Robyn Maree Pickens
Tauhou by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 168pp, $30
If one is tauhou, a stranger, and partially estranged from her cultures by invasion, colonisation and systemic racism, then it follows that the search for a state approaching wholeness would necessarily entail fragments, a need for structural rafters to attach key words to, and the loosest of stitching to assemble a workable whakapapa. The whakapapa Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Coast Salish) loosely stitches is ambitious in scope as she works to bring two Indigenous cultures, Māori and Coastal Salish—from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean—together. Nuttall begins with a geographical repositioning in which Vancouver Island off the coast of Turtle Island (Canada) in the northern Pacific Ocean and Aotearoa in the south Pacific Ocean become fictional oceanic neighbours. They are mother and daughter: ‘They lie side by side. Mother wraps herself ever so slightly around Daughter’.
This mother-daughter embrace between islands serves as a literal ground for the human figures of mothers and daughters iterated and animated throughout Tauhou in vignettes of varying lengths. Early on, Hīnau learns from Salal that they are cousins who share the same grandmother, SILE. Rather than focus on one or both of these characters, Nuttall populates Tauhou with multiple mothers and daughters, some of whom have female lovers. In section two, we briefly encounter Salal’s girlfriend, Alba, as the two prepare to host a dinner party. Cedar, a successful artist, and her girlfriend and artist’s model Star follow. Cedar’s mother, Arbutus, is mentioned briefly before the narrative returns to Salal. In what is an establishing pattern repeated throughout, Cedar, Star and Arbutus are not defined in terms of whakapapa to Salal or Hīnau.
The third section of Tauhou introduces Nīkau, her girlfriend Ilse, and Nīkau’s unnamed aunt, who has passed away. In between these three, and Mahuika and her unnamed mother, is Pūhā, who contemplates gender, sexuality and whether or not to become a mother. Finally, in the fourth and final section, there is an expansive ‘I’ that could potentially refer to either Hīnau or Salal as whichever one addresses their mutual grandmother SILE, whose female lover was Kui. The introductory text describes each chapter as ‘a fable, an autobiographical memory, a poem,’ while the use of individuated characters to examine aspects of a single self is a familiar trope in literature and cinema. As if in confirmation of this prefacing text, towards the end of the book, in a poetic sequence, Nuttall writes:
and we fall from the top of the mountain
to the earth and sea below
as drops of rain
falling in hundreds of thousands
So, on one hand, Tauhou conveys a sense of myriad facets of self—there’s a self who experiences gender dysphoria as Pūhā, there’s a self who experiences depression, anxiety and body shame as Cedar, and there’s the self who is involved with the process of exploring cultural practices as Hīnau. Each of these characters presents as Indigenous, lesbian/queer, and estranged from her cultures, but nevertheless reaching out towards them. On the other hand, each character operates in a particular lifeworld and displays other distinct personality traits that make each unique in some way. As a reader, who perhaps could have surrendered to the many voices with more grace, I frequently found myself asking, ‘Who is this?’, ‘Where are we?’, ‘How does that character relate?’, ‘Are those Salal’s parents?’ Perhaps this was a perfect response: I am a stranger reading about estrangement. I, too, was having the very removed experience of trying to piece together who is family, who is who, and how someone is related to someone else. The fragments, the unnamed characters and the undefined relations provoked me to continually ask questions and join what could not easily be joined. Perhaps this was mahi I, as a stranger, was required to do to be accepted as a ‘reader’.
I wondered, too, at the cosmological and philosophical implications of time for the reader. For example, a character called Miro is introduced under the rafter heading MOKO. Five pages later, the reader learns that she is Hīnau’s mother. Is she in the past or the future? And according to whose cultural framework? From this same first section, prior to MOKO, I have written in my notes, ‘Who is this “we”?’ I think the ‘we’ might be Salal’s family. For the next three chapters, I have written ‘Salal?’ Part of me accepts and believes the fractured self who seeks a form of wholeness. Part of me wants a less innovative narrative: a self or selves I can place in relation to each other so that I know who is making this journey; who is climbing the large mountain? Some characters are bone-thin, meagre, almost diaphanous, and I want to be able to grasp their full-bodied reality. Others appear fully fleshed out, yet I remain puzzled and want to know more about them, their whakapapa, and whether they know the characters lying either side of them.
As a novelistic construction, intent on immersing me in its world, Tauhou seems to be structured by seasons derived from the Coast Salish calendar, with four sections titled: Cold Earth, Earth Cooling Down, Hot Earth and Earth Born Again. Matariki has not long risen as I write this and I attune to Tauhou’s declaration of life or a new cycle beginning in the Cold Earth, in winter. Yet winter is not followed by Earth Born Again, as the cycle progresses, but turns back to Autumn, to Earth Cooling Down. The cyclical sequencing itself has been interrupted. I go back to search for more clues. The first two sections seem to take place on Vancouver Island, the third in Aotearoa, and the fourth on both islands. Partly it’s a transition between hemispheres and, therefore, seasons are upside-down. But, without knowing exactly who is who and in relation to each other, I can’t map the significance of this non-cyclical trajectory. Perhaps it is not mine to map. But I can glean that the end narrates the beginning of the journey that led to the characters’ twin identities: so, there is a circularity to the process of telling.
The young me, who yearned to live in a matriarchal culture and specifically a lesbian commune, revels in the mana of wahine toa of Tauhou. All the main characters are women who embody the expansiveness of that category, and they question limitations imposed on gender expression (most explicitly in the case of Pūhā). The dinner party Salal and Alba host turns out to be a memorable set piece of social interaction. It is, at once, replete with anxiety (which turns out to be intergenerational trauma for Salal), indecision (expressed by Salal), and decisiveness (expressed by Alba). And all the preparation and cooking, and the evocation of the party itself, is alive and deftly conveyed. Towards the book’s end, Kui is able to see in the face of an undetermined ‘I’ the face of her young lover and the book’s matriarch, SILE—a rare literary acknowledgment of elder queer love sustained despite separation.
Nuttall’s understanding of time in mātauranga Māori, whereby ‘ancestors are ever present, existing both within the spiritual realm and in the physical, alongside the living as well as within the living’, enables her characters to converse with one another in different combinations of spiritual and physical existence, with and within the living. For Salal, Mahuika and ‘I’, a blue line, or light, or haze, signals an encounter with ancestors, and in the case of the latter, an ancestor who is also self:
I bring it [the cranium of a skull] up to my own and see the curve and fall of my own shaved head.
The teeth are wonky and have an overbite, just like my own before I got braces. I turn
over my skull in my hands; I look through the eyeholes at my wife. The world is a blue haze through them.
To borrow the eloquent ‘void’ of the cranium’s/speaker’s eyeholes: perhaps it is precisely the apparent absences and gaps between the book’s characters and the non-cyclical trajectory that evokes the trauma of colonisation more powerfully than an overview of residential school atrocities and fallen longhouse pou might. Perhaps an Olga Tokarczuk-style tome called ‘The Books of SILE’, with all its detail and connectivity, would be an unwelcome glut. Because, sometimes, all that is needed to construct an entire world is one photograph.
ROBYN MAREE PICKENS is a queer Pākehā art writer and poet who lives in Ōtepoti. Her first poetry collection, tung, was published by Otago University Press in 2023.
Lesley Rameka, ‘Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua: “I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past”’, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17:4 (2016)