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Renée. (Photo: Claudia Latisnere)
Renée. (Photo: Claudia Latisnere)

BooksDecember 13, 2023

Moe mai rā: Tributes to Renée

Renée. (Photo: Claudia Latisnere)
Renée. (Photo: Claudia Latisnere)

Beloved writer, mother, mentor, teacher, activist and grandmother Renée died this week. Members of Aotearoa’s literary and arts communities share their memories.

I collected Nanny’s coffin from Wairoa yesterday to bring it to Wellington, Geoff and I carried it out of the saloon where it had been stored under the billiards table for years. As we loaded it into my car Geoff yelled out to the people watching: “Don’t worry there isn’t anyone in it.” Nanny would have laughed at that, she would have laughed at the situation and the characters involved and found a place to write it in one of her stories, but there won’t be any more stories from her.

I have seen her face when I scroll through my phone for the last few days her smiling face in all the tributes from writers, and articles about her life. She was a taonga to the people who loved her, her work and her skills to us she was just Nan.

When I was little I dreamed of a Grandmother like on the TV, I only had the one and mine was different to that – fierce and formidable. She would always tell us having three sons was worth it to get us, her granddaughters, so you couldn’t feel more loved. Nanny had some basic dreams for us, when we were born she asked my mother to read to us, and my mother did what she was told. My sister and I always read and we knew to expect a book every birthday and Christmas from nanny, my children when we told them she had died asked if they wouldn’t be getting a book for Christmas, we said it was already ready and so this would be their last from Nanny Renēe.

I remember a school holiday in Hamilton doing a play writing workshop in Nanny’s living room, and as I aged I didn’t want the TV grandmother anymore, mine was so much better than that as I became proud of who she was and what she stood for. We talked after the Mervyn Thompson Affair documentary had been on TV, about how things for women had got better but still not good enough, she said sorry that she had thought that she would have made the world a better place for her granddaughters by now and I thanked her because even if she didn’t feel like it she made my life possible through her feminism, I reminded her I was married to my wife and we had two beautiful children, she made that space in the world for us.

In her final months nanny lost her sight completely and she said that the worst was losing her ability to read, that thing that had saved her and given her so much joy. We spoke about the gift that Rose her mum had given her and she had given it to us, and that her great grandchildren were known to wake at 5am to finish a book they had started the night before.

I don’t have Nanny’s gift for storytelling, but who really does, who could match her. I would send her small things I had written and she would critique it always fair, always encouraging, and she always made it better. I don’t cry often – it’s something I think my sister and I also inherited from her, but I cry as I write this because I feel that loss deeply not for me but for all the people that Nanny would encourage and improve. There will be no more drafts to send, but I think of what Nanny told me once when I was talking about our whakapapa and my place in that, your ancestors are part of your bones Abb, you are made up of the of Maori storytelling, Irish laughter, and Welsh blood, we are all there in your bones and you carry us with you. I will always carry her with me and think of her laugh and her strength and her love.
Goodbye Nan.
He toka noa te toka
He rākau noa to rākau
Kia tapiri rā anō ki te korero
A stone is just a stone
A tree is just a tree
Until it is a story

/ Abbie Taylor (Renée’s moko)

Te tino hoa, Renée.

There are many who will speak/write ably, of Renée’s life, her writing, her mentoring of young writers, her activism, her joyful spirit – all of which build towards a wonderful portrait of a great person. 

What I may be able to add is just a small snapshot of our tour (hers and mine), of the Universities of Europe which we were invited to do together in 1988.

Accompanying us were my husband Waiariki and Renée’s then partner Bernadette. Thank goodness for Waiariki and Bernadette. We would never have managed to get from one place to another, in time, without their management of paperwork and luggage.

What the exercise involved, was getting from one university to another, one country to another via rail, at short, short notice, as we endeavoured to find the correct platform with tickets, passports, suitcases (the old fashioned kind – no wheels) and almost nil understanding of the languages surrounding us.

