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Book of the week: an essay by Paula Morris on race and literature

Paula Morris responds to the ‘glorious, painful, sharp and funny’ anthology of Māori writing, Black Marks on a White Page.

Nobody likes a Māori writer.

First of all, nobody knows who we are. Nobody knows the names of any writers, apart from the ones with movies [see: Frame, Ihimaera, Duff, Wendt]. This is really our fault. We have written books that no one has made into a movie.

Second: we have disguised ourselves with Pākehā names. Just look at Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme, James George, Robert Sullivan, Kelly Ana Morey, Nic Low, David Geary. Some Pacific Island writers do this as well (Albert Wendt, Gina Cole, Victor Rodger). Some indigenous writers from Australia do it (Anita Heiss, Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe); so do some indigenous writers from North America (Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Drew Hayden Taylor). Nobody knows that surnames tend to be a colonial construct. Witi Ihimaera’s family name is Smiler, which is a transliteration of Ihimaera, which is a translation of Ishmael, as in the Biblical figure.

My nom de Pākehā is Paula Morris. Morris is my paternal great-grandfather’s name. He was a ship’s cook who spent about a decade in Auckland around the turn of the 20th century. He said he was from London. He married my great-grandmother, Sarah Annie Wyatt, had two sons with her, then seems to have left the country, never to be seen again.

On the other side of my father’s family, my great-grandfather didn’t have a last name. He was Kiri, son of Rahui Te Kiri and Tenetahi, grandson of Ngāti Wai rangatira Te Kiri. By the 1890s, Kiri had adopted a surname: Paraone, a transliteration of Brown. So my grandmother was Heni Te Kiri Paraone, known to some people as Jane Brown, though my grandfather, Alf Morris, always called her Heni.

The important name in our family is Kiri. This was my late father’s first name, and the middle name of my aunt, brother and numerous cousins. I’m Paula Jane Kiri, named for my grandmother. She was the mātāmua (oldest child), and grew up in Rahui and Tenetahi’s house – now the site of our marae – singing, playing the piano, riding horses. My father, her only son and the oldest boy of his generation, got special treatment on Christmas visits to Pākiri (where he was born), because of his name.

I’m telling you this because too many people in New Zealand still don’t understand that there’s much, much more to a writer’s name – stories, histories, alliances, whakapapa – than meets the eye. When these people read something we’ve published on the Internet (never in a book, because nobody reads these: see above), they roar with outrage. Although they appear to have access to the Internet, they don’t know how to use a search engine. The last time I published an essay on the Spinoff, the first wave of roaring-with-outragers, I’m told, denounced me for being a Pākehā of unknown provenance and skills, who sounded horrible and racist. If they had typed my name into a search engine, they would have read this as one of the first items on a longish list:

Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whatua) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and essayist from New Zealand.

But nobody reads us, or reads about us. They do not waste time looking us up online. They do not buy our books unless we’ve been shortlisted for prizes overseas. Even then, they’d rather wait for the movie, or for the next flurry of self-righteous rage on social media. They would rather see us as Pākehā, because it’s easier – to read us, to misread us, to dismiss us.

A store front in Otahuhu, used in the author’s last published piece on The Spinoff (Image: Paula Morris)

It’s unsurprising that nobody likes us. We stake a claim in a country that prefers to believe that our history started in the 19th century. These days, our faces are too pale and our names are too Pākehā. Kei Miller, the Jamaican-born poet and novelist, says that “racism’s most enduring success is widespread belief in a category called ‘race’.” This is true in New Zealand. To far too many people, being Māori isn’t about heritage and whakapapa. It’s about racial make-up: a half this, a quarter that, a percentage of “blood”. In the past in the US, terms were devised to express this blood mix: mulatto, quadroon, octoroon. Percentages mattered, because they defined who was white or black under the law, and therefore who could use a certain water fountain or bus seat, who could marry a person of a different race.

