Unuhia ki te ao marama
Draw forward into the world of light!
Since the flurry of the 1970s when the work of Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, and Pat Heretaunga Baker appeared in print and suggested the emergence of a Maori literature in English, there has been little apparent consolidation through the publishing of prose fiction by other Maori writers. Yet there is evidence that a core of such writers exist. Public demonstration of this is confined to an anthology of Maori writing, Into the World of Light, edited by Witi Ihimaera and D. S. Long.1 Importantly, it is a book that displays a range of literary forms in both English and Maori. However, Maori literature in English remains largely invisible. More recently, J. C. Sturm’s collection of short stories, The House of the Talking Cat, and Keri Hulme’s novel, the bone people, have been published by Spiral, a feminist imprint established in the 1970s. Spiral comprises a series of women’s collectives throughout New Zealand which focuses on women’s literary and art publications. A group of two Maori and a Pakeha formed to produce these two works by Maori women writers.
Why is it that so little Maori literature has been published? Is it possible that the endeavours of the 1970s were printed as token gestures of a passing interest in Maori literature in English?
There are more than 250 new literary titles of New Zealand produced texts catalogued each year.2 The New Zealand book industry is booming, but Maori writers’ contribution to this is negligible. Maori literary writing is marginal to a monocultural New Zealand literature.
On the whole, mainstream publishing houses have tended to look for their livelihood from within the boundaries of safe, saleable manuscripts. Publishers and their authors have shown a colonial bias which refers back to an English tradition for comparison of standards. The criteria for acceptance has worked against Maori writers who have sought to incorporate bilingualism and to integrate Maori and European literary traditions. The assumption is that standard English is the appropriate medium for literary expression and that literary form should fall within established genres.
Against this background it is not at all startling that Keri Hulme’s novel was rejected by several publishing houses as simply too unorthodox. Literary standards of style and form are not challenged in J. C. Sturm’s stories, some of which were printed in the 1950s and 1960s. As a collection though, it has been tucked out of sight for twenty years, a testimony to the invisibility of Maori writers.
It is not surprising either, that Patricia Grace was challenged for her ‘experiments with language’3 in Waiariki. Although several stories adopt an English style, some use English but follow Maori syntax and vocabulary, while others flow between English and Maori. These deviations were considered ‘of limited aesthetic value’ by Norman Simms, who asked, ‘If, in reality, the Maori of today thinks and speaks in a mixture of languages, does the writer have the right to produce that reality without modification?’ Although Simms states it to be a ticklish argument, his analysis is, of course, derived from a conventional, white, middle-class position. The importance of language as a means of communication and identification cannot be denied. In the Waiariki collection Patricia Grace has experimented, not in language, but by blending distinctive Maori usage of language with an English literary category, the short story. There is no doubt that this works for Maori readers. Keri Kaa writes:
For me Patricia’s stories have a haunting loveliness. My responses to them vary from shrieks of delight, to solemn agreement, to tears, to acceptance because the style of writing is such that I can feel and dream and get into the heads of her characters.4
Sociological study of literature indicates that there is a patterned connection between society and fiction which provides information about society, its institutions, social structure and technology. In a more subtle way fiction imparts information about values and attitudes. The paucity of published Maori literature is symptomatic of a more general struggle for survival in a world where Maori social structure and institutions have all but given way under the pressure of Pakeha society, and where Maori values are constantly under threat. Maori readers have been besieged from early childhood with literature patterned by the often unintelligible symbols of another culture. Lack of comprehension is a major problem which has been largely ignored in a New Zealand community sensitive to the presence in junior reading texts of words such as ‘pillar box’ and ‘lorry’. The result of Maori children having been continually bombarded with irrelevant, extraneous reading material is a population that chooses not to read.
There is evidence to contradict the popular belief that the Maori population won’t read, let alone buy books. Spiral’s distributor has been astounded by orders for the bone people from small Maori settlements way off the beaten book seller’s track. Heartening though this is, a more sustained effort in published Maori literature is needed to cater for a whetted appetite.
