At an event at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, Airana Ngarewa appeared onstage immaculately dressed in fitted pants and nice tan boots. He was a bit nervous going in, and launched into singing the beginning verse of “Poi E”. I felt for him: we’ve bonded in the past over our lack of singing ability. I can’t hold a tune either. At the book launch for my short story collection Ruin, I faltered twice during “Purea Nei” because I was self-conscious my friend Arihia might be cringing at me belting out the words.
But he won the crowd over in Auckland, cracking jokes (“I see no one’s ears are bleeding yet”), a 28-year-old schoolteacher with a cheeky grin and wearing a sizeable taonga around his neck. It’s the head of a taiaha, half whalebone, half pounamu. “It has been said that my whānau are the only whānau in Pātea that can’t sing.” And then he held the crowd, and used the event as an opportunity to share some important local history. This is Airana’s gift. Get them on side, then educate.
Tomorrow night, August 8, he’ll launch his debut novel The Bone Tree at the Pātea Māori Club. It’s his home turf. He says, “Pātea has everything you can expect of a town with an average annual income of $19,000. But growing up we always felt safe, we were allowed to roam and do the whole free-range thing. Everyone knew you and if you ever got into trouble someone would be around to save you or tell your parents on you. I know heaps who went to university from the area but many came back, the world outside so alien to them.”
His family’s connection to the whenua here stretches back until the waka: Aotea. Airana lives in New Plymouth and teaches at a secondary school, but his primary connections are to South Taranaki – Ngāti Ruanui, Ngārauru, Ngāruahine.
It took him five years to write The Bone Tree. While the novel asks how we can best protect the ones we love, in a system which fails us, it strikes me that this is perhaps the same question Airana is attempting to answer in his job as a teacher.
He says, “Most of what I do is helping Y9 kids navigate school – particularly focused on students and whānau who have not had a positive learning experience. Teaching is great. Hanging out with the local kids is great. I like to go down to the local basketball court and catch up with the kids there as well. When they see your car pull up, they’ll flood down to come and say hi and shake your hand or give you a hug.”
He estimates about 90 percent of the students he teaches don’t know he’s a writer. While writing is one of the most intuitive things Airana feels he does, he says he tries to get out of his own way, tries to give a voice to those disengaging from systems that don’t serve them. The novel has specific markers which indicates it’s set after the 1980s recession in Taranaki, which resulted in the mass Māori migration to the cities. The close relationship between brothers Kauri and Black is front and centre, and their connection to home, versus CYPS and racist cops and colonising landowners.
I first learned about Airana and his writing at the Ronald Hugh Morrieson short story awards in 2020. That night, he took home an award for his story “Pātea Pools“, judged by Whiti Hereaka. I applauded as he got onstage to accept his cash prize and easily hongied the South Taranaki mayor and the elderly, well-intentioned Pākehā sponsors. With this simple action, the space was reclaimed as ours. He had a confidence I both admired and lacked as a Māori writer.
In an email later he apologised for not introducing himself. “It was my first time at such an event, and I much prefer to watch from the sidelines.” I suspect Airana hasn’t spent much time there. Growing up, martial arts ran in the family. Airana and all his siblings were national martial arts champions across many disciplines – karate, Brazilian ju-jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Kyokushin Karate and Olympic freestyle wrestling.
Mum and Dad were their coaches. He is the middle child of five children, and all his siblings live in Taranaki except his oldest sister who lives in Tāmaki. “She’s a detective,” he told me. “Training at this time on helping reo-speaking children who are victims of serious crimes.”
I asked about his own schooling. He says he stopped participating. He recalls spending most of his time sitting outside in the corridor, while the teachers did the talking at the front of the class. “They knew what they knew,” he says, without a trace of bitterness.
He credits his mum, Tracey Bourke, with getting him to school every day, sometimes in his pyjamas, with a change of clothes handed to him at the gate. And his paternal grandmother, Colleen Ngarewa, who was the school caretaker at Pātea Primary School. “She studied to become a teacher and went on to become the principal at that school. She’s a very, very powerful figure in my life. She had a stroke before I was born and has been soldiering on for over 27 years: half her body is paralysed, but her mana wahine and her spirit are still alive.”
But it was his Aunty Nicola who brought Ako Mātātapu to Airana’s attention in his early twenties. “Besides introducing me to some brilliant thinkers, what it did was put me in a position where I was able to serve others, where I could stand in the places of those who stood before me and try to do things differently. Or rather, as I came to appreciate, continue the mission of Nan and Koko and Aunty Nicola, disrupting educational norms and bridging the gap between what is and what is needed.”
