Roger Hickin’s Cold Hub Press is one of the small miracles of contemporary New Zealand publishing. Over the last decade, on what can only be a shoe-string budget, the Lyttelton-based press has produced a steady stream of good quality verse. The Cold Hub catalogue has come to be known, not just for its strong South Island flavour, but for ground-breaking translations – particularly those by Hickin himself of lesser-known poets from South and Central America. Added to this, more recently, have been previously unpublished or neglected texts by mid-20th century New Zealand writers: Dan Davin’s memoir of Paddy Costello, uncollected poems by R.A.K. Mason, the poems of Ruth France, and now A Roderick Finlayson Reader. I’m guessing these are not money-spinners. They’re a labour of love, and anyone who cares about the backstory of New Zealand writing should be warmly appreciative.

Roderick Finlayson, born in 1904 to a Scottish father and an Irish (Unionist) mother, was the exact contemporary of Sargeson, Mason, Fairburn and Hyde. Like Sargeson’s, his earliest stories were published in the 1930s in the left-wing journal Tomorrow. Brown Man’s Burden appeared in 1938, and his second collection, Sweet Beulah Land, in 1942. Other work would follow at somewhat irregular intervals: a couple of novels, some later stories, a study of D’Arcy Cresswell, and various polemical writings of which the most trenchant are about the evils of mechanised agriculture.

Finlayson alone could see that the Māori world of the 1920s – for all its material poverty – had a vibrancy that Pākehā might envy

It’s the stories, however, that are Finlayson’s claim to posterity. Brief, ostensibly simple, and reticent, they are Sargeson-like except in one key aspect: that where Sargeson explored the world of fringe-dwelling Pākehā men, Finlayson wrote about rural Māori. In this respect he was out on his own. Among a nationalist generation who (with the exception of Robin Hyde) were writing Māori out of the picture, Finlayson alone could see that the Māori world of the 1920s – for all its material poverty – had a vibrancy that Pākehā might envy. This, I would like to think, is what Sargeson had in mind when he speculated that Finlayson’s work might outlast his own.

Like Sargeson again, he owed a profound debt to a favourite uncle. Arthur Wilson, who would become the model for Uncle Ted in the episodic novel Tidal Creek (1948), worked during Finlayson’s childhood years as a farm manager in the Bay of Plenty. It was during his summers with Arthur that he got to know the Māori dairying families of Pukehina, and in particular the Ngawhika whānau who more or less adopted him. From his early teens till his late twenties Pukehina was his elective home. It was here, he would say, that he felt most himself: “Dear old Honi Ngawhika one night said to me, ‘Roddy, I don’t know how it is, but I know you are not a Pākehā, Roddy. You are a Māori.’” And it was the dairy farms and flax-cutting camps of the eastern Bay of Plenty, and the families who lived there, that he would celebrate in his best work.

However, Finlayson’s Māori fictions are by no means a transparent reflection of the Pukehina he knew. The picture is affected by his language and genre choices, and shaped by personal factors that are felt rather than named. Around 1931, as he explains in an autobiographical essay, “events led to a separation from my Māori family, their hapū, and the place I began to call my homeland and for which, on parting, I composed a lament in the old Māori manner. That wild coast of sand and swamp, faraway and lonely, I have not seen again. In front of me now is a faded snapshot of a group of young men, seven of them, my friends, brothers in many adventures. Before I could revisit their kāinga all were dead or scattered. They died in ways common to young Māori of those days – of disease, of suicide or other violence, of mākutu, of insanity. One ended his days in jail, another eloped away down south. And I did not go back.”

In his fiction he finds an “outlet” for what he calls “that aroha whakamuri, that passionate recalling of times past”. In its own way the project is reminiscent of Mansfield’s, rebuilding an idealised world around her dead brother. In his “exile”, as Finlayson puts, his stories “let [him] live with [his] friends again, and this time give permanence to their short lives”.

But Mansfield, though he read her, would not be Finlayson’s model. Instead, after various false starts writing satire and “didactic stuff”, the breakthrough came with the chance discovery of the Sicilian Giovanni Verga: “The lives of those Sicilian peasants were very like the lives of the backcountry Māori people as I knew them then – the same poverty, hardship and ill-health, the same up-flaring of passions and sudden violence, the feuds and the festivals.” A short while later he discovered the more humorous stories of Luigi Pirandello, and on the model of the two Sicilians, with perhaps a lingering dash of Maupassant, he fashioned his strange and distinctive menu of comedy, melodrama and ironic, often violent, misfortune.

A number of critics have questioned the way that Finlayson’s characters speak. Patricia Grace picked out,  “The poor old pākehā – golly, he the funny one, eh? Show him the Māori not the fool, eh?”

The nostalgia of these stories, then, is complexly flavoured. The community that they re-create is ravaged by land loss, poverty and disease. Suicides, murders or accidental deaths bring sudden ends to many of these brief fictions. Shotguns that served in colonial wars now turned back on the community become murder and suicide weapons. What remains is resilience and humour, along with what Bill Pearson calls a “compassionate irony”. However, Finlayson’s lost home is also a scene of lost language, and the language-trauma of this damaged community in turn creates a language problem in his fiction.

