A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha: An anthology of new writing for a changed world edited by Witi Ihimaera and Michelle Elvy (Massey University Press, 2023), 359pp, $39.99
Skip back three years or so to when the world was beginning to understand what the COVID-19 pandemic would be. It’s here that writers and editors Witi Ihimaera and Michelle Elvy began to consider the project that would become A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha. This book is not a pandemic anthology. It encompasses much more, taking the reader to places before, after and through this time, and many voices from Aotearoa and abroad tell stories of who we were and are, and of the challenges that have long been with us—decolonisation, indigeneity, climate change.
From the opening, we are placed firmly in Aotearoa. This whare pukapuka is a whakaruru-taha: ‘a warm and cosy haven away from the winds and cold’, inside which are gathered ‘76 creative thinkers—poets and fiction writers, anthropologists and biologists, musicians and visual artists, and more.’ An expectation is set as to what we might encounter and feel; ‘In dialogues across space and time we look from Aotearoa New Zealand outward to the world’, to voices from across the globe ‘that explore identity and change, motherhood and healing, war and legacy, ancestry and shared history, art and music and the natural world’, from writers who write in te reo Māori, English, Mandarin, Arabic, Greek or Cantonese.
The eminent writers in the anthology are an incredible lineup: there are current and former poet laureates Chris Tse, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Cilla McQueen, Vincent O’Sullivan, Ian Wedde and David Eggleton; there’s fiction by Tina Makereti, Emma Neale, Wendy Parkins, Whiti Hereaka, Patricia Grace and Erik Kennedy; there’s creative non-fiction by Alison Wong, Renee Liang, Sonya Wilson, Linda Matisoo-Smith; and there’s kōrero between the likes of Aparecida Vilaça, Dame Anne Salmond and Witi Ihimaera, and Ru Freeman and Paula Morris.
Visual art from eight artists, including Yuki Kihara, Oliver Jeffers and Maureen Lander, collectively entitled ‘We are the Custodians’, ‘provides equally powerful ways of seeing, feeling, thinking’ and speaks of ‘What we take with us, what we leave behind, what we will lose if we continue to ignore Papatūānuku’s warning.’
The book is divided into three parts: first, ‘The sheltered curving side of Papatūānuku’; second, ‘From inside the cave’; and third, ‘Stepping out into the world before us’. Both editors have worked on similar weighty anthologies (Ihimaera’s Black Marks on A White Page with Tina Makereti and Elvy’s Ko Aotearoa Tātou We Are New Zealand with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe), and you can feel the steadiness of their hands as the book progresses. Careful editing, combined with phases of te marama marking each piece, sees a current running through the three parts and the book as a whole: gentleness and safety in part one, exploration of ideas and form in part two, and in part three looking ahead in hope and honesty.
The anthology opens with Nina Mingya Powles’ ‘Woven Triptych’;
is the night work
This gentle thread is continued throughout this section of the anthology with Kiri Piahana-Wong’s ‘Ka mua, ka muri’ capturing moments, everyday and eventful, of her whānau and whakapapa, and in ‘Hazel Avenue’ by Faisal Halabi, which looks to his experiences as an immigrant to Aotearoa, of the uncertain times we live in now, and how we can move forward despite divided views and ways of seeing the world—‘As New Zealand looks to the future, the tools for responding to today’s uncertainties are in finding and building on the common ground we do have, rather than giving power to that which we don’t.’ Part One ends as gently as it began with ‘Our house at Staytrue Bay’ by Hinemoana Baker:
It’s always a risk, bringing old
luggage into new quarters.
Opening it wide in the still
air of your home as if it won’t speak.
As if there’s nothing inside but stars.
In Part Two, ‘Every grain is careful labour’ by Renee Liang is filled with prose that lingers; ‘He’s passed his mouth memories on to me’ and ‘If words are seeds, language is an ecosystem, reflecting a collective history.’ The variety of voices means each piece holds a surprise: Essa Ranapiri and Michelle Rahurahu’s ‘Ram Raid’ is fierce and unapologetic; ram raids as not told by the media (if there were space, I would quote the entirety of this wonderful breathless poem); Alice Te Punga Somerville’s ‘Holding the line’ asks how we can find our way to a more just and equitable future, and like all excellent creative non-fiction offers a glimpse of an answer—‘What if the lines we hold when we are ‘holding the line’ go in all directions and can stitch together, catch giant fish and keep people and environments safe?’ There is lightness in the dark satire of ‘Dangeropportunity on the Lake’ by Anne Kennedy, poetry on climate change, politics and the state of the world, set to the refrain of The Muppets.
da-da-da-da, it’s time to stop being leftpolite.
