Māori Boy: A memoir of childhood by Witi Ihimaera (Vintage/Random House, 2014), 382 pp., $39.99
Even just a glance at the first tome of Witi Ihimaera’s projected three-volume memoir is sure to charm prospective readers. Visually, the book depicts the two things that are most dear to him during his childhood. The cover shows a hand-coloured photograph of his beloved grandmother, firmly grasping Witi by the wrist. He has just begun to walk and has a look of serious concentration on his face. She must be nearly 60 and is still beautiful. This is the woman, Teria Pere Halbert, who inspired the main character, Artemis Riripeti Mahana, of Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch, and who also plays a powerful role in its sequel, The Dream Swimmer.
I find the typeface on the memoir’s cover in some ways rather gimmicky and misleading, having personally witnessed Ihimaera using an iPad for his writing. However, in imitating a typewriter’s, this lettering does serve as a reminder that the memoir deals essentially with the first 16 years of Ihimaera’s life, from 1944 to 1960, when portable computers were not yet invented and typewriters were the principal means of recording one’s creativity.
The inside covers are extraordinary. They depict a painting of Adam and Eve standing at the foot of an apple tree, which is entwined by a grape vine. The image is from a colour photo by Peter Coates of one of the myriad paintings covering the interior of Rongopai, and for a moment it gives the illusion that the memoir has been created inside the meeting house. A black-and-white version of the image separates the six parts of the memoir, forming a constant reminder of the importance of Rongopai in Ihimaera’s life. It is his favourite meeting house, situated in Waituhi, the village near Gisborne which is still the home of his iwi, Te Whānau-a-Kai. Like his grandmother, Rongopai has also been a major character in his fiction, right from the time when he started his career with the collection of short stories, Pounamu, Pounamu, in 1972. That is, he says, where his heart is.
Ihimaera’s way of telling a story upholds the Māori tradition of oral narration, and structurally embodies the Māori saying, ‘Te torino haere whakamua, whakamuri’, signifying that the past and the present are together in the same spiral. Ihimaera moves back and forth in temporal terms, as well as recapitulating variations of his initial statements, and it is not surprising that he goes way beyond the aforementioned official 16 years.
The memoir begins with Ihimaera’s earliest memory of people chanting. He is an infant on his mother’s marae, Paketawaī, and dawn prayers are being said. ‘I still pray every morning and every night,’ he tells us. ‘I do it for the same reason the old people did – to keep the sky in its place and to keep the earth in its place. To maintain my contract with the physical world and the spiritual world by weaving a skein of karakia between both. And to negotiate the passage of those whom I love as they traverse the bright strand between.’ Then he starts on the whakapapa of his mother, Turi-teretimana (Julia) Keelan of the Ngāti Porou iwi, to whom he attributes responsibility for his interest in the spiritual world.
He gives us seven generations of tīpuna, reminding the reader of the ceremonial entrance of any visitor on a marae, and explains the function of the powhiri as an opportunity to go backwards before one goes forwards: ‘In Māoridom this is the movement from ahau (me) to koe (you) to koutou (us) to mātou (I am part of the us) to ratou (I include all of those kin who are my ancestors) to tātou (we are all one, including the dead, the meeting house, the river or the mountain).’ His mother’s tīpuna include descendants of the demi-god Māui, the Ngā Iwi o te Ao Kōhatu (or ‘The people of the Stone World’); the legendary Paikea, who travelled from Hawaiki to Aotearoa on a whale, inspiring Ihimaera’s novel, The Whale Rider; and a sixteenth-century warrior called Tu-whakairi-ora. Various versions of Julia appear in his novels and he borrowed many of her striking personality traits to create Tiana, who plays a role in counterpoint to Artemis. The importance of another of Julia’s tīpuna, Mount Hikurangi, is also reflected in these novels. It is Tiana’s ‘ever fixèd mark’ that guides her home, even through the chaos of the void, Te Kore.
Whakapapa inspire, and account for, a significant part of Ihimaera’s work. ‘What my parents and all those aunts and uncles have given [me] is the gift of an enormous canvas,’ he remembers gratefully, ‘their huge passions and appetites constructed a world of such immense breadth and depth, of such moral force, that I could never go weakling into it. They forced me to stand: “All this is yours.”’ He compares his uncles and aunts to the Greek gods and adds: ‘Acts of bestiality, rape, incest, murder and revenge were rife within Greek mythology, attesting the dual nature of those we considered divine. Should I not, therefore, allow my family pantheon the same immunity as that given to the gods?’
