Huia Short Stories 11: Contemporary Maori fiction selected by Witi Ihimaera, Sir Wira Gardiner and Poia Rewi, (Huia Publishers, 2015), 204 pp., $30; For Someone I Love – A collection of writing, by Arapera Blank (Anton Blank Ltd, 2015), 158 pp., $40; crimson, by Marino Blank (Anton Blank Ltd, 2014), 54 pp., $25
Kia ora katoa. Within the pages of Huia’s latest anthology of short story collections – compiling the best entries in their biennial Pikihuia Awards – there are not only the subcategories of short story written in te reo Māori, and the short story written in te reo Ingarihi, but also quite sizeable extracts from novels.
More tellingly, there is considerable diversity among the Huia writers, in the sense that some writers in English utilise considerable Māori kupu, or words and expressions, and some none whatsoever, whilst the themes across the board are by no means unilateral either, and some display absolutely nothing from any Māori perspective whatsoever.
My point is that Māori literature is once more a burgeoning project: hugely varied and variable, with a considerable number of storytellers and poets of talent and merit continuing the long tradition, remembering of course that initially it was an oral tradition only. Think of it as a boil-up, with all manner of tasty ingredients.
I will start with a writer who deserves our renewed attention, the late Arapera Blank, who died in 2002. For Someone I Love – A collection of writing is certainly full of love; beginning with her son’s excellent hard cover product, and replete with photos of whānau me aroha, whānau ki te aroha permeating everywhere, but also within the pages of Arapera’s poems, short stories and non-fiction pieces – although she certainly could write acerbically if necessary. Anton and Marino Blank (brother and sister) have ensured a thematic approach, in that the poems, especially, tend to run in sequences of similar subject matter. So all very professional throughout.
Arapera is a good writer in both languages, often side-by-side on the same page: clear, concise, well-balanced, mature. She won the 1959 Katherine Mansfield Memorial Competition, and published consistently good work in Te Ao Hou around that time. But her greatest gift – for me at any rate, with considerable life experience of the locale – is her bucolic representation of Rangitukia, Tikitiki, Matakaoa. She writes well about her growing up there on the East Coast, and really scorches the memories back into my own mind: nui ngā kai; te reo Māori. Then there’s the places, such as Mani Collier’s now extinguished Tikitiki Hotel; the whanaunga interconnections, such as the Portuguese links back to Lima; the schools and the schooling; the no-shoes foot travel, and on and on. When I read across the three sections, most particularly the short stories, I am back drinking at the Tikitiki RSA, eating boil-ups in my home in Te Araroa, teaching at Te Waha o Rerekohu Area School, being an educator (RTLB) at Tikitiki schools; working in Ruatoria, all that.
Yes, some of those experiences are a bit dated; and as Arapera’s writing itself covers mostly the late 1950s through the 1970s, some of her non-fiction references are mementos of a bygone era now. It must be noted, too, that she and her husband Pius Blank (Swiss) were extremely well-travelled internationally, and that this collection does not revolve solely around Rangitukia.
Moreover, she brings out everything vibrantly and mostly positively, given that she is never afraid to depict schoolgirl pregnancies; the busted ‘promises’ of Waitangi; the rifts and ravines across Māoritanga due to enforced urbanisation (‘a new way of life thrust upon Māori society by the Pākehā’ – from Where the Manuka Bends, a 1979 piece I recall reading in Polynesian and Pākehā in New Zealand Education Vol. II); the strict lectures from kaumātua about how men should behave towards their wives, as in the story, ‘Ahakoa he aha!’
The prime piece in the collection is the excellent poem entitled ‘Rangitukia reminiscences, soul places’. I read this long poem and I am there. It begins strongly and then builds upwards:
From Hikirangi the Waiapu
carves wide grey lines to turbulent seas
asserting mana vibrant sounds that
echo on the wind.
