Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka (Huia, 2021), 350pp, $35
Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Tumatawera, Tainui, Pākehā) holds an MA in Creative Writing from the IIML. A screenwriter, novelist, playwright, barrister and solicitor, she has been shortlisted and won awards for both her scriptwriting and her three novels: The Graphologist’s Apprentice (2010), Bugs (2013) and Legacy (2018). And now we have Kurangaituku, shortlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in 2022. E hika, this wahine is consistent! In addition, I think it’s fair to say (and widely publicised) that Hereaka is also a whizz at creating captivating bird-woman attire for book launches.
Ki te whaiao, ki te ao mārama.
I began with the darkness, as is my nature, knowing it would inevitably end in the light.
One part of the novel begins with death and descent, the other with love and expansion, yet both coexist and are bookended with the retelling of the traditional story of Hatupatu and the bird-woman. In the journey alongside Kurangaituku, we embark on a cyclic and rhythmic breath towards life, death and rebirth. From the outset, love and loss are adroitly held in the palm of Hereaka, as is separation and the liminality of transitional experiences. While such experiences may be seen as abstract to an outsider, they shape an internalised texture that makes complete sense to the person in liminal space, as the following excerpt beautifully exemplifies:
Stories, stories, stories. They twist under and over each other—stories within stories, until a pattern finally emerges, an abstract representation of a life. Geometric and symmetrical, it soothes and pleases.
Layered between worlds, Kurangaituku is told with a timelessness that is palpable. Spoken in the first person, we are drawn directly into relationship with Kurangaituku, the bird-woman, ogress and monster. Hereaka weaves her into form by way of voice on the page and thus redefines this mute creature in opposition to the traditional telling. It mirrors how we humans are called into being—in a variety of shapes throughout our lifetimes—and the ways in which we are seen, labelled and defined by others who do not share our lived experience.
But nobody can truly know our experiences unless they can find ways to inhabit us, which is the picture Hereaka is presenting to us here. It is evident that Hereaka has taken her time, to align with Kurangaituku without habitation, respectfully and without transgressing boundaries. There is sensitivity to the voicing of the story, and it is one that encourages the reader to embark on a similar journey with some serious self-reflection.
Unlike the story that features in my pōua’s A.H. and A.W. Reed volume of Myths and Legends of Māoriland (1946), try as I might, I was unable to see Kurangaituku as a monster, but rather a product of those who shaped, abused, controlled and denied her. Hereaka shows us that the essence of love will continue to propel us forward, even in the face of unfathomable pain. I admire how Hereaka has blended worlds—the ancient and the present, —and her languaging of this acts as a bridge that is masterfully paved.
Years ago, I was blessed to wānaka with the late tohuka Papa Hohepa Delamere. Over many years, he and his crew taught me a great deal about mixing up the senses: listening with our internal ears, seeing with our tongues, tasting with our noses and a myriad of other combinations. All of these extended me beyond the present realm, beyond the words on a page and beyond what is heard or observed.
In reading Kurangaituku, I was transported to the place where there are many ways to listen, speak, comprehend and traverse the physical realms into the unseen. This also reminded me of the ways trauma survivors can communicate without words and that those who share this experience speak another language—we’re able to pick one another out in a crowd and so are no longer alone, and neither is Kurangaituku. The sexual violence component of the novel accurately addresses shame and negative self-imaging, and resonated with my previous work in the trauma and violence field. Hereaka invites us to listen to the hum of Te Kore, the hum of recognition, and the many ways we see ourselves reflected in one another.
Am I a mirror to you? Do you see yourself reflected in my eyes?
Fluidity of gender, sexuality and passion is expertly crafted. Many of us are fluid rather than stagnant in our orientation, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not, and exist on a continuum. Kurangaituku gave me hope, in that this novel may be a beacon for those who do not seek a definition but instead wish to see the self reflected in another, in the hope that some self-acceptance might be realised.
Furthermore, I found the stories from the ‘Song Makers’ section of the book, aka humans, easily translatable into our current climate of a global pandemic and another war. We continue to struggle with labelling and othering those who are not the same as us—how easily we can cast judgements and attempt to control anyone or anything that appears foreign or threatening, even a virus. If I take this a step further, Kurangaituku links me to our present world, and our relationships with truth, lack of truth and the over-provision of truth, as shown through oppositional lenses.
The tūī sings a different song to that of the kākā. But both sing the truth.
Hereaka illustrates the nuances within subjectivity—alongside the complexities when we love unconditionally—and the subsequent mamae that occurs with a betrayal. And while it is said that the underworld is devoid of light … is it? Surely, as with Kurangaituku, we can still see with our eyes shut:
The negative shapes the positive.
Similarly, Hatupatu is portrayed—in the book and the legend—as a survivor of neglect, abuse and torment. And while he is an indulged, envied and scorned pōtiki, who ‘ … manipulated every situation, every person, to suit himself,’ surely he is worthy of our compassion too. He clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of sibling rivalry, greed and control—and does this serve as another reminder?
Kurangaituku’s story tells us that destruction and creation must be allowed to coexist.
Cuckoo he was, yet I welcomed him into my nest.
As with the symbiotic relationship of the riroriro and pīpīwharauroa, the dark cannot exist without the light.
The bird-woman descends and ascends, as with all good mythology, through realms of war, sadness, love and peace. She faces revenge and release, power and control, powerlessness and vulnerability, challenging us to see that we are all flawed—even the Gods and Goddesses, because with freedom comes an awareness of that which we have been blinded to. Beauty and horror often cohabit in environments where we feel trapped, but we also can take ourselves elsewhere and inhabit multiple worlds.
The laws of earth are difficult to forget, even in places where they do not apply.
Throughout the novel, I was reminded of the process of raraka and how the harakeke holds at its base the rokoā—a gel to soothe all wounds. Kurangaituku has medicine for us, should we choose to see, hear, taste, touch and smell it. And it is powerful. Hereaka has lovingly gifted us insight into the heart of another, and for that I am grateful.
He ta kākaho e kitea,
He ta ngākau, e kore e kitea.
A bend in a reed may be seen,
A bend in the heart cannot.
While the kererū does not announce its presence with song, the air is filled with the vibration of their wings. Kurangaituku vibrates eloquently through the hands of Hereaka, a most masterful weaver. Standing firmly in her mamae and aroha, Kurangaituku illustrates the spaces we inhabit when grieving—as above, so below.
The light that is me, must inevitably arc into darkness.
NB: Te reo Māori words in southern dialect: rokoā—rongoā; wānaka—wānanga; raraka—raranga; tohuka—tohunga.
IONA WINTER writes in hybrid forms and is poetry editor for the Otago Daily Times. The author of three collections—Gaps in the Light (2021), Te Hau Kāika (2019) and then the wind came (2018)—she is widely published and anthologised internationally. Iona has a Masters in Creative Writing (AUT) and her recently completed fourth collection addresses the complexities of being suicide bereaved.