Liz DeLoughrey and Susan Hall interview Patricia Grace

Liz DeLoughrey (LD):  Could you speak about your new novel [Baby No-Eyes]?

Patricia Grace (PG):  Oh, yes, if you want to ask some questions and we’ll see if I can remember it well enough to answer! (laughter)

LD:  I was thinking about the different histories that your work moves through – especially the historical scale seen in Cousins of the three generations of women. Is there a sense of continuation as far as the younger generation in your new novel, or a return to the themes of rural and urban migration?

PG:  Yes, I suppose it moves along from Potiki and Cousins. It’s told in story form a little like Potiki with the different voices. There’s a grandmother who is the storyteller of the old stories. There are three generations of stories, and the tellers all live in a house in the city – so there are city stories too. It’s set in contemporary times. One thing that interested me to do was to write the grandmother’s stories in English, when really she was speaking Maori all the time. I would usually have someone like her speaking her kind of English: this time I have had to find a way of representing Maori language in English. I decided to use a balance between a reasonably standard kind of English, and an idiomatic English. I thought that this was the kind of Maori that she would speak – standard/idiomatic. I have tried not to use Maori words because she is speaking Maori all the time. It’s been interesting to do.

Susan Hall (SH):  Is there a sense in which characters in your novels use Maori as a language of the heart as opposed to English as a language of imperialism? I’m thinking especially of the use of Maori in Potiki. Maori passages seem to be used in intimate, private exchanges, and in passages which are connected with ritual. For instance, when the children return from visiting the ancestors in the urupa, Granny Tamihana speaks to them in Maori.

PG:  I’m not a fluent speaker of Maori myself but I’ve grown up with different registers of English, one register being that in which Maori words are used in English sentences. I do that in the book only when it’s a natural thing to do, because I want the dialogue to be reflective of true speech. There are some passages in Maori in Potiki. I’ve modelled Potiki on the way an orator would structure an oration – which will begin with a chant, go on to greetings, then to the main body of the speech, then conclude with a waiata.

The Maori language used in Potiki is meant to reflect what would be a common situation; ie, older people going between the two languages depending on who they are speaking to and what they are saying, the middle age group understanding Maori but often responding in English because it may be their stronger language, the younger people using English all of the time apart from some Maori vocabulary within English sentences. The situation is changing, as we now hear much more Maori spoken by younger people as they attempt to become fluent in the language.

LD:  In Potiki,  whakapapa/genealogies are used to solidify two communities under a common ancestress.  Yet in Cousins, Makareta is not interested in participating in an arranged marriage or playing a role in what she calls “tribal insurance”. Could you speak a little about how these genealogies work in the novels, and perhaps comment on the different relationship genealogies play in each generation’s experience?

PG:  In early times genealogy was what it was all about. It was the basis of family structures. Genealogies are reflected in the meeting houses where the carved figures represent ancestral figures and generations. So the meeting house acts as a record in a way. The figures are named, and from that we can know our descent lines and where we come from. We see the history on the walls, and how we relate to each other and to the past.

LD:  What interests me is that genealogy works to solidify the community in Potiki, but it seems that, in Cousins, it limits the women characters. Perhaps not their genealogy per se, but the expectation that they must continue the lineage.

PG:  Well, I don’t really think it’s only the women who are affected because men take part too. So yes … there are lots of cases where marriages were arranged or hoped to be arranged that didn’t come about. Usually the only way that people were able to get out of these was to run or go away. They weren’t arranged by the parents only, but by whole extended families, you see … There were arranged marriages for different reasons: sometimes it was to consolidate areas of land, or as part of treaties. People, in making peace with each other, would marry their families together so that disagreements would be forgotten forever. It’s not to do with a woman being “given away”. The arrangement was meant to honour both parties – one group was meant to honour the other – otherwise insult would result. The whole family group was bound to support that arranged marriage. If anything went wrong with that marriage … say, a man went to live with his wife’s family and his family thought he wasn’t being treated properly, they’d be likely to come and take him away. Or if a woman’s family felt the husband’s family wasn’t treating her properly, her family could come and get her. A person still belongs to her/his whanau, no matter that they have married into a different whanau, no matter whether they are man or woman. But this is not only to do with marriage…

I don’t think the marriage arrangements were in any way unbeneficial, any more to a man than to a woman. In fact in my own family, where I got the idea from, was from what happened in my grandmother’s generation. A marriage arrangement was made for one of my grandmother’s first cousins, a male. He wasn’t told anything about it, but was just taken north, and found out the night before the celebration that he was to be engaged to a young woman he had never met. He objected. He had interests elsewhere. This would have been a terrible embarrassment and shame to the whole family which would be remembered for many years – that he (in other words, the whole family) had refused the other family’s daughter. The younger brother saved the situation by saying he would take his older brother’s place. He hadn’t seen the woman but he did it to save his whanau from embarrassment. As it happened, the marriage worked out well.

LD:  This is suggested in Cousins when Missy’s fiancé hints that he’s not the chosen one either but they manage to work it out. Clearly, individual and communal histories are important to your work. Do you feel there is a Maori tradition that might have broader links to the Pacific islands?

