Politics and culture between the sheets, Phil Kawana

Huia Short Stories Five: Contemporary Maori Fiction
[editor not given]
Huia, $29.95,
ISBN 186969032X

Without Reservation – Indigenous Erotica
(ed) Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
Huia, $34.95,
ISBN 0973139625

 

Both these books from Huia are collections of indigenous literature, but the similarities end there. Huia Short Stories Five is the latest collection from Huia’s successful awards programme for Maori writers, while Without Reservation is a collaboration with Canada’s Kegedonce Press. The difference is more profound than one might think.

The first Huia Short Stories was released in 1995. Huia has, over the course of the five volumes, provided a forum for new (and not-so-new) Maori writers. This alone makes the series valuable, but is being worthy enough? While some of the writers who first gained notice within the pages of the Huia collections have gone on to other things, most have disappeared. With a few exceptions, the overall quality of successive editions has not shown the steady improvement that one would hope for. Sadly, Huia Short Stories Five is a prime example.

There is some very good writing here, but there is also far too much mediocrity. Why? Considering that many of the writers appearing here are either first-timers or else relatively inexperienced, a strong editorial hand would be expected. Raw talent and having a story to tell does not of itself guarantee quality literature. One would neither expect nor tolerate flat singing on a CD, for example, yet in Five one finds typos, bad grammar, dodgy punctuation and some very clumsy phrasing. This is hardly fair to new writers, and even more unfair to their readers.

The collection also includes novel extracts. While this may have seemed a good idea at the time, it makes for very unsatisfactory reading. These are, after all, early drafts of incomplete works. Why on earth would I want to read them now? If you’re going to include a novel extract section within the Maori Literature Awards (which I have no problem with per se), publish the novel when it’s completed. If it’s not good enough to publish when it’s complete, then why foist it on the public in an unpolished, abridged form? Not good enough is not good enough. Inclusiveness for its own sake is a disservice to all involved.

On the positive side, there are some fine stories here. Fay Williams, Chas Te Runa and Wiremu Grace all deserve special mention, though for me the star of the show is Anton Blank. His two stories alone almost justify buying the book. I enjoyed “Michael” so much that I wish I had written it, which I guess is about the best compliment one writer can pay another. I can’t wait to see more from him.

2

Without Reservation is a collection of erotica that brings together the cream of indigenous writers from North America, Australia, Aotearoa and the Pacific. This looks and feels like quality from the moment you pick it up. More importantly, once you start reading it is nigh on impossible to put down. These are not just dirty stories from the natives – they not only stimulate the senses but also challenge your conceptions of sensuality and society. Politics and culture slide between these sheets, and the sheer beauty of life fully-lived emerges from the words.

One of the questions the reader is confronted with before long is “Where does erotica end and pornography begin?” Indeed, is the difference definable or purely subjective? Certainly some of the writing in here is quite graphic. There is lust, but there is also tenderness. Does the difference between erotica and pornography lie in the portrayal, or in the intent of the author? I am inclined towards the latter. These stories are (to make a rank generalisation) a celebration of life, and whatever our stance on sexuality may be, there is simply no life without sex. Cloning excepted.

The highlights in Without Reservation are so numerous that they cease to be highlights. This is writing of sustained quality. I have my own favourites, of course (over the last six months I have become a rabid Richard Van Camp fan), but favourites are by definition a matter of personal taste. Buy it, read it. Be forewarned, though; there are times you’ll want to share it with someone …

3

Indigenous literature around the Pacific Rim is going through a period of exponential growth, both in quality and quantity, as these two books attest. Internationally, our leading Maori writers are held in high esteem, sometimes to a greater degree than they are at home. For more than 10 years, Huia has played a significant role in the rise of Maori literature. No doubt it will continue to do so. However, I have definite reservations about the future of the Huia Short Stories series if it is to persist in this form.

Some of the work in Five is good enough to grace any anthology, but some is decidedly average. Worthy but dull does not make for enticing reading, and without readers, literature is dead. A firmer hand to guide inexperienced writers through the process of preparing their work for public consumption could have made for a much stronger, much more enjoyable collection.

While exposure to an audience is essential to the growth of any artist, it should never be at the cost of quality. Maori literature is fast approaching the point (if it hasn’t reached it already) where it no longer needs to be pumping out any old product just to be noticed. If we do not build on the foundations that have been laid down, then the work of our established stars may be both the beginning and the end. Growth requires change. It is not just a case of getting bigger. A bit more effort and guidance would have paid off handsomely for everyone – readers, writers and publishers.

At a time when First Nation people around the Pacific are looking to us as a model of growth and expression, it is somewhat humbling to note that here we have been shown by Anishnaabe editor Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm how to put together an anthology of genuine grace and power.

 

Phil Kawana is a writer and single parent who should get danger money for reviewing erotica.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Maori, Review and Short stories
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