When you denigrate us as “only an eighth Māori”, say, you strip away our history and family, a vast cultural inheritance unique to this country, and see us simply as diluted racial cocktails. We’re just not Māori enough to have any claim on our pasts, because you see the past as gone. “The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” It’s certainly not dead in traditional Māori culture, where the ancestors wait ahead of us, not just behind us.

In 2008, in New Zealand Books, Laura Kroestch – a Canadian who now directs the writers’ festival in Adelaide – reviewed Speaking for Themselves: Ex-pats Have Their Say, a book of interviews by Jan Morgan. She had this to say about Māori heritage: “All of the writers talk about how New Zealand has changed, and one of the more interesting aspects of that change is the wish to be associated in some way with the tangata whenua, an association which represents a somehow more New Zealand way of being a New Zealander. For instance, I now know that Peter Gordon is 1/36 Maori, Paula Morris’ father was part-Maori, Rena Owen is half, and Alannah Currie had a Maori family next door. Teddy Tahu Rhodes sports a Maori tattoo because ‘Maori and Pacific Islander culture is so beautiful’, and Temuera Morrison is ‘brown white’ (part Irish/Scottish and part Maori).

“Wanting to be Maori is great, but in the context of this book it seems yet another way to idealise a place that – unless I’ve missed a major cultural shift – is still busy trying to sort out its race relations.”

Where to begin with this? I know that 2008 is almost a decade ago, and maybe such derogatory comments wouldn’t be written – or published – now. But I remember reading it at the time and feeling horrified. By definition, tangata whenua are, indeed, the most “New Zealand” of New Zealanders. Alannah Currie could learn from the Māori family next door the way I learned from the Dutch family across the road: it doesn’t mean we were aspiring to or idealising something we’re not. Teddy Tahu Rhodes can have a Māori tattoo without “wanting to be Māori”: maybe he just wants the design to be indigenous rather than imported.

I don’t call my father part-Māori, and I don’t call myself that either. Our heritage is Māori and English, with the persistent rumour of Portuguese in the whakapapa as well. We never talked percentages – just as the Queen, I imagine, doesn’t interrogate her own percentage of German “blood” – because we don’t observe Blood Quantum policies in New Zealand or the UK.

Implicit in this review as well is the Pākehā reader. The playwright Victor Rodger has complained about this: “I remember one of the first moments I put my hands on my hips was when I read a review of Witi Ihimaera’s book The Matriarch. The Pākehā reviewer was saying: ‘We lose so much because we don’t understand the language.’ And I was like: ‘Well, who is this we? This we does not include me. Who are you talking to?'”

Clockwise from top left: Albert Wendt, Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera, Paula Morris, Patricia Grace, and Kelly Ana Morey

Some review editors try to find Māori reviewers for Māori books – possibly why Steve Braunias asked me to review Black Marks on the White Page for the Spinoff. Possibly why David Eggleton commissioned Vaughan Rapatahana to review Ngā Hau e Wha: Stories on the Four Winds for the Landfall Review Online.

Unfortunately, finding astute and accomplished reviewers is a tricky business, in New Zealand as elsewhere. Ngā Hau e Wha is a short-story anthology edited by Huia founders Robyn and Brian Bargh and published in 2016. It featured work by contemporary Māori writers associated with the publisher, including some – like me – helped along the way by Huia’s anthologies. The book also featured work by Albert Wendt, an important figure in Huia history.

Rapatahana declared that he “initially struggled to find an overarching thread to this compilation, given that the collection is of Huia-mandated tall-tale-tellers. There is a vast array of styles and content among these 20 anecdotes authored by 18 writers.”

I don’t know about the other writers, but I didn’t write an “anecdote” or a “tall tale”. I wrote a 3500-word short story. (It’s also going in my collection, False River, to be published by Penguin this November.) And in an anthology that brings together the four winds – i.e. writers of different backgrounds, experiences, styles – within contemporary Māori fiction, shouldn’t readers expect a “vast array”?