PG:  Oh, I am sure there is a link but I am not one who studies literature. I’m a reader only… and a writer of course. The link between us is always there: the link we have with Pacific Island Polynesian people…When we refer to them, we refer to them as our older brothers and sisters. Our stories all say that we came from Hawaiki. So we have this history that links us. We call them our older brothers and sisters to honour the fact that we came from them. Languages are similar. The stories all are similar.

I was in Hawaii recently, where I met with other Pacific writers where we discussed the circular nature of storytelling, where writing or telling starts from a point and goes in a circular rather than linear form, where there’s a sense of beginning from a centre, and reaching out and drawing in from there. I have a strong sense of that when I’m writing.

LD:  Who are your literary influences or role models?

PG:  Oh, I read fairly widely. But I particularly like to read books by authors who write about communities and wider family relationships.

Toni Morrison writes about communities, about intergenerational households, about small suburbs. Louise Erdrich writes of native American communities. Eudora Welty and Grace Paley write of small town neighbourhoods. Ben Okri writes about African village communities.

But apart from reading, I have other role models and they are mainly the orators, or the tellers of stories. Also the carvers and the weavers. I quite often think that writing is like a weaving in the way these different forms of storytelling cross each other, and the strands become woven together.

SH:  One of the things I’ve noticed about your literary communities is that everyone works together. In Potiki, [the people of] Te Ope come to help the community under siege, and this seems to me to reflect the importance of family and communal values and to illustrate the paramount importance of the tribal relationship to the land. What strikes me in Potiki is the contrast between Maori communal values, and the individualistic, capitalistic greed of the developers who ruthlessly persist in their desire to purchase the land. I’m interested in hearing your views on how negotiations between Maori and Pakeha can proceed successfully over land conflicts.

PG:  Negotiations can take place only where Pakeha (or let’s say governments or authorities) are willing to accept Maori cultural and spiritual views – ie, that land and resources are to be cared for, for the use of future generations. This negates the view that land is a commodity that can be altered, polluted, traded, for profit.

LD:  It seems your urban characters continually move back and forth to their rural homes, like the protagonist of Mutuwhenua, or in Cousins. What would you say this is reflective of?

PG:  Aotearoa is a small country and Maori people do travel a great deal. There is an obligation to return “home” when someone dies, or the wish to be “taken home” at the time of one’s death. There are many reasons for returning to one’s home place every so often.

LD:  Since you’ve mentioned Toni Morrison, it does seem that the first section of Cousins is very similar to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye where Pecola, like Mata, grows up with pressure to look “Pakeha”, and live in a house with a white picket fence, and have straight hair.

PG:  Yes, I read that as a short story – the mother is a housemaid and raises other children and doesn’t have time for her own child.

I don’t really think that Mata thinks she should look Pakeha, she just believes the messages that she receives – that she’s ugly, bad and unworthy, but that one day there’ll be someone ugly enough to like or love her.

SH:  It seems there are other connections between your work and Morrison’s. In Song of Solomon, Morrison focuses on the relationship between three generations of women. The grandmother, Pilate, her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar, who is loved and cherished by the older women. Morrison describes Hagar’s longing for European-type hair because of racist assumptions about beauty. In contrast to Makareta, who has her hair lovingly cared for by the elders, Mata, like Hagar, suffers from racist treatment at the orphanage because she is told that she has “bad hair”.

PG:  Yes, Makareta and Mata are similar in looks. They both have the family hair. The difference is in self-perception and the attitude of others.

LD:  Like Pecola, Mata seems to exist in a type of cultural limbo. Would you say she is waiting for her identity?

PG:  Not her identity so much. She is not looking for knowledge about herself and is quite shocked when she is called by another name. However, once she does find things that connect her to her mother (her name, the photograph), she places high value on them. She is waiting for her mother. She is waiting to be loved or wanted.

The idea for Mata came to me because I had cousins who were put into an orphanage after their mother died. Their father obtained a legal guardian for them, which meant they were unable to go to their relatives except during holidays, even after their father’s death. I want to say, though, that Mata is a fictional character. She is not based on any of my cousins to any great degree.

LD:  I know that there has been some conflict in the past regarding the anthologisation of Maori literature – would you consider having your work anthologised under less conservative editorship?

PG:  Oh yes, I am always happy to have my work anthologised – under Women’s Literature, New Zealand Literature, Pacific Literature, Oceanic Literature, New Literatures in English, whatever headings come up.

SH:  Do you feel that there is a danger of readers and critics interpreting your views as “the” Maori point of view or perspective rather than “a” Maori perspective? Is this an issue for Maori writers that Pakeha writers may not face?

PG:  I don’t mind at all what interpretations readers or critics put on my work. There will probably be as many interpretations as there are readers. Also there will be some areas of the work not fully accessible to all readers.

However, I am aware that with so few books by Maori there is a danger that Maori life, or the Maori viewpoint, will be seen too narrowly. There’s a danger that new stereotypes could be set up. It was with this in mind that Witi Ihimaera gave up writing for ten years. He didn’t want to be the lone voice, or one of the few voices. It was also the reason that he began publishing anthologies of Maori work. For my part, I have been involved, over the years, in running workshops for new Maori writers, and also in editing and encouraging new work.

Te Papa Tongarewa, July 10, 1998

Susan Hall and Liz DeLoughrey are Fulbright students at the Universities of Auckland and Waikato.

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