Trains in Europe wait for no one, certainly not for these four running along platforms lugging baggage. On one occasion, Renée and I had to leave our bags, tickets and companions and jump aboard a train about to depart. Leaning out a window we spotted Waiariki and Bernadette throwing suitcases into the last carriage and throwing themselves in on top. They then had to make their way through the train until they found us at the seats that had been booked for us.

In our recollection, in recent years, of the tour, neither Renée nor I could recall anything of our kōrero or interactions at the universities. We could only remember running along platforms, diving into trains and laughing and laughing.

E te tuakana, moe mai, moe mai rā.

– Patricia Grace

I first saw Renée’s work at a performance of Wednesday To Come at Downstage in 2005. The politics in her writing as a feminist and a leftie were compelling. Here were women on stage going about their domestic work in the midst of the 1930s Depression, and all the pain and deprivation of that time were hammered into each of those familiar movements, every word of that spare dialogue. I became a huge fan. Some years later, we were on the road as publisher and author and I saw how people were drawn to and uplifted by this gracious, generous, straight-talking, funny, unapologetically political, indomitable woman, who had weathered so much and yet was fighting for their corner, even into her 90s. A woman in Dunedin handed Renée a note that said attending one of the playwright’s feminist revues had saved her life. I would say Renée saved hundreds of lives and inspired hundreds of others – writers, like our own Becky Manawatu, and her proud and lucky publisher amongst them.

Mary McCallum (Mākaro Press and The Cuba Press)

One can scarcely imagine a world without Renée in it. If there was anyone who could negotiate with Hinenuitepō I’d have put my money on Renée. I can just imagine her putting on the jug, brewing a story. I remember once, after hanging up the phone following a brief but lively conversation with her, my niece, who’d overheard us, asked who I was talking to. I told her Renée was in her 90s, and her eyes popped. “But she sounded like a teenager!” 

“She basically is,” I replied.  

Renée: our very Wairoa-born Peter Pan – better known to some of her high school students back in the day as “Rocky,” after she famously stood up and fist-pumped the air in a packed movie theatre when Sylvester Stallone emerged triumphant.

So many Renée stories, so many.

My personal connection, like so many others, comes via this rich tapestry of words. But what feels uniquely precious is the whakapapa that weaves us back to Ngā Puna Waihanga and the very beginnings of Māori writing in print. Renee attended the second gathering for Māori Writers and Artists in 1975 in Wairoa and has always remained steadfastly committed to the Māori writing community, especially wāhine. She was Kahungunu on her mother’s side, but often talked about feeling as though she was standing on a bridge, one foot on either side. Sometimes it was comfortable, sometimes it wasn’t. In this, she speaks for so many Māori writers today. “This is a large iwi,” she wrote to me once, “and we are all part of it.”

Over the years, these gatherings of Māori writers have evolved. Today, the mantle is carried by Te Hā – meaning simply and correctly “the breath”. Renee always responded yes to the committee’s invitations, delighting everyone with her wit, wisdom, and youthfulness. But don’t be mistaken. Sometimes she could be fierce. I have no doubt she drew stories out of people even they didn’t know they had in them, simply because she was uncompromising when it came to deadlines. “A deal’s a deal,” she used to say of writing commitments.

Te Hā has been repped by all our Greats at different times: Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Haare Williams remain connected; and so many others: Jacqui Sturm, Keri Kaa, Bub Bridger, Arapera Blank, Mihipeka Edwards, Georgina Kirby, Para Matchitt, Selwyn Muru and more. I mention them by name because Renée would want us to. It was important to her that people were not forgotten. Let me rephrase that: that women were not forgotten.

When I attended my first Te Hā hui at Tapu Te Ranga in 2016, I barely had any appreciation for the whakapapa I was being invited into. Renée reminded me once that ‘it is on their shoulders we stand.’ Today, everywhere Māori writers gather to support each other, whether online or in wānanga or a festival stage, we step into this whakapapa. We keep the collective breath alive. We mihi to those on whose shoulders we stand, Renee included. I cannot believe that she has gone now to join them, but the meteor shower last night suggests it was a good one – perhaps they had more than just a cuppa?

