Simone Oettli-van Delden
Native Son: The writer’s memoir by Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, 2019), 448 pp., $40
Readers of Native Son, the sequel to Maori Boy (2014), will immediately be charmed by the photographs on the cover of Witi Ihimaera as an attractive young man; yet the splendid images belie much of the heartache within. This second volume of Ihimaera’s memoir is ostensibly about his life from the age of fifteen in 1959 to twenty-eight in 1971. But the framework of the story follows his troubled relationship with his paternal grandfather, Pera Punahāmoa Ihimaera Smiler, and the initial dates turn out to be slippery. His entanglement with Pera is only resolved in the final chapter, dated 2018, the year in which Ihimaera turned seventy-four. This is by no means the only break with temporal organisation. Though the text covers the promised period in terms of the events of Ihimaera’s life in a realistically haphazard fashion, the real focus is on his coming to terms with a traumatic experience he had in 1955, when he was eleven. On the other hand, discussions of his writing career take him right up to 1998 with Bulibasha: The king of the gypsies, and he mentions beginning work on the production of the opera Flowing Water in 2016, as well. Clearly the temporal range is far more extensive than initially indicated.
The second volume of the memoir is linked to the first through appearance: they feature the same red, white and black colours associated with te ao Māori and the same typography, the typeface imitating a typewriter script. The book lives up to its cover in both beauty and complexity.
But the epigraphs suggest that the very genre of memoir is problematic. These comprise an exchange between the author and his great friend of many years, well-known fellow writer Fiona Kidman. A quote by Kidman throws doubt on the self-knowledge of any autobiographer, and Ihimaera responds by saying that Māori mythology ‘fed my imagination, shaped my perspective and pointed a way forwards’. He adds:
There is also another myth in my life, the one I told myself about myself. I created it to avoid telling the real story. (10)
So he undermines his autobiographical endeavour by categorising it as myth, which in itself evades clear definition, thereby immediately raising questions about the nature of the text. In common parlance, ‘myth’ would mean that his story is associated with the world of make-believe, a world that is unreal. But Māori myths become so much part of the memoir that when he asserts he created myth ‘to avoid telling the real story’, we are not sure whether to take Native Son as a myth or as ‘the real story’, or whether the two coincide. Ihimaera seems to be ambivalent, but he calls his journey ‘Māui-esque’ and says his aim is a truthful account, thereby taking on the mantle of myth for the telling of ‘the real story’.
And the reader is already unsettled because Ihimaera calls his text a ‘memoir’, rather than an autobiography. Memoir comes from the French mémoire, the Latin memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence, and is a subcategory of autobiography – whereas the word autobiography is derived from Greek. Auto is the equivalent of self, bio is life and graph equals writing, leading us to the definition of writing about the self. The latter is defined as the ‘history of a person’s life written or told by that person’, whereas the definition of a memoir is ‘a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation’. A crucial difference lies in the word ‘history’. Memory can be faulty, incorrect, false, subject to lacunae or, as Ihimaera defines it, a myth; and history is generally associated, rightly or wrongly, with the truth about the past.
So how do we read this book? I propose to trust Ihimaera and read it as he directs us to: namely as a subjective version of the truth, with the proviso that, as he hints, he may be an unreliable narrator.
He uses two Māori constructs to support his story. One is the circular koru that he has already used in Māori Boy, where it is defined as ‘an appropriate symbol for the way Māori tell stories’. He elaborates:
We progress our narratives by way of their circularities and, where one spiral touches another, it has the power to take us back as well as propel us forward. (41)
This allows the author a temporal freedom without regard for chronology. In Native Son he takes the koru to a more intricate level by defining it as a gyre, with its connotations of constant circular activity, or a double helix that is relentlessly moving on its binary axes, the helices of which take him backward or forward in time. It is here that we can make uncertain sense of the other structural prop, the poutama or staircase. The competing structures of the koru and the poutama can be resolved only if we consider the double helix as a winding staircase – a shape which it can take on.
To complicate structural matters even further, Ihimaera uses several staircases to climb out of the horror of his story. The initial challenge is to understand how koru and poutama can work together. But perhaps that is the whole point, because they are used to stress the great uneasiness, discomfort and pain the narrator suffers when telling us about the rape, committed by an unnamed adult relative, that he experienced as an eleven-year-old. The experience tore him apart, physically and psychologically.
