A personal essay by Kaipara novelist Kelly Ana Morey. ‘I can’t be the ‘Māori’ writer people want me to be,’ she writes, ‘all I can be is myself.’
Two weeks ago I buried my father. He had a good innings and largely got to die in the privacy and comfort of his own home due to sterling care-giver work by my brother. For which I will be forever grateful to him. It’s not an easy job. After the service we took Dad up to Kaitaia cemetery which has sweeping views across Pukepoto and out to Ahipara. It was a still hazy day and out near the coast a tyre fire raged. Thick black smoke roiling across a galvanised sky as the home fires burnt. I looked around the extended Far North family gathered at the graveside. So many brown faces. If I ever have any doubt about exactly who at least half of me is, all I have to do is come back to Kaitaia. “You’re a Hori just like the rest of us,” the cousins joke as we sit on car bonnets afterwards, frantically sucking at cigarettes and talking about how long it’s been since we gave up the smokes.
And they’re right. I am a Māori. In my own funny way. And it’s connected to here, the Far North where my great grandfather, the Jewish trader, met and married Katerina, a high-ranking Ngāti Kuri woman. They started a family and set up trade stores to service the far northern gum fields. This should be the place I feel the most grounded, and yet I don’t. To be honest I don’t even know why I feel so ambivalent about the north. I think it’s somehow tangled up with my mother’s trenchant unhappiness that is deeply buried here in a location she never learned to love.
But that’s always been my problem. I don’t really know where Mum ends and I begin. You can never really go home, but you can never completely leave either. Your house, your story remains, the timbers buried deep into the ground. Each time I burn the fucker to the ground it rises up from the ashes. Implacable, demanding, immutable.
Ceramic whare bought by the author on TradeMe
I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s more than one way to paddle a waka. My heroes in the Māori world are the prophets: Titokowaru, Te Kooti and Rua Kenana. I love them because they were fierce, brave, clever, inventive and occasionally a little touched. The South Taranaki Hauhau, Titokowaru’s lot, fought back against the Pākehā militia, only surrendering when so many of them had been killed or taken prisoner and shipped off to the Chatham Islands, that they were a people decimated. From the Hauhau I take strength, guerrilla warfare and crazy faith. They kept going long after the odds were stacked against them. I know what that’s like.
Te Kooti’s people, the Ringatu, would reconfigure the interior decoration of their meeting houses. Seamlessly melding decorative elements of the new Pākehā world with their own designs and meanings, in paint rather than carvings. Creating narratives that were no less Maori than a traditional schemata but spoke volumes about who they were in this particular time and place. This is what I try to do with my writing. 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 some how 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. There are no marae visits or lovingly written tangi in my New Zealand novels. There’s the odd visitation from a ghost or two but every culture has that going on. And the narratives are concerned with the here and now of surviving and knowing who you are and being okay with that. The complicated world of identity and authenticity which challenges those of us who are neither one nor the other. So I shuffle between my realms, the problem child no one really wants.
Then there’s Rua Kenana. Mihaia. An East Coast prophetic leader who saw that both the people and the land were in need of healing. A man of many wives and a calling from God. So he led his followers up the mountain to Mangapohutu where his mother people were from and they tried. They tried so bloody hard. But as I’ve already said, it’s difficult to win if the odds are stacked against you. If you’re a thorn in the side of the establishment. All you can do is retreat. Go into exile. And hope that it’s enough to sustain you. My improbably valuable tumble-down shack just out of Mangawhai may not quite be Rua’s City of God, but it’s close enough. I plant trees, dig drains, feed the animals and shiver as I do my fifth winter without heat. And I feel old and broken.
The author’s palatial estate
One day, I don’t know when, certainly not in my immediate future I will write a novel about Rua Kenana, his community and his people. The difficulty of such a project is overwhelming and every time I even slightly engage with it, there’s a side of me who builds walls with frightening speed between the narrative and my writer self. Too hard, too hard I chant, even as I lovingly pore over the history or watch Vincent Ward’s In Spring One Plants Alone and Rain of the Children with tears streaming down my face. I’m an ugly crier.
Rua’s wives will tell the story. That much I know. But it will have to keep. For now I’m content just to love this story from afar and dream of working multiple jobs so I can finally upgrade my rural shambles. It’s interesting that the only authentically Māori part of my existence over the last seven years has been the continual crushing poverty.
There’s other reasons too why I can’t even contemplate beginning such a demanding piece of writing. Over the summer just gone, after my 25th rejection for a writer’s residency rolled in, I realised I couldn’t bring myself to throw time and money into the great void of indifference which is pretty much the standard response when you write a novel in New Zealand whether you’re Pākehā, Māori, Pasifika or any other mixture of ethnicities. I’d written a crowd pleaser I thought, about the race horse Phar Lap, but New Zealand’s a tough crowd. Daylight Second did okay … but honestly the thought of devoting four years of my life to writing yet another novel no one would read was enough.
The author’s mansion on the hill
But I still needed to write, because aside from thinking deep thoughts and waitressing, I’m not terrible good at anything else. I just needed to change the stories and where they were published. So I decided to reinvent myself as a journalist, and to be honest that’s working out pretty good for me. And yes there is a certain irony that by ostensibly giving up writing I find myself writing constantly as commissions roll in and pitches are snapped up.
I did my first short non-fiction piece in a really long time in February of this year which was duly published on The Spinoff. It was fun, too, and a timely reminder of how much I love the genre. I’ve built on that tentative beginning with unseemly haste and am now writing weekend insert cover stories, book reviews and troll bait for Fairfax and bits and pieces for whoever will stump up enough money or a good enough idea to pique my interest. My turnaround on stories has picked up pace, I adore that the money’s there within a few days of publication and I really like being read. What a treat it is to have people engage, both positively and negatively. Yes I even secretly really like the hate.
So the other writerly wahine will have to stoke my fire pit while I’m away. There’s plenty of them; a group of incredibly well-educated, talented Māori women storytellers who take no prisoners and offer no apology for who they are and what and how they write. They’ll keep the home fires burning. I’m off to poke some tigers with a stick and have some fun with my writing with no other expectation on behalf of my publishers other than that I deliver well-written copy by deadline and I’m vaguely on topic.
No doubt while I’m away there will be endless hui about why Māori aren’t writing with administrators and political animals all wearing their concerned faces. They won’t bother asking the writers because what do we know, and I can no longer be a lone figure standing at the back of the room shouting, “You could try funding us at the same level as Pākehā writers of comparable merit” because that couldn’t possibly be at least part of the solution.
I do know that no matter how many times I close the door behind me with the smell of smoke from the bridges I’m happily torching in my hair and the blood of my murdered darlings staining my hands, that I will be back. The fires will continue to smoulder with or without me.
Daylight Second by Kelly Ana Morey (HarperCollins, $36.99), along with her previous novels, is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.