This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 242
From the Centre: A writer’s life by Patricia Grace (Penguin, 2021), 304pp, $40
I knew I would adore this book even before I first held it. I am not an impartial reviewer. Patricia Grace has loomed large in my life since my high school English teacher first shared some of Grace’s writing with us. This was my lightbulb moment growing up. It was the first time I had read Māori stories about Māori families, and they motivated me to learn more about the resilience of Māori in the face of colonisation and racism.
Grace’s work has had a profound impact on my personal and professional life. Her writing has given me insight and hope, and, in turn, I have found ways to bring her work into my role as a law lecturer. Every year students begin their study of Laws 455 Māori Land Law at the University of Otago by reading Grace’s short story ‘Sun’s Marbles’. Students, more used to reading the words of Parliament and the courts, delve headfirst into the relationships between Earth and Sky and, as described by Grace in this story, the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ Māui. It is a poignant way to begin learning how to prepare to work with Māori clients on their Māori land concerns.
When I first laid my hands on From the Centre: A writer’s life, I was filled with quiet joy. Here was a master at work. Grace provides a generous insight into her life, and in doing so provides us all with a rare accessible glimpse of being Māori in Aotearoa.
Chapter one is a fine example of a superbly skilled weaving of time, observation and family. She begins with the lounge where she is sitting and what she can see from there. She describes the pūriri tree and the birds who are visiting: ‘Three tūī were here this morning, on overdrive, leaping about and feeding, flying out and back, out and back before leaving altogether.’ I am immediately comfortable, thinking of my parents who fuss over their backyard birds. But Grace does not pause there for long. Her gaze enlarges. She’s sitting in the house she built with her husband Dick in Hongoeka Bay more than forty years ago. In just a few sparse pages, she shares with us the memories of Kupe crossing the Pacific Ocean to name the lands she sees, the ramifications of the 1840s onwards when colonial governments sought ‘to better facilitate Crown pickings’ of Māori land, and how today her whānau ‘have found it necessary to make an application to the High Court to have [their] rights re-recognised’. Despite this law, she writes: ‘life goes on … we fish, we gather pāua and kina, and though crayfish are not as plentiful as they once were, we enjoy these once in a while’. And so her memoirs begin.
The twenty-seven short chapters are chronological. Chapter two begins with the day Grace was born and on which the All Blacks played the Springboks, and is mostly devoted to her maternal grandparents. The chapter ends with remarks about her problematic relationship with her grandfather, how her affection for him ‘lessened as I grew and came to realise his deep prejudices’. Her strategy—‘to treat him with some respect (and some avoidance)’—demonstrates the honesty and humanity that are on full display from start to finish of this precious book.
From the Centre weaves the span of Grace’s life to date interlaced with snippets from her published fiction and non-fiction. It is a treat to gain further context for where and how her stories were born. A quote from her 2004 novel Tu frames chapter five, which is devoted to the story of her father, who joined the volunteers of the 28th (Māori) Battalion even though he knew going to war ‘meant leaving work, which would likely not be available for him on his return’. During teachers’ college term holidays, Grace worked at the Olympic Stationery factory that features in her 1992 novel Cousins: ‘Her first job at the factory was to wrap bundles of exercise books in brown wrapping, which she gummed down with strips of sticky paper.’ With regard to Chappy (published in 2015), she describes the challenge of writing about a man from Japan: ‘I was determined that I would not go with perceived stereotypes. I did not attempt to enter the psyche of a Japanese man but sought to understand his heart as a human being.’
As I read of her fondness for school and sports, of falling in love and starting a family and career, I hoped she would mention my all-time favourite book by any author, Baby No-eyes, published in 1998. I was in luck. Chapter twenty-four is initially devoted to ‘a horror story’ that she could not get out of her mind. It’s the tale of a whānau who sought to know why their stillborn baby’s eyes had been removed. Grace based her story on an event that happened in 1991 which was, as she says, ‘hardly the dark ages’.
From a young age, Grace closely observed injustice and inequity and found dignified ways to make change. In this book we gain appreciation for her experiences of growing up and, for example, of finding out that she was a Māori girl and how, therefore, ‘being different meant that I could be blamed’. But these experiences, she notes, never ‘loomed large in my life’. Here she credits her family for their support. In her ever-so-practical approach she writes, ‘These are matters I Iearned to deal with.’
But what ‘dogged’ and annoyed her throughout her schooling was the frequent low expectation of her as a scholar. These are truths that need to be spoken about in order to disrupt such prejudice continuing in our education system. Grace notes: ‘I was continuously having to prove myself. In some ways this was good for me. It made me strive, always needing to have high marks, excellent reports, neat books and handwriting. But at a certain stage of my education this all caught up with me.’ In a later chapter she writes:
Up until that year, I had never known a bad report. Now they were coming in at the end of each term: I wasn’t working, wasn’t trying … Comments from teachers indicated that I would be unlikely to pass School Certificate … My parents must have been puzzled by these reports, because they’d seen me at my books, night after night. They told me that they knew I was doing my best, even though I knew I wasn’t and didn’t understand why I couldn’t. But I believe it was the support my parents gave me, had always given me, that got me through that time.
Grace’s curiosity and observation were, thankfully, never dampened. In chapter fifteen she writes about her own lightbulb moment on reading Frank Sargeson’s short story collection A Man and His Wife (1940). Until then, Grace hadn’t realised ‘that daily life, everyday speech, contemporary New Zealand family relationships could be made into stories’. She began to focus her own attention on stories about ‘everyday people’: ‘What people around me do and how they do it, what they say and how they say it are of enormous interest.’
Grace has certainly carved out a writing style that brings alive the families, communities and coastlines of this place, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her seven novels, the first being Mutuwhenua: The moon sleeps in 1978, seven collections of short stories, three non-fiction books and several children’s books are filled with her wit. Her intelligent seeing gaze and command of the written word enables readers to emotionally connect with and remember her stories. From the Centre can and should be considered an instrumental companion to be read alongside her lifetime of work.
It was interesting to read about her vision, in 1981, for her first children’s book to be published in both English and Māori, The Kuia and the Spider. She writes: ‘I knew of nothing else of the kind, but the publishers were not enthusiastic.’ She persevered and found a willing publisher who would, from there on, produce all her children’s books in both languages. She found allies who ‘pushed forward, with the understanding that every child needed to see her or his cultural values and images reflected in literature’. It would be a wonderful testament to her literary legacy if all her adult books were likewise translated into te reo Māori.
I hope too that this book, and all of Grace’s work, becomes a proud central pillar of the English school curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her stories jolt us into realising there is another way to see the world, to understand the world—and that this te ao Māori perspective is important for us all to see, hear and feel as we deepen our sense of who we are as a country in the South Pacific.
There are too few published Māori autobiographies. This memoir shows us the enormous value of canvassing one’s life for all to read, and why we need more Māori to write about their lives. The gentle weight of this beautiful work, in both a physical and emotional sense, will live with me for a long time. This was always going to be a special book for me. I hope it becomes a treasured read for all New Zealanders, young and old.
JACINTA RURU FRSNZ (Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui) is a professor of law at the University of Otago, where she holds an inaugural University Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair. She holds national awards for research and teaching, and has published extensively on Indigenous peoples’ rights, interests and responsibilities to own and care for lands and waters. She is the lead curator of the Te Takarangi 150 Māori Books project.