Echoes from the past

Witi Ihimaera’s first book, “Tangi”, came out in 1973. With it, he became New Zealand’s first published Maori novelist. Since then, Ihimaera has written several novels and short stories, and each one of them continues to explore his country’s cultural and social maps, the struggles of his people, and the changing dynamics that affect not just New Zealand, but the world. Ihimaera identifies himself as a “Maori writer”, and the close involvement with Maori history and future is ever present in his work. “When I started writing, in the 70s, there were barely any Maori people in the mainstream. Slowly, things are changing, we are making ourselves heard, holding positions of importance. But we still have a long way to go.”

Ihimaera, who studied English literature, remembers how there were a handful of Maori students attending college then. “And I was the only Maori studying English literature.” Later, Ihimaera also became the first Maori professor in the University of Auckland.

In the last decade, the Maori people have begun to take control of their stories, their history and their place in New Zealand’s society, but the process has been slow. Ihimaera talks about how right now, there is one Maori publishing house in New Zealand, and five practising Maori novelists.

“But they have gained wide recognition for their work”. For Ihimaera, the role of the author in bringing about change is clear, and so is the idea of Maori people taking control of their own intellectual property. “Over time, I’ve realised the importance of working in a team, instead of by myself. If I take thirty steps linearly, I get thirty back. If I take those thirty steps exponentially, I get a million in return,” says Ihimaera.

He explains that this means working not just as a novelist, but also spreading himself out across disciplines and roles. The idea, he says, is to make things change faster, and as an individual, to work faster towards that change. “I don’t think it is possible to work fast enough if you work in one particular discipline. So I try not just to work in literature. I am also going into films, and four of my books are adapted into films. This mean that the young Maori men and women who won’t read my books can still see the stories on screen.”

Ihimaera also talks about working with a TV production company on a show called “Ariki”. “I’m calling it the ‘Pacific Game of Thrones’.” Ihimaera is, as he says, very “conscious of intellectual property”, and what comes from having control of it.

“I’m trying to be what in Maori is called a Kaitiaki, a person in control of intellectual property. With that ownership, I hope I can say — I don’t want a western composer, I don’t want a white person playing a Maori role. This way, we don’t get our stories told by huge western conglomerates. We tell them ourselves.”

There is a certain indulgence, Ihimaera feels, in the way certain writers in the West write, which leads to “pretty stories” and “art for art’s sake”. A history of struggle, of fighting as a minority, gives his own work a political overtone, so that even the fiction he writes finds real, non-fictional echoes. On this point, Ihimaera draws parallels with Indian authors. “So many Indian authors are moving to non-fiction, are using the recognition their novels and earlier work brought them. I just read Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement”. It is such a wonderful, important book, which comes from a primarily fiction author. Then there is Arundhati Roy, who chose to move to non-fiction early on.”

For Ihimaera, the process of writing, or finding his stories, is rooted completely in real life. He speaks of his ancestors’ voices in his head, “scraping his skull”, needing him to tell stories yet untold, struggles yet undocumented. He gives the example of his play, “All my Sons”, which premiered last year and has already received several awards.

“I saw how there were no stories involving Maori soldiers who were found in the First World War. This play was to help people understand their sacrifice and courage”. Ihimaera speaks of perhaps bringing the play to India. “I want to find an Indian theatrical group for the play, and to change the characters — a Maori father and his two sons — to Punjabis. We have so many parallels with India, there are so many similarities in our histories. I know how WWI is usually shown as a white person’s war, but we have begun to take control, to tell our stories now.”

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Printable version | Sep 13, 2021 5:23:46 PM |

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