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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

- Craig Sisterson

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

— Renée

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.

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 ??  ?? Stranded in Melbourne for the Ngaio Marsh award ceremony is finalist J.P. Pomare.
Stranded in Melbourne for the Ngaio Marsh award ceremony is finalist J.P. Pomare.

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