their lives engaged in other things. There isn't a lot of politics in this book either, but I suspect that many of the writers haven't yet said, or haven't been able to say, all they might want to. There must be many young writers too, who are still struggling to get published and who should be encouraged.

Ironically, Ihimaera's short story Tangi' which he padded out into novel length is included in Contemporary Maori Writing and the compact version is greatly superior to the long winded one.

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