To choose only one story to conclude is impossible. I’ve scoured every treasured email with Renée since I joined the committee of Te Hā, and drowned in delightful and hilarious memories. How lucky I have been. Anyone reading this who has a similar inbox to trawl through will be nodding. Even Renee’s emails were complete stories: suspenseful, thrilling, entertaining, poignant, sharp, wise, quote-worthy. Like the time she got locked in a car with a random dog! Or her response to being called Lippy! Or even worse, a crone! 

We have received so many stories and yet still could have consumed more. Can it be true, will there really be no more?

“There are words being written that won’t all survive the rapids or the storms but there are also words that will roll all the way down the river and make stories, poems, books. I sit there and I know those Wahine Toa who began the process of rolling their rich and beautiful words along the rivers of prejudice and power, are pleased.

I can see them smiling.

I smile back.”

(from Renée, in the Te Whē Journal, published 2020)

– Nadine Anne Hura

Renée at the launch of the Māori Literature journal, Te Whē, 2020

E kui, e taku tipare ka taka noa, I must address you directly because until the hūpē has fallen, kāore anō ka ea.

There is a whakataukī that I’m sure we’ve all heard at times of great loss and grief: “Wāhine tangi haehae, he ngaru moana, e kore e mātaki.” It’s the haehae that I’m stuck on. Haehae, the unfettered and spontaneous tearing of the skin that will bleed and then scar, has a direct relationship with writing, with revealing truth, with expressing yourself. Tuhi haehae are those same burning scars that appear when Ranginui is so overcome with mourning for Papa, that lacerations appear in the sky.

We talk about the marks people have made on the world, the marks they have left on us in their work and their deeds. You taught me authenticity through your own example. Dispensed wisdom with disarming care and unparalleled manaakitanga. You called me out on discipline, methodology, my motivations, and yet, when we talked, I never felt you were searching for my “right” answers, but only for my “real” ones. You instilled in those of us who knew you, the belief that self-imposed rules are our only true limitation. You have marked us as students, as friends, and as readers.

When I think of Te Hā, I also think of Hau. This is still breath, life, essence, but goes beyond that somehow to find its movement in the wind, spreading news and change and rejecting complacency. We will take a long time to farewell you, whaea, e kui, e te manawa whenua o te kī. We will use the breath, the words, and the power of narrative just as you taught us – with pragmatism as the surgeon, and compassion as the scalpel.

Rapu kau ana te hinengaro i ngā kupu tika kia rangatira ai koe, e te māreikura – engari, we will come in waves, he wāhine haehae, he tuhi haehae, he pene haehae rawa atu on the page.

Haere atu rā koe, haere ki wā mamao.

– Anahera Gildea

Dear Renée, your mahi stands for so much from simple living: baking, gardening, and growing leafy greens to fighting for the marginalised, breaking stereotypes, and exposing injustice. These things you weaved together so seamlessly because it came from the core of who you were. A no-nonsense wahine, with mahi to do! In the kitchen, in the garden, at the desk and on the frontline.

Your memoir These Two Hands is a taonga one that I have found comfort it again and again. Your writing has a timelessness and will be longed loved. Your work-ethic was unmatched, and strength clearly driven by a long-time love affair with the written word. Renée, I will frame a picture of you and put it with my pukapuka. You will always remind me in the technological age, to staunchly defend a reading ritual, and nurture a strong life-long relationship with literature.

Yesterday I read through some of the emails we shared. Once, I posted you, in gratitude for your support, a book (though I don’t remember which one) and a badge with the word ‘fierce’ on it. You liked it xx

You were an absolute dream to listen to when you attended book festivals. Your animation, laughter and humility were affecting, and wonderous. I adored being in your presence. You embodied strength, longevity, beauty, a good measure of grouchiness, generosity and honesty. I remember standing in the doorway of a Verb event you were speaking at. It was my first ever time being invited to a festival. The place was packed. I couldn’t get close, but from the back of the crowd I watched the room crackle and pulse and belly-laugh along with you. Everyone there in the room that day was so lucky to listen to you. We were so lucky to have you, and we will always be so lucky to have your work to treasure. Arohanui dear Renée. Ake, ake.