What the British author and philosopher Colin Wilson nominated as ‘Faculty X’ – our inherent ability to be present at a place we have encountered years before, including all the sights, tastes, smells, personages, sounds – which Proust for example relived by soaking a madeleine cake into a cup of tea – Arapera Blank has captured minutely, yet massively. She has some quite spectacular imagery scattered through her poetry: the hallmark of a fine writer in my book.
Arapera Blank also consistently stresses the importance of two aspects of Māori life. Firstly, feminism, mō he wāhine Māori, as in her article ‘The role and status of Māori women from 1980’, whereby:
… life with meaning
cannot exist without
[from ‘Who is important?’]
So she proclaims the essence of Māori feminism –
An independent, industrious
Woman, a Māori
[from ‘Ko wai tēnei?’]
Ka nui te pai te tuhi o tēnei wāhine o Ngāti Porou. Ka mau te wehi indeed! Mind you, Ngāti Porou women are known as strong, driven, ki he upoko mārō [headstrong], as witness Whaia McClutchie’s fiery proclamations on marae.
Arapera Blank, then, is very well-served by this loving compilation and she should be accorded much more attribution in Aotearoa literary circles – along with Rore Hapipi and Hinewirangi, as just two similar examples.
What is the second aspect I referred to above? It is her definition of what it is to be uniquely Māori – which I will remark on later. Taihoa.
Marino Blank’s own poetry-only collection crimson doesn’t – as yet – have the range and scope and te reo Māori of her late mother’s work, but she shows signs of becoming a good poet. She has an interesting overall style throughout: there are 46 short and concise, thematically connected poems, often as unbroken paragraphs, which do not dip deeply into adjectives and plentiful colourful imagery, but tend more to be wry and wistful reportorial statements. This is not to say Marino cannot induce strong imagery, it is just that she seems more at home with direct responses to people and situations. No nonsense, straight up, honest stuff, as in ‘The painting’:
I got pissed off
the phone frustrated my
need to speak
So I drove in a fistful
of anger …
Then there are her direct references to IUD insertion, gynaecology examinations and cancer. Tētahi atu he wāhine kaha o Ngāti Porou nē rā! [Another strong Ngāti Porou woman, eh.]
Again, this book is so well prepared and presented, down to the generous Notes section at the back, delineating meanings of ngā kupu Māori as well as backgrounds to the manifest locations deployed throughout the verse – for Marino Blank has an Auckland (Tāmaki Makaurau) aspect to her upbringing and residences. The depictions are far less redolent of rural living here, and there is necessarily less capture of growing up as ‘country Māori’, compared to her mother’s generation, given all the same that she knows well her roots and makes consistent references to Tairāwhiti (East Coast region); her maunga, namely Hikurangi; and her awa, namely Waiapu. Indeed, Marino Blank is hugely cognisant of what her mother extolled in 1958 as the Da-sein (being) of Māori:
As long as he (the Māori) is conscious of his kinship ties, the Māori will never become as truly individualistic as the Pākehā. To me this, more than the retention of the language, is what constitutes Māoritanga …
[from ‘Ko taku kūmara hei waiū mō tama’]
Perhaps Marino Blank’s best poem is ‘Karangahape Road’, which I reproduce in full so as to give some measure of the craft of this developing writer. I must also make note that her most recent work shows her continued ascent as a poet, as in the work that she contributed to my own online Jacket 2 commentaries of late 2015:
Running the drains of Karangahape Road
My shoes beat the rhythm to the heart of the city
The smells of asphalt rose and tickled my thoughts
I ran the drains to pass a throng of Auckland Grammar girls
Who threatened to slow my race to a meeting
Their rhythm moved to the beat of a reluctant education and
the pace of hormones that spelt sweet sixteen.
Back to the Huia short stories compilation, which, as I averred earlier, is an interesting mix. None of the writers are what I would nominate as great – as yet— although I found Helen Waaka’s tale, ‘Eyes of God’, just a cut above most of the others and it is good to read that her own initial collection of short stories was launched in October 2015. But this is the point – the compilation is meant to be a showpiece of developing authors, the future of Māori fiction. Huia are right at the forefront of this kaupapa – witness also their Te Papa Tupu programme.
