The Thrill Of Fallingby Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, 2012) $37.99, 320 pp.
The role of Māori in the modern world; the challenges of reconciling a culture steeped in mythology and ancient hierarchies with life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Across his canon, now comprising more than 20 published works, Witi Ihimaera has grappled with the same chief concerns, while always capturing a relevance that reflects the wider national, even global, context in which they were published. The Whale Rider, arguably his most famous work, was written in the age of power suits and it posits that the breaking down of traditional gender roles is essential if Māori culture is to thrive. The collection The New Net Goes Fishing, which has close ties to his latest, explores the ways in which Māori can thrive even while adapting to an urban environment.
The Thrill of Falling, his seventh collection of short stories, is a particular kind of departure. Ihimaera has set stories outside of New Zealand before, certainly, but the central characters’ tend to turn back towards themselves to find resolution. Here, however, neither New Zealand itself nor Māori tradition alone is enough. Published as New Zealand’s economy flounders and the world around it shrinks ever smaller, the characters that populate The Thrill of Falling must look elsewhere — to other countries, other cultures.
Ancestry, by Albert Wendt (Huia, Wellington, 2012) pp. 306, $35.
In this new collection Albert Wendt returns to story writing, with his usual investigation of race relations, the persistence of Pacific stereotypes, new complexities of community in contemporary Auckland, and recognisably real-life allusions to friends and teaching. As we might expect from work by a senior author, there’s a lot of material on marriage and its breakdown, spoiled grandchildren, and the ambiguous effects of sex drives lasting into old age. As well, these are stories in which family and community are central themes — titles include ‘Friendship’, ‘Neighbours’, ‘Ancestry’, and the closing ‘Family’. The book is dedicated to relations and close friends.
The opening tale, ‘Robocop at Long Bay’ is I think the only one appearing previously, and for my money, one of the best in the book. It is an effective first-person presentation about the ties and tensions between a young man, his delinquent mates, his own capitalist aspirations, and his conventional father and aiga. The situation, dialogue and characters carry the emotional drama and avoid a weakness in other stories: too much narrative explanation.
Judicious editing to let the scene do the work would increase the impact of some of these tales. ‘Friendship’ works because we see a Pākehā uni student careful of her boundaries being drawn in to the circle of friends and family of a striking Māori classmate. Under the rubric of what might be styled ‘Anthropology I’, they attempt to overcome stereotypes of each other and the drama lies largely unspoken behind the ordinary surface, though card-carrying postcolonialists might point to the familiar ‘warm strong native rescues vulnerable but well-intentioned white’ aspect to its plot, even if that is itself under light corrective treatment.
Huia Histories of Māori: Nga Tahuhu Korero, edited by Danny Keenan (Huia,Wellington, 2012) 350 pp., $49.99.
This handsome book features the essays of sixteen Māori scholars including: a retired justice of the High Court, a professor and assistant vice chancellor, a film and television producer, a principal of a consultancy organisation and former director of the Waitangi Tribunal, and a research fellow at Auckland University of Technology. The essays cover a wide range of topics most of which have been studied and written about by Pākehā but here, we are offered the rare opportunity to be immersed in a Māori context. This is an exciting difference and a welcome one.
Most Māori will be familiar with the contributors. We are a relatively small community and our hapū and iwi connections link us on multiple levels. Those of us who attend national and regional hui often will have had the privilege of hearing Eddie Durie for example, who has long been prominent in the judiciary arena. His brother Mason has written extensively on Māori health and education and is often heard on national media. Maria Bargh, Teurikore Biddle, Brendan Hokowhitu, Margaret Mutu, Poia Rewi, Rawiri Taonui, and Te Maire Tau are all involved in researching Māori and indigenous studies at tertiary level. Jo Diamond lectures in art history and theory, Aroha Harris and Danny Keenan in history. Bradford Haami is a multi-talented film and media practitioner, and Buddy Mikaere is well known as a cultural and resource management adviser. Hana O’Regan is dedicated to retrieving and promoting the Kāi Tahu dialect. Mere Roberts researches how Māori interacted with and incorporated nature into every aspect of life. Bringing these scholars together in one volume is a wonderful idea.
Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania, by Alice Te Punga Sommerville, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 288 pp., $61.99.
Their knowing the use of this sort of Cloth doth in some measure account for the extraordinary fondness they have shew’d for it above every other thing we had to give them.” [Cook, Edwards, Beaglehole 1955/1968]
‘For Māori at Uawa in 1769, the usual European trade goods and trinkets that had been prepared for exchange by the Europeans on board the Endeavour were trumped by large sheets of tapa recently acquired in Tahiti … As they interacted with navigator-explorers Tupaia and Cook, Māori communities drew on existing narratives of connection and exchange with the broader Pacific.’ [Sommerville, 2012]
Alice Te Punga Sommerville’s important thesis is that not only do all Polynesian peoples share a Pacific Ocean heritage and ethnicity, but that it is well past the time that mo ngā iwi Māori o Aotearoa and Polynesians from elsewhere started to share a lot more than they currently appear to do, whether in the tight urban-suburban boxes they tend to inhabit within New Zealand, or in their increasing intermingling in diasporal sorties.
The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840, Vincent O’Malley (Auckland University Press, 2012), 284 pp., $45.
Vincent O’Malley’s meeting place is a common ground where members of different societies can find ways of interacting which bridge their cultural differences. He has borrowed the notion from an American historian Richard White whose term for it is ‘middle ground’. People have adopted it but often misapplied it. They use it to refer to situations where one society overwhelms the other. In a true middle ground, or meeting place, each group adjusts its own social practices in light of the other’s, but doesn’t abandon its own culture.
It is O’Malley’s contention that in New Zealand the Bay of Islands was such a place between 1814, when the missionary settlement was founded, and 1840 when New Zealand became a British colony. He offers this as an alternative to what he considers ‘the conventional wisdom at one time’: that, after a period of initial resistance, Maori culture changed profoundly – it more or less collapsed – and Maori were assimilated into Pakeha society. He sometimes calls this the ‘Fatal Impact’ view and identifies Harrison Wright, an American who wrote on the subject in 1959, as its leading exponent.