It’s time to rush through the aperture
the last cat door, can you tell me how to get to
and in ‘Come and see it all the way from town’ by Laura Jean McKay, where rocks have voices that can be heard in the quiet of a rural farm where a family is learning how to listen; ‘We didn’t talk, we stayed quiet. Collected repeated rock words like we once collected riverstones.’
The honesty of the last section of the anthology, as we step out of the whakaruru-taha and into the future, is not without its darkness, opening with ‘Before Dawn’ by Victor Billot.
The gates of Paradise are sealed. Just the maw
of arriving dawn remains, as a strange
and terrible day unfolds into being,
to make us what we must become.
Within this, there is also hope for the future; in Emma Espiner’s ‘On parenting during the zombie apocalypse’, ‘We drove into the twinkling city and sat in a room full of rangatahi Māori imagining indigenous futures for Aotearoa. She took it all in, took it for granted, knew it was all for her’ and ‘One metre’ by Emma Barnes, named in reference to the prescribed safe distance between bodies during the pandemic, ‘It is as I thought all along: we are both threats and promises.’ The ending circles back to the softness of the anthology’s opening, with ‘Attend’ by Vincent O’Sullivan.
broad enough to reflect the sky.
The past bobs along like fists of pumice
on the Waikato upstream from the Leamington
bridge. All because—no, truly—listening
The sections of kōrero are where the anthology is most inventive and creative. These kōrero allow for meetings of minds through conversation, art, music, prose and poetry, each kōrero approaching this interaction quite differently.
‘Looking for boas in the mangroves’ by Ashley Johnson (a visual artist originally from South Africa and now living in Canada) and Pip Adam (New Zealand fiction writer) is ‘a conversation between essay and fiction’; the kōrero is developed through alternating prose from each writer to ‘explore the symbiotic relationship between humanity and the environment.’ It opens with Johnson’s discussion on mangrove ecosystems and the challenge of being an artist within a capitalist construct—‘The mangrove swamp is a metaphor and a lesson for our own survival in a society that has grown increasingly brackish.’ Adam’s response speaks of a future where ‘the plants and animals and all the non-human things gently loosen our grip and take the planet from us’, a new world of benefit to all. ‘And we are fine. Better than we have ever been, but our words are breaking down because we are living beyond them now.’
In ‘Break the calabash / discover and rejoice’, José-Luis Novo (a musician from Spain) and Ruby Solly (New Zealand musician, writer, taonga pūoro practitioner) encourage the reader ‘to listen to the music that underlines the written word and the greater world around us’ with music chosen in response to words. From Novo, ‘Each time we play the music of a composer, or listen to poetry, we are tuning into another voice—something outside ourselves, reaching out to us.’
By the end of the anthology, there are some ideas, if not quite answers, to the question posed at the beginning by Ihimaera and Elvy: ‘What is this world we live in, and where is it heading?’ From ‘We are family’ by Lisa Matisoo-Smith: ‘Perhaps now, before we all rush to ‘get back to normal’, we can look back and learn from the past—from the past few years and the past 200,000 years’. From Craig Santos Perez in ‘Our human and more-than-human world’: ‘a ‘better place’ is a place that feels like belonging. And to belong to a place means to learn, love, respect and care for the deep stories, ecologies and peoples of that place’. From Alison Wong in ‘A long walk’: ‘What is our path? American theologian Robert McAfee Brown posited that where we stand determines what we see. If we stand in only one place, we have only one vision. We need roots, the security of a sense of ourselves, and a celebration of our identities, heritages and cultures. But these identities and cultures are not static. We remember and honour. We adapt and undergo transformation.’
Each work paints a picture of what our collective future could be, a culmination of ways in which we can look ahead, moving towards the editors’ premise that: ‘we must keep asking questions to examine what we know and do not know; we must keep asking questions as we move, out of the shelter, forward towards tomorrow.’ And in this, the anthology is inspiring.
As Whiti Hereaka says in ‘Ngā Rārangi’:
It’s funny to think that
people navigated to their future by the light of the past.
Kinda comforting, really.
RACHEL SMITH writes prose and poetry in Ōtautahi, Aotearoa New Zealand. She has been published in journals and anthologies, including Landfall, Best Small Fictions 2020 and Best Microfiction 2019. Her book reviews have appeared in takahē and Landfall Online Review. She is an editor at Flash Frontier.