Certain threads run through most of the stories, both in English and in Māori. One is the hard graft underbelly of – especially city – life for many Māori: the penury; the brutal violence; the dirty old and young men (played out especially in Darren Joseph’s ‘Taku Ao, Tō Mate Kanehe’, which to my mind is well and truly over the border of what he calls ‘machismo, misogyny’, regardless of what he writes in his bio at back); the poor diets; the crime te mea te mea te mea. Indeed, some tales are just spare delineations of a shit life, as for example K.T. Harrison’s severe ‘Picnic with the Bears’, barely given some sort of redemption at the end.
Opposed to this seaminess there’s another theme, threading the connectivity and care between the mainly country-living youth and their elders, as Zeb Tamihana Nicklin’s two rural, te reo Māori sorties, Aroha Bentson’s ‘The Power of Water’ and Vincent Olsen-Reeder’s work, to which I will refer later.
One or two tales seem bereft of any specifically ‘Māori reference’ whatsoever, such as Lauren Keenan’s ‘The Job’ and ‘The Space of a Moment’ by Toni Pivac, as well as the two by Aaron Ure, given that his work ‘River Mouth’ rather cuts across the arbitrary categories I am compiling here. This is no criticism of the obvious crafting involved in all these examples, but an interesting facet for me, particularly with regard to Arapera Blank’s definition of being Māori, above.
Which leads me on to the short stories encrusted with Māoritanga, if you will, in that they really bring home to us the ‘aroha-in-spite of’. That is, whāngai relationships and the keeping going of family ties regardless of the pain, whilst making particular reference to Māori take, or issues, at the same time. ‘Old Totara’ by Robert McDonald and ‘Tired Eyes’ by Anya Ngawhare stand out here, as does Ann French’s first story ‘Aroha’, which states it all with the very title.
The te reo Māori stories included here are stimulating linguistically as much as anything, Darren Joseph’s – again – being remarkable in reminding me of just how many kupu Māori there are for a woman’s private parts, in his not always successful depiction of mana wāhine and ngā tāne tino rorirori, whilst Olsen-Reeder’s is hard-case in as much that it not only reinforces rangatahi–kuia bonding, but also displays the ontological chasms that exist between ngā reo Māori raua ko Ingarihi. As, for example, in the droll pedantry of English translations of Māori – ‘te heahea o te reo Pākehā’ [‘the stupidity of English’] – mocked in his story titled ‘Te Reo o Te Kuia’. ‘Incommensurability’ being the term here, whereby there will always be différence between languages/cultures, and which is where I differ a bit from Arapera Blank downplaying of te reo, in that one’s language is one’s essence.
But there are also lexical obstacle courses within te reo Māori itself, especially with regard to Waitangi Tribunal abstruseness. As in the same story, when the protagonists keep referring to the dictionary. Tongues that bind, eh.
Criticisms of this collection? There are a few rather too schmaltzy stories, where a sort of misty romanticism pervades, and which I won’t name, as for many writers these are first steps. There are also some clichéd, stereotypical scenarios sprinkled here and there. Heoi ano, kāore he raruraru.
And there are, from what I can discern, three extracts from novels (in progress), which don’t quite gel with the rest of the book: because of their very nature they do not have the compactness or endings of the short stories surrounding them. Again, no titles require noting here, because the collection is representing new writers across differing categories. Encouragement for all is my own kaupapa here.
Kia ora mō tēnei kōwhiringa – thank you for this opportunity, Anton Blank and Huia Publishers.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is currently based in the Waikato where he works as an educator. A novelist, poet and critic, in 2016 he will have books published in the UK, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Aotearoa-New Zealand. He has a PhD in existential philosophy from Auckland University.