A challenging essay by Michaela Keeble on the problems of how Pākehā fiction presents and frames Māori
I read Lawrence Patchett’s novel The Burning River when it first came out late in 2019.
A year later, I’m brave enough to contribute to a public conversation about Pākehā writing, so that Māori don’t always have to do the work of responding, and so that Pākehā have access to an alternative perspective.
Critiquing the fundamental decisions of a novel about identity makes a review pretty personal. I’ve held off commenting for so long because of this, but it begins to feel something like cowardice. As a white writer trying to challenge colonisation, in poetry and fiction, I’m also fair game for criticism. This is the point. We have to resist our own fragility – writer, reader, reviewer. We need to be able to analyse our writing choices – ethical and political as well as literary. If we can’t, we’ll continue to repeat a national narrative that serves Pākehā more than Māori. We’ll keep on evading rather than assuming responsibility for history and its consequences.
Good intentions are not enough. In The Burning River, Patchett’s intention was to honour indigenous culture and language. I think his intention was to try and find an honourable, creative place for Pākehā in the modern-day landscape of Aotearoa.
But what are the implications of The Burning River? What is its effect on the national narrative? I feel – disagreeing with the reviews of the book published so far – that it unknowingly reinscribes Pākehā power. That it doesn’t see itself – which is the problem of cultural supremacy and of Pākehā identity.
The Burning River has been noted for its use of te reo Māori. The novel is posing a future in which te reo Māori is no longer endangered. Should that novel be written by a white writer?
“He would have to switch languages. Immediately, he felt the disadvantage – he was not strong in it. ‘Haere mai,’ he said twirling the blade. ‘Kei konei au.’” This passage is the first in the novel where direct speech is in te reo Māori. It is Van who’s positioned as vulnerable, with an invisible enemy. He must undertake the onerous step of codeswitching, in order to defend his life. “Come closer,” he says, wielding a weapon. “I’m right here.”
Patchett has written that he deliberately chose not to centre Pākehā anxiety. But did he mean to write a white hero story?
But we never meet a character in the novel who can’t speak English. Characters frequently translate themselves for Van, or just use English. When they do speak Māori, it feels like learner’s language placed into the mouths of elders, women who are supposed to be tohunga.
Pākehā language learners are suspended between two wrongs: not supporting the Māori language to flourish (again) in this country, and learning before or over others for whom it is a birthright. I don’t feel this suspension, this tension, around language in this novel – though I understand that other readers do. How to explain the difference in interpretation? This question requires deep consideration – from all of us.
The main character in the novel is Van – a poor, white man mining plastic out of dirt to survive. At the beginning of the novel, Māori approach Van to ask for his help. He accepts – the hero’s challenge – and as he rises to this challenge, Patchett reaches for a future in which Pākehā truly belong in Aotearoa.
By the end of the book, Van has saved the iwi with his expertise as a carver, his fighting prowess, his parenting, his healthy constitution, his whakapapa, and, yes, his oratory skills. But not with irony or shame. Patchett has written that he deliberately chose not to centre Pākehā anxiety. But did he mean to write a white hero story? What would happen if we did look more critically at our anxieties, shames and desires?
Patchett imagines a world in which a community of Māori matriarchs hoard their resources behind an impenetrable fence. These rich, well-protected, seemingly feudal and slightly oblivious older women pay little heed to the downstream consequences of their decision to dam a river.
They own the freshwater, and prevent others from accessing it. They know they’re causing others to become sick. Worse, they use freshwater as a bargaining chip. They offer to consider returning healthy water to Van’s adoptive family, in order to get something they want – a promise they have no ability to deliver on.
It seems that Patchett has imagined Pākeha as if they are Māori, and has Māori behaving as historical and present-day colonisers. These decisions are perhaps an attempt to avoid stereotypes, but inverting reality does not undo it.
