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

BooksJune 18, 2023

The revolutionary act of rewriting: Witi Ihimaera’s first and latest novel, Tangi

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

The author’s project of revising his past novels is both extraordinary and complex, writes Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu).

“Look after it”, Steph said, pushing her copy of Witi Ihimaera’s Tangi gently across the table towards me. “And good luck. I’ve never been able to get past page seven. Too sad.” Her copy was in pristine condition, and I thought about our puppy chewing everything in sight, before pushing it back across the table.

“Better hold onto it. I’ll check Trade Me.” I’d been surprised to find it was out of print.

It arrived the next day. The description reads: “First published 50 years ago, Tangi is not only the author’s first novel it is also the first novel published by a Māori writer.”

While I already knew this, reading it hits home, like finding out my grandfather was a first language reo speaker until the age of five. Tangi was published in 1973, the year before I was born. I always think colonisation happened way back, but I know that’s part of the trick, to separate us, to make us feel like we don’t belong.

Steph’s right, Tangi is heart-wrenchingly sad. Alongside the strongest sense of place and connectedness is a kind of meditation on grief and mortality, with a relationship between a father and son at its centre. Ihimaera’s home marae is Rongopai; his iwi is Te Whānau-a-Kai, and the landscape is unmistakably East Coast, while the urban scenes couldn’t be anywhere except Wellington. Two timelines are woven together, one is the all-consuming grief Tama experiences on hearing his Father has died, and the other is the story of Tama’s past. I was grateful for the breaks in the first timeline: Tama’s grief is unrelenting and I swear I experienced the sensation of coming up for air at the conclusion of each section. The look at Tama’s childhood at Waituhi with whānau feels more expansive, with a wider lens. I envy how effortless Ihimaera makes this writing appear.

Witi Ihimaera at The Garden Party Festival 2021. (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

The mana of Tangi cannot be underestimated, nor the fact that Ihimaera was just 29 when he wrote it. But it isn’t just the subject matter that’s sad. Travelling from Wellington to Waituhi, the violence of our colonial past is very present. It’s in the way I’m reading the Māori characters. It’s an uncomfortable reading experience. In the past, Ihimaera has said he “created a few problems for myself, because I still hadn’t decolonised myself.” Considering that Ihimaera wrote Tangi during the last decade of intensive Māori urbanisation, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The fifty-year period between 1935 – 1985 saw 85 percent of Māori forced from rural marae-based living to urban life. Perhaps this was the real “tangi”. Perhaps Ihimaera could see that mass Māori urbanisation would create a loss of spirit.

Colonisation robbed Māori of so much, not only were we displaced from our whenua, we were also deprived of our knowledge. I find myself wondering about the pressures and constraints Ihimaera was under to write through a certain lens in 1973, for the Pākehā publisher. Did he feel our culture was being commodified? In a radio interview from 2009, Ihimaera describes himself as a possum bedazzled in headlights as a young writer: he was having to navigate a publishing world and their editing process at a time where enormous pressure was put on Māori to assimilate. It must have been difficult. Everything was on Pākehā terms. When he was asked by his publisher who he was writing for, Ihimaera was told, “Maori don’t read.” Reviewers still complained, “we lose so much because we don’t know the language.”

I like to think perhaps Ihimaera’s narrative resisted these readers, because they didn’t have the code.

Recently, I saw how proud my Dad was when I delivered a rote mihimihi to whanauka on our behalf after a special morning spent on our marae. This was spiritual, something I should have been proud of too. Yet, despite this, I was experiencing a crisis of spirit, due to these self imposed pressures to learn, to know, to be better. All the versions of the story are here, in this moment, including the  internal conflict between the colonised self and the one attempting to get free of that voice. I’m an urban Māori with plenty of privilege. But the two or three generations that included my dad, grandfather and Ihimaera felt colonisation much more strongly.

When I first heard about this revised edition of Tangi, I marvelled at how unstoppable Ihimaera is, at how this approach feels restorative, both political and deeply personal. Over the past few years, Ihimaera has directed his energies to the task of revising and restoring his earliest works. In an interview with Merata Mita in 1997, Ihimaera describes walking down the street talking with his grandfather and finding out their surname wasn’t Smiler, as he’d always thought – the early missionaries had found Ihimaera hard to pronounce so they changed their name. Ever since, Ihimaera says, he has used this as a metaphor to get back to the original coding. It seems clear to me that to do this requires time and patience and care. The revisions also show how Ihimaera has changed as a writer, and it strikes me that some of the revisions are stylistic, while some are ethical. The changes reflect how much Aotearoa has changed in the last fifty years. 

“Is that permanent?” My niece asks me, staring at my newly acquired tā moko on my forearm. Her eyes are wide. Restoration is part of a process. 

Allowing time is also a Māori way of approaching the production of something. We can’t exist outside of these paradigms, and yet, during the writing of his early books, he was constantly being asked to. You can’t be what you can’t see. Ihimaera’s journey revising these early works shows two opposing things: that it’s possible to continuously revise as you grow; but that the revisions are as a result of the colonisation at work in the first place. Restoration (like colonisation) is also a process, not an event. Through the process of Ihimaera laying down the literary whakapapa, we are woven into the narrative, able to make sense of things, and to claim it as our own. For Māori, whakapapa is a relationship between people and place: a way of knowing and being and doing that grows out of our land and sea.

