Alan Duff made an unexpected and endearing admission at a writers' festival. Photo: screenshot from TVNZ interview.

Last week Alan Duff told a writers festival audience that he never gets invited to writers festivals. Liberals and academic elites are, apparently, part of a surprisingly wide-ranging group of people who are united in deriding and excluding him. Later he was read a quote from his new book Conversations with my Country where he says “At heart I’m just the traumatised, frightened, sensitive little boy trying to protect himself whenever he feels in a threatening situation.”

He admitted to being nervous about appearing before this audience. An unexpected and endearing admission. This is the same guy who went to borstal at 15 and lived to tell the tale – spectacularly so. To hear that he was anxious about talking to a small group of non-threatening bookish types who had turned up on a Saturday morning to hear about topics like women’s poetry and climate change briefly brought a lump to my throat.

The vulnerability was shoved aside and with barely a pause he started referring to himself in the third person again.

I love Alan Duff. I don’t even know Alan Duff but he represents an archetype that I can’t disentangle from my feelings about my father and his generation of Māori men.

They’re affable. They’re assholes, too. They cut themselves before you get the chance to. Do you know the type? They’re often your only Māori friend. They’re not all physically violent – my dad donates to Women’s Refuge and is a card-carrying nerd who sucked at playing rugby – but there’s a simmering under the skin. The drink lets it out. Social media, too.

When I was a kid, one of Dad’s favourite aphorisms was “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” They went after this generation, big time. Suppression of language and culture. Disconnection. Jail.

They were Māori boys born after a war which Apirana Ngata told their fathers and grandfathers would allow them to gain the respect of the Pākehā through the sacrifice of their lives. He told them “We are of one house, and if our Pākehā brothers fall, we fall with them. How can we ever hold up our heads, when the struggle is over, to the question, ‘Where were you when New Zealand was at war?” The Māori men who made it home found that things weren’t quite so simple as exchanging blood for respect.

Whānau drifted into urban life on the state-sponsored promise of jobs in manufacturing and houses in the towns and cities. The threads of whakapapa, mātauranga and tikanga were stretched to breaking by distance and assimilation.

Lots of babies were born. During the period in which my dad and Alan were born, Māori birth rates almost doubled in comparison with the previous two decades. Māori births outpaced Pākehā, leading to a bulging brown demographic profile against the white triangle-shaped boom.

It’s hard not to draw a line between those who were successful in adopting the tools of the Pākehā and those who were not. That line looks a lot like survival. The former got to forge careers and nurse their rage in secret or assimilate completely. The latter were incarcerated, cast out, didn’t fit.

The results are oddly homogeneous – my dad and Alan both adopted the shit out of those tools. For Alan it was literary genius, for Dad it was mathematics and computer science. Along the way they got argumentative. Contrary. Once, my dad voted for the ACT Party simply because it would annoy my mother. He gives false responses on surveys and tells me it’s important to “be the margin of error.” The researcher in me winces.

Both of them got the wit and the generous vocabulary of the English language with which to annihilate their detractors. Dad is no longer on Facebook for this reason and one wouldn’t want to meet Alan in the comments section. But the reo was elusive. Dad had to retrieve it, painstakingly, at university. There’s some darkness to that experience, and to his occasional discomfort when we’re home at the marae, which I haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet. Alan had an even harder time, admitting to this audience of book people that he’s not been able to haul it back at all. He reassures us that he’s had no luck with French, either. But I wonder.

If you google ‘history of the Māori language’ you will find polite, state-sponsored sites which talk delicately of ‘decline’ and ‘loss.’ If you read the accounts of Māori who experienced language suppression, such as those recorded by Rachael Selby in her book Still Being Punished, you bear witness to corporal punishment, racism, child abuse by the state. The former talks of Māori as ‘they’ and the latter talks of ‘us.’

I brought a Patricia Grace novel home with me the other night. I cried when I read about the little girl who died of fright after being beaten for speaking Māori at school. I put a bookmark that my daughter made me between the pages and went to sleep thinking about my dad.

Disclaimer: Alan Duff was interviewed by the writer’s husband at the Going West festival in Titirangi, West Auckland on September 7. However the writer paid for her own ticket, because said husband forgot to organise a complimentary one on her behalf. Happily this means no financial conflict of interest was incurred in the making of this column.

Leave a comment