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(Photo: Sarah Hunter with permission of Playmarket; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksDecember 12, 2023

Renée: The one and only

Black and white portrait of an older woman wearing glasses, looking straight to camera with an assessing sort of air
(Photo: Sarah Hunter with permission of Playmarket; Design: Tina Tiller)

Books editor Claire Mabey remembers writer, mentor, teacher, and taonga Renée, who died this week. 

There has been an outpouring of love, appreciation, gratitude and grief from Aotearoa’s literary and arts communities since it was announced on 11 December that iconic, incomparable and trailblazing writer, teacher, activist and mentor Renée (Ngāti Kahungunu) has died peacefully in Wellington at the age of 94.

In the past few hours I’ve spoken with and messaged with people from across the literary community who all express a similar grief: we thought she’d always be here, she was a taonga, and how lucky we have been to have known her. The loss of Renée is heart-heavy, and uncomplicated: she was simply extraordinary and everyone who encountered her will feel the space left behind and will treasure what she left us for the rest of our lives.

Renée self-described as “a lesbian feminist with socialist working-class ideals”. She is widely considered in Aotearoa and overseas as a pioneer of writing about working-class women, takatāpui and Māori. Her writing work began in earnest in her 50s: it spanned plays, poetry, short stories, novels, memoir, crime fiction, and her beloved Wednesday Busk blog which she published every week for 10 years to a community of dedicated and admiring readers buoyed by her thoughts, her craft and her acute intelligence and generosity. 

On 5 April, 2023 Renée, who suffered macular degeneration, wrote: “Kia ora koutou, aroha mai — this is the last Busk. My eyesight is getting worse, my eyes get sore and tired so I have to be selective. I have a few other things I want to write and work on so while I’m still going to be writing in the mornings, reading/researching in the afternoons, making cheese scones (who cares if they’re shaped a bit wonky?) and meeting some of you at readings and workshops, I will not be producing the Busk.

Thanks to all my readers. Special thanks to Miriam. You are all stars.”

After the note Renée posted her poem, Tiger Country, which is a blazing, beautiful ode to the wild explorative energy that still existed for her, and comforted her, even while the body had to slow. I encourage you to read it on the Wednesday Busk here. It will charm and comfort you.

In 2017, Renée published her memoir, These Two Hands, with Wellington publisher Mākaro Press. It chronicles a life that was rarely ever easy. The book crackles with Renée’s singular voice which carried a palpable energy, a no-bullshit clarity, plenty of wit and self determination: “I was born in Napier on Friday, 19 July 1929, and the world went into a deep depression. Then Napier fell down. Two years after that my father shot himself. He was from Gore. Drama didn’t just follow me, it came out and met me with a big tah-dah.”

Renée was only four when her Pākehā father committed suicide and her mother, Rose, who was Māori, was subjected to racist reportage of the loss in the newspapers. At 12 years old Renée left school to go to work and help her mother support their family. It was Rose who taught Renée to read: a lifelong passion, source of resilience and a lifeboat of education. It was also Rose that inspired Renée’s extraordinary capacity for work: she admired her mother for her strength of character in the face of immense hardship, stress and inequality. In Renée’s first play, Setting the Table (1981), working class, lesbian, and Māori women are the stars of the show which was, at the time, a radical act.

Motherhood (Renée had three boys) marked the beginning of Renée’s writing practice and in her 40s, after a time of secondary school teaching, she began studying for a BA at Auckland University — between working, parenting, theatre work and writing — which she completed in 1979. Six years later she returned to the University to take up the Playwright in Residency position. 

This excerpt from These Two Hands, published on The Spinoff, is an account of the day Renée left her marriage. It is characteristically gripping, honest, and atmospheric. She had a capacity and respect for her own inner life, and the inner and real lives of others, that is rare. The work that publisher Mary McCallum (who was also a close friend) has done to bring Renée’s books to print will be treasured for years to come. 

Renée (with Dame Fiona Kidman, left) at the 2021 Verb Readers & Writers Festival (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

Over lockdown 2020 Renée wrote a series of exquisitely funny, sad, intelligent Lockdown Letters for The Spinoff. Her subjects ranged from cleaning the cupboards, to the increasing trouble with her eyes, to literature, family and living alone. At the end of Lockdown Letter #23: A wild patience, she writes: 

“While my life has changed from time to time, one thing remains. Writing has kept me sane through two bouts of cancer and a diagnosis of macular degeneration which means that eventually I’ll only be able to see ghostly shapes. Sitting down at the computer is my normal. 

