Jessica Thompson Carr
Colouring My Soul by Kat Maxwell (Mākaro Press, 2020), 142pp, $25; Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2021), 110 pp, £11.99
In Kat Maxwell and Iona Winter we have two storytellers who draw on real experience as the source of their inspiration. Both writers share intimate perspectives drawn from their Māori culture, sharpened by their individuality as grown wāhine. While the writing styles are very different—Winter is fluid and dream-like while Maxwell has focused more on storytelling—the two works complement each other, when considered together, for their vulnerability and their mana.
In Colouring My Soul Kat Maxwell has pooled a collection of memories into a warm, nourishing pukapuka. Opening the first few pages is much like opening the lid described in her short story ‘Pot Lid’. You are immediately greeted with the scents of the rural Māori childhood your mother or koro lived. Watercress, pork bones, tall grass, marae mist. Maxwell is a storyteller who puts you at ease and guides you through heartache. Each piece of writing is a hot morsel to be gobbled up quickly before it cools.
The house is warming up now. The kids are in the kitchen watching me clean. I’m moaning my arse off but I think they’re happy I’m home. We hunt for a tea towel and end up using my father’s flannel shirt.
There are funny moments alongside mamae and sadness, the result of the writer existing as a Māori person in a Pākehā world. Maxwell is constantly at odds between two cultures: she looks after her whānau, scraping for food, yet when she visits her marae she is laughed at by the other kids for having a ‘Pākehā-educated head’.
Maxwell knows how to show real lives of real people. Take, for example, ‘Living with Nana’—an honest, funny depiction of how our elders communicate and move around the modern world, looking after their mokopuna while being looked after by their mokopuna.
In the scene where Uncle is complaining to Nana about her mokopuna staying at her house, Nana defends her baby:
We would do our shopping and I would pay her board, although it was a pittance.
‘But she cuts up all my wood,’ she told my uncle when he said that was too cheap, ‘mows the lawns, drives me wherever I want to go and keeps me company—she doesn’t have to pay anymore.’
Here we see a classic Nanny attitude, where her instinct is to give more than she receives because love overrides her response to any sign of mooching. It’s a relatable experience, that one whānau member who cut us some slack and offered more than we probably deserved in an effort to compensate for the society we grew up in. Maxwell constantly returns to this theme of aroha in whānau, of nurture and protection.
In ‘Children of the Mist’ the author tells of her encounter with patupaiarehe, our trickster spirits, often described as pale fairies:
‘Those bloody patupaiarehe,’ she says, ‘You lucky you didn’t follow them, moko. The bloody things take you in the bush and you get loss!’
Her interest in the spirit world is reflective of her upbringing between two worlds, the Pākehā and the Māori. Maxwell learns street smarts early, but walking primarily in the Pākehā world means she is not spirit smart. Had she not been extremely lucky, she could easily have been carried away by patupaiarehe. The story is spooky and fun, but also cautionary to those who ignore their surroundings or take them for granted.
At this book’s heart is the importance of remembering and speaking on the page to those who have left us. Maxwell’s words are stepping into memory but with non-linear elements faithful to the Māori experience. She tells her stories like a spider’s web, with earlier events of her childhood lashing themselves in later portions of the book while deaths and old age present themselves earlier. It is much like sitting with your own Nanny as they reflect on their life, visiting moments here and there without much order. This is how memory works, and this book is a charming reflection of how we recount and reminisce. Maxwell gives us a new spin on storytelling with her style, and while some might find this frustrating in terms of timeline and simplicity, to me it is nevertheless a comfort, as this is how many of our Māori elders speak.
While the book contains heartfelt and gentle memories, there is a harsh reality depicted in these tales that is clearly connected to colonisation: a theme Maxwell explores thoroughly but gently. There is colonisation everywhere: in the poverty, the displacement, the yearning for something better. For example, in the first story, ‘Black’, the narrator laments: ‘How come we don’t get a flash lunch like those Pākehā kids. My father’s a Pākehā. So how come?’ The story ends with her saying, ‘My brothers are crying and my soul is black.’
As a schoolkid Maxwell sees and feels the inequalities and inconsistencies in the world around her. This is the harsh reality of being Indigenous and colonised. Things are never quite right.
But the stories are also full of nuance, with grace and joy abounding in such tales as ‘My Mum’, in which the narrator has to go to school camp with a ‘sleeping-in thing’ stitched from various sheets and blankets. All the other kids have flash new sleeping bags, which puts our protagonist to shame, until she finds out their bags are useless against the cold. She realises, importantly, that her mother would never fail her, having sewn so many blankets together that she is nice and warm.
