Every night at 7pm sharp, my Irish Catholic father and his eight siblings would have to kneel on the carpet of the living room, facing the freshly polished nudity of Jesus on his wooden crucifix, and recite the rosary; ten Hail Mary’s, an Our Father, and a Glory Be, over and over until their morals were fortified and their thoughts chaste. He would tell us this on the way to visit our grandparent’s home in small-town New Zealand in the 1970s, perhaps in the hope that we would behave as good Christian children should – silently and without need.
One of the first things that struck me when I went to read A Roderick Finlayson Reader, published by Cold Hub Press, was how familiar the worn-down and haggard character on the cover was. I had, of course, heard of Finlayson (1904-1992), and had even read a couple of his children’s books and his short story “The Totara Tree”, but I couldn’t say that I was well-acquainted with him other than that he was known for writing about Māori. I suspect I avoided him for that fact alone.
The issue of cultural appropriation has been a much discussed and debated one, and continues with new articles and opinion pieces popping up online, in journals, and at indigenous discussion forums with striking regularity. Just last month I read, once again, about how the imagination should be allowed to remain untethered, to wander in its creative freedom, pushing at boundaries as a mode of ‘knowledge seeking’, without having to be shackled by the complaints of political correctness zealots.
This collection of Finalyson’s work, studiously complied and edited by Roger Hickin, has a distinct and uncomfortable aftertaste. In his Introduction, Hickin (re)introduces Finlayson to literary society as a kind of grassroots social justice warrior whose experiences of spending adolescent summers with a Māori family in the Bay of Plenty awakened in him a mission to right societal wrongs and “celebrate” the nature-loving Māori. I would have thought this kind of revisionist sampling of literary history a difficult thing to achieve in today’s Woke climate, and yet here we are. Hickin argues, “There can be little dispute…that [Finlayson’s] stories are vivid and compassionate attempts to portray the early twentieth-century effects of Māori deracination and broken communal integrity.” He quotes Finlayson himself, who declares, “‘I, a Pakeha, can be Maori when I wish – perhaps I am mostly Maori and can play Pakeha only when I try hard.”
My grandparent’s house smelled of cold tea bags and recently peeled onions. The three obligatory ducks flying to nowhere were positioned on the wall directly under the clock, as if to mock them for their lack of progress with its absurdly loud tick. It is perpetually summer in my memory when we visit. My grandfather has painstakingly planted rows of strawberries in the garden so that they’ll be ready for Christmas. Us children take it in turns to commando-crawl along the furrows to secretly retrieve the red jewels. We are totally stealing them. We know we are. We are the only interracial grandchildren he has and I have about 40 first cousins. Sometimes I fancy that grandad knew and didn’t mind, I imagine he was delighted by our precociousness, but it’s my mother’s brown face at the window that stays with me. And when I go to church later I repent.
The early missionaries were utterly in the business of colonising the mind
Fiction is often argued to be exempt from the constraints of racial dynamics because unrestrained exploration and invention is the purview of the imagination. Any suggestion that a writer’s imagination should be subject to constraints is often met with utter disdain. Our imaginations are considered to be sacrosanct landscapes of unbridled freedom and any attempt to fetter that, is tantamount to advocating for brainwashing, or mind control. However, this would have us believe that our minds are neutral territory rather than products of the cultural millieux in which we were raised. Our imaginations were colonised a long time ago and we are now charged with having to interrogate exactly that.
Oh but I am not a peddler of the exotic, says such a writer, I am a crusader for good.
The binaries of good and bad, of right and wrong, of black and white, have battled it out on the pages of many a manifesto, whether it be fiction, academic, biblical, or otherwise. When the early missionaries arrived in Aotearoa, the scramble for converts was driven by the devout who were ‘saving the heathens’ or, for the more cynical among us, by profit. Whether or not they believed that what they were doing was part of a grand imperialism, they were utterly in the business of colonising the mind. The first Catholic mission, The Society of Mary, arrived in the Far North at the end of the 1830s, and brought with it the rituals, chanting, and knee-bending rules that both Roderick Finlayson and I would later come to experience and endure.
Finlayson converted to Catholicism in his mid-forties and much of the non-fiction writing that appears in this collection was submitted as journalism for the Catholic magazines Zealandia and The Tablet. There is a palpable saviour complex in these treatises and letters – a proselytising certainty that makes emotional sense of his so-called ‘sympathetic’ portrayal of Māori characters. Hickin describes him as a person of ‘massive integrity’ because of his persistent efforts to draw attention to what he considered the injustices being perpetrated upon the Māori. He advocated for Māori rights, and against the continual appropriation of Māori land, but I wonder would he have advocated in the same way against the colonisation of the imagination, and the continual appropriation of our culture as property, as resource.
Surely “massive integrity” in this sense would not mean claiming authenticity in our depiction of Māori (in this case) and instead would mean walking a little closer to the more uncomfortable questions raised. It’s often suggested that a writer simply needs to ask themselves why they are writing from a perspective they do not represent. And answer after answer emerges as rebuttals and counterarguments and other fruitless debates. What seems to be consistently missing is the Pākehā (in this case) willingness to ruthlessly demand that questions of power and accountability be interrogated. If the Pākehā imagination is the lawless past of Kororāreka, where if you can dream it, you can do it and no one can stop you, then it’s time to consider why those that benefit from that lawlessness are not interested in curbing it.
The 1970s were a crucial time in the recent history of Aotearoa. Writers like JC Sturm, Patricia Grace, and Witi Ihimaera emerged into the literary world; Pope John Paul II insisted that the rosary be the preferred meditative practice for Catholics worldwide; ngā iwi Māori rose up politically in the Land March, at the occupation of Bastion Point and the Raglan golf course, in the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal; and so much more. It was also the decade in which I was born and baptised, and that saw the first revival and republication of Finlayson’s work.