– Becky Manawatu

Wairoa Hōpūpū Hōnengenenge Matangirau! Renee was inspiring, singular. She inspired me with her neon sneakers and quick quips. Her perfect placement of swear words in casual conversation. I sat on the floor beside her eating all the Mint Treats while she told me stories about Wairoa in the old days, when she taught at Wairoa College with my parents, ignoring the boring English curriculum and doing her own thing.

Like a sleeping taniwha, Renee emerged from rural stay-at-home motherhood of the mid-20th century and started throwing doors open, smashing orthodoxies and pulling wahine up the ladder behind her. What a kuini. Me he tē. 

Let’s be like Renee when we grow up.

– Miriama Gemmell

Oh how Renée had a way of making me feel seen, normal, how she made me laugh at myself and life and see through the bullshit. Here are some favourite lines:

“I read somewhere yesterday that shouting helps you not to have a heart attack and had to laugh. So that’s why I’ve reached my 90s.”

‘Two sides of my identity’ – how I warm to that. Like I’m standing in the middle of a bridge with a foot on each side, never quite sure of a welcome in either.”

“Join the club, Arihia, I have never felt part of that world. I put this down to living a different kind of life, not being part of the middle class social or educational strata or milieu, I am a little kite flying on her own.”

And it was this last line that really got me, because she edited a poem I wrote about a time that we spent in wānanga together. This last part about a kite flying above me, I now whisper these words for her. 

Rui ruia, kapakapa

Tui, tuia

Tug at the muka

From before and beyond us

The fine plaits in my fingers hum

Bind, release,


Moe mai rā e te rangatira.

– Arihia Latham

How lucky we were! We had Renée at Te Hā wānanga, teaching workshops, making us laugh and cajoling us on. How lucky we were to have had Renée’s words in our homes, to be able to devour books like These Two Hands, marvelling at a life so fully lived and so generously shared! Finding Renée’s older publications in second hand stores, and taking her and her gnome home (I’m talking about Yin and Tonic). Or hearing about her latest thriller and thinking “my mum would have loved this” and getting it for myself from the Women’s Bookshop on a trip to Tāmaki Makaurau. How lucky to have had Renée on holiday with me. Later hearing the story of how that was written, Renée the consummate teacher who was asked by a student how they could write a crime novel so she designed a crime novel-writing course and promptly did it herself and out popped The Wild Card. How about that my first big girl job was at Huia Publishers and Brian Bargh used to have a bookcase in his office where damaged books lived and us staff could help ourselves, it was here where I first got my hands on Skeleton Woman, having known of Renée but never read her, I got the last copy. How lucky to reflect on my plucky arrival to Wellington in 2004 and the accessibility of theatre we had, that I could go to Downstage and see great, great plays, and that in 2007 one that I saw was Wednesday to Come, the Wednesday to Come, by the Renée. The mononymous matriarch that was Renée. How lucky we are.

– Matariki Williams

Renée. We are sitting together at Tukorehe, you, me and Kirsty, meeting for the first time across hiccups of awkwardness and admiration. The three of us lined up on our wooden bench, leaning out to talk to each other, plates balancing in our laps. I can still see the realness of those funny angles – and how, for a firebrand, you were so childlike. What a rare, perfect combo! Curious and sweet, chatty and delightful, like you really wanted to know about us. But WE wanted to know about YOU, our infamous kui in fresh sneaks and a raspberry cardi.

Many a time since then I’ve asked the atua to make me more like Renée. Let me emerge in my fifties, a phoenix! Let me fly on into my nineties, loose talking, happy to be seen, happy to pour forth my truths; unstoppable. And they did make me like you. But in another sense, this sense, which you also freely shared:

“My upbringing and conditioning is largely European, but I have an instinctive love of Māori ritual. Even though I don’t understand the language, I feel at home. But I also feel that because of my upbringing, I’ll always be an outsider in both worlds… Sometimes I feel alienated from the European world, and sometimes from the Māori world; because I sometimes feel inadequate in both of them.”

