I wish I had remembered James George’s words before I hit send: ‘Beware of manifesting the stereotypes others put on you.’
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White
1. The ordinary world
My sixth-form English teacher Mrs J said two things to me that I remember. She said I was a student of average ability who tried hard, and she said, “are you sure this is really your work?”
A few decades later I won an award for writing and when it was time to accept it, Mrs J came with me. She bustled ahead of me through the doors of the Brentwood Hotel in Kilbirnie with pinched lips and floral skirt and wisps of grey hair escaping her bun.
There were five other writers with draft manuscripts in the room and all of us had won the same award, but only one of us would be chosen for publication at the end. I had no evidence this was true, but Mrs J insisted I’d be stupid to believe otherwise.
Robyn Bargh, one of the founders of Huia Publishers and the Chair of The Māori Literature Trust, formally welcomed us onto the Te Papa Tupu programme and briefly explained its structure. We would each be paired with a mentor with whom we’d spend the next six months editing and shaping and slashing and re-writing. Te Papa Tupu is the kaupapa Māori answer to all the Māori books out there that never get published for a lack of support to get them from the drafts folder to the page. Robyn spread her arms wide like a korowai, introducing us to the authors and editors sitting on the other side of the room
The floor opened for whakawhanaungatanga and I immediately felt Mrs J’s stale breath on my neck.
“For god’s sake,” she hissed. “Don’t spill your life story.”
I stood up and spilled. I’m a spiller. I overshared the details of my personal life and gushed about how much the award meant to me. Pretty sure I cried. Suffice to say, it was an historic day at the Brentwood hotel in 2018, not least for Mrs J and I.
2. Call to adventure
If Te Papa Tupu was a reality TV show, the six of us would have been power-ranked according to who’d be most likely to follow in the footsteps of the award-winning writers before us, like Whiti Hereaka and Steph Matuku – and who’d spend the entire season typing and deleting.
Three of us were working on YA novels, one on short stories, another on an opus, and I had a mish-mash of half-finished, unpublished musings. The genre made Mrs J wince every time I said it: memoir.
The truth is, as a reality show Te Papa Tupu would have tanked. For a start there was no competition between us as writers. No bitchiness or ego. Apart from an all expenses week-long trip to the Sydney Writers’ Festival to glimpse our potential futures, there was no great drama, just lots of silent reading accompanied by messages in group threads saying “you got this.”
Sometimes, all we really need to defeat our inner-coloniser is someone else to believe in us. Te Papa Tupu wasn’t just a vote of confidence, it was a commitment from Huia Publishers. We had contracts and started getting paid to write. We had six months of dedicated time to focus on our writing as if it were a job. We had a support crew. For a long time, I really believed this was all it was going to take. I never thought I’d still be typing and deleting at the end of the programme – let alone three years later.
Maybe it would have worked as a reality TV show after all.
4. Meeting the mentor
I still have the piece of paper my mentor scribbled on at our first meeting at the Brentwood Hotel. He drew a compass on the page and placed heart and mind at the north and south poles, and aesthetic and narrative at east and west. He talked about the importance of balance and control across all four. He introduced me to the notion of ‘my reader’ and encouraged me to respect the wisdom and knowledge they bring to this exchange; a subtle but crucial shift in orientation.
(Note: Metaphor on its own is powerful. Remember to leave space for the reader. If you lead with strong opinions you remove the potential for artistry to follow.)
John Huria was not at all like Mrs J. He didn’t assume that my story telling abilities were the result of either luck or plagiarism. He wasn’t effusive, but he showed me what was working well and what I still needed to develop.
The first thing he pointed out was my tendency towards “pre-loved language,” a generous way of saying cliché. This became glaringly obvious in my work once I had been trained to see it: “dog-eared-pages”, “glittering like a jewel,” “glaringly obvious.”
The second thing he noted has been much harder to correct, and maybe I don’t want to? The word “essay” comes from the latin ‘exigere’ meaning to weigh or to test. An essayist is someone who interrogates the truth or validity of an idea by weighing up different arguments. The writer may not even know what they really think until the essay itself is finished. The essay is both the tool and the craft: a wānanga on the page.
