A round-up of good things for Māori writing and Māori writers
First the good news: there is no bad news in this story about recent developments in Māori writing. This story is purely and only about things happening to Māori writers and Māori writing which are pretty damned good.
THE NEIL GAIMAN EXPERIENCE
Whiti Heraka is feeling pretty damned good. On Friday, New Zealand resident Neil Gaiman tweeted to his 2.8 million followers that he’d been reading a book of Māori myths: “It’s called Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori writers, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (Vintage). A terrific book I’m enjoying enormously.”
Whiti replied, “Ngā mihi Neil! I’m glad you’re enjoying Pūrākau— I’m so proud of that pukapuka.”
Gaiman: “You should be! He tino pai te mahi (hope I got that right).”
Hereaka: “Ka rawe!”
To correspond with the Neil Gaiman is an experience consisting of several shades of awesome, but there was a deeper resonance to his endorsement. I spoke with Whiti on Monday morning, and she said, “I’m a big fan of Neil’s. In some ways his work on retelling sort of made Pūrākau happen in an odd way. I read Amercian Gods years ago, and that inspired me to have a go at retelling the story of Hatupatu and the bird woman. I had been talking about it to Witi [Ihimaera] for a long time, and about the power of retelling stories, and when the Pūrākau project came up, Witi thought of me and asked me to co-edit the book. So Neil’s generous tweet was a weird sort of circular moment coming back I guess to where it started almost.”
Pūrākau was published in 2019, and has since gone through five reprints and sold about 6000 copies. A range of established and emerging Māori writers retold ancient stories and placed them in contemporary New Zealand. Asked what the success of the book told her, she said, “I think people have been and still are just really thirsty for these kinds of stories – I don’t mean thirsty in a horny way – but hungry for these Māori ‘myths’, and I’m putting little air quotes around ‘myths’, and placing them in the way we live now, so we’re kind of celebrating we can grow with the culture, that we haven’t been set in amber. It resonates with people; I was lucky enough to be invited to [the writers festival at] Edinburgh with Pūrākau, and it resonated with people there too, to hear these stories being told in a way that reflects our lives the way they are now.”
As for her own story in the anthology, Whiti has finished her novel based on the retelling of Hatupatu, who was captured and imprisoned in a cave by a part-bird, part-woman creature called Kurangaituku; he evades her when he leaps over hot springs, but she goes into them and dies. Her novel Kurangaituku is published by Huia next month.
THE FILM OPTION
Steph Matuku is feeling pretty damned good. Misconception Films – producers of Cousins, the film based on Patricia Grace’s novel – announced last week that it had bought an option to the New Plymouth writer’s YA fantasy novel Flight of the Fantail.
I spoke to her on Monday. She said, “As a novelist, there’s two major things that you want to happen on your bucket list. One is being on the New York Times best-seller list, and the other one is having your work optioned for the screen. So I was absolutely stoked. It’s for my first book Flight of the Fantail. It’s the story of a bunch of teens who are going on camp, and their bus goes over the side of a cliff, and half of them are dead, and this is like on page 4. And the other half are stuck in the bush, having to survive, and they start having hallucinations and paranoid delusions and then the murders start. It was fairly fun to write.”
Asked how she sees Māori writing in 2021, she said, “We are riding this wave of awesomeness at the moment.” She pointed to the recent New Zealand Book Awards for children and young adults, where five of the 10 categories were won by Māori writers, including Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea by T K Roxborogh, and The Pōrangi Boy by Shilo Kino. “We are really coming into our own. We’ve always had the greats, like Patricia [Grace] and Witi [Ihimaera] to look to, and now mainstream publishers have clicked onto the fact they can make money out of Māori writing.”
Asked what that means to her, she said, “It means I have lots of Māori writer friends who are doing really well and that makes me happy.”
Her latest YA Fantasy novel Falling into Rarohenga was recently published by Huia.
THE BIG PICTURE
Tayi Tibble is feeling pretty damned good; she’s just signed a two-book deal with Knopf in the US to publish her two collections of poetry. Colleen Maria Lenihan is feeling pretty damned good; she’s just completing her Fellowship as the 2021 Dan Davin Literary Foundation Writer in Residence in Invercargill, where her writing projects included working on a play as part of Te Pou Theatre’s Koanga Festival to support new Māori playwrights. Becky Manawatu is feeling pretty damned good; her novel Auē – you might have heard of it – will be published by Scribe in the US and Australia in March, with the UK to follow.
Paula Morris is aware of these and other stories of Māori writers doing well, and she’s sort of feeling pretty damned good about it, tentatively, with caution and optimism, and the knowledge that more hard work needs to be done to bring Māori writing towards achieving its potential. Fair to describe Paula as the single most important person in New Zealand writing in 2021. She sits on the boards of the Mātātuhi Foundation, the Māori Literature Trust, the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, and the Coalition for Books. God knows when it gives her time to work on her own writing (her novel Rangatira won best work of fiction at the 2012 New Zealand Post national book awards); her selfless work on behalf of others is about to extend to the creation of a Māori Literature Hub, an online resource for Māori writers: “So imagine you’re a Māori writer and you go to it and see residencies, festivals, grants, contests, publishers. So we’re getting people circulating, getting people to the Michael King Centre or to Landfall or to Newsroom or whatever. I was just thinking today we should do maybe a new Māori book of the month feature…”
The online Hub will launch next month. As well, she will edit an anthology of modern Māori short stories in 2022 by established and emerging writers. Asked which established writers she had in mind, she said, “Well Patricia and Witi are the most obvious, but also you think of Alice Tawhai and Kelly Ana Morey. And Colleen Maria Lenihan, who has her own story collection coming out next year. Nic Lowe is a really good short story writer. David Geary….I will be putting out an open call and hope to get some great new voices in as well.”
Asked where she sees Māori writing right now, she said, “Well. Things look promising. But I have to say things have looked promising for some time. I still think we don’t have enough emerging novelists. Things are changing slowly and there’s an enormous appetite I know from publishers and readers for Māori fiction. I know that absolutely. But what more can we do to bring more Māori voices into the realm of the book world? A lot of people are working really hard on that. It’s still not quite there. But we’re in a good position I think to make it happen.”
Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (Vintage, $40), Flight of the Fantail and Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku (Huia, $30 each), Poūkahangatus and Rangikura by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $20 each), are available in bookstores nationwide. Recent books by Māori writers include Polynesia, 900–1600: An overview of the history of Aotearoa, Rēkohu, and Rapa Nui by Madi Williams (Canterbury University Press, $25), Mana Whakatipu by Mark Solomon with Mark Revington (Massey University Press, $25), and National Identity: Confessions of an outsider by Simon Bridges (HarperCollins, $35).