We need to talk plainly about white culture, how the remnants of supremacy cling on in our bodies, hearts and minds
The problematic switch doesn’t acknowledge the inequity in current power relations. In fact, it reinforces a skewed fear many Pākehā hold of what might happen when Māori gain more control. It’s a binary that feels lacking in imagination and in hope.
In narration, we’re told that the Whaea people’s female warriors are formidable. But in the novel’s action, we repeatedly see their poor judgment, their failure to act decisively. These tasks are assumed by Van, whose real world experience is more reliable than the warriors’ traditional martial arts.
Van goes so far as to correct his new love Hana on tikanga, a seemingly staunch woman raised at the feet of her kuia. Hana tries to pack food into the bag Van is using to carry his taonga. Van stops her, upset, and Hana apologises to him. Who is the expert here? Who is in control?
It turns out that in the future, Pākehā belong here. We have enthusiastic, uncomplicated consent to learn and use taonga Māori – Māori language, artforms, mātauranga and tikanga Māori. Not because tino rangatiratanga has been realised. We belong because we have mastered Māori ways (sometimes better than Māori) and also because we too have mana whenua claims. These Pākehā dreams are not new. But neither are they true. This is not the complex, colonised Aotearoa we live in today.
We need to talk plainly about white culture, how the remnants of supremacy cling on in our bodies, hearts and minds. Unless we can explore the desires of white settlers to belong, to be celebrated as heroes, we are not doing much to earn our place, to bring about cultural or political justice in this country.
Which leads to the question about whether white authors should write ‘the other’. There are diverse responses to this question, even among indigenous and black writers and readers. It’s a frustrating question, because no matter how many times it’s answered, more and more white writers ask it, or pay no heed to the warnings (or the guidelines). We are like a wildfire skipping over firebreaks.
I believe that change in Aotearoa depends in some part on the ability of white New Zealanders to understand our identity, in relation to tangata whenua. Fiction is one way to get us closer to this understanding.
This is not about censorship, or about shaming each other, even if that’s how it feels
But I don’t want Pākehā writers to claim the cultures our own ancestors tried to eradicate. I don’t want us to get away with trading places and pretending the world is not the way it is. There is no such thing as neutrality, even when we’re working from the imagination.
Neither do I want Pākehā to get away with pretending that ‘the other’ does not exist – I feel this emptiness elsewhere in white New Zealand fiction and poetry.
I want to read a novel in which white characters have to negotiate more complicated racial roles, in which they turn out not to be the hero. In which their sense of belonging is tested and remade in more complicated ways.
Ironically, it’s more likely that these kinds of Pākehā characters will be written by Māori. Non-white writers help me to understand myself and the world we all live in. For this and all the other self-evident reasons, the most important thing we can do to rebalance the story is to hand over the keys to the gate, make space for indigenous writers, editors and publishers to set the record straight.
And if we, white writers, want to publish work that draws on mātauranga Māori, in any way, we need to ensure that the accountability and consent frameworks around us are robust. How? I’m not sure. But staying silent probably won’t help.
Setting a novel in a post-apocalyptic context, without serious reference to the apocalypse of colonisation that expands and contracts around us, every day, feels irresponsible, like setting a smouldering world back on fire.
Let’s stop lighting fires that Māori have to put out, in one way or another. Let’s stop at the firebreak. This is not about censorship, or about shaming each other, even if that’s how it feels. This is about accepting responsibility for our role in cultural reproduction, and discussing with each other how to improve our work and our contribution to the dismantling of white supremacy in Aotearoa and beyond.
As I finish the millionth draft of this review, aware of the hurt it might cause, I see that Patchett has a new story just published in the sci-fi anthology Monsters in the Garden. A review describes the story as being about “the urgency of dialogue, reciprocity and making amends”. Yes! I am looking forward to reading this story.
ReadingRoom published a very fine essay by Lawrence Patchett about his thinking behind The Burning River earlier this year. His novel (published by Victoria University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.