Two greats of New Zealand, and particularly Maori, literature – Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace (right) – sat down for a chat in front of a nearly full St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday. Both are well known for their work being written from and expressing a Maori world view, so it was interesting to see that Ihimaera’s first question was about Grace’s Irish background, and why she hadn’t written a lot from that point of view. As it turns out, she had written a few from that point of view, especially early on in her career, but no one seemed particularly interested in publishing them. It wasn’t until she started writing from the Maori point of view that her writing career came to fruition – curious, since both Ihimaera and Grace encountered resistance from publishers regarding publishing their Maori-focused work. Perhaps this was more because the Maori point of view made up a larger part of her ‘voice’.
Grace talked about the impact of Frank Sargeson’s work early on in her career, and how she could hear ‘that Kiwi voice’ in his stories and then realising that writing came from within and that it was about finding one’s own voice. She was also aware that, in writing the Maori existence, she was writing about people that at that time had never been written about before. An interesting point to note was that one of the main themes in her work was the importance of land, and the fact that many of her (Pakeha?) readers may not have realised that land issues were part of everyday Maori life. This struck a chord with me – every life has details in it that are perfectly ordinary to the person living it, but are totally foreign to others, and often that ordinary/extraordinary disjunct happens across cultural boundary lines.
Grace was a teacher for a long time, and I could sense that old teacherly concern when she talked about The Kuia and the Spider, her classic picture book, and the circumstances that inspired it. She had noticed, as a teacher, that “it was not good to be brown or black in children’s literature” – she asked the audience rhetorically, “Where was the Maori child […] being legitimised in literature?” – and that the kids she was teaching didn’t relate to stories with European settings. Her concern was with representation of other cultures, and it extended to ethnic groups other than Maori, hence the theme of her second children’s book Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street.
Overall, the session was an understated affair, but the audience remained attentive, and we were rewarded with a reading by Grace from her new novel Chappy, to be released at the end of the week.
Reviewed by Febriani Idrus
Released Wednesday 27 May