Over the decades, a number of critics have questioned the way that Finlayson’s characters speak. Eric McCormick, for instance: “[I]n presenting Māori speech he usually adopts a convention current in journalism … the staccato English sentence, sprinkled with ‘Ehoas!’ and ‘Py korrys!’ … [A]t times it betrays the author into a condescending attitude that is far removed from his intentions.” Patricia Grace picked out the following from the story Tidal Creek: “By George, that the good stuff!”; and “[T]he poor old Pākehā – golly, he the funny one, eh? Show him the Māori not the fool, eh?”

Finlayson’s reply was that this was how his friends really spoke: “The speech of many young Māori, forbidden their native tongue at school, perhaps even by parents, was devoid of facility in either language.” In other words, in transcribing their broken speech – at the height of the active suppression of te reo Māori – he was recording neither more nor less than the damage wrought by colonisation. But that doesn’t put the problem to bed. In giving voice to somebody else’s inarticulacy it is fiendishly difficult not to objectify them. On top of which Finlayson is not really language-minded; he’s a ‘content’ writer, always keen get the story told. Indeed, perhaps it was only a certain degree of innocence that allowed him to carry on in that prohibitively difficult territory he felt most drawn to.

Finlayson… was aware of the lesson that a number of Pākehā ‘Māori-lovers’ were to learn in the 1970s and 80s (Michael King being perhaps the most notable): that the respect of an elder generation of Māori was no guarantee of being accepted by a younger one

This is not say, however, that he failed to recognise the vulnerability of his own position. We never learn more about the unspecified “events” that led to his “exile” from Pukehina. We can infer, however, what it felt like to lose that footing in a Māori community. Among his best stories is the later piece, “Great Times Ahead” (1973). The elderly narrator is the son of a Pākehā store-keeper and a “half-caste Maori” mother. He’s Māori, in other words, yet conscious of a kind of Pākehā difference: “Perhaps it’s just because I take after Dad that I don’t look much of a Maori now . . .” But he has lived his whole life in a Māori environment, and owns, through his mother, a fragment of Māori land. It’s the forced sale of this that takes him on a rare visit to Auckland; there he finds himself in a pub:

I ordered a beer, and on my right was this young Māori in a T-shirt and jeans … “Tēnā koe!” I said to be friendly, and particularly as I saw him like one of my own people uprooted from some country settlement like my own … It was quite a shock when he took me up wrong.

“You the sort of Pākehā that learns Māori lessons, eh, so you can teach us Maoris,” he said, in an accusing way.

But then I could see that he’d had a bit too much to drink … And when he turned away from me he had that lonely look I’d seen before. I guessed that he was one of the new city generation who wouldn’t be able to speak a word of Māori. He took me for a Pākehā, so I tried to pass it over by merely saying, “Oh no, but down the coast where I live we still use the old greetings.”

“So you’re a big bloody landowner down the coast.”

I couldn’t help laughing as I thought of the way I’d just been stripped of my last share of any sort of land. I peeled off one of the fivers that represented my remaining worldly wealth from that source and told the boy to come on, drink up and have another with me.

“Yeah, big Pākehā bloody Māori-lover,” he said.

If it’s easy to spot the narrator as a stand-in for the author, it’s also easy to feel his hurt. Here the speech really does ring true. Finlayson, we can safely conclude, was aware of the lesson that a number of Pākehā ‘Māori-lovers’ were to learn in the 1970s and 80s (Michael King being perhaps the most notable): that the respect of an elder generation of Māori was no guarantee of being accepted by a younger one.

We Pākehā, of course, keen to signal our good faith, are given to policing these cross-cultural boundaries if anything more keenly – more anxiously – than Māori. And the codes we enforce are in constant evolution. In his essay Beginnings, published in 1966, Finlayson wrote: “I, a Pakeha, can be Maori when I wish – or perhaps I am mostly Maori and can play Pakeha only when I try hard.” This may have washed in the 1920s, or even still in the late 1960s. Finlayson at the time was becoming a kind of tūakana to James K. Baxter, who was hatching his plans for Jerusalem where in due course he would express-make more subtle versions of the same conviction. Plainly, however, it doesn’t work now. We live in moment particular about identity, and hostile to cross-cultural ventriloquism. It’s almost certainly not the time for a writer like Finlayson to find new readers among younger generations.

But Finlayson shouldn’t be dismissed. One reader who had trouble making up his mind about the Pukehina fictions was Bill Pearson. In an essay of 1958 he was quite severe. Fifteen years later, though, he walked back his criticism. We need to be wary, he wrote, of the “confidence” of our critical conceptions, which “might prove an obstacle to the humility with which one should read these stories”. The simplicity of Finlayson’s work can be deceptive. The best of his fictions are side-long creations that don’t yield all their secrets at once. They deserve to read patiently, and above all, as Pearson advised, humbly.

Finlayson’s title Brown Man’s Burden plays on a notorious paean to Empire by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden is the moral responsibility to share – through colonisation! – the ‘gifts’ of western civilisation. The author of Brown Man’s Burden insisted on the opposite: that in terms of how to live in this colonised whenua, Māori had more to teach Pākehā than the other way round. For those of us who feel the attraction of this argument, Finlayson remains a valuable ancestor. Reading him now I am still grateful to him, as I am to Cold Hub Press for keeping his work in front of us. 

A Roderick Finlayson Reader edited by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, $42.50) 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; in part three, Anahera Gildea addressed issues of cultural appropriation. On Saturday: a short story by Roderick Finlayson.


John Newton's recent books are Escape Path Lighting (Victoria UP, 2020) and Llew Summers: Body and Soul (Canterbury UP, 2020). He was the 2020 Burns Fellow.

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