An essay-review of Becky Manawatu’s novel Auē, one of four finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, the most prestigious of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
There are ghosts. They are real. You are born with them. You will die with them. They are your inheritance and will be your legacy. Cest la vie, without even the merest hint of irony. Just accept it as an article of faith. Ghosts come with the territory, with the turf.
In a previous life I knew a man called Casper. Called not named. He was the white guy in a brown gang. The same brown gang that Auē suggests. One of the southern chapters. The bros have a wicked sense of humour you see. He got out in his mid forties, early retirement you might say. Love over loyalty.
Shed his patch and took the beating.
Still called himself Casper though. He knew his ghosts alright. Accepted them.
Free to haunt himself now with neither fear nor favour.
The ghost of love haunts every page of Becky Manawatu’s searing debut novel. Born down deep in the saltwater church to the fisherman father, drowned in grief and a mother’s rage she wreaks the jealousy of sisters, face to the fury of a bulldog mob, met with a fantasy of mermaids.
The ghost of love will have her way.
Consider the bravery of children, reliant as they are upon the grown-up world around them for every provision. A land of giants, gods and monsters, as often as not chaotic as hell and too caught up in its own righteous mayhem to concern itself with the needs of its offspring.
“Come have a kai, bub”
“Here’s fifty cents, Bub”
“You wanna sip of my beer, bub?”
“You wanna go for a drive, bub?”
In the real world that all great fiction imagines we are able to navigate landscapes we may not otherwise encounter, places of skewed perspective where love is a hammer and a stomping heel and children who do not yet know their own legends still understand that they are part of a bigger story whose first words were written long before they were born.
That these imagined worlds exist is what gives fiction currency. We know there are badlands, perhaps just outside the realm of our experience. We know that people not so far removed from ourselves find the wherewithal to survive those places just as we know beyond instinct that survival in the long term may not be enough.
We are human after all. We are frail. Sometimes we break.
Ārama is eight years old and recently an orphan, which sounds strangely like a word whose place and time is past. Like there shouldn’t be such things as orphans anymore. Like there should be more than enough love to go round. Place and time of course will tell us otherwise. Just look around today and know that sometimes love has sweet fuck all to do with it.
But he’s not quite alone in the world. Not yet. Not when we meet him, delivered to his Aunty’s house on a dairy farm near Kaikoura by the boy he knows of as his brother, Taukiri, a teenager haunted by more than Ārama can possibly know. Except that he knows this; Taukiri is drifting away from him somehow. Through the tragedy that brings them here, we will learn among other things that lives however short are full of endings and beginnings.
Ārama is wise for his years. An acquaintance with death has opened his eyes and heightened his senses. This is the gentle bravery of a child who understands that ” … when you doubted you existed long enough, you started to disappear.” So he sticks himself together with plasters and plays Django with the girl next door.
Her name is Beth. She’s the same age as Ārama but has learnt the trick of managing to seem older. She has a dog named Lupo, who is as thick as two short planks. Lupo knows one trick and one trick only, how to play dead on command. But chasing bees may yet be the death of him.
Now Taukiri is the boy man singing, ” … No dragons or demons, No words but these, Cast them out … “ * Learnt on his fisherman father’s knee. These are the songs that will stay with him always, Taukiri, son of the sea. These are the chords, this is the strum. Songs learnt on your father’s knee. Teach Ārama, the boy who calls you brother. One day. When you find the courage.
In the meantime you have orphaned him.
How it breaks your heart.
Tell yourself it’s for the good. Lie a little. He’s better off without you blablabla. Bullshit cost you nothing when you sell it to yourself, eh bro. Yeah, you know. In the short term anyway. Go find your crack head mother then. Show her the man you will become. Run for Wellington. Sell your surfboard. Sell your soul. Put the ocean between you and the little you have left. Your journey started years ago young man, when your grandfather wished he was Maui, another son of the sea, though he could not slow the sun because he didn’t have the words.
And your mother was a child in a house of dogs.
So every boy man makes this journey one way or another, time to fledge. Time to fly. And realise as your wing bones flex with the weight of you against the sky, the stars by which you navigate are your father’s eyes.
We should listen to the B I R D S O N G not for meaning, but for sense.
When I was a kid my father explained to me why, in times of great distress, we humans naturally assume a foetal position. “It’s a comfort son. Something inside us remembers the womb. The safest place we ever knew.” Manawatu calls it “a golden deceit”.
