As you know New Zealand is a small country both in size and in population. There are many benefits to this – you live relatively close to the sea or the mountains, it doesn’t take long to establish common ground with people you meet and it is surprisingly possible to meet famous people.
I remember being at a conference and listening to writer Patricia Grace. At one point she commented about being at an airport and seeing a number of people notice someone behind her, as she turned she realised it was an All Black, a rugby player who was fairly well known. People went up to him and asked for autographs; something no one had ever asked of her. At the time Patricia Grace had just published her second novel “Potiki” and had received a lot of media attention due to the fact that the text included many passages of Maori language that were not translated. More on that and on Patricia Grace in a future post. Her story resonated with me and so when I found myself in a long queue to rebook a flight and found that standing right beside me was Witi Ihimaera I asked him for his autograph. He was very gracious and we had a wonderful conversation about cancelled flights, returning ‘home’ for Christmas and his project then, working at Auckland University with writers.
As with many New Zealand writers, Witi Ihimaera is more famous than you might think. In 2002, one of his novels, The Whale Rider, was made into a feature film by Niki Caro. It took the International Film festival circuit by storm, winning quite a number of awards. If you have not had the pleasure of viewing it try to find it and you will see why it won the awards, though the book is so much better. In fact – read the book first.
My admiration for Witi Ihimaera began High School with my English teacher’s enthusiasm for New Zeland literature. She introduced us to the short story anthology “Pounamu Pounamu” which Ihimaera had completed in 1972. The stories all revolved around Ihimaera’s whanau (family) and life in the rural community of Waituhi. The characters were so real to me and that is quite an achievement as I was a pakeha (European New Zealander) who had little or no experience or understanding of Maori tradition, language or culture despite growing up in New Zealand. Ihimaera invites his readers into his iwi (Community) with great warmth. I still remember the banter between the old ladies playing cards in the story “A Game of Cards’ and laugh at the annual hockey game “The beginning of the tournament”. Ihimaera revised the stories on the 40th anniversary of the publication of ‘Pounamu Pounamu’ and added notes at the end of each story that he had made in 1972 as he wrote them.
As I read more of his short stories and novels I found myself laughing, crying and at times feeling very angry. One novel, The Matriarch, written in 1986, caused me to confront my own values as a pakeha and think deeply about the injustices faced by Maori people. The grandmother was fierce and uncompromising, so much so I had to put the book down, stop and consider why I was so angry with her. Then in Nights in the Gardens of Spain I cried with the main character, David Munro, as he struggled with the truth of his sexuality, a married man with children but in reality a homosexual. The chapter where he sits outside what was once his home, watching into the living room and seeing his family with such tender love, knowing he was no longer part of them is so profound I still feel the sadness. Ihimaera, himself was married with children and then in later adulthood came out as gay.
Witi Ihimaera is a taonga (treasure) to New Zealand literature. In 2004 his contributions to New Zealand literature were recognised when he was made a Distinguished Companion in the New Zealand Order of Merit. It was an honour to meet him many years ago. I hope you enjoy exploring some of his writing.Screenshot taken from https://www.penguin.co.nz/authors/witi-ihimaera/books
Amanda Bond is a New Zealand ex-pat currently working as Teacher Librarian in an international school in Istanbul, Turkey. Her twitter handle is @kiwionthego