Those atua are tricksters alright. But then there’s that story you tell of heading out into the streets on a one-woman protest, black armband on. Because you were Māori and wahine and takataapui and what was happening was shit and if there was no one to march with yet you’d goddam march anyway. I don’t remember what just cause you marched for that first time. The bare fact of you firing out alone against domestic and social tides, staunch yet joyful, is the image that stuck. 

How proud you were. How proud we are of you. How proud I am that we saw and embraced you, irrepressible intersectional misfit mischievous you, through your glorious twilight years. Turns out you were more than adequate in both your worlds! Turns out – thanks to you and your declared homelessness – people like us get to feel a bit more at home. What a gift you’ve given. E rere ana aaku mihi mutunga kore ki a koe e te maareikura. Moe mai raa, Renée. 

Cassandra Barnett

Renée was our much-loved author, customer and long-time friend and supporter of us all here at Unity Books. Renée always brought together a genial, efficient and incisive approach to her work and writing. She was so inclusive and energetic in her great friendship with us all over the decades, her involvement with us and the literary community was always unburdened by a “me me me” sentimentality. Renée was an “us us us” person. We will miss her very much but of course her writing remains forever.  

Unity Books Wellington

A decade or so ago, Renée emailed to let me know how much she’d enjoyed one of my novels. I had to Google to make sure because I couldn’t believe it was that Renée, feminist icon of my teen years, ground-breaking playwright. Not long after, I got to meet her, and discovered she was physically tiny but huge in presence and deserving of all the adjectives: kind, funny, warm and oh, so generous with her time and knowledge. I recommend her memoir, These Two Hands, to everyone. And I will miss seeing her name pop up in my inbox, as she always had something wonderful to say. Arohanui Whaea.

– Catherine Robertson

Renée often said, “Darlings, the work is all”, reminding our class that “waiting for the Muse to strike” was the very definition of procrastination. I often hear her voice when I want to write but other things compete for my attention. She was all about the graft of showing up with pen and blank page, and just effing doing it. Renée brought such a variety and depth of ideas, wisdom and material to her teaching of creative writing. Her inexhaustible guidance and support – a mix of absolute professionalism and warm, steadfast encouragement – will stay with me always. Moe mai rā, e te māreikura.

Nicola Easthope, student of Whitireia’s GradDip Creative Writing, class of 2005.

Renée (Photo: Doug Lilly)

Dear Renée, I think of you with love and gratitude. I am remembering your first play, Secrets. Bernadette showed me the script. It was a one woman piece. I said I would like to play these two characters. It was first performed at a Women’s Convention in Auckland and was greeted with whoops of encouragement from a wonderfully vocal audience. It was a different story when I performed it at the Mercury Theatre. There was a stunned silence when incest was hinted at. The character in the second half was a cleaner in a men’s urinal and she was barely applauded when she won the Golden Kiwi. It was a privilege to act in these plays which were directed by Andrea Kelland. Renée was an innovator and to act in her plays was for me the beginning of a warm friendship.

– Elizabeth McRae

I will never forget my first meeting with Renée. When she joined a book group I was in, started by Frances Cherry. I can admit to a sense of trepidation as I knocked on her apartment door on The Terrace at that time. Her formidable reputation, and self description as a Māori Lesbian Feminist preceded her. I was the first to arrive and very soon afterwards enveloped in the warmest most affectionate hug – she felt like my dear old Mum and I never forgot that feeling. But I knew this was odd as we were ‘contemporaries’ in a book group together… and then when Renée’s marvellous memoir came out, I read that her firstborn child was born in 1950… indeed, weirdly, although we were both older women in a book group, she could indeed have been my mum.

What a woman. What a writer. We’d both been marching girls and like my own Mum, Renée left school aged 12. Already, those of us who followed her Wednesday blog have been missing her blog and now we mourn and miss this dear inspirational woman.  RIP Renée.

