In an ex­tract from The Writ­ing Life, Witi Ihi­maera, DCNZM (Te Whanau-a-Kai, Ngati Porou, Ron­gowhakaata) tells Deb­o­rah Shep­ard about grow­ing up

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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.


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.

Witi Ihi­maera

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