Maori readers want books that reflect our own experience: we consider Maori editors are the appropriate people to be making literary judgements on our behalf. Our vulnerability in the strong tide of monoculturalism is exemplified by Keri Hulme’s experience in finding a publisher for the bone people. The importance of literary criticism should not be overlooked either. Maori reviewers alert us to the mauri of a book and the mana of its author.5 For example, reviews in the Listener (12 May 1984) by Joy Crowley and Arapera Blank both extolled the bone people, but Arapera keyed in Maori readers: ‘Keri’s novel has the preciousness of a piece of kuru pounamu …’.
It is a matter of political urgency that written Maori literature in both English and Maori should, in accordance with Maori concept, emerge into the world of light. One encouraging sign is the new consciousness which is evident toward Maori literature for young children. Kohanga Reo (Language nests) have stimulated interest for reading material in Maori. Small community presses such as Maori Publications of Kopeopeo, Whakatane are operating to help meet this need. In addition, publishers are finding a market for well told, handsomely illustrated Maori stories in English. The field has been led by Kidsarus 2, a small publishing collective. One aim of the group was ‘to publicise the need for a body of indigenous literature for children which reflects the multicultural nature of New Zealand society’.6 Through this project, Kidsarus 2 initiated, prepared for publication, and organised funding for four children’s books. Two of these are by Maori writers and have made a major impact on New Zealand children’s literature. The first, Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere/The Kuia and the Spider by Patricia Grace, won, with its English version, The New Zealand Children’s Picture Book of the Year Award for 1982, while both language editions of the second production, Ko Kimi me tana Mereni/Kimi and the Watermelon by Miriam Smith, were finalists for the same award in 1984. Aligned to the new interest in a junior Maori readership are some popular children’s stories which now appear in Maori. Included in this category are Where is Spot?/Kei hea a Spot? and the less attractively produced, rather cramped, bilingual text of The Cat in the Hat.7
The thrust of Maori interest though remains in indigenous writing which increasingly is being fostered in Maori circles. In 1984, the Maori Women’s Welfare League ran a competition for children’s literature in English and Maori. On a larger scale, a new annual scholarship, The Nicholas Irwin Hunt Scholarship for Maori Writers, valued at $5000, has been established. Administered by the Maori Education Foundation, the scholarship will be awarded for a different literary genre each year. In its inaugural year (1984) the category was picture books for Kohanga Reo, with the ten best manuscripts winning an equal share of the award. The holders of the first scholarship and the category for this year’s award are yet to be announced.
As well as the new enthusiasm for young children’s literature. The Pegasus Prize for Literature which was available to Maori writers only in 1984, has aroused interest. Sponsored by Mobil Oil New Zealand to coincide with Te Maori Exhibition, part of the prize is publication of the selected work in America. It is not without irony that at a time when so little Maori literature is reaching the New Zealand public the concept of the Pegasus Prize is ‘to introduce American readers to distinguished works from countries whose literature too rarely receives international recognition.’Of the four finalists, Keri Hulme’s winning entry and Patricia Grace’s Waiariki were published works, while Apirana Taylor’s manuscript collection of short stories, He Rau Aroha has attracted attention from publishing houses, and an autobiography in Maori by Hemi Potatau, Ko Nga Maumaharatanga o Te Rev. Hemi Potatau is being prepared for publication.
Although the impact of the prestigious Pegasus Prize may be judged by the two new titles discovered for publication, it is ironic that while Maori writers have been encouraged and acknowledged with a variety of literary grants, their work has not been well supported by the trade publishing houses. For example, Rowley Habib is the current holder of The Katherine Mansfield Memorial Scholarship, Bub Bridger received a Literary Fund grant in 1984 to attend the First International Feminist Book Fair, Bruce Stewart, as a representative of New Zealand at the 5th triennial A.C.L.A.L.S. Conference in Fiji was given grants by The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Te Aniwa Bosch, who writes in both Maori and English, was awarded a Literary Fund grant in 1977. These are just a few writers whose works are largely unpublished.