To me these revisions are an example of art-making that comes from a place of freedom, but more importantly, decolonisation. There are few public figures who model revision — of one’s work and one’s life — as openly and honestly as Ihimaera. 

In Tangi we reach back and forwards in a spiral notion of time that is structurally embedded, with the understanding of walking backwards into the future. The kairaranga, a kaiako, links the knowledge of the past with that of the future and the work strengthens the fabric of the whānau.

Sometimes Te Ao Māori feels like uncharted territory. But that’s a trick of colonisation, too. I must chart the path back to the original code, with Maramataka, using reo at home until the words no longer feel foreign on my tongue. Learning te reo part-time, online, and alone is extremely difficult. I withdraw from the course, in favour of meeting Hokipera at the Green Door Cafe once a week in town. She’s paid by the council and I’ll learn with a few others kanohi ki te kanohi. I try to explain to my eight year old son why Taranaki isn’t our mauka, when he’s been told to choose one he identifies with, and when we get to see Taranaki every clear day.

“And Mum it’s not mauka, it’s maunga.”

We swim in the local awa every day in the summer, but it isn’t our awa. This makes no sense to his eight-year-old way of thinking, and I get it. After I visited our marae for the first time in 2020, our pepeha was easy to remember because I could visualise the landmarks. He goes around the house singing the school song which includes the line “Te Atiawa te iwi” but he’s still convinced the local landmarks are his. We must save up to take him to our marae at Puketeraki. I was grateful to be able to return his baby teeth to our whenua there, because the Lower Hutt hospital threw out our whenua after he was born in 2014. They needed the space in the fridge. Despite us filling out two forms and reminding our midwife during my labour we wanted to keep it. Decolonisation feels like a mammoth task. I’m getting used to feeling like I’m getting nowhere.

The last decades have been a slow reclamation of taoka that have been held close by hapū, and retained in carvings, in waiata, in karakia, to restore our understanding of Te Ao Maori. Ihimaera’s works certainly belong in that list of taoka, works he’s held close while restoring them. Ihimaera – a rakatira, a pou, a kairaranga, a kaiako, and researcher who over the past fifty years has prioritised his community by writing and publishing books that represent us. It is no wonder Ihimaera stopped writing for a decade to focus on publishing the Te Ao Marama anthologies (Into the World of Light, the five-volume Te Ao Mārama, Black Marks on a White Page, to name just a few) by Māori writers, yet another example of him bringing us along with him. The clear message – Māori are diverse! He was teaching us we should be free to tell our own stories, to write our way into our own pasts.

A selection of anthologies that Ihimaera has co-edited.

The revised edition of Tangi arrives in the post, signed by the man himself. The writing feels fresh and I’m certain it’s more contemporary. I compare the two versions, page by page.


“Before Dad bought the farm at Waituhi we lived in a small wooden house on the other side of this town. It was old even before we moved in; but to my small boy’s eyes it was a palace.”


“My father, Rongo, was born in Waituhi on tribal land that provided only enough to put houses on. The rest belonged to Pākehā owners, confiscated and balloted to British soldiers who had come from overseas to fight the local rebel tribes of the district, including ours.”

The revised edition has the original code! It’s as if the land has spoken. The reader is given some context (stolen land). The events of the past not only shape the characters’ pasts, they actively shape how they are living in the day to day, in the present. The present conditions of the characters lives have been determined by the events surrounding colonisation.These historical threads, critical to the fictional world building, have been woven in. The core aspects of Tangi remain unchanged, the characters, the structure, and its preoccupation with telling and retelling stories. “Te torino haere whakamua, whakamuri” – “at the same time the spiral is going out, it is also returning.” To me, the two editions feel like parts of a whole: either way, Tangi is a novel of huge significance, for me, and countless others. Ihimaera has decolonised Tangi (1973) by returning the wairua to Tangi (2023).

The night I receive Tangi, I sit in my bedroom, revising some writing from a year ago. It could be better, but I feel that way about everything I write: it’s different from and better than the last thing I wrote, but not as good as the next thing. I think of Ihimaera – and the weaving of the narrative, his commitment to making changes to how we as Māori are seen, but more importantly how we see ourselves. For Ihimaera, restoring these early works is a moral, even a spiritual, act we are all works in progress. Perhaps Ihimaera thinks of his entire life as an act of revision. In an interview with Wallace Chapman in 2018, his face lights up describing one of his mokopuna coming home from school singing a waiata: “I asked her where did you learn that? And she told me at school.”

It’s 2023. In bed at night, my son traces my tā moko with his fingertips. “Tell me the story again Mum, about our whānau. That bit there’s me eh Mum? And that’s from the cave paintings.” I tell him again, and some of our wairua is restored. Gathering, weaving narratives and sharing knowledge is a Māori way of doing things. This is what Ihimaera has always done: told us stories about ourselves. “Ko au ko koe, ko koe ko au,” – “I am you, and you are me.”

Tangi by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin NZ, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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