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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