(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

BooksSeptember 10, 2023

Witi Ihimaera: An icon and an inspiration

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

This year marks 50 years since Witi Ihimaera’s novel Tangi was published. Here, five Māori writers look again to their favourite of his works and reflect on the words that have shaped their love of literature.

It wasn’t until I was Year 11 at High School that I was exposed to my first pieces of Māori Literature. Like many readers, I suspect, my well-meaning, most often non-Māori English teachers decided to roll out the holy trifecta of Māori writing; Hone Tuwhare, Patricia Grace and of course Witi Ihimaera.

For those of us who were Māori and for those of us who would go on to become storytellers, Witi Ihimaera’s writing marks a turning point in our reading lives. In Witi Ihimaera’s works we could look into the characters and narratives and see our own selves, our whānau, our struggles and our pain – but more importantly our joy, our gifts and our magic too. Witi Ihimaera held a mirror to it all and for the first time in English writing, we could see ourselves so clearly. 

When collating this piece I braced myself for the writing group to negotiate who was going to write about which piece. I told the writers to consider a couple of texts, in case their first pick had been dibbsed by another writer. Almost each writer responded that they had strong feelings over which text they would want to write about – and not a single one was a double up. That’s the thing about being a literary icon, I guess.

The body of work is so vast and varied that there is no possibility of compiling a top 20 ranking list. Matua Witi’s writing has served so many of us in as many ways as there are works to read. At times its role has been that of rongoā, for others it’s been a hype girl, for some it’s been a Nanny giving a clip round the ears, or an Uncle a proverbial kick up the ass and in the right direction.   

Readers across the country have been reaching for Witi Ihimaera’s works since the 70s – not just because he was the first, not just because he is Māori, but because the storytelling is powerful. Being the first of your people to do anything, is courageous. It takes grit, determination and resilience. When I think of my own writing journey, I often wonder if I ever would have considered writing to be something I could do, if it wasn’t for Witi Ihimaera. Matua Witi’s words cracked open a world of possibilities, cementing the notion that our stories deserve to be told, paving the way for generations of Māori and takatāpui writers today and tomorrow. 

Whiti Hereaka: ‘The Makutu on Mrs Jones’, published in Pounamu Pounamu

I first read The Makutu on Mrs Jones when I was 14. Thirty years later I think of it whenever I cut my nails. Imagine writing a story that can wind its way into everyday life — resurfacing in the reader’s mind as they go about their day. It’s something I hope that I can do one day.

In high school, we focused on Tawhai’s naivety about what is actually going on between Mrs Jones and Mr Hohepa — his belief in makutu was “proof” of this. Reading it now, he isn’t naïve — he sees exactly what happens to Mrs Jones: as her feud turns to “love” she loses herself. Reading it now, the makutu is real. Reading it now, I wonder about Tawhai’s own marriage.

In the frame story, Tawhai has been banished from his marital bed to cut his toenails. In the cold, quiet sitting room he tells us the story of Mrs Jones – and the makutu that befell her. What does this story tell us about his life now?

A great story allows a reader to find new insights every reading. I’ve read and reread this story most of my life and I always find a new way of seeing it. (Whiti Hereaka)

Anthony Lapwood: The Uncle’s Story

In The Uncle’s Story, Michael Mahana discovers his father had a brother – expurgated from the family history – and that they’re bonded by a secret: Michael and his uncle Sam are gay. Viewing a photograph of Sam, Michael experiences a moment of recognition across time and space: “Suddenly it seemed he looked past the camera. By some trick of the light he was looking at me.”

When I read this novel nearly 20 years ago, it was the authorial eye of Witi Ihimaera I felt looking at me – by some trick of language. Michael, Sam, and I have led very different lives. But that prickling question in the heart every queer person feels, and the quest for connection and community: these are familiar depths that Matua Witi portrays achingly well.

In the content and kaupapa of his writing, Matua Witi creates windows into te ao Māori – a place to which I whakapapa, but in which I was not raised (this is the disenfranchising grind of colonialism). Even now, reading as the characters in The Uncle’s Story navigate Māori and Pākehā worlds, I feel again a remote gaze catch me. As when another familiar question with more than one answer is bellowed at Michael’s twin, Amiria, by their father: “What kind of Maori are you!”

A solution Matua Witi offers those searching for community: we must recognise each other, but the real trick is knowing we always belonged. (Anthony Lapwood)

Marama Salsano: A variety of introductions

Witi Ihimaera has written various introductions to books, which provide Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki writers an insight into the mind of a cherished hau kāinga writer. Many introductions, especially those found in the Te Ao Mārama anthologies of the 1990s, remain well cited foundational texts about Māori writing in English. And while there are now more voices contemplating earlier questions he posed about who we are and what we want to achieve moving into the 21st century, his 2007 assertion that “we [Māori] do still have to shout, ne?” still resonates, and is a sobering reminder that there is much work to be done in the realm of English language literary studies across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Yet, in the 2019 introduction to Words of a Kaumatua, Witi recognises the “optimistic vision about the future for Aotearoa New Zealand” in the poetry of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki elder, Haare Williams. Into this shared vision, Witi’s introductions will continue to resonate as curated stories, archival legacies, and iwi imaginations of the future. (Marama Salsano)

Tangi: 2023 and 1973 editions (Image: Tina Tiller)

Matariki Williams: ‘Fire on Greenstone’, published in Pounamu Pounamu

The stories in Witi’s first book share the experiences of a whānau and a town as a whole universe, filial complexities as relatable, laughable, comforting. Though the Wizard of Oz provides an allegorical constant throughout the collection, the fire of this title is real, sharing that the whānau homestead has burned down along with the whānau whakapapa books. I can still feel the bereft emotions of the narrator and his Nanny as if the loss is my own. A later story in this universe takes them on a journey to Rūātoki to recover the whakapapa that is lost in the fire, where my whānau is from. Reading this, I envisaged headlights striking reflector poles, a scene I experienced many times in the knowledge that I was heading home.

At times, Witi’s stories dealt with the urban drift of Māori into larger centres and the impact of leaving and being left, of elders dying and uri rushing home for tangi. I’ve always known that that journey was too far for me, so after having left the Bay of Plenty for Wellington for 18 years, my whānau and I returned in 2022, for there is no place like home. (Matariki Williams)

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins: ‘The Seahorse and the Reef’, published in The New Net Goes Fishing

I’ve loved it from the opening passage, the “soft green water” and the dreamy Seahorse “shimmering and luminous with light”. It is pure magic. I’ve continued to love it and use it in my own classrooms for its humour, its political message, the beautiful imagery and vivid characters which create a snapshot of our people – all undeniably Māori, and a far cry from a lot of the negative stereotypes on offer elsewhere. The short story traces a struggle with the government to preserve our taonga, our tino rangatiratanga and our ability to serve as kaitiaki. Fast forward 46 years since it was first published, and sadly the themes of profit over the planet are still so painfully relevant. A modern classic in every sense.

This piece was co-commissioned with Te Waka Taki Kōrero – Māori Literature Trust: E tuhi, taki mai i te ao Māori ki te ao whānui – Taking Māori voices to the world. In 2000, MLT established a charitable trust to deliver programmes that promote and foster Māori literature and its place in the literature of the nation. Guided by our own cultural values, we seek to grow Māori writers’ skills, confidence and opportunities. We encourage Māori writers to stand tall as Māori and to support each other and become a strong force within the literary community of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Ngā Kupu Wero: a powerful collection of non-fiction from contemporary Māori writers, edited by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin NZ, $37) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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