Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā edited by Brian Bargh and Robyn Bargh (Huia Publishers, 2016), 290 pp., $35
You know the one about the curate’s egg? This book is its exemplar, for it is surely an indeterminate mix of good and not as good short story writing, given that the latter is by far the lesser. While no single story is mediocre, there are a few overly sentimental efforts, and a couple that miss the mark and occasionally sink into an almost cartoonish puerility or teenage angst. But these are well surpassed by some fine writing, none better than James George’s excellent ‘Moontide’, which is the standout 24-carat gem of this anthology in its craftily crafted construct and subsequent maintenance of suspense around the confronting of the protagonist’s aged father about his murder of his wife – her mother – over 20 years earlier.
I initially struggled to find an overarching thread to this compilation, given that the collection is of Huia-mandated tall-tale-tellers. There is a vast array of styles and content among these 20 anecdotes authored by 18 writers. Not all of the authors are Māori, for the estimable Albert Wendt is here represented twice, albeit somewhat curiously from a 2012 collection titled Ancestry, which I reviewed for Asian Review of Books, as here: http://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/archived-article/?articleID=1502
Many tales actually have little to do with te ao Māori anyway – indeed three are European fairy tales, as in being set in Europe: Tina Makereti’s ‘Frau Amsel’s Cupboard’, Paula Morris’s ‘Three Princesses’, and the more contemporary ‘Trust’ by Mark Sweet.
So this is a bit of a lucky dip of a book, somewhat of a lolly scramble. If you are into games of chance, Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā is your Lotto ticket. You may well strike the jackpot in your first selection to peruse; then again you may not. Don’t trash your ticket – just turn a couple of pages and find another line or two to strike fictive gold.
It was only after I re-read the publisher’s letter, accompanying my review copy, that everything clicked into place for me. The line from Huia noting the tenor of the tales, namely, ‘They explore the dark and dangerous milieu of our comfortable existence’, rammed home the reality. In an ‘aha’ moment I concurred completely: Stories on the Four Winds is indeed centred primarily on the dark side; which is why Mr Death is a challenging centrepiece of several tales here. In one story – Alice Tawhai’s psycho-sicko diary extract ‘Killing Ginger’ – sexual deviance as in parental rape-incest is the climax after a setting out of a set of murders, while in quite a few others violence and the demise of a character is the centrifugal force. As in ‘Fast’ (Wendt); the abovementioned ‘Moontide’; ‘Time’ (Jacquie McRae); ‘The Apology’ (Helen Waaka); ‘Byron and the Bastard Blues’ (Anya Ngawhare); ‘Pointing the Bone’ (Ann French); ‘Hey Dude’ (Patricia Grace); and ‘That Last Summer’ (K-T Harrison.)
So, yes, there seems to be something of a sinister bent across many stories. On further close inspection, Huia also note in their brief Introduction that the compilation focuses on ‘the gritty reality of aroha mixed up with violence and social injustice’. Tika tēnei kōrero hoki [This statement is also true].
Let me swing across to more salubrious and positive comments. Despite these depictions of the darker sides of human nature, there are some fine short stories in this collection, and more than a few damned good efforts – all of which is encouraging, as many representatives in the book are graduates from Huia’s own literary mentorship scheme, Te Papa Tupu. So let’s look at the more rewarding aspects.
It goes without saying that Albert Wendt and Patricia Grace can weave well-crafted yarns, although both of Wendt’s went on a bit too long to be considered short, while Grace’s is an interestingly oblique, veteran’s address to a dead husband and father. Renée is well and truly in the same league: her ‘This Day was Different’ is another well-honed sample of the art and craft of shortstoryism.
Other than the above-mentioned James George’s suspenseful piece and the seedy synopsis of street living, ‘Late Antiquity’ by Piripi Evans – in which the anti-hero vagrant named Ngutu grasps some fleeting succour – I was also impressed both by K-T Harrison’s slice-of-real-life, ‘That Last Summer’, and ‘Pointing the Bone’ by Ann French – although the latter does swoop towards soppy soap opera at the end, a common denominator for too many stories here.