Although the commercial and cultural bias in major publishing houses has failed to bring forth written Maori literature, there is another tension between Maori writers and publishers. Invisibility is a problem that must be addressed by the writers themselves. Most Maori writers have worked in a closed environment. With an increasing demand for written Maori literature for our children and a growing awareness of the meagre number of published titles for adults, the time is ripe for writers to come out of the shadows. This means adopting a vigorous and more aggressive campaign (hard though it seems) in submitting more manuscripts to publishers; while publishers in their turn should consider recruiting editors to create pathways that cut through the old barriers.
The need for Maori editors is seen in the recently published Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse which adopts a bicultural approach and is the first of its kind. Admirable though it is, it fails to meet some of the expectations of such a volume. Maori poetry needs to be understood in the context of an oral tradition which reaches back through centuries and which is underpinned by a conceptual view of the world quite different from that of the Pakeha. Some of the waiata (song poetry) included in the Penguin volume are tapu (sacred) to the composers’ descendents, are still sung today, and are regarded as having no place in an anthology of this kind. It is not only copyright permission but also community consent that is required for the inclusion of such songs. Pakeha copyright laws are matched in Maori society by cultural conventions concerning the appropriate use of and access to taonga (treasures). Furthermore, the range of traditional Maori literature is not fully explored: sung compositions are emphasised at the expense of recited poetry, while some categories such as tauparapara and ngeri, are not mentioned at all — even though examples are heard at hui (Maori gatherings) today. All of which supports the Maori thesis that at this stage of New Zealand’s cultural development Maori editors are the appropriate people to be making literary judgements and selections from our own material.
In a small way, the bone people collective of Spiral has operated on a political and literary level. The venture has been a voluntary one, organised on a non-profit-making basis. A shoe-string budget and limited resources posed problems which needed handling with determination and perseverance. But like Kidsarus 2, Spiral has proved a point. Where the primary interests of these two collectives coincided with Maori literature, the books produced have been swooped upon by Maori readers but have also given pleasure to others in New Zealand and overseas. It now remains to be seen if established houses are prepared to play a more active role in presenting Maori literature or whether the challenge will be taken up by new, more adventurous, commercial enterprises. Whatever the outcome, Maori aspirations for a modern Maori literature are clear: Unuhia ki te ao marama! Draw forward into the world of light!
Miriama Evans is of Ngati Mutunga/Kai Tahu descent. She is a member of the Spiral Collective which published the bone people and The House of the Talking Cat. This is a slightly revised version of an article which was first published in Landfall 153 (March 1985).
The epigram for this article (Unuhia ki te ao marama: Draw forward into the world of light!) is derived from an incantation (but is not a direct quote) by Turi, Captain of my ancestral canoe, Aotea. Both ‘Maori’ and ‘Pakeha’ are capitalised whether they appear as nouns or adjectives. In this I follow Maori preference. Similarly the bone people is always given in lower case. At one time this was important to Keri, and that is the way it is printed on the cover and title page of the book. Also, I have resisted anglicising Maori words. I prefer a plural to retain its Maori form without the ‘s’ and sometimes go to some lengths to try to minimise awkward (in an English sense) phrases.
- Witi Ihimaera and D. S. Long (eds.), Into the World of Light (Heinemann, New Zealand, 1982).
- The 1984 figures given by the Bibliographic Unit of the National Library of New Zealand are: 128 new titles for texts over fifty pages, 136 new titles for texts under fifty pages.
- Norman Simms, ‘Maori Literature in English: An Introduction’, World Literature Today, 1978, no. 52, p. 224.
- Keri Kaa, ‘Patricia Grace: Aspects of her stories in Waiariki and The Dream Sleepers‘, Spirals, 1982.
- ‘Mauri’ is a complex concept often translated simply as ‘life principle’. In this case it means the hidden principle which protects the vitality and mana of people and the Maori world. ‘Mana’ means authority, prestige, power.
- Kidsarus 2 advertisement in Spiral 4.
- Catalogue of books written in Maori for children: Maori Publications, Box 2061, Kopeopeo, Whakatane.