The regimented nature of the festival is clearest when sitting in sessions in the Heartland Festival Room or the Upper NZI Room – both of which edge onto Aotea Square and are well within earshot of the Auckland Town Hall Clock Tower. It chimed 10am right as the speakers took their seats. Tick!
Chair Geoff Walker gave a brief introduction to the session itself and the featured authors. Kuni Kaa Jenkins was unable to make the session, but her co-author Alison Jones was present, as was the session’s other featured author, Redmer Yska. Both books being focused on in the session, Jones’ and Jenkins’ Ockham-winning Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds (Bridget Williams Books) and Yska’s A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington (Otago University Press), share a parallel of citizens of Aotearoa travelling to the other side of the world, in a manner that Yska described as resembling the journey of godwits.
‘’They’re both doing a form of OE, really. That hunger for what’s out there in the world… that wide-eyed tradition that comes from being so far-flung.’
While both Tuai and KM (as Mansfield was fondly referred to by chair and author alike throughout the session) did hail from New Zealand, they were from entirely different worlds – temporally (Tuai’s early 19th century vs. KM’s late 19th century/early 20th), geographically (Bay of Islands vs. Karori) and of course, the tangata whenua vs. pākehā divide.
Both authors provided a bit of backstory into the whys and hows they decided to undertake these particular projects. Jones spoke of Tuai popping up while she and Jenkins were working on their earlier collaboration He Kōrero. ‘He sort of threw himself at us,’ Jones commented. ‘He wanted to be written about!’
Meanwhile, Yska described how ‘our famous writer with the bob and the faraway gaze’ is well biographied… but not necessarily by New Zealanders who have a full understanding of her formative years in Thorndon and Karori. ‘They’re in Wellington for 10 minutes, they acknowledge the wind and then go.’ So Yska took it upon himself to tell these Wellington stories, creating ‘an intimate atlas’.
Jones spoke on Tuai’s place in the establishment of wary trust between colonial travellers and Māori. ‘He was of that first generation of Māori who were confident with Pākehā ships coming into New Zealand.’ That same generation, she said, were the ones who began to see the exciting possibilities across the sea, as they witnessed both white men coming and going, and Māori travelling to Australia and returning.
In lovely little insights into his personality quirks, there was recurring reference to Tuai’s penchant for European fashion. ‘Māori are still fashion mavens!’ Jones said. There was also commentary on Tuai’s terse relationship with missionaries, with Jones noting that he was never convinced of the need for the Pākehā god in Aotearoa – after all, that god lived in England! ‘There were plenty of atua in New Zealand – why did they need another one?’
A contrast in the two protagonists can be seen in their relationship with their people and families. While Tuai was deeply connected to his people, as a young chief of his Ngare Raumati hapū, KM was ‘such a punk, really’ according to Yska. ‘She was quite anarchistic, with no allegiance to anyone’.
In examining KM’s other traits, Yska also described her as ‘a hustler. She was a businesswoman in many ways, and quite mercantilist.’ Tuai meanwhile had his ‘cultural flexibility’ highlighted by Jones. ‘They were able to move within these cultural frames [of New Zealand and Europe] with dignity and integrity.’
Before things wrapped up with question time, there was a brief discussion of the sense of shared ownership that both books would potentially have. For Tuai, this was due to his place within the whakapapa of a hapū and iwi that neither Jones nor Jenkins had any immediate connection to (‘I was Pākehā, Kuni was Ngāti Porou, I wasn’t sure about who was more out of place asking these questions up north!’). Meanwhile with KM, it was more about the sense of the ardent fans out there, always seeking a new tidbit of information to get new insights into their (our, to be honest – there are Mansfield tattoo plans in the works for this reviewer) short story pioneering heroine.
A great hour spent looking into two figures of New Zealand history that brought their own versions of the Kiwi experience with them to Europe – and brought those experience back home again.
Reviewed by Briar Lawry
Click through the links below to see any further sessions. Both books mentioned are available at bookshops nationwide.