The whakapapa of his father, Te Haa-o-Rūhia (Tom) Ihimaera Smiler illustrates the circular movement of the text, in that Ihimaera works backwards from Tom and starts with his parents, whereas with Julia he began with her earliest ancestors. First to be mentioned of Tom’s tīpuna is Ihimaera’s grandfather, Pera Punahāmoa Ihimaera Smiler, who tells him where the name ‘Smiler’ came from. Apparently, the missionaries could not pronounce Ihimaera, and started calling him Smiler instead. Witi did not like his grandfather, whom he cast in rather unsympathetic roles in his fiction, namely Ihaka, the husband of The Matriarch, and the sheep-shearing patriarch in Bulibasha, who was both a bully and a basher. He was responsible for the family’s conversion from the Ringatū faith to Mormonism. From Witi’s point of view, perhaps Pera Smiler’s sole mistake was to have married his beloved grandmother, Teria, and the relationship between him and his grandfather is marked by a certain amount of envy.
Witi is much more impressed by ancestor Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, who was affiliated to the Rongawhakaata iwi, as is Witi’s family. Te Kooti founded the Ringatū religion later practised by Teria, and Rongopai was built for him in 1888, though he never saw it. He died three months before she was born in 1893. Witi’s great-grandfather, Ihimaera Te Teira Te Hānene, fought alongside Te Kooti as lieutenant during his four guerrilla years at the end of the Land Wars. In his novels, Witi tells many stories about Te Kooti. And his great-grandmother was Hine Te Ariki Pera, reputed to be a Taniwha. Ihimaera makes her into a reliable partner for Tiana, the dream swimmer.
Ihimaera comes back to his parents’ courtship and marriage over and over again, with slight variations in the story, and he doesn’t tell the reader until near the end why the marriage was kept secret and what all the mystery was about. In doing so he makes a point about narrative, namely, that stories are always in conflict and that no definitive version can be told. Both his parents were exceptional storytellers , but he was ‘to discover, the interpretation of them depended on what position they were viewed from, or who was telling them’. Recounting the parental secret will spoil the book for future readers, but it is fascinating how a weaving of stories round the same incident can be created and renewed.
Like his father before him, Tom Smiler was the head of a sheep-shearing gang, and Ihimaera spent his early years travelling with his parents. Most of the extended family was involved in shearing. Once the shearing season was over, his parents were employed in seasonal work. When Ihimaera reached five, he was initially sent to stay with Teria, in Waituhi, while he attended Patutahi Primary School. Teria was a rangatira, and taught him to question everything he was told. He learned to do that as far as school was concerned, but didn’t put into question anything that she told him.
Then, in 1949, his mother settled in Gisborne with the children – Ihimaera had three sisters by now – so that Witi could live with her. His father came home whenever he could, and the family joined him for sheep-shearing during the holidays. His grandmother gave him a piano and he started studying music, leading to his later libretti.
The death of Teria was the first great trauma in his life. She had told him that she would never die and he believed her. He was 11 at the time, and when he realised she had really gone for good, he was inconsolable. He restored her to life by immortalising her in his books, so she had been right to say she would never die. His grandmother’s death was followed by a harrowing incident of sexual abuse, about which I’ll leave Ihimaera to tell you himself.
In 1957 Tom Smiler moved the family for three years to his farm near Te Karaka. It is here, at 13, that Ihimaera started writing stories on his bedroom wall. His teacher set him The Whare, by Douglas Stewart, to read and he ‘found the story poisonous, the setting demonic and the Māori characters demeaning’. He resolved at once to write because he needed to ‘unpoison the stories already written about Māori; and it would be taught in every school in New Zealand, whether they wanted it or not’. His work as a whole reveals that aroha is the most important of his themes. Aroha with multiple meanings; not only love for people, but love for the land. His books invariably express this love for, and need of, the land, as a means of survival, and consequently, often depict the struggle to recuperate those tribal lands for the iwi which were stolen by the Pākehā in the aftermath of colonisation. This gives his work an important political edge.
The first volume takes us through secondary school. It tells us much about Ihimaera’s creativity, and traces many passages of writing to their source. As Ihimaera says: ‘digression is part of my method of story telling’, and he finishes his memoir with a nightmare. It is the story that he tells in The Dream Swimmer, about falling into the sea at great depth and being pursued by ravenous ponaturi (goblins). The equivalent of an excellent metaphor for the mixed-up mess of adolescence, the nightmare intertwines every strand of his parents’ secret with his own, and he decides he needs a new identity. He changes his name from Smiler to Ihimaera.
SIMONE OETTLI is a writer, critic and editor. She taught English literature at the universities of Auckland, Lausanne and Geneva, and is editing a book on Katherine Mansfield. She currently lives in Geneva.