The violation and its consequences become a major theme that reappears, often fleetingly and haltingly told, to weave its way throughout the book. The narrator not only repeatedly returns to the actual scene, he dwells on his resulting sense of unworthiness:
I was trying to find in everything – my world, my society and particularly in my self – affirmation that everything was all right and that I was okay. The truth was that I just felt so unworthy. Of Mum and Dad. Of having a family. Of having a girlfriend. And, no matter the soporifics with which I sedated myself, of not keeping faith with the masculinity of my whakapapa. (159)
In consequence, the narrator has terrifying nightmares. He tries to assuage his overwhelmingly negative feelings about himself by committing self-harm:
The razor’s cut was also an act of blood-letting. Panicking, I went through a period where I thought my rapist’s spermatozoa, viral, were moving around inside me. Eating up my universe. Extinguishing the nebulae. Soon I was slicing my chest, my thighs, my arms, to rid myself of them. (163)
Ihimaera narrates his story by drawing parallels with the world of Māori myth, and makes myth as much a reality as life. With a quote that initially reminds us of the beginning of Māori Boy, where the dawn also brings fear, he recounts his nightmares:
a dawn blossomed around me and I heard chanting in the dark. I found myself in a limbic zone of myth and surreality, the world of moemoeā. The dream was interlaced with the symbols and signs of the Māori darker myths; a maelstrom of activity burst around me, terrorizing and alarming, and I was at the centre of it. (163)
In Māori Boy he is comforted and reassured by his mother, but in Native Son his nightmares involve an attack by Māori mythical creatures, ‘half-men, half-avian, winged ponatouri with clawed hands and wings jagged as a bat’s’. He forces himself to wake, cuts himself again and then hallucinates a ponaturi perched at the end of his bed.
His favourite English teacher, Mr Grono, notices there is something wrong and, by the simple expedient of pulling up his pupil’s sleeve, discovers that Ihimaera is harming himself. Convinced that if Mr Grono notices, everyone else must, Ihimaera despairs and tries to commit suicide by putting the end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe his father’s Holden, sitting in the driver’s seat and, after closing all the windows, turning on the engine.
The passage describing this event is notable for its use of the present tense, which gives it a terrifying immediacy, but even more for its use of the second person singular. The narrator addresses himself throughout the scene he evokes, telling himself, ‘All right, then. Best for you to end it’, which gives an eerie sense of almost schizophrenic weirdness. But he is rescued just in time by a friend of his father’s, Charlie Mohi. Without telling anyone, Charlie takes him to counselling. This helps Ihimaera to carry on.
The narrator’s uncertainty and self-doubt are mitigated by the use of several other myths pertaining to the Māori world. From the demi-god Māui Ihimaera inherits the streak of wilfulness that allows him to become a writer, and he describes Māui’s encounters with the goddess of fire, Mahuika, and with Hinenuitepō, the goddess of death. Ihimaera adapts both of these as well. Mahuika accords him the multiple chances in his life and is the source of his inspiration or hinengaro, the intellect or consciousness to make use of it. Hinenuitepō is the elder sister of Mahuika and another muse for Māori writers. The goddess of thunder and lightning, Whaitiri, also plays an indirect part in Ihimaera’s life. She comes down to earth because people lose their will to live and brings her grandson Tāwhaki with her, who becomes the saviour of mankind and has all sorts of epic adventures. Tāwhaki becomes Ihimaera’s exemplar during his early manhood.
A major part of Native Son follows Ihimaera’s writing career, from recounting the great range of European and native authors from all over the world who influenced him, to his own texts, which he introduces by means of a discussion of quoted extracts. The memoir is a dense and multi-layered book, ranging from an analysis of the Mormon religion to schooling until university level and the different writing mentors Ihimaera had, as well as recounting his work at the post office, his many friendships, and the difficulties of his bi-racial wedding and marriage with Jane Cleghorn. The constant of family relationships is always there, starting with his paternal grandfather and grandmother, and emphasising his loving and very moving relationship with his father, and also with his mother and his sisters. They are the source of most important characters in his novels.
In the midst of all this, and after nearly fifty years of silence, Ihimaera finally confronts the rape that he consciously repressed. He remembers his aggressor’s words: ‘Sshh, Witi. You don’t want anybody to find out what happened to you, do you?’ This made him resolve to lock his ‘damaged younger self away’. Coming back to the traumatic experience, briefly mentioned for the first time with the publication of Māori Boy, he now tells the fuller story, albeit haltingly, in Native Son.
Because it is so violent, and so well told, the experience risks dominating the book, which is mainly about writing and family relationships. The style changes according to Ihimaera’s subject matter and is most emotionally charged and mesmerising in his various accounts of and references to the rape. The spiral structure of the koru suggests that it will always haunt him, but his successful climbing of the poutama to academic success, and above all his success as a writer, seem to indicate that, to a large extent, he has overcome it through sheer willpower. Ihimaera says he could not reveal the truth until his daughters had grown up. By fully revealing it now, he has fulfilled the dictates of utu and at least had some kind of victim’s revenge. And the memoir fulfils another important function: we may hope it will encourage other victims to speak openly about their experiences.
By the end of the story Ihimaera has convinced the reader that as a narrator he is not as unreliable as he may think he is, and his story, unpleasant though it is in great part, rings only too true. He is to be tremendously respected for his courageous, well-written and honest account of a horrific ordeal
SIMONE OETTLI-VAN DELDEN is the author of Surfaces of Strangeness: Janet Frame and the rhetoric of madness (Victoria University Press, 2003). As a photographer, she was part of the group who edited and published Fragments of a World: A collection of photographs by New Zealand women (John McIndoe, 1976). A few years ago, she was asked by Witi Ihimaera to write a literary biography linking his life to his work, and she has been working on his abundant collection of papers in the Beaglehole Room at Victoria University ever since.