One of the reviewer’s objections was about how far those winds seem to blow. He wrote, “Many tales actually have little to do with te ao Māori anyway – indeed three are European fairy tales, as in being set in Europe: Tina Makereti’s ‘Frau Amsel’s Cupboard’, Paula Morris’s ‘Three Princesses’, and the more contemporary ‘Trust’ by Mark Sweet.”

While it’s true that these three stories are set in Europe, none of us wrote European fairy tales. My story’s protagonist is a Māori man who lives in Herne Bay and is on business in Estonia. The story-within-the-story is about a Māori traveller turning up – and turning heads – in medieval Estonia. Mark Sweet’s story “Trust” begins with a Māori guy getting beaten up – and derided as a “Paki queer” – by police in Glasgow.

Tina Makereti’s story explores cross-cultural resonances when a compromised and desperate German woman in wartime encounters hidden treasures purloined from New Guinea in a museum. This work of fiction was written during, and responding to, Makereti’s 2012 residency in the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt.

Nothing “to do with te ao Māori”, I guess, in the sense of tikanga and te reo, but stories by Māori writers, who may or may not understand the finer points of tikanga or be fluent in te reo. We should have stayed home, apparently; we should have stuck to the tale or the anecdote or the yarn, forms that emerge from an oral tradition.

Later in the review Rapatahana praises two other stories because “they are Māori in ethos; that is, they inculcate a specifically Māori Weltanschauung or Worldview – which, as noted earlier, is conspicuously lacking in several other stories. This last point is not a criticism, by the way. It is just that in a collection of work predominantly by Māori, one would think there would be he atu arotahi i runga i Māori ora, nē rā? [more focus on Māori lives, eh?]”

Even stories like mine or Mark Sweet’s, with Māori protagonists, are not Māori enough: our Māori characters are not living “Māori lives”. And Tina Makereti’s subtle and moving story, in which a European woman experiences a moment of kinship with Melanesian women, gaining insight into how history and culture, the heritage of a family, sings in its household objects, is profoundly Māori in its take on whakapapa and taonga.

Not Māori enough for Pākehā, not Māori enough for Māori. This may be why a writer like Kelly Ana Morey declares: “I can’t be the ‘Māori’ writer people want me to be, all I can be is myself. Mining the Māori world for material would somehow feel like an act of theft because my knowledge and connection feel so slight and arbitrary. This is why I don’t write from the Māori perspective all that often in my fiction, and if I do those characters tend to be quarter-cast who are like me a little disconnected. They operate as individuals rather than cultural representatives.”

We frighten away our own; we tell them they are “quarter-cast”, not a whole within any culture, any heritage. We accuse them of theft, as though they’re holding up a dairy. We’re at the sad point in New Zealand literature where a writer feels she has to apologise that her fictional characters “operate as individuals”.

Nobody likes a Māori writer with too pale a face and too culturally unrepresentative a book, so here come Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti – defiant, insolent, gleeful? – waving a black flag. Black Marks on the White Page is an “Oceanic” anthology: “the glorious, painful, sharp and funny stories of Māori and Pasifika writers from all over the world, and one guest Aboriginal writer whose presence asks us to rethink the boundaries we have set up between ourselves and our neighbours, literal and figurative”. In “Whakapapa of a Wallpaper”, Ihimaera’s “chimerical fiction” about Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], he laments the colonisation and division of the Pacific, and the way colonisers “variously named our dismembered parts Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Austronesia”.

This new anthology is an act of re-assembly, and of re-orientation. Here Māori writers are not token “exotic” inclusions in a NZ-lit book; nor are we shuffled together in a mainly Māori pack, to be scrutinised for sufficient levels of tikanga. In Black Marks we join the other Pacific pieces, the part this-and-thats, the colonised, the diasporic, the bearers of misleading names and addresses; we join the writers who explore mythic pasts, and those who voyage into the future, imagining new worlds. The Pacific is not a rim: it’s a continent fervid with creativity, a brilliant blue planet.

Ihimaera and Makereti contend that the work of the writers in Black Marks “embodies the disruptive act that Māori, Pasifika and Aboriginal writing constitutes in the worldwide literary landscape – still the page is white, and still the marks we make upon it are radical acts of transgression, of forcing others to see us in all our complexity and wonder.”

