Dunedin Festival Foreword: Witi Ihimaera explores ‘Where is New Zealand literature going?’

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2015 DWRF image

The 2015 Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival opened officially tonight with the Festival Foreword. The audience were treated to a haka powhiri from the combined Kings and Queens High Schools kapa haka group, before the chairperson of the Festival, Alexandra Bligh, opened proceedings. After an opening mihi from Professor John Broughton and an introduction from NZ Book Council chairperson Peter Biggs, special guest Witi Ihimaera delivered the NZ Book Council address, on the topic “Where is New Zealand literature going?”

 Witi Ihimaera speaks at the Dunedin Writers festival. Photo by Gregor Richardon, copyright ODT

Witi Ihimaera speaks at the Dunedin Writers festival. Photo copyright Gregor Richardson, from the Otago Daily Times 

In a wide-ranging, entertaining and provocative speech (which I hope was recorded or transcribed, as it deserves repeat listening), Ihimaera’s address circulated around questions of nationalism and the current state of affairs in writing and among the younger generation. He pointed out the two forces that have apparently defined New Zealand literature – the nationalistic urge, or the aspiration to write the nation, and the individualist urge, with an author fighting to keep his or her own sense of self, citing Katherine Mansfield, “New Zealand’s first literary exile”, as an example of this (and tracing a direct line from her to Eleanor Catton). The same two forces work on readers as well: as Ihimaera put it, “we want our writers to stay New Zealanders but are still dazzled when divinity is conferred from elsewhere”.

After Ihimaera asked the audience to discuss amongst ourselves what qualifies as New Zealand literature (a little interactive trick he used to charming effect throughout his address), Ihimaera considered where New Zealand literature was now – or rather, “where it’s wallowing”. Though in his eyes the nationalist literature of previous generations gave New Zealand literature “great bones”, the nationalist imperative “lost its mojo” somewhere along the way, and New Zealand writers now are writing without that imperative on their minds at all. He mentioned Anthony McCarten (screenwriter for the film The Theory of Everything), who talked about being in “the post definition period” i.e. that we no longer need to define who we are. Ihimaera seemed on the whole to disagree with this assertion, pushing for a renewed focus on New Zealand and our lives here on the Pacific Rim. Though Ihimaera acknowledged the very significant successes of Nalini Singh, Paul Cleave, Neil Cross and Nicky Pellegrino, he also asked, “is a paranormal novel New Zealand literature?”

Later in his address, Ihimaera also talked about the preponderance of young writers coming out of creative writing courses, the effect of which seems to “melt” the writing into homogeneous prose that “blunted” New Zealand’s edge. “Where are the anarchic books?” he asked. This was a theme he returned to several times, saying that he “missed the sense of risk” in today’s literature. In the later Q&A session, Ihimaera also said that, though today’s writing was beautiful, it was “so pared back” that it doesn’t allow for “elbows jutting out” – while also acknowledging that “today we don’t go for that kind of imperfection”. Having said that, Ihimaera also pointed to a generation gap between himself and these younger writers, asking “What New Zealand do we see? What New Zealand do the mokopuna see? Is it the same?” Ihimaera was questioned about these two main themes by an audience member who pointed out that the nationalistic urge is a collective one, while young people today are increasingly individualized and internationalised in outlook. Ihimaera responded by accepting he might not be right, but noting that there seemed to be a “dysfunction in the whakapapa”; he noted the intense interest surrounding Gallipoli, especially among young people, which indicated that the interest in history and research was there, and yet, no novels appeared about Gallipoli itself. He further asked the audience, “What is Pakeha culture? What are you sharing with your mokopuna?”

Nevertheless, Ihimaera didn’t seem to be bereft of hope for the future. He talked (withsome fascination and excitement) of his mixed-race grandchildren, wondering what stories their genealogy might throw up, and acknowledged the importance of getting the younger generation reading. And finally, when a nineteen-year-old writer asked Ihimaera what he would say to any other young writers out there, he advised her very warmly to “believe in yourself, and don’t hear other voices” – that is, other voices except your own – and to try to get yourself into the most natural (artistic) position possible to enable your voice to come out fully and naturally. He also asserted that the aim of artistic endeavour is “to achieve excellence” and to “go for longevity, and go for broke”.cv_Maori_boy

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Witi’s latest book is the first part of his biography:

Maori Boy
Published by Vintage (Random House NZ)
ISBN 9781869797263

Book Review: Maori Boy – a memoir of childhood, by Witi Ihimaera

Available in bookstores nationwide.

I loved this book. The ancestors and the nocv_Maori_boy-so-distant relations, and the immediate family members are all brought to vivid life by this master of storytelling.

Witi Ihimaera has created an amazing work which gives us a picture of his life as a kid in the Gisborne region in the 1940s and 1950s, when times were pretty tough for many New Zealanders but more so for most Maori. The story of his whanau and the challenges, anguish, love and pain that they experienced are written about in such a way as to make you stop and think. Seriously. And for quite a long time.

I am sure that many of my generation (the same as Witi’s) who grew up in Pakeha Aotearoa will be as blown away as I was by the generosity of spirit with which Witi writes this book. It’s a learning curve for many of us to try to understand the importance of the ancestors in Maori tradition, but this book can be described as facilitating that understanding − if you are listening.

The way in which Witi writes about his ancestors, and the (to Pakeha) legendary figures in Maori history, is intensely personal. It reminded me of a tour of the Duomo in Florence I once did, where the English-speaking Florentine guide spoke about the Medici family and their activities – both good and bad – in the 15th and 16th centuries as if she had been there herself. This is a wonderful skill – to be able to give life to figures long dead, and Witi Ihimaera has it in spades. He weaves the Maori creation story into the story of his family and draws connections and brings the reader a deeper understanding of the traditions. At the end of many chapters there’s a section called the tika – the truth, or the correctness. This serves to give the real story as opposed to the “storyteller” story. It’s a great technique.

Memoirs are often short, and therefore sometimes only give a taste of the subject, an appetiser if you like, so you are left hungry for more. And sometimes,of course, that can be a good thing. However this book is long – at almost 400 pages, it’s longer than most novels – and it really gives you the whole prix fixe menu.

The book is split into sections dealing with the tipuna (ancestors), the whakapapa, Gisborne, finding his turangawaewae, the world and more. His relationship with his mother, in particular, will resonate with many readers. She was his Sycorax (look it up!) -and he realised that eventually you “find within yourself the courage to take your salvation into your own hands” and take your place as one on whom others can call and depend.

We can depend on Witi Ihimaera to write about life, love, history, tipuna, turangawaewae and more in a way that all New Zealanders, Maori or Pakeha, can identify with, rejoice in and share.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Maori Boy − a memoir of childhood
by Witi Ihimaera
Published by Random House NZ