– Maggie Rainey-Smith

I got to know Renée when I asked her to write and deliver the 2021 Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Pānui (previously the NZ Book Council Lecture). In March of that year my colleague Melissa and I visited Renée at her home in Ōtaki, she was 92, we ate Anzac biscuits and drank cups of tea and got to know each other, she showed us where she wrote with her keyboard with very large writing, her kitchen which she gracefully navigated – hardly able to see a thing, the little blue library in her front garden. I took a novel, I desperately wish I could remember what it was. She was welcoming and generous and her tidy home was filled with reminders of a life lived. She asked if she could have the first draft of her manuscript to us by the 5th of May, well she sent it on the 14th of April, she wrote in her email “If you think it’s crap just say”. It wasn’t crap, it was word perfect, a treatise on what books and reading meant to her, a story of a life with more than its fair share of heartache, but joy too. I am so grateful to Renée for the gift she gave us.

– Juliet Blyth

I first opened the manuscript for Wednesday to Come at age 15. The play slipped out of a collection of New Zealand dramas piled in the corner of our high school drama room. Sleepy after lunch and slumped on a stool I began reading and reading and reading. Instantly Renée‘s characters jumped off the page and into my world. The strength of the women, the grit and snap shot of country life all reminded me of home. I began looking into her work and discovered she was also born in Napier and her mothers name was also Rose. From there her writing followed me into adulthood. While interviewing Mary McCallum and Paul Stuart of Mākaro Press for a piece I was writing, I was introduced to her memoir they had published. Again I was nose deep in her writing, Renée’s perceptive eye mirrored through Two Free Hands

Watching Renée, Fiona Kidman and Patricia Grace speaking together in 2022 was a hopeful tonic, for an hour they unravelled the challenges and beauty of writing their worlds. That year I went to see Wednesday to Come at Circa Theatre in Wellington and just yesterday I was talking to my colleague about how I would love to have a kōrero with her. While I won’t have that chance I am thankful I can continue reading her masterful work.

– Maggie Tweedie 

When I started working at Aotearoa’s playwrights organisation Playmarket it was Renée who garnered the most awe. She’d broken through early with such radical yet utterly domestic ferocity. Her cultural politics seemed to blaze a trail decades before others gathered behind her in what was with theatre a fairly monocultural world. She stood for the working class, for feminism, for Māori, for the ordinary person when few others did. And oh boy did she stand for the writer.

Even that French accent on her name – and a singular name, like Prince – were intimidating back in the day. It still is. Yet, when as her agent and a dramaturg I got to work with her I was struck by someone so warm and caring, yet critical and focussed. She became a role model.

Mark Amery

I met Renée when we were both teaching on the writing programme at Whitireia Polytech. I learned so much about teaching from Renée. One year she joined my poetry class and was a generous, funny, kind and hard-working member of the group. She became a friend. I will never forget Renée’s generosity, wisdom, energy, and her deep interest in helping people to write what they needed to write. I can still hear her gorgeous husky laugh. Rest in peace Renée.

– Lynn Davidson

I met Renée on the first-ever Book Council Words on Wheel tour, in the 1990s. I’d seen and admired her plays – including ones for teenagers; did you know that? I saw her as a proud and pioneering feminist, so I arrived on the tour with all my provincial male prejudices intact, expecting a sharp, challenging woman who wouldn’t let me settle. Instead, I met a mischievous, friendly, delightfully subversive person who made me feel valued, welcomed, a member of the company of authors. She was a delight to be with. She charmed an audience of farmers out of their green sportscoats in Masterton. She was courageous and witty, a boon companion and a born storyteller. Hell, I was lucky to know her.

David Hill

​​The living history of the Wednesday to Come trilogy. The urgency of Pass It On. “It’s not a strike – it’s a lockout.” I still remember the clarity of that, and the power of having our past, our politics, delivered through drama. As we all know, five years after that play was first produced, the Employment Contracts Act was passed (again, to much protest) and workers’ rights in this country took another blow. Without having learned about the waterfront dispute through Renée’s play, I might not have been so awake to that. It all seemed part of the same story – it all is part of the same story.