But, while providing a running commentary on your process can feel essential as a writer (Why have I chosen these anecdotes? Am I a reliable narrator? Do I have the right to share this story?) … it can be interruptive for a reader. This intense introspection, John told me, was where I often slipped into “writing about writing.” I’m doing it now.
5. Crossing the threshold
The thing about awards is that they have prestige. In a Pākehā publishing world at least, they offer a kind of legitimacy. Before Te Papa Tupu I would send stories to editors and competitions and wait for weeks or months to hear back. After Te Papa Tupu – within a matter of days – a well-known editor of a mainstream platform invited me to write something about Te Papa Tupu’s contribution to Māori literature. I accepted, without gushing, and wrote an essay that didn’t stray too wildly from what I had said at the Brentwood Hotel.
I wish I had remembered James George’s words from our very first Te Papa Tupu workshop before I hit send:
“Beware of manifesting the stereotypes others put on you.”
I woke up in the morning to a deficit-contrived, click-bait headline zero-ing in on the one anecdotal crumb of controversy I had included in my piece. Somehow, the editor had managed to mine an entirely positive story about Māori literature to find something negative.
To operationalise James’ warning: Stereotypes become titles for stories become algorithms for search engines become labels for “all Māori”.
For 24 hours, I didn’t do anything except stew in my own self-loathing and shame. I felt naive for trusting the invitation at face value. I should never have served up the anecdote in the first place. That’s pretty much what the editor said when I finally got in touch. “The headline wasn’t clickbait,” they said. “It was straight out of your story, words you had written.”
Words you had written.
It doesn’t matter that I was raising a stereotype to challenge it, rage against it and ultimately disprove it. The critical lesson I learned that day was vigilance: be careful how you release your stories into the world, lest they be used as a weapon against all Māori.
It’s the same message Joe Harawira offered during a wānanga about tikanga in publishing in the foreword of Te Whē, Te Hau o Te Whenua. “Writers do have a responsibility to be cognisant of how their work will be received,” he said, referring to the influence of Alan Duff’s award-winning film of the novel Once Were Warriors.
“Alan Duff wrote his reality,” Joe said, “but the way it went out into the world, his story tarred all Māori with the same brush. One story impacted a whole race of people. What the world saw of Māori was violence – but that wasn’t my story.”
In the same wānanga, Mike Ross explained that even though you may have a right to do something, it may not be right. “For example, if you degrade tikanga in your particular space, that will have consequences that the rest of us have to carry. We don’t exist in isolation, there are connections between all of us. We belong to a wider body that we have responsibilities to.”
I was lucky the stakes were low when I first learned that Māori writers have added responsibilities when publishing that most Pākehā writers don’t appear to carry on behalf of all Pākehā. The editor apologised for externalising a negative bias they hadn’t been aware they had, and the headline was changed.
But words in print cannot so easily be taken back. More than that: I have begun to see that it is largely Pākehā machinery that gets to decide which stories are published and which are passed over. Te Papa Tupu is a rare and intentional exception. More often than not, it is Pākehā resources and institutions that have the power to decide, select and support. This power is not neutral and it’s not without consequence. It’s no accident that in Aotearoa, literature is heavily imbued with a deficit view of Māori. It’s the result of a long colonial history that produces and legitimises the stories it judges as normal, accurate, objective, entertaining, artistic, worthy.
If there was equity in publishing we’d see diversity by default. Māori would be represented in literature as fully and as variously as we truly are. Instead, we have what Patricia Grace refers to as a “heaped up effect” – the accumulation of negativity and stereotypes around Māori culture and identity. Unlike cliches, stereotypes do actual harm. They have a way of manifesting in the world as universal truths.
Put another way, Alan Duff wrote his story, but someone else’s machinery propelled it into the world as gospel.
6. Tests, allies, enemies
I once wrote a poem describing the sensation that my ancestors are watching me when I write. They sit or they stand. Sometimes they pace. Sometimes they lean close and peer over my shoulder, scanning each line for truth. I can feel their breath. I feel them now.
Ngāhuia Murphy, in her earthquaking koha to Māori women suffering from colonial thinking, acknowledged her ancestors as spiritual guides, at the beginning of her doctoral research:
“The ceremony was also a careful acknowledgement of entering into a relationship of reciprocity with my tīpuna and kaitiaki, trusting that they will reveal to me what is appropriate to share, and what is not, guiding me on my research journey as I encounter the realm of tapu (sacred / restricted).”