This is a nostalgic, wistful pukapuka with a richness to it that only strong whakapapa can exude. Maxwell herself noted her reasoning for her stories as: ‘I wrote some as a way of sharing memories with those that have grown up hearing about the whānau but have never met or don’t remember them, and I wrote others because they were worth writing.’ One can see how many of the tales told are a cleanse. Releasing stories around trauma and grief into the world is a powerful act, like letting go of mamae in your heart. It’s a book full of insight, a book that generously shares the Māori experience. As Maurice Gee notes, Kat Maxwell is ‘inside her world, she knows how it works’. Maxwell tells her stories from an honest place, in a way that can only be told by one who has lived what they are sharing.
Like Maxwell’s stories, Iona Winter’s come from a deeply felt real place. Gaps in the Light is a taonga for all who know love, loss and release. Inspired by nature, interpersonal relationships and Winter’s observations and experiences of the world, these stories offer a kind of fluidity. Te reo is merged with English as, line after line, we are swept away in her language. For example, in her poem ‘Mōteatea’ are the lines:
You are in me—our hands, all of our mother’s hands, are kākano-womb-seed
reminders that scratch at my belly like a ngārara tail.
The mōteatea enclosed in my chest aches to be released:
tangi te mapu / I must draw breath
Winter’s reo strengthens her narrative and fills in the empty spaces that English simply won’t serve. The poems and stories are strong and assured. One that struck me immediately is ‘Grannie’, which follows a young Violet and her relationship with the earth as well as her existence as matakite (someone who sees): ‘Wherever Violet went the birds seemed to follow her. The breath off their wings stirred at her neck hairs, wired to the breeze like coiled springs.’ Here we are caught in the moment, listening with Violet to the earth, ‘to hear the secret things that lay buried beneath Papatūānuku’. Violet is an enchanting character, and her story is told gently alongside those of her mother Rangimarie and her dying Grannie Mavis. This is a poem about legacy and connectivity. The characters represent three generations and their relationship with each other. The narrative is elegant, and each woman has her own fears and hopes. The earth plays a key role in this piece of writing as well, almost acting as a fourth character: wonderful!
We hear bird-names and times for nesting, the noise a bee makes on poppy petals as it
gathers pollen, and the scent of tī kōuka flowers at night.
Winter’s phrasing is somehow delicate and staunch at the same time. There is intimacy and fear within each poem, but one does not feel overwhelmed reading. Here, for example, are lines from ‘Natives’:
I prefer the sounds of Takaroa stroking the shore.
I prefer freedom to oppression, and honesty to half-baked truths.
I prefer to write when it is time, rather than in
regulated time slots.
This piece demonstrates how Winter is able to express steadfast ideas with tenderness. She chooses aroha over all else, but not in a wishy-washy way. Winter has a knack for laying the hard stuff out without falling victim to clichés. She is not afraid to tell her truths and does so with respect for herself, her craft and the reader. ‘Natives’ is a strong poem in particular in its refusal to stoop below itself in order to be palatable. It is a clear, powerful piece, reflective of the writer’s poetic voice.
Winter inserts deep breaths between pages and line breaks; her ideas have room to swim their way into your mind. For example, in ‘Whorls’, each line is given its own space—separated by the forward slash—granting the reader oxygen to absorb what is being said:
I think of you / and stare at whorls in the wood panelling and how they match your
disposition / all broody waves and swirling currents / like seaweed that will pull me
down if I’m not paying attention
Winter allows the reader time to take in her language and her perspective, as much of it is heavy and filled with mamae.
Gaps in the Light is dedicated to the poet’s son Reuben who suicided in September 2020. Many of the poems speak to the relationship between mother and son and the loss that has been experienced. There is an unavoidable despair in some of her lines. In ‘Mōteatea’, Winter speaks of the process of losing someone dearly loved:
I want to call you back from wherever you have gone, we’re not done yet, you didn’t give me time—but I see Papatūānuku now greets your bones.
Throughout each piece and each heartache, there remain love and affirmation. As she says in ‘Natives’: ‘I prefer to choose aroha.’ Winter depicts the process of grief and acceptance, pushing through a tsunami of emotions and ending up on new hopeful shores.
This collection is created from a raw writer’s hand, and speaks volumes to the heart.
JESSICA THOMPSON CARR is an artist born and bred in Ōtepoti. She achieved her degree in English and art history in 2017, and finished her master’s coursework in 2019 while working on her internship with Toi Māori in Ōtautahi at the Court Theatre. She is currently a full-time artist. Jessica is Ngāpuhi, Ngāruahine and Ngāti Ruanui, and explores and represents her Māori heritage through poetry, fiction, drawing, photography and painting. @maori_mermaid