The Forgotten Coast by Richard Shaw (Massey University Press, 2021), 256 pp, $35; Wai Pasifika: Indigenous ways in a changing climate by David Young (Otago University Press, 2021), 288pp, $60
Two very different books, one memoir and one non-fiction, The Forgotten Coast and Wai Pasifika: Indigenous ways in a changing climate offer an invitation to look closely at the world we live in—to listen and learn, to understand and re-remember.
The Forgotten Coast by Richard Shaw is a new addition to Massey University Press’ short memoir series. Shaw is Professor of Politics at Massey University, and his memoir looks to fill in the gaps of his own forgotten story. In part, it is an attempt to personally respond to Rachel Buchanan’s The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget, in which she asks:
What stories do your dead tell you? How do you see your past?
Like Buchanan’s, this book is an exploration and a reminder:
Forgetting is rarely innocent. People have to work hard not to know, not to recall, not to see, to be truly ignorant.
Forgetting, or the act of not remembering, is a theme that threads through the book. We are reminded by Shaw, time and again, of how much Pākehā history is created by forgetting, and of his own forgetting; ‘How much effort did it take to not know?’ and ‘… how deeply ingrained this forgetting has become,’ he tells us.
The attraction of ‘moving on’—i.e. of forgetting—lies not in what is lost … but in what is gained by doing so.
The reader is quickly introduced to the main characters: Shaw’s father, Bob, who spent much of his childhood in the Masterton Methodist Children’s Home; his great uncle Richard (Dick) Thomas Gilhooly, a Catholic priest who travelled from Taranaki to Rome; and Dick’s father (Shaw’s great grandfather), Andrew Gilhooly, an immigrant from Ireland, ‘who was part of the armed forces that invaded Parihaka in early November 1881 and who was, later, a farmer on the “great knuckle” of land that had been confiscated from Māori …’
There are no surprise endings. The book opens with the death of Shaw’s father, a man whose emotional language was ‘built on silence as much as on words’. Bob’s death was an event that ‘… dragged to the surface a process of reflection and introspection …’ Instead, there is the sensation of discovering Shaw’s story alongside him, and his reactions to it.
Much of the memoir is based in Pungarehu in Taranaki, where, Shaw learns, his family have connections to the terrible events that took place in Parihaka on November 5th, 1881. He discovers that some of his family’s farms—and where Shaw’s Uncle Dick grew up—was land that had been set aside by the state for Māori. Shaw is fascinated by his Uncle Dick and with good reason: as a young man he was a talented academic; he travelled to Rome in his early twenties and completed a Doctorate of Divinity in two years instead of the usual four. Dick’s plans to continue his academic studies were waylaid by his diagnosis of tuberculosis, and he returned to New Zealand where the rest of his life was lived out in service to the Catholic Church.
It is only towards the end of the book that Shaw leaves Taranaki and returns to his father’s story, the emotional heart of the memoir. There is a tenderness here, as Shaw comes to terms with their relationship and his father’s death following complications from routine heart surgery in 2012a growing understanding of his father who ‘… was always there. He woke us in the mornings, did our dishes every night, washed our hair…made our lunches every day.’
This is straightforward and honest writing. Shaw questions his own motives and responses as he writes. There are small details scattered throughout that bring his family to life, their faults and strengths. Here, we learn of his grandfather:
Hugh may not have been an enthusiastic farmer but he could dance; in 1919 he and a Miss M. Gibson won the waltzing competition during a night out at the Pungarehu Town Hall.
Shaw is clearly an avid reader, allowing words from other writers beyond the aforementioned Buchanan. He also engages Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel and Tim Winton, to help examine and convey his own feelings. Chapter titles have been well chosen, particularly towards the end as Shaw searches for understanding, and acknowledges the benefits that he and his family have received from the land they came to own. In ‘Reckoning,’ he writes:
This history cannot be peeled off and put aside. Now that I know it, it cannot be unknown.
And in ‘Telling Stories’ he looks closely at the relationship between the individual and the whole:
And the more I learn, the more I realise that colonisation, land alienation and the suppression of te ao Māori are not just the defining issues of this country, they are also central to my own history.
