Weekend Herald - Canvas
Maori Voices Excelling In The ‘Big Whare’ Of Crime Writing
Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists Becky Manawatu, J.P. Pomare and Renee talk to about bringing Maori perspectives to novels entwined with crime
AI started to a write a crime novel because I was teaching how to write one. I realised in the first class that the only way I could really judge whether the course was working was by doing it myself.
n 8-year-old who revels in a fantasy world with the girl next door and covers his body with plasters for comfort. A teenager inside a van on a country road who holds a dosed rag to a younger girl’s face after helping snatch her “new sister”. A tough 30-something who revisits the children’s home where she was abandoned as a baby, to solve the mystery of a friend’s death.
Three wounded, fascinating characters at the heart of three compelling books.
Each story explores abuses of power, in vastly different tales. Each is among the six finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. And each was crafted by a talented Maori storyteller: two exciting newer voices and a legendary wahine toa, trying something new.
It was two years ago this month that pioneering dramatist Renée (Ngati Kahungunu), a self-described “lesbian feminist with socialist working-class ideals”, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for her “outstanding contribution” to New Zealand fiction.
That contribution included writing more than 20 plays and several novels that put strong women front and centre. Approaching her 10th decade when she received the $60,000 prize,
Renée was already working on adding to her oeuvre.
“I started to a write a crime novel because I was teaching how to write one,” she says. “I realised in the first class that the only way I could really judge whether the course was working was by doing it myself.”
Renée’s students had to write 10 pages a week, for 10 weeks, so she did the same. “I’m a child of the Depression, I thought, ‘Waste not, want not,’ so then I wrote the book.”
The positive response from readers and the Ngaio judges to The Wild Card, in which local theatre actress Ruby Palmer tries to piece together the puzzle of her friend Betty’s death 30 years before, and her own upbringing in the Porohiwi Home for Children, “was a hell of a surprise”, says Renée. “I thought it would go out into the world but because I’ve labelled it a crime novel, it won’t perhaps get a lot of attention. Then wham, it does get attention.”
West Coast author Becky Manawatu (Ngai Tahu, Ngati Mamoe a Waitaha) has also been surprised by the attention she’s received for her debut, Aue. The powerful story of brothers
Arama and Taukiri, whose lives and family have been clawed and torn by gangs and violence, Aue has thrust its rather shy author into the local literary spotlight. “I’m not very articulate when I speak, which is why I write,” says Manawatu partway through our conversation, apologising for not “giving a good answer”, unaware how insightful and engaging she’s been.
There’s a sense that despite all the accolades, including winning the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards back in May, Manawatu still doesn’t fathom how sublime her storytelling is, or how her humble authenticity strikes a
chord. Aue is at times harrowing, at times humorous or hopeful; beautifully written throughout.
More than a year after publication, it’s still high on the New Zealand fiction bestseller list.
The last year or so has been “a really amazing journey”, says Manawatu. She’s particularly grateful to have been able to share the highs and ride out any anxiety-inducing moments, with her family. “Having my kids and my husband with me along for the ride, it’s been exciting but I have that grounding always. We look back on some of it now and can’t believe we’ve all had this experience together. Some of the lockdown felt like a bit of a gift, being able to stay home.”
While Manawatu and Renée will be appearing at the upcoming Word Christchurch Spring Festival, where this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards winners will be revealed on October 31, their fellow Ngaios finalist, J.P. Pomare, will be absent; he’s marooned in Melbourne’s lockdown.
Last year, Pomare (Ngapuhi) became the second Maori writer to win a Ngaio Marsh Award when he scooped the Best First Novel prize for Call Me Evie, a twisting psychological thriller about a teenager with a fractured memory being hidden away in a cabin in Maketu.
Pomare’s debut, like Manawatu’s, appeared on the local bestseller list for more than a year after its publication. Call Me Evie was listed for book awards in Australia and the United States. His second novel, In the Clearing, a creepy thriller inspired by a notorious Australian cult, also became a number one bestseller. (For weeks both of Pomare’s novels were in the top 10 at the same time).
Emerging in the countryside outside Melbourne in the 1960s, “The Family” blended Christianity with Eastern mysticism, and centred on yoga teacher-turned-messianic figure Anne Hamilton
Byrne. Pomare says he’d been fascinated by the cult for several years, on a number of levels.
“Some of the greatest minds in Australia were enamoured with her,” says Pomare. Fictionalising The Family for In The Clearing was difficult, he says, as the reality was so bizarre. “There really was no core message or central motivation for the cult, because everyone was just motivated by being around her and her aura and her motivations were a bit unclear.”
Pomare recently appeared on a “Five Continents of Crime” panel for the Bloody Scotland online festival, alongside Nigerian Oyinkan Braithwaite, longlisted for the Booker Prize; Singaporean author Shamini Flint; awardwinning African-american crime writer Attica Locke; and Scottish author Lin Anderson. It’s great to see more authors of colour writing “unapologetic crime fiction”, says Pomare, who first broke through writing literary short stories with a dark edge for magazines like Takahe and Meanjin, and has hosted author interview podcast On Writing since 2016.
The global popularity of crime writing provides interesting opportunities for writers of colour to explore vital issues via a page-turning story, says Pomare. “Crime fiction is such a great vehicle for these conversations, for these diverse experiences to be taken to a broad audience.”
Called “the modern social novel” by the likes of Ian Rankin, crime fiction has evolved and expanded from the puzzle-like whodunnits of Agatha Christie and Marsh and mean streets gumshoes of Raymond Chandler. Nowadays it stretches from comic mysteries to horror-like serial killer tales, from psychological whydunnits to literary explorations of crime’s impact on individuals and society.
“That’s the whole pleasure of it, it’s a very big whare and there’s room for a lot of us in it,” says Renée, who grew up enjoying a steady diet of Golden Age classics from her local library (she still regularly re-reads Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers) and nowadays reads plenty of New Zealand crime writing, or “yeahnoir”. Renée is a fan of Pomare’s mahi, along with the likes of Vanda Symon, Charity Norman, Jonothan Cullinane, Sherryl Clark and Nathan Blackwell.
Later this year, Pomare’s Audible Original
Tell Me Lies, about a Melbourne psychologist provoked into drastic action by a dangerous client, will be published as a print novella with a preview of his third novel, The Last Guests.