The story that sat longest in my mind is about an older Pākehā man and a 14-year-old Māori girl who run away together
That Finlayson’s work was a product of his time is undeniable, but there has to be a certain amount of tone deafness at play in order to continue to circulate these stories without significant criticism. In his story “The Wedding Gift” we meet “merry hearted Te Kaha” who is about to be jilted at the altar by the scurrilous Rua who probably bought off the old kuia with some tobacco in order to run off with the bride to be. That’s okay though, because Finlayson gets to have his characters enact a form of utu with the giant allegorical and literal gun behind the door. Kay the half-caste in the next story “Tikitiki” (a character named because he was obsessed with the sound of his tiki-ticking fob watch) is the easy target of blame in another women-as-victim tale, where the flute playing, nature-loving, totally Māori Tikitiki is forced to take his revenge. Crazy old Taranga, the kuia perched in the over-taught story “The Totara Tree”, also exacts her revenge on the greedy Pākehā which seems hilarious and definitely in the realms of social justice, except that she dies, and this is her land, and ffs.
Out of all the stories in A Roderick Finlayson Reader, “Frankie and Lena”, originally published in 1976, was the one that sat longest in my mind. Frank Sargeson wrote a letter to Finlayson saying how much he was moved by it. It’s the story of an older Pākehā man and a 14-year-old Māori girl who run away together. She insists…It’s actually a really good story – which is why it’s so disturbing. But it’s interesting to note that according to Hickin, Finlayson (along with his also Catholic friend James K. Baxter) “believed in the role of the writer as prophet”.
Hickin argues that it’s a mistake that Finlayson has been somewhat overlooked, if not written off, in Pākehā literary analysis. I agree. It’s crucial that we start having these conversations. It’s urgent, even. To simply again turn away from the too-hard-conversations, to wipe our hands of it and say, not our problem, is an option available only to the privileged. At this juncture in history, the stories and experiences of communities considered ‘non-dominant’ are now sexy. This is the new intellectual land-grab. It’s resource-rich territory where those with structural power can cite, once again, the Doctrine of Discovery by hoisting their crafted ‘authenticity’ onto ‘uninhabited’ literary land.
At this juncture in history, the stories and experiences of communities considered ‘non-dominant’ are now sexy. This is the new intellectual land-grab
In the toilet of my grandparents house, there was ample reading material. Vinyl-bound books with tissue thin paper and tiny spidery writing on them; the occasional dog-eared paperback; and stacks of newspaper type magazines that lacked any particular gloss or sheen. My Irish Catholic grandparents were committed subscribers to these missives and I imagine they would’ve spent their time productively self-indoctrinating while completing their daily constitutional sit down. Although I could read at a young age, I don’t recall ever scouring through these things but it occurs to me now that any number of Roderick Finlayson’s journalistic diatribes could have been splayed beneath my dangling seven-year old feet on the day my father said he knew I was destined for atheism. It’s a family joke now but apparently, when confronted with the end of the toilet roll, I did what any pragmatic child might do, and simply tore some pages of the aforementioned and used them liberally.
A Roderick Finlayson Reader is a body of work by a “messianic” white man replete with romanticised and simplistically cheerful indigenous folk. Roger Hickin, though, is effusive in both his defense and his praise of Finlayson’s work. He describes some of the stories as masterpieces; his essays, journalism and letters as demonstrations of Finlayson’s “massive integrity”; and he quotes Dennis McEldowney in 1984 saying that, “If the honours and rewards now available for New Zealand writers included canonization, Roderick Finlayson would be the obvious candidate, probably the only one.”
In the 27 years since that comment was made, global thinking and engagement with the impacts of the colonisation on indigenous lands, minds, and bodies, has been substantial. For me, the most accurate commentary made by Finlayson in this collection arrived in his letter to the editor of Zealandia in 1978, the year of Bastion Point, the year when I was seven. In a righteous fervour of response, Finlayson wrote “…isn’t it time that we in the Church, we who make some claim to be enlightened, begin to discover just what fruits of knowledge are forbidden to us….The serpent in the garden is no childish fantasy – his seductive voice, multiplied and magnified, blares forth throughout the whole world today. That tree of his must be just about plucked bare by now.”
There seems to be a culture of reviewing in Aotearoa that is perhaps born of our size, but that does us no favours. Sometimes it feels as though we are stymied in our ability to speak frankly to the relevant literary issues because we probably know the writer in question, or because we don’t want to get between them and their income stream, or because we believe silence is adequate communication – it is the gaping great hole of the unsaid. And yet, if attempts are made to engage with the literary issues, even ones that speak to persistent national narratives that are fraught and that we are complicit in, it can be read as personal attack – rapidly blossoming into ‘white fragility’ where intention outweighs impact. If tauiwi want to imaginatively inhabit the bodies and minds of Māori in their fictional spaces and present them as stories of their own, and if they do not want to be written off, then perhaps the same fervour and ‘massive integrity’ that the missionaries once brought is required in response. In this era of concerted efforts to unpack and redress historical grievances and work towards equity, Roderick Finlayson has re-emerged to challenge the latest of our enemies, our colonised imaginations, to behave as good colonial readers should – silently and without need.
A newly published collection of stories and essays, A Roderick Finlayson Reader edited by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, $42.40), is available in bookstores nationwide or direct from the publisher. In part one of our week-long series on Finlayson, Bill Pearson wrote a biographical sketch of the author; in part two, Kate Finlayson wrote of her father’s doomed love affair with Poti Mita, whose family inspired him to write fiction. Tomorrow: a critical assessment by John Newton.