The last place we knew nothing. All down hill from there.
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.
Jade’s is the story that comes to us from above, from the manu kōrero so to speak; the talking bird, the storyteller. Jade is whakapapa, the “lucky mob kid”, the princess of mongrels. The girl from hell who fell in love with a sea-eyed man. Jade is ūkaipō, a wonderfully enigmatic Māori word that means so many things; mother, source of sustenance, origin of home and family.
Home. Family. Whānau.
More deceit, as Tui gird her five times tattooed flesh to bone the feather songs of easy peace and cheesy love and so much that is broken and impossible. Her cousin Sav, the jagged beauty. The House. The gun. The Game of Gang. Her father, did he really dream of better things for them?
Remember Jade, for all his pomp and symphony, the Tui lies. But prettily.
And with false pearls at his throat.
“Auē! Te mamae hoki … “
I was having a kōrero with my linguist son on the general nature of interjections, as you do, given that Auē is one of the glorious interjections of te reo Māori. He made what I thought was an interesting observation. “One could argue” he supposed, “that language by and large simply provides a set of rules for building and interpreting interjections.” Implying that interjections came first, which seems logical enough. The warmth of a fire. The exclamation of warning. The lamentation of grief.
He got the idea from hanging out with his kuia several years ago.
He was a kid then and mum had suffered a stroke just a couple of years earlier. The analytical aspect of her language was pretty well shot and it soon became apparent that even a tight little sentence like “Shut the bloody door!” was really just a memorised statement acting as a kind of default interjection, albeit with a comprehensive range of applications.
The thing is, Mum had the word “Auē” cached away in her memory somewhere as well, expressed most often as a melancholic lament from a favourite song of hers, E te ariki, in which there is a harmonic refrain, Auē … Auē …
The mere act of singing it, sad as it was, just seemed to transport her. There’s power in this simple, soft little word. A delicate touch combined with a sheer weight of meaning gives Auē its strength and its worth and its mana not just as a word, but as a title indigenous to this land and no other.
Becky Manawatu cares deeply about writing. The craft of it. The work of it. The mahi. She’s a journalist for the Westport News, New Zealand’s smallest daily independent with a subscription base just a little north of 2000. You couldn’t ask for a better environment to hone your skills, to keep it tight.
Recent stories included a piece about one of her neighbours in Waimangaroa turning 60 during lockdown, being awoken at 7am by Jenny and Lyn, two staunch locals belting out happy birthday through the volunteer fire brigade loud hailer. Another story recorded a bust by the new local cop, been on the coast for less than a week, noticed some dodgy looking dudes driving a DOC vehicle not where it should be.
While a longer piece remembers the birth of one of her children in Italy over 10 years ago, its recollection all the more vivid for the poignant reality that the ward where her daughter was born is lately deluged under the weight of pandemic. So the common narrative of the day joins Westport to the outskirts of Rome and a young Ngāi Tahu mother to a vision of ghosts in the ruins.
Some of us don’t really know how to deal with ghosts. Even in literature, where every manner of figurative allusion and device seems ready enough to deal with the living, the dead too often seem tentative. Te Ao Māori offers something of a pragmatic approach, acknowledging the grey in everything. The marae ties the dead to the living, the earth and the sea to the sky, the past to the future.
This is part of what it is to wear the kākahu whakataratara, the cloak of nettles. This is the weight you feel to prove you don’t feel anything. Ghosts are the spaces filled in by children when the truth makes even less sense. Ghosts are there to be haunted by the living.
There is a tragedy that reaches across the years to Manawatu’s own childhood and the violent death of a much loved young cousin in circumstances that seem all too brutally familiar as a recurring theme in our national discourse. Her cousin’s name was Glen Bo Duggan and he died in 1994.
Given that in her mind, Becky was always going to write it would seem an inevitability that her cousin would make his way into her work. She touches on this in essays and interviews since Auē began attracting attention, noting that much of the character of Ārama bears a striking resemblance to Glen Bo, which she elaborated upon recently in The Press (March 21): “he was a really quiet, considered type of person … gentle and funny, artistic and thoughtful.”
And the ghost of love will have her way.
Because she must.
* ‘Dragons and Demons’, Herbs (1981)
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.