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(Image design: Tina Tiller)
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BooksSeptember 14, 2023

‘Unapologetically Māori’: The rise and rise of the Kupu Māori Writers Festival

(Image design: Tina Tiller)
(Image design: Tina Tiller)

Ngā Ringa Tuhituhi: Kupu Māori Writers Festival will take place September 17-23 in Rotorua. The Spinoff spoke to the organisers about the origins of the festival and the upcoming programme.

In 2021, writer and journalist Shilo Kino published an article for Newsroom with the headline, “Wanted: a writers festival beyond the white and privileged”. In the article Kino reflected on her experience of appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival where it was abundantly clear that the majority of the audiences were white. The following year, Ngā Ringa Tuhituhi: Kupu Māori Writers Festival emerged, offering a new festival in the landscape of writers festivals in Aotearoa and that much-called-for space for Māori writers and readers to come together. Kupu marks a shift in thinking around festivals and who makes them and who they’re for (a conversation that’s been burning and flaring for a while now both here and overseas).

Rangitihi Pene, chair of the Kupu Trust, describes the kaupapa of Kupu as one that “celebrates Māori writers from the past, present, and future; and aims to bring some of the best-known Māori writers from Aotearoa to Rotorua to share their experiences, insights and journeys.” This year’s festival includes Dr Anaha Hiini and Reikura Kahi leading discussions on the Māori language at Te Papaīōuru Marae; Dr Monty Soutar and Tā Pou Temara on writing Māori History at Tarimano Marae; a deep dive into “Everything I Know About Books” with Anahera Gildea and Michael Bennett at Te Aka Mauri, Rotorua Library; and a masterclass on Māori contemporary fiction with Coco Solid.

We asked Pene, Robyn Bargh (trustee and programme curator) Rafa Moreira (committee member) to tell us more about how it started and how it’s going, ahead of the second annual Kupu festival this weekend.

Kupu is nearly here, congratulations on year two! Can you tell us more about the origins of the festival, where did the idea begin?

Moreira: The Rotorua community has always dreamed of hosting a Māori literary festival, given its strong heritage in this domain. The idea took root within the walls of McLeods Booksellers, which came to fruition through a partnership between its former owners, their staff, and the broader book-loving community. The motivation for this project was the article published by Shilo Kino in 2021, where she expressed her sense of underrepresentation at literary festivals. Guided by the values in that article, we assembled a passionate tāngata whenua team to design and lead the festival activities, ensuring that tikanga is upheld in every aspect. Since its beginning, the festival has received an overwhelming response from writers and attendees alike, affirming that our direction was indeed the right one. As time progressed, the festival grew at a surprising rate, evolving faster than anticipated. It has now expanded its horizons to become an independent organisation, aiming not just at the local community but extending its reach beyond the initial borders.

Venues are important for festivals. Where does Kupu happen? 

Pene: We made a conscious decision to base the festival at both marae and the Rotorua Library. Marae were the most appropriate venue for the pōhiri, our night on mōteatea, early Māori writer Wī Maihi Te Rangikāheke of Ngāti Rangiwewehi (held on his marae in Awahou), Makereti (held on her marae at Whakarewarewa) and our Matariki night with Rangi Mātāmua (held in Rotoiti not his marae but one of his sources). 

Bargh: This year the Kupu Festival is being held at marae again for evening sessions on Sunday Thursday. This is more appropriate as some of these sessions are in te reo Māori and the kōrero is appropriate in this environment. However, the library is appropriate for the other sessions as it is the pātaka, the storehouse of many of these literary treasures.

You have an incredible line-up of writers, can you tell us about your programming process? How do you make your decisions?

Pene: At least six months prior to the Kupu Festival, we start meeting regularly and through a process of wānanga we come up with our programme. 

Bargh: Our theme is celebrating Māori writers – past, present and future so we try to ensure that our programme reflects this. 

The programme includes a range of art forms beyond words. Is that a thematic decision too? 

Pene: We take the broad view of Māori literature and include composers of mōteatea and kapa haka, storytellers, poets, screen and book writers.

You’ve had one festival already, in 2022. What was the response from writers? From audiences? 

Pene: We had wonderful responses from last year and positive vibes from writers for this year’s festival. 

Moreira: Some of the feedback included things like:

“Unashamedly and unapologetically Māori.”

“The festival has provided the rare opportunity to celebrate Māori writing and our impressive history in ways that resonate with us.”

“I rata nui au ki te whakatuheratanga o tēnei kaupapa ki runga marae, e ū ai ki ngā tikanga me ngā kawa… Ko te whakatairanga i tō tātou reo, te ahurea, me ngā ringa tuhi Māori.” 

Shilo Kino at Kupu Māori Writers Festival 2022. Photo supplied.

Have you made any changes from the previous festival for this current one? 

Pene: One major change concerns our kura or school programme. Instead of taking the writers around to the schools and kura of Rotorua over the time period of one week, we have decided on a one-day programme. Held at Te Pākira Marae, Whakarewarewa, the students will come for the day and be run through a series of workshops.

Bargh: The key theme is to inspire young Māori to become readers and writers.

What do you hope for in terms of the future of Kupu? What are the aspirations?

Bargh: Our aspirations are that Kupu Festival will continue to grow while retaining the same formula that has made it such a success.

The cost of living has affected budgets for live events; have you found this too?

Pene: Me mihi ka tika. We are grateful to our financial sponsors, government agencies such as MBiE and Creative New Zealand, but also the local Rotorua community, iwi and business sponsors.

Bargh: The Kupu Festival works well because it is a celebration of Māori writers in a Māori environment. There are increasing numbers of Māori writers working in different genres with different styles and they enjoy coming together to share those stories and ideas. Having the Kupu Festival in Rotorua works because the local community is supportive of the festival and the idea of Māori writers telling our stories. The schools are supportive as they see this is a way of encouraging Māori readers and inspiring young Māori writers. Sponsors are supportive as the festival is aligned with their own strategic goals of increasing Māori writers and promoting Māori success.

And the Kupu Festival is of interest to national and international audiences who are interested in Māori and indigenous storytelling. 

Ngā Ringa Tuhituhi: Kupu Māori Writers Festival is set to start with an esteemed pōhiri at Te Papaīōuru Marae, led by Tā Tīmotī Kāretu on Sunday, September 17 at 6pm. The full programme, tickets, and additional information about the festival can be found here.

Keep going!