At least one reason I still haven’t published my book is due to an obsession with caution. Writing is an individual, solitary act. But sharing is an act of exchange. It’s relational. Writers’ karanga to those who are listening; not just the living, but those who have passed beyond the veil and those yet to come. That responsibility is huge. Possibly debilitating.
A hundred years ago, when I left my 16 year marriage, I was paranoid and mentally unwell. I wrote in my diary that I only needed two things to be well:
1. Oxygen in my lungs
2. To be safe
The first, gratefully, has come easily. The second has required intention and focus and I’ve not been able to achieve it. My life has been full of conflict. Contemplating this list three years later, I ask myself if there is any such thing as safety in the world of publishing. Can I reasonably expect to enter under the waharoa of publishing and not to feel my fingers tremble?
On the other hand, what is the price I have paid for avoidance?
For years I used alcohol as a mask, getting drunk instead of putting myself forward. It was easier to placate and subdue and suppress my voice than to learn how to use it.
As a child, there was a menacing presence at home; I lived in fear and awe of it. My parents didn’t fight. My step-father’s weapon was silence. Have you ever seen a child recoil from the threat of violence? My brother grew up in the shadow of that threat and it shaped him; fists at the ready. It shaped me too, but in the opposite direction. I bow to Rongo. My brother to Tū.
This was the territory of my manuscript. 100,000 words to explain one thing. Ko wai au?
7. Approaching the innermost cave
At my cruelest, I blame myself for my brother’s death because I didn’t know how to talk to him about the dark world of conspiracy he had become entangled in. Speaking to him required debate and the possibility of conflict. I thought I was choosing peace, but really I was choosing silence. I forgot that silence can be terrifying. Silence can permit injustice and cruelty.
In a workshop at the New Zealand Society of Authors in 2018, Lani Wendt Young said that “whoever tells the story controls the story.” At the time, I was reading a new collection of essays by a Pākehā author whose book bore a Māori title. The essays were introspective and evocative, with many of the stunning literary markers that distinguish creative non-fiction. But there was something about the anecdotes the author had chosen that made me boil inside. I know it’s important for Pākehā to do deep self-reflective work, but this didn’t feel like work. It felt like a performance. It felt like pity.
In one essay, the author heaps a handful of unconnected and unrelated Māori students together, using their real first names – or, if they are pseudonyms he never says. From the periphery as their high school dean, he watches their hardships unfold while examining his own inner turmoil and powerlessness. All the familiar stereotypes are present: gangs, violence, CYFS, drugs, parental neglect, Alan Duff, the kid from Boy.
The author presents no hope for the students whose lives he presides over, and little conviction to do anything more substantive in his leadership role than sit in cynical judgment of politicians. He laments the inertia of “the system” he is complicit in upholding but he is something less than outraged by it. He says it “bothers him”.
It bothers him and yet, he is sufficiently beguiled by te reo Māori to wear our language like a taonga along the spine of his book.
I wanted to ask if those students he wrote about agreed with his negative assessment of their lives. I wanted to know if they had given permission for their ex-teacher to use their personal stories as an intellectual commiseration exercise. They are the subject of his narrative, but they are not holding the pen. All the control rests with the author.
Perhaps he thought those Māori kids and their Māori parents would never read his book? Perhaps he thought he was helping? Perhaps he wanted the reader’s forgiveness for writing lyrical essays in pursuit of irony rather than justice?
8. The ordeal
When a writer calls, somewhere, a reader responds. Even if only silently. Recently, I read a column by an award-winning New Zealand opinion writer. The first paragraph includes an expert personal hook that cannot fail to pull the reader in. Except, the story isn’t personal. It’s about their trip to the East Coast, as told through paragraph after paragraph of unrelated crime headlines from Tologa to Tokomaru. At first, the story doesn’t even seem to make sense.
The only connection between one vignette and the next is the misery and shame of poor people. Poor brown people. The whole column makes a mockery of those who live on the periphery, literally and figuratively. But the anecdotes are nothing more than a smoke screen; a clever literary device to accentuate the contrast between the pain and suffering of strangers, and something utterly poignant and sweet which is revealed only in the last line of the story – the birth of the author’s precious daughter.
