I didn’t want to be a Māori writer.
I am Māori and I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want to be described as a Māori writer.
I was relatively grown-up before I could lay claim to being Māori. We all have our stories of dispossession, and mine meant I had little knowledge of my heritage until my late teens. I was much older before I could say I was a writer.
But when it was clear that my first book was going to be published, I worried about being called a ‘Māori writer’. I thought about Ralph Hotere, one of New Zealand’s greatest artists. Clearly Māori in every dimension, Hotere had rejected the label ‘Māori artist’. As an undergraduate student studying Māori art and embracing my ancestry, I had been confused by Hotere’s position. But now it was very clear to me.
The term ‘Māori writer’ might mean several things, such as:
That I represented Māori, or someone’s idea of who Māori are, or some subset of the Māori population.
That people would be able to predict what my writing was like based on the work of other Māori writers.
Effectively, that my work might be judged and categorised based on expectations of what Māori writing is.
My position was that:
I didn’t represent anyone but me. I didn’t even represent my various tribes, let alone all Māori.
The idea of representing all Māori is a bit of a nonsense, since Māori people are as endlessly diverse and complex as other human groups.
My writing had a range of influences, some Māori and some not. For example, at the time I had read much more British and American immigrant fiction than Māori fiction.
I soon learnt that:
We can’t control how people describe us, and it’s best not to waste too much valuable time trying (no matter what I did, they were going to describe me as a Māori writer, and everyone gets labelled).
The work will speak for itself. Have faith in the work.
I needed to step up and claim the label. I might not like it, but if other Māori see my work and somehow identify with it, hopefully it will interest them, or encourage them in their own writing, or do that thing that all good literature does when it reaches into your gut or your heart and tugs. Hopefully.
So I was a Māori writer. But then a whole range of other questions began to exert different pressures. Who were my peers? Where were they? What kind of shape were we in? I was working on a PhD at the time, and these were not my research questions, but they were questions I soon discovered were more urgent than I suspected.
Te wero – the challenge
A number of things happened. First, I received the inaugural Ngā Kupu Ora Award for Fiction. The Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards were in their third year but it was the first time they could make an award for fiction, because they hadn’t seen enough published fiction by Māori in previous years. Second, in my studies I was looking for critical literature on Māori authors and discovered that hardly any of it was being produced in New Zealand. It was easier to source books, articles and theses about Māori writing by European or American academics. Third, when my own thesis was ready to be examined there were no Māori academics available in New Zealand with the requisite expertise in literature or creative writing. The number of Māori academics working in this field in New Zealand at that level is less than a handful (quite a lot less). Fourth, in my introduction to that thesis I had done some number crunching: in the three years beginning 2007, Māori fiction in English made up 6, 1.6 and 4 percent of New Zealand fiction respectively. We make up approximately 15% of New Zealand’s population.
So being a Māori writer, I discovered, carried with it more responsibility than I’d thought. My work, as I feared, might come to represent much more than it should because there was not enough other published writing by Māori offering stories and perspectives that were different from mine. My job, suddenly, was not only to indulge my own need to write, but to ensure I opened some doors and invited others through, if I was able.
I had already seen this at work. In my second year as a creative writing teacher, a vibrant young Māori woman looked at me and said, ‘It’s cool having a Māori lecturer. I’ve never had one before.’ One Christmas I was surprised when my thirteen-year-old niece, who wasn’t a bookish child as far as I knew, told me she’d liked my book. These moments were more significant to me than winning an award. If these young women did not see themselves reflected in other classes or books, what did it mean that they could feel some connection to literature through something I’d done?
Our institutions aren’t racist, they just don’t teach Māori literature
Māori writing flourished from the 1970s onwards in the hands of such literary greats as Patricia Grace, Hone Tūwhare and Witi Ihimaera. They grappled with these same questions in past decades. Plenty of younger writers have come through since that time, but my experiences suggest great fluctuations in how much Māori writing is published, and our literature still hasn’t yet reached a fully representative level. Does it matter that there are so few Māori academics in literary criticism and creative writing? Yes. Our stories tell us who we are. Or, to put it another way, we understand ourselves and our world through stories. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest we create who we are through our stories. In our efforts to decolonise, the power of story is primary. Our inheritance from colonisation is a quagmire of bad statistics. I believe that our efforts to raise ourselves out of this state are hindered because Māori literature is not given any priority at the highest level. Anecdotal evidence suggests we’re not teaching Māori literature at our high schools either.
As I write this I am coming home from a Te Hā Māori Writer’s Committee meeting. We are in the process of planning a Māori Writers’ gathering for October. There hasn’t been one for many years; these things rely heavily on people who have the time and energy to put them together, and this is not paid work. After the meeting I saw a colleague in the industry. A few years back a mutual friend who is a senior academic in Māori literature left the country for more tropical pastures, and together we lamented the gap she has left. She taught three papers, and contributed to others. The University has not replaced her and what this means, literally, is that nationally we have lost over half the academic papers that focus loosely on our area. Nationally, in New Zealand, you can study American, Scottish, Irish, Speculative and a whole range of historical English literatures, but you cannot take a course that focuses on Māori literature.
My colleague would like to do further postgraduate work in the field of Māori literature but there is no one with the right background to supervise her. I recently had to turn down work she offered me because I’m already supervising two postgraduate Māori creative writing students, but my field of expertise would not make me a suitable supervisor for her. Besides, my work is temporary and untenured, precarious. Both of my students have expressed relief that they were able to secure a Māori supervisor. “I wish I had known you were here last year,’ one told me. I told her I wasn’t. And I might not be next year.
Being a Māori writer right now means giving time to the urgent business of stimulating Māori writing as a practice and as a critical field. This means a lot of non-writing work – organising hui and peer support groups, mentoring students, running workshops and writing blogs. It means lamenting the loss of peers and resolving to do something about it, not having a job to rely on and juggling commitments. It means talking about this until someone listens. That’s what it’s been for me and I know that’s what it’s like for others. I only lament that we are still doing this in 2014, when I thought things had changed more radically in the past forty years.
Next month I start a writing residency, and a new novel. For a short time, I will have a demarcated space in which to write. With so many other demands on time, this is precious. But I can’t ignore these other commitments. Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi. Engari, he toa takitini. My strength is not the strength of one, but that of many. The only way that I can be comfortable with the moniker ‘Māori writer’ is if there is a vibrant and diverse, well-published and well-read landscape of other Māori writers. It’s the only way to bust down any stereotypes. It’s the only way to make sure our stories go on.