Beats of the Pa’u by Maria Samuela (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 152pp, $30; Peninsula by Sharron Came (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 256pp, $30
Maria Samuela, of Cook Islands descent, has an MA from the IIML, and her work has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize. Beats of the Pa’u is her debut collection, told via a community of first and second generation Cook Islands New Zealanders, from the 1950s through to the present day.
From start to finish, Beats of the Pa’u provides multiple points of view within its stories, often correlating in central themes, such as grief, immigration, and love. The clever use of shifting focus between protagonists also links us to another generation’s experiential history. With apparent ease, these stories straddle worlds of religion, shame, compliance, tradition, and how younger generations often strive to embrace alternate identities. Samuela excels at showing lived experience and, with an intimate knowledge of her culture underpinning each story, she draws us in whilst also evoking compassion and laughter.
In a story titled ‘The Promotion’, the protagonist, Kura, observes his father’s family eating. ‘The white meat sucked from the wishbone to be pried apart later for empty dreams’ is both a poignant image and a striking metaphor for the downside of immigration. Then, by layering another point of view, we are shown how Kura’s father understands his own immigration to Aotearoa, ‘cousins back home had warned him about the weather, but he hadn’t believed them and wasn’t prepared’. We’re in the realm of realism, not fantasy.
Samuela masterfully explores ritual and connection with loved ones in a story called ‘Sisters’. The central character, a young woman, greets her extended family for what appears to be a birthday celebration. And it’s not until halfway into the story that it becomes clear to us that her mother has died; some aspects of life seem to go on as normal, making the story somewhat disconcerting. The reader is instantly transported to their whare—‘heaving with over-earnest singing’—and feels the recognisable and authentic tug of grief, despite being lovingly held by those around them. The story is intricately woven within the nuances of womanhood, aroha, and the special memories that are both shared and withheld during a grief process.
In contrast with death is new life in the title story, which explores ideas of religion and shame. Terepai, one of our protagonists, feels compelled to block a repetition of her past, ‘Once he’s deported, my daughter, I expect, will never see him again. I have saved her from a life of unnecessary heartbreak’. Samuela explores the relationship between mother and daughter through a difficult lens of pregnancy outside the traditional conventions of marriage and against a backdrop of immigration and belonging. There is new life, but it’s never without complications.
There are many memorable moments in this collection, with stand-out lines that seem to contain whole histories of colonial baggage. In ‘Love Rules for Island Boys’, Samuela has one character say to another: ‘you don’t actually know if they belong to a country club, but one racist stereotype deserves another’. Here Samuela calls out racism and speaks to the assumptions we are all capable of making and how they relate solely to what is seen on the surface. There are innumerable points for readers to ponder contained within this collection.
‘Ugly’ provides a portrait of a girl who is subjected to repeated experiences of shame within her school environment. Our attention is called to the hatred children can mete out, relating again to what is superficial but also to how tamariki are influenced by their parents’ beliefs. ‘Are you deaf and stupid as well as ugly? I heard your dad is dead, eh. My dad said. He used to work with him. He said your dad was useless. He probably deserved to die. Is he the ghost that pisses in your porridge.’ Samuela uses an element of fantasy in this story, providing the protagonist with some respite from these traumatic situations while contrasting the gritty realism of everyday bullying and racism.
Samuela’s exploration of difficult subject matter remained with me long after reading this book. Through the sharing of uncomfortable human experiences comes a power to connect with others, but only if we choose to look beyond our preconceived assumptions. Beats of the Pa’u is a powerful debut collection that reveals the strength of combined voices with precision.
Sharron Came works as an energy analyst in Wellington. She also has an MA from the IIML and won the 2021 Adam Foundation Prize for Peninsula, her first book.
Like Samuela’s short stories, Came’s book also explores intergenerational relationships but transports us to a Northland farming community. Made up of ten interwoven stories, Peninsula is about a community in the throes of change. There are hints of deep connectivity within each story, and brief glimpses of historical events, and their impact on individual characters throughout the collection, are enough to leave you curious.
The book is deeply concerned with the environment and our irreversible human impacts. In ‘Anniversary’, we meet Ritchie, who returns to Northland from elsewhere and reflects on kauri dieback. The disease, now rampant in many parts of Te Tai Tokerau, might also be seen as a metaphor for relationships: ‘Typical, people don’t value things til they’re nearly gone’, says Ritchie. Rachel, in the title story, also speaks to ‘the vulnerability of ecosystems’, witnessed while she is out jogging on a visit home; ‘the evidence is everywhere if you care to pay attention’, the author observes.
Came, via protagonists who are reflecting on ageing bodies, shows us the unsettling space that reflection can create when we are forced through ill-health or visits home to pause. In ‘Hospital’, the central character, Di, considers the selection of wall colour in hospital wards, touted as calming but akin to the way animals are killed: ‘Relax them with a familiar place, then bang’, she thinks. It seems that when something living has passed its use-by-date, we often attempt to create a softer ending for them, and ourselves, to reduce the emotionality attached to an impending and expected death.
‘Tramp’ reminded me of my own childhood in West Auckland, where a favourite pastime of the characters in this story was to ‘gather up the dead nīkau bulbs, use them to hoon downhill’. This story offers elements of nostalgia, adding to the layers of interconnectivity within the collection. In the story ‘Survivor’, for example, the youngest protagonist, Ellen, is less concerned about past times than she is with the changing climate. She reflects: ‘it’s easy to see the signs, to tell people what to do, harder to get them to do it’. I was left with a lingering sense of the futility that younger generations now face due to the environmental mess they’ve inherited. Came provokes this feeling by addressing change directly through the eyes of her protagonists, providing an array of opinions and justifications, while deftly considering their fear. Throughout the collection, this motif of fear is underscored by the unique responses to an irreversibly changed environment, where that environment refers not only to that of nature but also the complicated interpersonal relationships present in our lives.
As landscape coexists with humanity, the author, through an evocative use of language, engages our senses in the way sweet peas climb together up their lattice, turning back towards each other, spreading and weaving. A network of intimacy and growth’. I could literally smell the soil on my hands, silage in the air, and dust from the road in each of these captivating stories. Peninsula provides glimpses into a rural community as it expands and contracts amidst change. Came is skilled at the ‘less is more’ analogy, and the collection and characters contained within leaves a door cast wide open for further exploration.
The diversity of voice, point of view and landscape resonated with me in both Beats of the Pa’u and Peninsula, as did the juxtaposition of the young and old voices that coexist within the stories. Each interpersonal relationship is authentically conveyed with keen observational skills by the authors. Whilst differing completely in terms of cultural paradigms, Samuela and Came both lend words to experiences with which we are both familiar and uncomfortable. It has been said that a vital component to writing successful short form fiction is to leave the reader wanting more, and it was satisfying to see both collections achieve this in refined and subtle ways.
IONA WINTER writes in hybrid forms. She is the author of three collections: Gaps in the Light (2021), Te Hau Kāika (2019), then the wind came (2018) and has recently completed her fourth. Widely published and anthologised internationally, Iona is the 2022 recipient of the CLNZ/NZSA Writers’ Award for her personal essay project A Counter of Moons.