He gained a masters in Educational Leadership. “See a need, fill a need. It’s our responsibility as Māori. Once you’ve built a really strong connection with your students, once you’ve built a really strong understanding of their life experience, then you can start finding your place in that story of their lives and start connecting their learning to the story of their lives as well.”
As his koro has aged, Airana has begun taking on more responsibilities on the pae. “The big responsibility I feel is sharing our stories and the history, particularly the history of Te Pakakohi. I know heaps of people who went to university from the area but many came back, the world outside so alien to them.”
Recent history is significant, too. It’s been over 40 years since the closure of the Pātea freezing works. The Ngarewa whānau directly experienced the repercussions. He says, “When they closed the whole town became suddenly unemployed. Because of this, Koko went off to train in his forties to become a secondary teacher. His brother and many of his close friends left to find work elsewhere.”
The closure of the freezing works wasn’t the first time Pātea had suffered due to decisions made by the government. In the time of Puanga, 154 years ago in Taranaki, this iwi was almost wiped out by land confiscation and the imprisonment of its men during the New Zealand wars. Although Airana’s father, Darren Ngarewa, has been researching this history for over thirty years, it wasn’t until recently that the story of Te Pakakohi was shared more widely. While Airana has written about it, he credits his Dad with recording much of the rohe’s history. “Dad is out most weekends with his drone documenting different sites and searching for their original names and the stories attached.”
A month ago, a waka believed to be at least 154 years old was discovered in the Pātea River. That was the last time this area was occupied by Māori. Airana was part of the 50 person recovery team. After the conclusion of Tītokowaru’s campaign against the Crown in 1869, many members of Te Pakakohi, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru took refuge at Kuranui Pā, an area that could only be accessed by the river. Given the make and the proximity of the waka to the Pā, only metres from one of its banks, it seems likely that this is its origin, perhaps left behind by those of Kuranui after their arrest.
When the waka was lifted from the bank, it was 154 years later to the day the men, women and children of Kuranui departed the papakāinga in their 17 waka.
I asked Airana if he grew up with te reo. “My koro reclaimed his reo as an adult and taught my older siblings at Patea High School. By the time I was at High School he had left and so didn’t have the opportunity to learn from him. Now, I just go to everything. Classes three times a week most weeks…have heaps in my life I can kōrero with. Then I go to all the kaupapa to have more immersion time. Nowadays I’m also doing a fair amount of reading in te reo as well.”
Recently, Airana was shortlisted for the Pikihuia Awards nonfiction and poetry award, writing in te reo. When I ask him about this he tells me he set a goal for himself at the start of this year. “More time listening, more time talking, more time immersed. That’s been the key for me. I just go from kaupapa to kaupapa.”
Before the last Ronald Hugh Morrieson short story awards, Airana emailed me to ask if I would be attending the event, and if I was, could I accept any awards on his behalf. He was unable to attend. “I’ve got kura reo,”‘ he said. His priorities are clear.
He cleaned up at the awards, winning the open section of the short story competition with “A casket made of flax” and the open section of the poetry competition with “Poi E Won’t Break Your Heart”. Another short story “Ever Had Yoghurt”, was also highly commended. I messaged him to tell him the news: “Smashed it e hoa.” He replied. “Oh wow – are you for real! That’s out the gate. You are an uber g for going on my behalf.”
Several of his stories have been published at ReadingRoom, and his work is included in the new anthology of short fiction by Māori writers, Hiwa, edited by Paula Morris. He’s become a master of the short form. Comparing short fiction to the five years of working on The Bone Tree, he says, “Short stories are low risk. It’s a run compared to a race. They allowed me to play and explore and be silly. They didn’t need to be life-changing or transformative. Some of my favourite stories are just excuses for me to get cheap laughs. I was asked to present to a group of kids outside of mainstream education last week and it was a great time, the kids cracking up at how ridiculous storytelling can be sometimes. From that day on, one of the boys will greet me every time we see each other with ‘Shut the fuck up and blow the whistle, Gary!’
“I know at some level it’s just an excuse for him to swear at or around an adult, because of course it is – such are the absurdities of language and norms – but I think it speaks to the greater connection writing was able to foster between us. Not as a writer and witness, or a teacher and teenager, but as people.”
The Bone Tree by Airana Ngarewa (Moa, $37.99) is available in bookstores nationwide, and will be launched tomorrow night (Tuesday, August 8) at the Pātea Māori Club. ReadingRoom is devoting all week to coverage of the author and his book. Tomorrow: a day in the life of his marae