Wellington writer Lawrence Patchett ponders what was at stake when he made the decision to write parts of his latest novel in te reo Māori.
I don’t know. Kāore au i te mōhio. This condition of not knowing is important, I think, and useful. It certainly has been for me, and for my fiction. And it’s central to my latest book, The Burning River.
In some ways not knowing is a natural state for Van, the central character of the novel. He lives amid the wreckage of climate breakdown, surrounded by danger and working in a lowly trade, mining old plastics out of the ground. It’s an isolated Pākehā life he leads. Acutely aware of how little he knows, he keeps his head down, letting the obligations of trade preoccupy him: “It wasn’t a fair system, if you thought about it, but Van didn’t think about it […] He simply made his tanks and canisters to Matewai’s request, and some other canisters and plastic pieces on spec […] and beyond that he kept his own camp and ran to Rau’s side when summoned. That was the extent of his duty, and it was good in its containment, its culmination in a nice line of canisters and tanks like the one he now stacked against the back of Matewai’s hut.”
Then a young intruder wakes him up, and calls Van to venture beyond. Suddenly he has to get to know people from a culture he doesn’t know well, and speak a language he isn’t confident in. He has to journey further into the experience of not knowing.
In some ways, then, The Burning River is a novel about cultural encounter. But the two cultures of the novel have many differences from today’s—both Van’s Pākehā world and the non-Pākehā culture he’s drawn towards. Family and step-family and customs of grief, rules around inheritance and genealogy, the way plants are used for healing—they’re all described in ways that are different from today’s.
That’s partly because the novel is set so far ahead in time. Another reason is I didn’t want to appropriate certain traditions that weren’t my own. An example relates to genealogy, which in this world is described through a system of waters, a river of inheritance that comes down to the current generation and flows beyond.
But the two languages in the book are less changed. There is te reo Pākehā, which is Van’s natural tongue, and then there is the reo of Hana’s people, which he’s much less confident using. The territory of not knowing, for Van, is delineated by his lack of fluency in his second language—te reo—the language that his new family are most at home in. Te reo Māori exists in the book in this way because learning it has been my most important experience of cultural encounter, my biggest moment of not knowing.
Not knowing is at the start of this piece of writing too. When Reading Room’s literary editor Steve Braunias asked me to expand on what I said in a recent interview, where the use of te reo Māori in The Burning River was discussed, my first thought was, “I just don’t know what else there is to say about that.” One reason for this reluctance was that, to a large extent, my thinking’s all in the fiction. Like the short-story writer Breton Dukes said to me recently: “What else can I say about it? It’s all there in the story.”
I’m also wary of using such a platform to go on about my own effort as a Pākehā person to learn te reo Māori, and about the challenges of figuring out my position. One quite obvious reason is that it’s not my own language. Another is that, while I might have considered it hard work to get to my basic level of understanding, other learners may have to deal with much bigger issues, including whakamā, to even get inside the room, as Kirsty Dunn has suggested in her essay ‘Whakamā: Shame and Language’. In such a context, centralising Pākehā anxieties is not very helpful.
In the end, I talked with my partner, and with Aaron Randall, who collaborated with me on te reo and related content in the novel. I’m writing this piece in the hope it can add clarity to what I’ve said before.
I’ve been learning te reo off and on for a few years now. Thanks to the skill and generosity of a number of kaiako and fellow ākonga, I’ve learnt many things. It’s changed my life and outlook completely.
But there’s still heaps I don’t know in this language. In many ways, the most important thing I’ve learnt is precisely that—to see how much I don’t know. For example, I was the beneficiary of 12 years of good State schooling and then eight years of university learning. In one way, that makes me relatively well educated. Yet when I was in my early thirties and joining a family who were Māori, I still couldn’t say “How was your day?” in te reo tuatahi o te whenua, the first language of this place.
Another thing I didn’t really know was my own identity. Because Te Ao Pākehā exists only in relation to Te Ao Māori, as Diana Amundsen explores in ‘Decolonisation through reconciliation: The Role of Pākehā identity’, learning the Māori language necessarily leads someone like me to think about their own Pākehā identity. In turn, that led me to read more widely about the histories of Aotearoa. Which in turn led me to think about the space that Te Ao Pākehā occupies on this whenua, and how it came to occupy that space.
Learning te reo, in other words, helped me to see the legacy of colonisation as it plays out in my own family. It’s a process that has given me and my ancestors advantages—land, education in our own language, and economic and cultural security—at the same time that it removed those things from my wife’s whānau. It’s also helped me to see how this colonial project continues its tentacular work today, influencing our own family life each day.
It’s also made me see that there’s a lot I’ll never know. I’ll never have the perspective of someone who has grown up in te reo, or of a young person who is growing up that way now. I’ll never be fluent in the way they are, or know what it’s like for them to live in this country, as it’s set up now, with the “incessant barrage” of English, as the Waitangi Tribunal put it years ago in its report on te reo Māori, pushing everywhere and trying to overlay everything.
On the other hand, I’ll never know what it’s like to have been denied my own language, and then have to find a way back to it, or develop some kind of relationship with it. I’ll never have to experience the whakamā that Dunn shows can go with that, for some people.
Making an effort to learn te reo hasn’t allowed me to know these things; it’s just given me a peek at them. For a Pākehā person like me, it’s not possible to know these experiences, but it is necessary to know that they’re there, being experienced by people who don’t have the same background as me.
All of this new experience with not knowing fed into the writing of The Burning River, and the creation of Van’s character. Whereas previously I’d been dimly aware of the limits of my perspective, I wanted to create a character who was acutely aware of those limitations. That’s partly why Van’s world is set up in the way it is, and why he has to engage in the encounter he does. He’s always conscious of his status as a learner and outsider, and as someone who doesn’t have an automatic right to know certain things. He has healing processes hidden from him, he’s fed knowledge about his own family history via intermediaries, he’s not told what certain phrases and rituals and activities mean.
Not knowing also led to me asking for Aaron’s help in the novel. Aaron is a friend and a tuakana in the language. I first asked him to help with the interplay of the two languages, but soon found our kōrero ranged far beyond that, into the names of characters, the spirituality of the various groups, and even the future of the story beyond this book, if there was ever a sequel. In the final editing stages, we talked quite frequently, discussing late changes. It’s unsurprising when I think about it now, but at the start I couldn’t predict how much Aaron’s different creativity would influence the novel, what his different insight and worldview would enable him to see.
But even after all that work together, we still sometimes arrived at a place where I was unsure. Sometimes Aaron said, “It’s up to you.” As a result, I sometimes took out the element I was unsure about. At other times, I left it in, trying to weave it into Van’s experience of not knowing.
Ultimately, though, Van can’t hide forever in a state of not knowing. He has to act on what he does know, and what he can learn. Hana and her people ask him to do so. Part of this involves learning about his background, because that information can help them. But it’s also about getting over himself. At a certain point, he has to realise it’s not about him: “Hana made a firmer contact on his forearm. ‘And stop saying this. Stop fighting it. Just concentrate on the important stuff. Focus on doing what we’ve asked you to do—what I’ve asked you to do. And concentrate on trusting that you’ll do it well. On making this trade successfully for us.’”
It’s a bit difficult, what Van has to do then, and a bit embarrassing. He feels a bit exposed. But by that point, that doesn’t matter so much anymore. “He shrugged. He wasn’t bothered. He’d done his job, in the way they’d told him to do. His only job now was to sit and listen […]”
The Burning River by Lawrence Patchett (Victoria University Press, $30)