And then seeing Renée on stage at Meow decades later, as part of Verb Festival, with Linda Burgess and Dame Fiona Kidman – all three writers making their 70s, 80s, 90s look desirable, cool, funny and fiery. In that event Renée talked about writing her memoir and emanated the beauty of her age, a stage of giving no fucks and taking pleasure in life. But of course she gave a fuck – about the right things. And through her work she made the rest of us give one too. Thank you, Renée.

Emily Perkins

Renée was tough, talented and wrote with soul. A prolific writer of many genres she captured so many different eras of Aotearoa’s social and personal politics. She was a really good craic, tough, and a real sweetheart too. We are eternally grateful for all her friendship and mahi from over the decades. Ko Renée, kia pai to haerenga. 

Unity Books Auckland

In 1993, aged 16, and an aspiring actor, I was cast in my first “grown up” role as Iris in Wednesday to Come. It was my first experience of a New Zealand play and it had a profound effect on me. The writing was bold, complex, lyrical and unyielding – qualities I would seek out in any future scripts I came to. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of returning to play Iris in a scene performed as part of the celebration of the Hannah Playhouse 50th anniversary. I was struck again by what an incredible gift Renée had given me as a teenager, and how that gift would stamp an indelible mark on the actor I would become. Thank you Renée

– Heather O’Carroll

I hope everyone can meet someone as wonderful as Renée at least once in their life. At my lowest point, my head fried to a crisp and life feeling so tenuous, Renée came to teach a writing class at the Cancer Society and let me believe I had something special, an ability to write. It was the greatest gift. Years later, through the bumpy early days of the pandemic, she nurtured me again, giving advice that was so incisive and kind and motivating, as I hammered out a manuscript. Thank you, Renée. You embody everything a mentor and friend could ever be.

– Emma Marr 


If you were a note, would you be deep, and low, and growly, like a bear, but when we listened we would hear diamonds

If you were a bird, would you be a shrill pūkeko

piercing our consumerist slumber, saying ‘get real, the working class is too tired to go to theatre’

Or would you be hiding in the dark, a ruru

your attentive smile on us,

waiting calmly for the moment to strike with your pen

If you were an action, would you be

shaking us awake this precarious dawn

urging us to be hopeful,

stating calmly

and with fierce brilliance

“Write the kind of play that cuts to the heart, the kind of play that makes politicians nervous”

–  Jo Randerson

She was fabulous wasn’t she. I most remember her for being the author of Wednesday to Come, a play that I taught and taught and taught again to what used to be called 6th formers. But when I was no longer a teacher and met her as a person I remember her as one of the kindest most non judgmental people. She had the calmest presence. No one could ever feel bad about themselves with her. I actually hate the word “humble” – it’s so Dickensian, so Uriah Heep – but she was so straightforward about herself – one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. A wonderfully perceptive writer. A great woman who would be amazed to realise what an impact she had on so many. A long life so well lived. A sweetheart.

– Linda Burgess

What can you say about Renée? A formidable, witty, resilient, creative, ground-breaking, inspiring woman who left school as an adolescent, wrote her first play at 50 years old and proceeded to forever change NZ drama, kicking down doors for women and minorities, and after receiving a Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2018, proceeded to start writing crime novels – a genre she’d loved for eighty years – and become a two-time Ngaio Marsh Awards  finalist in her 90s. 

I feel so blessed that my path crossed with Renée’s quite a bit in recent years, from our long interview conversations to informal chats and messaging across the oceans, to collaborating on some cool events and writing and projects. And I’m oh-so-glad I got to hang out with her in person at the Nelson Arts Festival last year. It was a fun and unforgettable day. She sparkled onstage and off. Mana, personified. 

Hugs and aroha to Mary and all of Renée’s close friends and family. Thank you for sharing Renée with us over the years; she’s impacted generations of Kiwi storytellers, directly and indirectly. 

Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane, ka tangi hotuhotu nga manu. (The great totara tree from the forest of Tane has fallen and the birds cry with its passing). Arohanui Renée

Craig Sisterson

The service for Renée will be held on Monday 18 December, 2pm at Wilson Funeral Home, 375 Adelaide Road, Wellington. All welcome.

This page will be updated as more tributes flow in.

Keep going!