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The Connecting Thread

Posted on 04/06/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

E ngā hau whā, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.
I write to you now as an author from Aotearoa
As an indigenous woman writer from Aotearoa
As the daughter of a Māori mother and a Pākehā father
As a mother, and a fiancée, a mokopuna, an aunty
As a woman of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Moriori, Irish, Welsh, English and Scandinavian descent
As a child of the 1970s and 1980s
As someone who often looks around herself in wonder, and in grief.
When I began to write, it was this wonder and this grief that I was finding a medium for. The world around me thrilled and scared me in equal measure. Sometimes these feelings found their way from my limbs and gut and chest to my brain and out through stories that told themselves in my mind, then dissipated formlessly. For years before I finally began to dedicate myself to the task, I would hear the words clearly behind my everyday activities: you should be writing. And so eventually I did, and I began to find my way towards what people call ‘my voice’.
But when I began to write seriously, I wasn’t entirely sure what that voice would say. I had been a student of Social Sciences and Humanities, mostly Social Anthropology and Māori Studies, but after that I had also been a mother for over ten years, working part-time and trying to figure out how to bring my children up. Wow. Those last six words contain so much I don’t even know how to convey. How to bring them up in the most happy, wholesome way possible? How to bring them up by myself? How to bring them up so they could be all that they have the potential to be? How to bring them up without damaging them the way I had been damaged?
Fast-forward seven years or so, and I have a doctorate in Creative Writing, and something much more ill-defined in Parenting, though I am no longer doing it alone. Our eldest has left home. Is this a graduation of sorts? Did I manage all that I set out to do? I didn’t mean for this blog to be about my children, but as I write I know they inform my writing just as much as anything I’ve ever studied. All those years of thinking about what makes a human. All those hours of anxiety. All those times when they brought me face to face with my own pettiness and rage and ugliness, and ultimately, always, love.
I thought this post was going to be about why most of my writing is about the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa. Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t an obvious choice for me, despite my ancestry. But for Māori everything is whakapapa (genealogy), so perhaps it is appropriate that I have written of my children first, since I am simply the connecting thread between them and the ancestors.

The ancestral house

It would be nice to say that I write from some sort of altruistic desire to represent the rich cultural and ethnic diversity around me, evidenced particularly in my children, and to honour my family’s historical, spiritual and physical origins. Perhaps to make the world a more representative place for my daughters. But of course it is nothing as clear or as honourable as that. I write to confront questions, to figure out things I don’t understand, to answer some deep call that has everything to do with me and nothing to do with anyone else. I do it because I need to, just like most other writers. But while I am doing it, and afterwards, that’s when it transforms. That’s when I know I am not just standing in a room by myself, but in a wharenui, surrounded by ancestral carvings, with all my grandparents and great-grandparents and great-greats seated along the wall, or in framed photos placed up high. The kids and grandkids (if I should be so lucky) are laid out on the whāriki playing the secret games children play, extended family and peers all around.
In fact, like all wharenui, this house has a marae in front of it, where conflict and debate can occur, where there is real risk, where all the dangers and opinions and influences must be mediated and addressed. Sometimes my writing requires me to walk out onto this marae, and I become apprehensive and unsure of myself, as perhaps I should when facing such a challenge. But the marae calls us to pull ourselves up to our fullest height and stand strong, and somehow writing allows me to do that too. When I finish I am usually a lot more sure of myself than when I begin.
And when the words hit the page, that is when the connection happens between me and you and whoever else reads my work. And this matters. Perhaps it is all that matters. So I allow it to shift and influence what I write, because words are powerful and words can change things and they should be used carefully, with dignity. We who see our words published should know we are privileged.
So when I think about the words I might put on a page I often go to the unwritten stories. I seek a spark of recognition – a story I can tell that perhaps hasn’t been told before, not in the way I would do it anyway. And there are so many unwritten stories, especially for indigenous peoples. We tell these stories to each other, or to ourselves, but they don’t always get written down and shared in this form, which has the ability to reach across cultural boundaries and borders and emotional blockages. The world tells us that we are poor, that we have more problems and more loss than anyone else. Our stories show us that we are rich beyond reckoning.
The Western understanding is that we write in isolation, but I almost never feel like this is what is happening when I touch pen to page. For me, writing is about connection, it is about my relationship with other people and the world around me. I know it means a great deal that some people choose to read my words and that this gives me a voice many times greater than if my words weren’t published. So the connection continues. And with that responsibilities grow – something I will write about in my next post.
No reira, kia manawanui. Me Rongo.

Glossary of terms

1. Pākehā – New Zealander of European descent
2. Aotearoa – The indigenous people of Aotearoa includes Māori and Moriori tribes. In general when I use the term Māori I am referring to all the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa (Moriori has the same meaning, though in a different, closely related language)
3. wharenui – Ancestral meeting house
4. whāriki – Woven flax mats