Patricia Grace photographed by Sal Criscillo, May 2021.

Anahera Gildea responds to Patricia Grace’s number one best-selling memoir

My grandfather would go to set the nets at the mouth of the river before dawn according to the maramataka.  I didn’t know what the maramataka was, but I would see him poring over the newspaper with its small circles and crescents and lists of times. Then he would stand outside and stare into the sky. I would ask him what he was doing and he would say he was checking the tides, watching the birds, talking to the moon. I didn’t question it much because I knew it was to do with fishing and I was only vaguely interested in fishing. I was much more interested in books and story and misbehaviour so the only moons I cared about were the kind the cow jumped over, the one that involved a bare backside, and Rona.

Patricia Grace’s memoir From The Centre is an extraordinary piece of work. I have read and listened to many an interview that she has participated in, I have studied her work at school and university, and I have had the good fortune to interview her myself, so I approached her book with both hunger and trepidation. How many times has she been asked and answered the same questions? How much more of her life could be peered into, interrogated, revealed? I often think all memoir must suffer from having to unpack the tedium of a person’s life rather than allowing them to remain the enigma that their adoring public imagines. And then sometimes I’m struck by the notion that perhaps the lens through which we read something determines what is revealed.

‘Te rau o tītapu’, or tītapu’s plume, is a phrase used to indicate the mana of someone. The bright white feathers of the tītapu were worn by those of high prestige – sometimes in their hair, sometimes as an earring, and other times on their cloaks. They signified beauty, and power, dignity, and peace. In some instances the tītapu is the bellbird, in others it is the huia, and in others still it is the albatross. There is one story in particular that describes a colony of albatross that once lived on an island called Tītapu in the Raukawa (Cook) Strait, until it was swallowed again by rising tides.

From the Centre traverses the expected distances from a rich childhood through to the present day, navigating the reader along chronological lines and in Patricia Grace’s distinctive voice, allowing us insight into the ways in which her many beloved stories and novels have emerged from her lived experience. But it also travels the enormous distance from the moon and back, powered on the incredible wingspan of her imagination. In many of our origin stories, the voice of humans originated with the birds, the progeny of Tāne, and therefore every kind of kākā, and pīwaiwaka, and tītī, populate the forest and glide across the seas. Many a whakataukī is devoted to the significance of the birds, the wisdom of the birds, the variety of the birds, and the messages the birds bring us from the atua. Therefore it should be no surprise that the birds in this book begin on the first page with the tauhou, the tūī, and the kererū, and they continue all the way to the last sentence with the gull that has made its home there. They flit in and out of the pages in a staggering number, as if the author herself is being guided by them, communing with them, and I too was compelled to pay attention.

Too often in others’ writing, including my own, a staggering kind of romanticism creeps in to accompany these emissaries of the environment, as if by merely calling them up in name we can harness majesty, or dispatch our limited musings to loftier heights. The birds that exist in Whaea Grace’s work are far more prosaic. They are the proletariat, the body politic, the ones who return year after year, cycle after cycle, to get the work done of planting seeds, feeding the young, and catching the fish.

Patricia Grace has long said that she grew up confident in both her Māori and her Pākehā worlds and this memoir gives us insight through that rarely seen double lens. The feathered kindred of her life, and her thoughts, have migrated across vast oceans, stayed at sea for years without settling, and arrived at the doors of new homes, new countries, and tried to fit in there.

Alongside the native birds that populate her everyday life, Patricia Grace describes for us her childhood memories of other kinds of birds as well; the black birds prophesised by her delightful Irish grandmother one Christmas, a parrot with a cigarette in its mouth, and a special book sent to her from Rome, by her father in the Māori Battalion, along with newspaper cuttings of war propaganda shouting at people to “…die faster, Pals!” –  the leatherette cover embossed with birds in vines.

With her cousins we go bird nesting in the heat of summer, and as she learns to write, the first sentence she is given at school is “The bird is in its nest”. Even as a five year old she was well aware that this was “quite unrelated to anything. There was no bird, no nest..