Perhaps most telling of all is that this history is as alive today as it was in 1881. As Emma Espiner notes in a passage quoted by Shaw, land owned by Māori ‘is still held under perpetually renewable leases and so is not available for the use of occupation of the land’s owners’.
While The Forgotten Coast is a very personal story, Wai Pasifika is an examination of fresh water across the Pacific. It is written by a non-Indigenous author and explores, as the subtitle says, ‘Indigenous ways in a changing climate.’
Young makes his intentions clear from the beginning:
This book is, then, an exploration of the indigenous [sic] reflections and uses of water from the perspective of an Aotearoa New Zealand Pākehā … [a book that] … grew into an attempt to convey the cultural sacredness of water to a world that has, for the most part—and to its peril—turned its back on such thinking.
Importantly, Young states:
It is not about becoming Māori, or of any other indigenous [sic] culture.
It has been written predominantly for the non-Indigenous reader—an invitation to step away from a European perspective and to learn.
There is no doubt that Young has a deep connection to place—in particular to his home of Aotearoa—and to water. He has been writing about water since his first book, Faces of the River, in 1986. There is a deep respect here and a sense that he has gained much from his learning over the years.
Young uses a mix of science—‘myth and legend and hydrological and ecological science’—and the personal to tell his story, with his observations adding to the sensation of being a part of nature:
To brush beneath the skirts of the Californian coastal redwood … is to enter an inviting private room. Its roots have pushed up a deep cushion of humus, needles and strips of bark shed around the base of the trunk. This affords a magnetic place to be seated, inside the halo of one of the earth’s great species, born out of deep time.
Young takes us from Aotearoa to Australia, from Hawai`i to Rapanui Easter Island, to the Pacific Northwest and the islands of Sāmoa, Niue and Kiribati, examining how Indigenous cultures have lived alongside the natural world for hundreds of years. He looks at the commonalities in their approaches and how communities have survived in times of hardship, be this from the impact of climate or from colonisation.
And while many of the voices within the book are Indigenous, they are out-numbered by the non-Indigenous. These colonising voices are not always held up as truth. They are often used to portray how understanding and knowledge was and is lacking, such as the drinking of salt water by the Indigenous people of Rapanui that was incorrectly reported by Captain Alexander Adams, who sailed to Rapanui on the Kaahumana.
Some of the book was written while Young was living in Hawai`i while on the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency, and this is reflected in what Young describes as ‘the heart of the book’, a lengthy section on Hawai`i–Aotearoa connection and contrasts: ‘water’s lack of universal availability in one and its plentiful aspect in the other’. Here Young delves deeper into Indigenous myths to illustrate the connection to water and place:
‘Gods’ has been a widely used European term for the whakapapa-based entities whose embodiment in the natural world encompasses so much more of the subtleties of Polynesian spirituality than personification, or energies out of the cosmological and natural world, than a single English word can ever describe.
The book is not a light read but the knowledge and understanding gained is worth the perseverance through some of the weightier chapters. Stunning photography by Aliscia Young and Richard Sidey is interspersed throughout, a visual reminder of the wonder of nature.
And overall the book is one of hope. Young tells of the restoration of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens at Limahuli, Kaua`i, using traditional ways.
Today Limahuli has become a beacon for a renaissance in indigenous resource management, restoration and regeneration of both the natural and the cultural: of education, outreach and hope.
There is a challenge here for Aotearoa as to how the country will proceed in its future care of fresh water. Jacinta Ruru, Māori legal academic, states:
If we want the best environmental outcomes and solutions for our country going forward, and we have some big issues confronting us, we need to be looking to Māori communities to help [develop] the solutions that we are going to devise.
In both books, there is recognition that change by Pākehā is needed—an understanding that the re-remembering and the re-learning are all part of the same picture. As Young states:
If there was ever a time to listen, it must be now.
RACHEL SMITH writes prose and poetry in Aotearoa New Zealand. She has been widely published in journals and anthologies including Landfall, Best Small Fictions 2020 and Best Microfiction 2019. She was a recipient of the NZSA Complete MS Manuscript assessment in 2021 and her book reviews have appeared in takahē and Landfall Review Online. She is an editor at Flash Frontier.