A COLONISED BOYHOOD
In an extract from The Writing Life, Witi Ihimaera, DCNZM (Te Whanau-a-Kai, Ngati Porou, Rongowhakaata) tells Deborah Shepard about growing up
In your memoir you write about killing a pig and making an absolute hash of it. Was this part of the tribal masculinisation process you speak of?
The killing of the pig was a rite of passage for Maori boys. I don’t know if it was a custom that all boys went through, but people in Maoridom and particularly throughout the Pacific would know it. I failed in that too.
This struggle with your masculinity, was that also about growing up gay? Were there ways in which you felt different?
As a child I don’t think I ever felt that I was growing up gay, I was growing up Maori. I never felt different from my male whanau. But I suppose, though, that within that very male, physical world, when I started to learn classical music and enjoy reading books like The Good
Master by Kate Seredy or Two Years Before the
Mast: A Sailor’s Life at Sea by Richard Henry Dana, that must have marked me out.
I used to read The Ivory Child by H. Rider Haggard at the shearing shed during smoko. Some of the shearing gang might have laughed at that but some of those classics, well, they also came out as comics and I remember my cousins reading those instead of Westerns, so I not
only widened my world but theirs. I think that because I was also good at sports — football and hockey — and played tennis with Dad, that balanced everything out.
However, when I was a young man and at the pub with my cousins, after I’d had the third or fourth glass of beer, one of them would say, “No that’s enough for you, you’re not a drunkard like us, that’s enough.”
They were looking after you?
I belonged to a very close whanau. Our parents would have reprimanded us if we did not look after each other, and that went for me as well if I didn’t stop them from drinking and killing themselves in a car crash. I remember that a few years earlier, when I turned 13 and started high school, Uncle Puku wanted to teach me how to shear and Dad said shearing was not for me. Instead of shearing I did my homework.
I took advantage of this decision. I say that with huge honesty, I do. Once I started being treated differently I began to be what they wanted me to be. But I also had to take the consequences of that family dynamic, which was, that in the end, whatever you did was to support the iwi. By denying me the way they were, they made me into what I became. Although I never became a good shearer, I’m supporting them through literature, culture and art by showing how wonderful they are to the world.
What were you learning about Maori at school?
At primary school in Gisborne I was a typical New Zealand boy, growing up within a Commonwealth education system. Primary school and later intermediate was about reading, writing and arithmetic, and there was no Maori at all in sight. Even after school activities were Pakeha. I joined the Life Boys, the choir and the stamp club. Kararaina, my sister, was a Brownie.
In stamp club, I have to say, seeing all of the fantastic stamps from the Reunion Islands, the Netherlands, Ethiopia was influential in connecting me imaginatively to the world. Friends still remember me writing in Form 1 about submarines and fantasy worlds under the sea and in the sky. I was using the template of European imagination then. It wasn’t until much later when starting out as a writer that I began to use a Maori template. As for Maori activities, sometimes there was an end-of-term concert where we did our piupiu and pukana thing.
At high school, I continued to be colonised. We went on fantastic outings to see films like
Richard III, Hamlet and The Four Feathers by Zoltan Korda. European high culture was everywhere to see, whereas my Maori, low, culture was reliant on the oral stories told me by my extended whanau. My father was one of my main storytellers after Teria died. And he always related his stories to our farming circumstances. For instance, in the ledger and exercise books he kept for accounting purposes, he would list how many sheep he’d sold in a sale, and then in the margin he would add, “I’m now going to put this many sheep into field number two and in field number two, there’s a stone called Te Toka a Tamatea ...” and then he would turn to me and tell me the story of Tamatea ariki nui, the captain of the Takitimu waka.
When he was assisting the renovation of Rongopai meeting house, he would do the same thing. There he’d be up a ladder, painting the rafters, and talking about the history of the Ringatu, not just to me but to whoever was there. I have taken the same artisan, rather than artistic approach in my writing.
When did you first begin to question the Pakeha bias in the education system?
When I started at Te Karaka District High School and wondered why Maori literature, let alone Maori history, was not being taught. Mind you, New Zealand history wasn’t being taught either. It was mainly the English kings and queens.
My particular political illumination as a writer, however, happened in 1959 during my fifth form year, library period, when I read
New Zealand Short Stories. I noted that any stories about Maori were written by Pakeha. One by Douglas Stewart, The Whare, was about a young Pakeha man who goes into a Maori village and is invited to stay for the night with an old couple who lived in a flea-infested whare. The whole story is very dark and the descriptions of Maori are very, very demonic, as if these people have invited him in for some sinister purpose. This was anathema to me as a Maori because I never thought of our marae as full of fleas and people who would take advantage of strangers.
I threw the book out the window and was caned for it. I made a vow then that if ever I became a writer I would write a book about Maori people that would be an antidote to those kinds of stories, and it would be placed in front of every school child in New Zealand.
THE WRITING LIFE: TWELVE NEW ZEALAND AUTHORS, BY DEBORAH SHEPARD (MASSEY UNIVERSITY PRESS, $50).
I made a vow then that if ever I became a writer I would write a book about Maori people that would be an antidote to those kinds of stories.