I guess I enjoyed this pair – if enjoyed is the correct accolade here – as they are Māori in ethos; that is, they inculcate a specifically Māori Weltanschauung or Worldview – which, as noted earlier, is conspicuously lacking in several other stories. This last point is not a criticism, by the way. It is just that in a collection of work predominantly by Māori, one would think there would be he atu arotahi i runga i Māori ora, nē rā? [more focus on Māori lives, eh?]
I also realise that by appointing his piece to the pinnacle, I may seem to contradict myself slightly, for George’s ‘Moontide’ does not delineate Māori personages in any overt way, shape or form. Engari titiro koe tata atu [But look more closely]. Here is a telling extract from his story:
At Greymouth we go to the cemetery and Adam picks up a jar of rancid water from an old concrete plinth and tips it out. He runs it under a water tap on a post at the edge of the driveway and swirls it a few times then brings it back and I set the kowhai flowers into it, with the fingers that had wiped away his tear.
‘Karoro,’ I say.
Adam turned to me.
‘It means seagull,’ I say.
On the evening of the 7757th day, twenty-one years after she was lifted onto a plastic sheet and taken in an ambulance to her hometown and put into a cold room and placed on a bench, an old man stands at the place she had lain on the riverbank. She and he had left the town years before in a car with wedding ribbons fluttering in the wind. He closes his eyes and says something but it is lost in the gusts from the grey Tasman. He steps into the river and stands for a long time, then walks further until the water is at his waist, then leans and tips face-first into the moontide.
Justice is served in this saga, albeit very late, and the author has enabled a sensible, serious and sensitive story for us all to share.
K-T Harrison decisively divides the Māori and Pākehā communities of township New Zealand into Rata Street and Goodview Heights respectively, the former with massive socio-economic issues and the concomitant hard scrabble to survive; the latter far more wealthy and thus freer to move around and have sand-and-sun-filled holidays at beaches on the east coast. There is a huge schism between the two ethnicities involved, and the gulf is symbolised by the running over of a young Māori boy named Robbie, by a young Pākehā girl on a driving school jaunt down Rata Ave. The Pākehā gets away with the manslaughter; in the words of Harrison’s Judge Geary:
… this unfortunate mishap should not impact adversely on one so young. And may I add, one from such a prestigious and upstanding family who dedicate their lives to and are committed to building up this town. Let us not condemn one with such a promising future. Had young Robbie not been playing out on the road, had he been appropriately supervised, we would not be here today.
Enough said, really. Harrison encapsulates the unequal diurnal situation for many Māori in Aotearoa, and it is to her credit that in her up-front exposition she leaves no bones unturned.
Speaking of kōiwi or human bones, French also is full-on in her depiction of Māori obtaining utu, albeit against other Māori. In her story, a kaumātua tohunga literally points his own amputated and de-fleshed finger bone at one Poti Te Whanga to cast a mākutu on this sexual predator culprit, a man who had murdered a mokopuna. This sequence may seem a bit over the top, especially when couched in an italicised ghost story-saga scenario, but such rites do continue in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand. And revenge is sweet when a reader identifies with the whānau, as here.
I also liked other tales, all also well-crafted. Thus Eru J. Hart’s ‘May Board’; Helen Waaka’s ‘The Apology’ and Toni Pivac’s ‘The Tree House’ should all be mentioned. All contain at least some elements of what it is like to be Māori in the 21st century; all are quite concise and unpretentious examples of meaty short stories, which keep a reader devouring the page and remaining content after the feast. Hart’s focuses on new neighbours moving in; Waaka’s on moving whānau awangawanga (or concerns); Pivac’s is an account of a drifter moving on.
There is not much to add. I think the best way to conclude this review is to recommend any potential reader purchase the collection, being aware that not every story is to everyone’s taste and – more appetisingly – that not everyone’s taste is the same anyway. Ko wai e matau ana te wahi e pupuhi te hau? [Who knows where the wind will blow?]
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is currently based in the Waikato where he works as an educator. A writer, poet and critic, and a Māori language activist, his books include the novel Toa, published by Atuanui Press in 2013. Rapatahana’s latest poetry collection, Atonement, was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines in 2016. He also won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize last year. He has a PhD in existential philosophy from Auckland University.