In many ways a memoir asks the writer to quantify themselves. To measure in ways that make sense to the reader. To give them footholds into who the writer is beyond simply an account of their chronological existence. The measure of this book is in its birdlife and if seen through this lens, it is a crucial educational book about so much more than writing. It is about climate change, about wedging the doors open for rangatahi, and about resistance to colonisation. She is the voice of an imagination born into resistance, married during the work of resistance, teaching resistance, and growing children during resistance. But resistance is more than fighting face to face, toe to toe; putting up barriers and being able to hold them. Resistance is remembering – remembering this land and that you emerged from here. It is remembering the constancy of the unquantifiable moon, the surge of the tides, and when to go fishing.

My grandfather warned me not to take the dinghy out, and definitely not to try and go to the island. Perhaps if I had paid attention to his lessons on how the largest of our sea birds can circle the globe in 46 days by knowing the ocean currents, or if I had had more reverence for my elders, I would have listened. He said that the upwelling of the cooler water was where the abundant fishing was and so the shallows around the island would not be bountiful. I didn’t care because I wasn’t really fishing, I was being disobedient and obstinate. In stories that I had read at school, the protagonist could do anything they liked if they had the necessary mental fortitude, the bold tenacity. Bravery was often attributed to the pluck of the spirit and the grit of determination. Rarely, if ever, in my junior reading were we instructed to pay attention to the whenua, and listen for the karanga of our winged tīpuna. Needless to say I became stranded mid-crossing.

If I had learned to read Patricia Grace’s work earlier, I may have understood that the lessons of my own grandparents were present in her stories as well. The attention paid to the inseparability of humans and our surroundings, to the impossibility of there being story without whenua, worlds without climate, actions without consequence. Long have we heard the overused phrase, “He aha te mea nui? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata” used as a unifying call from every sector of society as evidence of a kind of universal humanity. And yet it seems that many of those who like to unfold this sentiment on their listeners are unaware of the first part of this whakatauki:

Hūtia te rito o te harakeke

Kei hea te kōmako e ko?

If you pull out the centre of the harakeke,

Where will the bellbird sing?

It is a whakataukī about whānau – the pā harakeke. The centre is the child which is enfolded by its parent layer, and then its grandparent layer, and so on, and so on. If you rip out the rito, the whānau would be lost, destroyed, extinct – and the bellbird would have no place from which to speak. She would lose her voice. And she would lose the reason for her voice. It is not as if birds haven’t been significant across literature since way back when, but this whakataukī, and this book, is a centering of manu Māori, mātauranga Māori, and maumaharatanga. (In honour of Patricia’s famous decision regarding glossaries, I have chosen not to translate all the kupu Māori contained here. Now we have Google and no fucking excuses left.)

The pages of this book are the leaves laid down as nest for whānau, and from whānau. This book is the pā harakeke made visible for readers. The characters that populate both the memoir and Whaea Patricia’s stories are seen here as they strut across the marae, or sit perched on thin branches mildly disinterested. Some sing and their sound is so melodious that it is carried on the radio waves of a barbed wire fence, others screech and ache with voices so stark it feels as though they could cut a person.

And yet through all of this, it is also a book of incredible humility. The picture of Pohe Onepu Gunson, Patricia Grace’s grandmother ‘Gunny’, is so animated that the contrast is amost unbelievable when she says “I’ve never met a quieter, less talkative person than my paternal grandmother.” This is the same contrast that rises up here in this work. The lack of bombast and the rejection of artifice is what makes this work, like her much lauded body of literature, so exceptional. She simply tells us the story with quintessential dignity: “I make good use of these broad feet of my grandmother when, at yoga classes, I am required to be a stork. I’ve discovered that keeping one’s balance is dependent on the stability and strength of the planted foot. For this purpose, I borrow the spread, slightly turned-in, bunnioned foot of my grandmother and grip the floor with it. I lift the other thin, bony one and raise my wings to the sky. From there I must shift the wings down and back as instructed, and elongate the skinny-footed leg behind me to transform into an albatross.”

From the Centre is far more than a memoir, and on second reading I’m no longer convinced that ‘chronology’ is a useful descriptor. This book is cyclical and constant, it is political, it is geography on the hem of the ocean – a place where the moon and the birds converse.

From The Centre by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide

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