Alan Duff's latest book could have been entitled 'A conversation with myself'. Photo: Screenshot from TVNZ interview.

Finlay Macdonald reviews Alan Duff’s rambling but admirable polemic, A Conversation With My Country.

As luck (or misfortune) would have it I was handed Alan Duff’s new collection of essays while the smoke from Newsroom’s Oranga Tamariki “Taken Generation” investigation was still billowing across the political landscape. How, I wondered, would Duff’s prickly responses to race relations look through that haze? Could there be any common ground between those who accept that systemic state abuse has its roots in colonial soil, and those who refuse to accept any such explanation or excuse for Māori social dysfunction?

This isn’t the place to litigate the Oranga Tamariki case, other than to observe that the response from our political class, and in particular from the woeful Minister for Children Tracey Martin, has looked a lot like willful blindness – right up to the Prime Minister and Martin refusing to watch the video at the centre of the entire debate. Martin even claimed the whānau involved had “lost control of their story” because of the public exposure, despite the video depicting a whānau with no control of their story in the first place.

It’s a shame Duff published before the scandal broke, because his opinion would have been interesting to read, touching as it does on so many aspects of the Māori experience that he has written about as both a novelist and a polemicist.

Before I opened his book I might have imagined I knew what that opinion would be – on past form, it would have provided a jumping off point for the now familiar rhetoric about cultural breakdown, domestic violence and abuse, and the shortcomings of sickly white liberal guilt. Oh, and academics.

To be sure, there’s plenty of all that in these pages too, as well as the trademark chippiness and combative assumption that we should all be automatically interested in the author’s train of thought, even when it is plainly a loco with no wagons attached. To dwell on those predicable aspects of Duff’s writing, though, would be a disservice. In these pages he is also trying to talk back at himself, and reckon with some of the blunter, less nuanced ideas he has now outgrown.

In that sense A Conversation with my Country might more correctly be titled A Conversation with Myself, given how often he returns to those previous proclamations – Māori must stop blaming colonialism for their ills, cultural tradition is no solution in and of itself, all that – and makes space for arguments he might once have dismissed, quite possibly derided.

Duff has been in revisionist mode recently with the 25th anniversary of the film adaptation of his debut novel, Once Were Warriors. He wouldn’t write the same book now, he has said, and he wouldn’t want a character such as the brutal, brutalised Jake Heke to be held up as a mirror any more. He told one journalist, “I think we are the most successful indigenous race in the world and I think we have a fantastic future.”

The lasting cultural impact of that brilliant book and (not quite so brilliant) film is Duff’s licence to revisit its themes. And while he spends a bit too much time setting up his arguments with reference to Internet memes (Laurel and Yanny, the blue or gold dress) about differing perspectives of the same subject, his aim at least is admirable – to shift entrenched viewpoints on all sides towards some kind of constructive consensus.

Yes, the Duff of old is never far away – especially in his vehement rejection of any presumption that Māori cultural tradition is the solution to contemporary problems, or that dispossession and alienation can fully explain Māori child murder rates. “My contention,” he writes of the roots of domestic violence, “is that this is the Māori warrior mindset of old, elevating the concept of utu (revenge, payback) to a cultural obligation, carrying with it shame and loss of tribal pride if not carried out.”

To be honest, I don’t know that such a thesis can ever be proved or disproved, and while I don’t necessarily buy it entirely, it does provoke in the way honest writing should – by forcing the reader to examine their own preconceptions and beliefs, to examine the unexamined, if only to find a more informed version of one’s original opinion.

My own thesis, to match Duff’s, is that his ability to rise above the violence he witnessed and felt as a child (there are some riveting descriptions of those horrors in this book) has made him intolerant of those who can’t, and it has become his cultural obligation to challenge that perceived failure. Self-reliance and a refusal to blame or excuse have become his wero, his challenge, to all Māori.

Those mantras were harder to take in less optimistic settings, but here they are tempered by his willingness to admit he has been wrong about things, that he doesn’t discount land theft and cultural crisis as real causes of Māori anguish, and that he feels confident that Māori may “hardly figure in any adverse statistic” within a few decades. (Duff’s mildly self-deprecating tone in places may be another sign of progress.)

Like all interesting conversations, this one can be unruly, tangential, rambling and frustrating. But if it’s read in the spirit I believe it was written, it might also lead somewhere productive and new, where the past can be acknowledged and atoned for, but the present and future not bound by it.

One of the most depressing aspects of the “Taken Generation” story was the unwillingness of the state (or its agents) to adapt to an unexpected situation, where a whānau had made changes to improve their lot and create a safe place for a newborn baby, and then to do what the state should be doing – helping that whānau in their efforts to help themselves.

Instead, the crisis was embedded in the narrative, fixed and forever. Somewhere between Duff’s distrust of welfare and blind appeals to cultural tradition, and the obvious need for Māori to “control their own story”, there is a place where this conversation with our country must continue.

A Conversation With My Country by Alan Duff (Penguin, $38)

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