“We talked and we argued to keep ourselves alive”, Tina Makereti

For Someone I Love – A Collection of Writing
Arapera Blank
Anton Blank Ltd, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473299187

For Someone I Love is aptly titled, for the immediate impression is of the immense devotion Arapera and Pius Blank had to each other and their children. Love undeniably infuses this book, from the stunning cover through the poems and stories, even to the more academic essays and, of course, via Pius Blank’s photos throughout. Underlying this is the fact that the book was produced by the Blank children, in some way enacting the return of that devotion. A first encounter with the text is therefore somewhat like stumbling into a very intimate setting, a private place of familial and romantic love. Hearing Anton read one of his mother’s poems from the volume on Radio New Zealand evoked the same feeling: that of eavesdropping on something I wasn’t meant to hear, or that a son is not meant to know of his mother. “When in thoughts he becomes my womb / I lie there partaking of his life / hoping that it doesn’t destroy him,” he read with extraordinary tenderness, and it felt like witnessing some unexpected shift across the boundaries we all erect between ourselves and our parents.

The book consists of three parts – poetry, fiction and essays. In many of the poems, Arapera’s two languages sit side by side, saying different things while working towards a cohesive meaning that might only be completely evident to the bilingual reader. But the similarities and differences between each side are revealing, even to a novice. Take, for example, “Bone song”:

Ki tonu au nei te koiwi ke,
Na, roto i enei, koiwi ke,
Huri noa au nei ki hea, ki hea
Te-hiku-o-te-ika
Upoko-o-te-ika
Ki-muri-o-te-hiku
Wharekauri-tua-atu
Other bones lie deep in mine,
Within these lie other bones,
It matters not where I turn
To-the-tail-of-the-fish
to-the-head-of-the-fish
Or-curving-behind-to
Wharekauri beyond

The English version meditates on a theme that is common amongst Māori and Pasifika writers, and no less potent for it – that we carry our ancestors within us, not just in a metaphorical way, but physically, that we cannot escape our inheritances, but we can turn to them for guidance and belonging. However, attention to the Māori text reveals the vast differences between Māori and Pākehā expression. This is no simple translation, but a wholly alternative way of expressing a similar thought. The Māori text is imbued with rhythm, repetition and sound that isn’t present in the English text. Repetition of the “k” sounds and of the “ei” or “e” sounds create music and transmit meaning as much through emphatic sound as reliance on denotative language. Thus the Māori text is almost songlike, whereas the English rhythms are subtle and more evident in the second stanza. In the Māori version, the second stanza continues the staccato use of “k”, bolstered by the natural rhythm of a language in which each syllable consists of consonant-vowel pairs. It is a demonstration on the page of the author’s ability to fluently engage two different world views via language. The distinction is perhaps even more apparent in “Te putake mai o te pu harakeke – Who is important?”

E ki, e ki, e ki
he pu, he pu, he pu,
he pu harakeke,
He tangata, he tangata
The time has come for some
of us to abandon
imagining flax to
be mankind!

The intriguing endnote “Written after getting bored with a repetitive phrase!” suggests a playfulness with language and a complexity that Arapera could express in two registers. As a collection, the poems consider a range of themes and images: as often as romantic love, creativity is examined; roots, trees, carving, kumara, bones and the sun emerge often; cultural identity is never far from the surface of a poem; and I found myself recognising gods and goddesses, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more quietly, like the lines quoted by Anton above, which seem reminiscent of Hine nui te Pō. As the author exclaims at the end of “Te putake mai o te pu harakeke”, “Birth, growth, life with meaning / cannot exist without / womankind!”

It is difficult not to read For Someone I Love as an historical document as well as a purely creative collection. Encompassing the period between 1958 and 1990, the book presents a snapshot of a culture in flux and, in many ways, historical context became the focus of my reading. This is particularly true of the stories and essays. There were aesthetically pleasing moments in the stories: “And the restless fingers of the city beckoned and Marama went forth to learn a little more” (from “Yielding to the New”). Yet, for the most part, the fiction pieces seemed like stories about things the author had experienced: moving to the city for the first time, going to school and speaking only English, living in an old house and trying to impress the Pākehā visitors. There isn’t anything wrong with this, in itself, but I was keen for more, to go deeper. In “One Two Three Four Five” there is a surprising postscript in which the narrator does take us further, describing his three legs – the Māori, the Pākehā and the third leg “that I have fashioned from the other two. It’s very clumsy. When I go home it gives me trouble even there ….” I couldn’t help wondering what treasures the writer might have uncovered given more time to develop her fictional dexterity.

The writing that Arapera did develop was remarkable for its time. Her essays focus particularly on the pressures of “weaning into a dual society”, often revealing just how heavy the load for Māori women in the 20th century was. At times, it is shocking to see the early and middle part of the century through Arapera’s eyes. This would have been a particularly difficult time to be a Māori woman in Aotearoa. Traditional whanau structures had made way for nuclear family units, and rather than sharing family duties and childrearing, women were alone in their homes. Individual capitalist farm production had overtaken communal methods of relating to the land. It appears from Arapera’s essays that women bore the brunt of this economy, and in turn children were affected. But this doesn’t mean she lets her peers off the hook; she is critical of women who didn’t care for their children as well as they could, and of a culture that was beginning to face the new pressures of urbanisation. Even so, for the most part Arapera’s essays are concerned with the education, health and welfare of girls and women in particular. A different kind of love is exemplified here – aroha for community, culture and society.

It is useful to consider the purpose of the extensive footnoting of Māori words throughout the book. For a collection dedicated so strongly to bilingualism and biculturalism, it is confusing to find words like “Māoritanga” and “whanau” translated on each page they appear. In addition, translating terms that most New Zealanders, Māori or Pākehā, will be familiar with has the effect of interrupting the text. Māori words then seem outside or alien to the main body of work when in fact the writing seamlessly integrates both languages. Perhaps the book has an international audience in mind and the translations are for them, but might they sit better in a separate section?

Arapera Blank was a writer, a mother, a wife, a traveller and a teacher, as well as an active participant in her communities. The responsibilities of her day before she got to the page would have been manifold, so I am grateful that she went to the page, often, to record her world, and that her family have produced this survey of her work so perfectly complemented by her husband’s images. No reira, ngā mihi nui mō tēnei taonga.

 

Tina Makereti’s novel Where the Rekohu Bone Sings was reviewed in our Winter 2014 issue, available in our online archive.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review and Short stories
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