But what does normal mean? Everyone’s normal is different. The woman who heads a large finance company and is taking a 20% wage cut will have a different normal from the woman who exists on the benefit, doesn’t know if she’ll have enough for food plus electricity and doesn’t want to tell anyone in case the state comes and takes her kids away. 

Iris in Wednesday To Come faces her new normal. Ben is dead, no money, two kids, a mother, grandmother, all in the small house, very little going for her except her own hard resolution. She speaks to Ben in the coffin.

‘Who will remember us? We need someone because it seems to me that everyone’s forgotten about us. And even if they do remember it’ll only be bits. We’re the ones they leave out when they write up the books.’

Will the Irises of 2020 be left out of the books? 

Three strawberries from the bins, eight tomatoes from the wild one.”

The passage shows her unfailing attention to the lives of women, to inequality, to art-making and resilience both personal and on the page.

The “Wednesday to Come” Renée mentions is her most well-known play, which was first performed at Downstage Theatre in 1984 and described at the time by the Dominion Post as a “major triumph”. It is the story of generations of women in the Depression and was re-staged at Circa theatre in 2022, with a revised Māori lens, produced by Nathan Mudge, directed by Erina Daniels and starring Nī Dekkers-Reihana. In 2019 Wednesday to Come and the two plays that followed it, Pass it On and Jeannie Once, were published together as a VUP Classic.

In her late 80s Renée turned her mind to crime fiction and constructed a series of workshops in which she both taught herself to write a crime novel and taught others as she went (she writes, gloriously, about teaching crime writing here). Writers all over Aotearoa speak of Renée’s exceptional mentoring, her encouragement, and her high expectations. “Two thousand words a week!” I remember an admiring and somewhat shell-shocked friend exclaiming after her first couple of weeks on Renée’s crime writing course.

The Wild Card, Renée’s first crime novel, was published by The Cuba Press when Renée was 90 years old. It was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Her second novel, Blood Matters, came out in 2022 and was also shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Both books have been published by Joffe Books in the UK. 

In 2021 Renée delivered the annual ReadNZ Panui and spoke about her mother, Rose, and the power of books to shift, and metamorphosise a life. In this excerpt from the lecture, you can sense, again, the power of Renée’s voice: the insights into the lives of those around her, the expansive nature of her generous mind, and her incisive curiosity about how art could change the way we might think about our lives.

Renée (Photo: Doug Lilly)

Over the years I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with Renée in a number of capacities. As director of Verb Wellington we were honoured to host Renée in multiple events: she was always the star of the show and audiences drank in her every, excellent word. Dressed in colourful clothes, full of smiles, grumpy when she needed to be, and generous with her bloody good advice.

In 2020 when I was working for the Aotearoa NZ Festival of the Arts, I asked Renée to be one of the writers to collaborate with artists Kemi & Niko, who were making a series of beautiful huts up the Kāpiti Coast. The vision was to have a family-friendly short story crafted for each hut. Renée wrote a story called The Case of Koro’s Stone about a young girl, Hana Porohiwi, who wants to be a private investigator and so studies a book to do just that. So familiar, so onwards! The story is beautifully determined, Hana is loveable, fierce and she damn well solves her first mystery without even finishing the How to be a Private Eye manual. We loved the story and so did Renée, who told me she had a whole series in mind for Hana.  

We worked together again when I had the idea to make a webseries about iconic Aotearoa writers with Steph Miller at Ocular (in Wellington). Renée was first on the list and of course she agreed to us interviewing and filming her as a pilot episode. Steph crafted a beautiful video of Renée in her Ōtaki home. You can feel her good nature bounce from the screen. I remember thinking that I wanted to be like her when I get to my 90s. Still thinking, still writing, still connecting. When I was awarded a grant recently she wrote to me just to congratulate me and to tell me a story that I didn’t know behind the person who enabled the grant money and for who the grant was named after. That’s the kind of person that she was: connected, generous and endlessly supportive of her community.

Renée’s work and her excellence received many awards: she was the Burns Fellow in 1989 at the University of Otago; in 2006 she was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and drama; in 2013 she was awarded the Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka for a lifetime contribution to ngā toi Māori; in 2017 she received the Playmarket Award for a significant artistic contribution to theatre in New Zealand. In 2018 she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction, from Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

It is terribly sad to write about the loss of Renée. I always loved how she shucked the surnames that didn’t fit with hers alone, the name her mother gave her. Like she was our Björk, our Cher, our Madonna. There is only one Renée and she will be so sorely missed.

We will publish further tributes to Renée on The Spinoff in the coming days.

Keep going!