A kelp forest (Photo: Steven Trainoff Ph.D/Moment via Getty)
A kelp forest (Photo: Steven Trainoff Ph.D/Moment via Getty)

BooksFebruary 9, 2020

An extraordinary, tender response to Witi Ihimaera’s memoir Native Son

A kelp forest (Photo: Steven Trainoff Ph.D/Moment via Getty)
A kelp forest (Photo: Steven Trainoff Ph.D/Moment via Getty)

Poet essa may ranapiri says this review is one of the hardest things they’ve written. 

I spend two months with this book, following Witi Ihimaera’s journey, I see car tyres in country roads I see tears on lover’s faces, I feel the beating of the heart, as it strains against the western paradigm of heteronormativity. As he holds a part of himself under the water, I struggle to breathe. I want to build a time machine. I want to go back and just hold Witi and tell them that it is okay, to be. To truly be. “Smiler became Ihimaera as if that alone would create another person.” And it does build a whole new being in that kupu – I know this; holding the world in my name. Being out to the world as a decision I have made. I spent two months moving from short passage to short passage, each one swallowed with the grit of glass, melting like ice in the stomach. Made into steam. Guiding my breathing in and out.

I wanted to go to you in a dream travel back down my whakapapa to meet you in the water. To whisper bird notes in your ear. To spell out the future; light your way to who you have become. I wanted to sew up the boy who ran from the shed, I wanted to keep him safe forever. Keep him from the violence that has been forced on too many takatāpui Māori. Extract you from the cycle of pain that began when Cook arrived and has continued ever since.

I saw Witi talk at a panel last year, at Te Ha (Māori writers hui). Standing there in a grey jacket the fibres zigzagging across his body. I heard him speak of the sacrifice that elders make for their community. Of Mahuika and the fingernails she pulls from her hands, and of Muri who pulled the jawbone from her face for her mokopuna. That is the kind of sacrifice you make to allow the future generations to move onwards. He calls for us to break the calabash. Work he already started.

Native Son is the grown-up sequel to Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, which won the General Non-Fiction category at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016.

This is also a memoir by a writer about how enmeshed the writing life is with everything else. Excerpts from many of his stories are included here from Bulibasha to The Matriarch; with characters’ names changed to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. What does it mean to use real names? What do we do with the fictional names? How do we honour our family and keep them safe in our work? What does putting the whakapapa of a word into a fictional world mean? These are some of the questions that these excerpts provoke by their inclusion and were also the questions that Witi was asking all those years ago when he started writing. The spiral structure of the book moves us back and forth along his journey to become a writer. From first book published to submitting early short stories to Landfall. The question that sits me still is one of responsibility, being a Māori writer being a queer writer; how do we traverse the damage done? How do we hold onto ourselves without making everyone else look bad? What kind of example are we setting? These questions follow me, putting words into the world is no small thing.

“You think this is easy? Fuck you.”

I didn’t understand like really fucking understand where you were coming from until that moment where you turn to the reader and essentially say if you’re staying you’re staying but if you’re not with me in this if you’re not willing to understand, if you’re not here to help then you can fuck all the way off.

I am with you.

When you go on your first date with the woman who shoots opossums with the intention of making a fur coat, with you in that fictional or not so fictional hockey game where a team of gays are victorious, with you when you play an old tune on a broken piano, when you’re driven around by your grandfather who is writing and researching the family’s whakapapa, I laugh when you compare atua to beings from the film Prometheus. I’m with you when it gets harder. When you drive out alone to make a solitary visit to the doctors. When you leave in fear. When you lie out on the beach the darkness of the night sky merging with the waves. When you touch a man and feel the joy of it. When you carve lines into your arms. The scars that reveal what the pākehā world has done to us. The scars along the wrists that show the pain, that reveal the loss. We pull it up from deep in our bodies. I am with you when you place the tube over the car exhaust as you sit in the car in the garage on the street where you live alone where you are so alone where you are such a disappointment to everyone you love, where the Mormon god looks at your lust with disgust where the water starts to fill your world, and there is no relief when you start to vomit and piss and shit up all of this. A ‘you’ that I can’t just step out of.

You take us to these places and challenge us to leave but I’m not going anywhere. This book opens you. This book opens you up. The heartbeat shifting.

The pages move my wairua sways with the sigh of the pages. I am with you at Te Ha when I tell you I am writing a review of your book Native Son. And you shrug uncomfortably and tell me not ungraciously “you don’t have to do that”. This is not a review, this is a mess. This is my spiral swinging out from yours. This is me finding something in myself to hold onto something in your kupu that stings and brings new life, new energy to the world. I am with you we are all with you when you draw on pūrakau on the old stories. When you touch Hinenuitepō and laugh along with the trickster Maui when you climb up to Rehua with Tawhāki when you fall to earth with Karihi his younger brother; there is no matauranga Māori in the clouds of pākehā academia and I’m with you when you move past that world. I’m with you when you’re reading through Te Ao Hou and when you talk about how you’re not the first Māori writer, list names of a thriving community; Arapera Blank, Kāterina Mataira, June Mitchell, Pat Heretaunga Baker, Rora Paki, Ani Bosch, Atihana Johns, Renee, and Bub Bridger, “Most of them were writing while I – Rowley Habib used to like saying – was still shitting in my nappies”. We are a community of writers we go back to the great poetess Puhiwahine and further to the songs of birds. You are aware we are all threaded from Te Kōre to Te Marama.

I close the book and the spiral swings outwards from where I’m sitting. It pools in the air it pulls me through decades I had never known, to people I would never meet, to an Aotearoa I would never get to see, except for in this book. In the centre of that spiral is trauma. Is what takes its place inside our bones wrestling with our ancestors – I feel as if a hot poker has penetrated my wairua, a pou into the pain. But the plant grows, the ferns curl, the spiral spreads outwards onwards and backwards and swinging around in circles some great some small some barely perceptible to sight.

I feel a connection.

This book taught me a lot about myself made me think about my mental health in a way nothing else has. Made me look at my own spiritual wellbeing. This is a book that guides and hurts and heals and makes whole from things that have no business being whole at all, from slippery worlds of dream and fright, to the ongoing search for a Māori place in a colonised world, where all our selves are held up to the light where they glow. I thank you for it.

Native Son: The Writer’s Memoir by Witi Ihimaera (RHNZ Vintage, $40) is available from Unity Books. 


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