If you doubt that the page is still white, read the text of Makereti’s Auckland Writers Festival lecture and the statistics she cites on how few books by Māori and Pasifika writers are published.

Their introduction to Black Marks is a gauntlet thrown to the “Māori in ethos” crowd. There are too many preconceptions, the editors argue, about writers from the Pacific, as there are for writers of colour and Indigenous writers: who we should be and how we should write are too prescribed.

Even though we sometimes bemoan the scarcity of an Oceanic fiction that looks like us, smells like us, walks like us and therefore must be us, none of us should be constrained by any sense of what we’re supposed to look or sound like. Creativity doesn’t live there. There must be no compulsion to write in any particular way about any particular topics, outside of the writer’s own creative project.

Does this need to be said – here, now, in 2017?  Yes, while we still have reviewers – and readers – who are only comfortable reading in one world, and can’t make the imaginative leap into other contexts and experiences.

Ihimaera and Makereti present the anthology as a talanoa, which is a storytelling as well as a conversation. Its original kaupapa, as a collection of short fiction, broadened and transformed as work flowed in: there are novel excerpts here, published or in-progress, from Tusiata Avia, Alexis Wright, Sia Figiel, Déwé Gorodé, and Anya Ngawhare; an extract from Albert Wendt’s novel-in-verse The Adventures of Vela; a black-out poem from Selina Tusitala Marsh; and an essay of mine – on a trip to Mississippi, the death of Robert Johnson and the murder of Emmett Till – that poses as a story. The line-break marks on Courtney Sina Meredith’s winsome, sly story “The Coconut King” suggests it could be read as a prose poem.

David Geary’s “#WATCHLIST” reflects his background as a dramatist: much of the piece would work as a play, with its other elements as visual counterpoint; Serie Barford’s “After the Tsunami” also works as a short dramatic monologue. Readers seeking yarns, anecdotes or tall tales may be perplexed by formal experimentation like Geary’s, or Cassandra Barnett’s “Pitter, patter, Papatūānuku”.

Admirers of realism will swoon at the understated, elegant story telling of Patricia Grace (“Matariki All-Stars”) and Kelly Ana Morey (“Poor Man’s Orange”); they may read Mary Rokonadravu’s “Famished Eels” and “Sepia” and wonder why her work is only available in journals and anthologies rather than her own collection – though “Famished Eels”,  like Tina Makereti’s “Black Milk”, also included here, were both finalists in the Commonwealth Writers story prize. Some names – Grace, Ihimaera, Wendt – are well-known to New Zealand readers, but the selection here isn’t predictable, and includes new voices like Gina Cole, and newish ones like Nic Low.

Black Marks is handsome in hardback, dressed in the splendour of James Ormsby’s bold cover illustration (the symbolism explained on the inner sleeve), and features four-colour art by Pati Solomona Tyrell, Shane Hansen, Rosanna Raymond, Robert Jahnke, Cerisse Palalagi, Lisa Reihana and Yuki Kihara. Don’t be misled by its flash production: it’s no glib marketing exercise. It’s an intelligent and lively anthology that explores the formal possibilities of story, its slippery nature, its nerve. “I am five the year my father tells me how to tell a story,” says the narrator of “Famished Eels”.

Always make room for uncertainty, he says. Don’t say someone said this or said that. Don’t ever be sure. Just walking from this kitchen to the backyard you will lose what I have just told you. Make room for that.

Black Marks on a White Page is a roomy and discursive book, diverse in style and subject matter, big on ambition and scope. Maybe it’s the most subversive coffee table book of the year. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new way of framing and reading Māori writers, in a larger context that allows us to escape the confines of other people’s preconceptions and percentages. “When the soul of a man is born in this country,” declared Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.” He vowed “to try to fly by those nets”. We should try as well.


Black Marks on the White Page edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (Vintage, $40) is available from Unity Books.

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