Being a writer focused on craft turns you into a critical reader overnight. Being a critical reader makes you think about responsibility. I sometimes run my fingers along the colourful spines at the bookshop wondering if publishers and editors bear on their conscience the weight of all the negative stereotypes about Māori that continue to heap up and heap up. Do they think about the political power that literature wields when they choose which authors and which stories? Do they care?
These questions have taught me a very important lesson: there’s no point being a stunning writer if your ethics are shit.
7. Seize the reward
Have you ever made promises to the dead? To get sober, to make amends, to free-fall from 2,000 feet?
This was new to me. The level of faith was intoxicating. I was high with it. I stood at the back of the hearse, nothing between me and my brother but a thick black bag, promising I would not give up, I would keep going with this manuscript, not for me but for him. For us.
One of the last true, coherent things he gave me was encouragement. He phoned me after I made a post on Facebook asking my friends if I should accept an offer from The Spinoff to write a regular column. I didn’t even know he read my Facebook. His voice was loud and agitated, reverberating from somewhere down the Desert Road. “Do it, Nadine,” he urged. “Write the stories. Write them all.”
My brother’s death inspired a whole new level of commitment from me. This had nothing to do with money or status or contracts. I wrote and I wrote. At stake was everything.
8. The road back
Last month, a year after my brother was buried and two years after Te Papa Tupu concluded, I finally returned to my manuscript. I sat down in front of the computer and read it from beginning to end. It was so close to being finished. But it was also miles, years and literal lifetimes away.
Naida Glavish says that if you see a mistake, you must correct it. If you don’t, that’s on you:
“Mēnā ka kite koe ki tētahi mea hē, whakatikangia. Inā kao, he rite koe ki taua hē.”
The problems weren’t insurmountable. I could rewrite the original essays in the past tense (changing “My brother says…” to “My brother used to say…” ). But tense was a minor issue. The more significant problem was that my manuscript had largely been written by a different person. In the three years that had passed, I had grown and evolved as a writer. All the experiences and opportunities and conversations with mentors had influenced and reshaped me.
The most significant thing I could see was that my brother did not control the narrative. He wasn’t the one holding the pen. I was.
It’s not just that I don’t want to serve up another trauma narrative for the heap. It’s that my brother was genuinely more interesting, and far more autonomous, than the bad things that happened to him.
When I really listen, I can see him so clearly.
A few years ago, at the conclusion of Te Papa Tupu, my publisher at Huia asked whether I had considered that a first book can be the one to keep in the draw/offer to the atua. I couldn’t see back then that this was the opposite of discouragement. I knew only that I couldn’t quit. I kept going because I’d made a commitment and signed a contract. I kept going because I’d made promises, and I didn’t want to let people down. I kept going because I wanted a book to prove to Mrs J that I was a “real writer”, and because I truly believed that books in print and awards were the only true markers of success.
Today I feel different. I feel slowed by what I have learned. Not weighed down or restricted, but protected by a korowai; maybe even liberated. I want to go back to the beginning and start over. With a fresh page and respect for the reader. With the knowledge that I am part of a wider collective to whom I call, and with awareness for the invisible work that stories do beyond the page – work that can confirm stereotypes, destroy them, or repair the harm caused by them.
10. Return with elixir
The next crew of Te Papa Tupu writers are on their way. Meanwhile, my mate’s books are appearing in bookstores and libraries and across my Instagram feed. We still send each other messages, the six of us, and celebrate each other’s wins and catch each other with a “you got this” when needed. Our contact is far less frequent these days, but every time one of us breaks through it’s a success for all of us, and especially for Māori literature and the variousness of all our stories.
The pōtiki of our cohort, Shilo Kino, was the first to publish with Pōrangi Boy. She also took out the Young Adult Fiction award at this year’s Book Awards. We love her and we’re so proud of her. Cassie Hart followed with Butcherbird, then came Ataria Sharman’s Hine and the Tohunga Portal. Early next year, Colleen Lenihan will launch her short stories. Just me and Hone still to go. But we’ll get there when the time’s right.
It’s such a brilliant thing to be present at the beginning and at the end of a hero’s journey.