Penguin Books, Auckland, 1991, $19.95
Patricia Grace’s first two volumes of short stories, Waiariki (1975) and The Dream Sleepers (1980), and her first novel Mutuwhenua (1978), all contained glossaries giving the English meanings of the Maori expressions used. The later novel Potiki (1986) and the short story collection Electric City (1987) have done without glossaries, and so does this year’s Selected Stories. How often, or perhaps to your surprise, how infrequently, have you found you needed a dictionary to cope with the many Maori words and expressions in this volume ‑ Kamakama for example; mokopuna, kai, kina, pupu, mango, ruku koura, and so on? Most readers will undoubtedly feel quite at home with these and the other pieces of Maori in the stories, and they will do so largely as a result of the familiarity gained through reading the works of writers like Grace. The absence of a glossary in the Selected Stories is surely an instance of at least one kind of success for the educative function she and other Maori writers have had attributed to their work for twenty years and more. If the way she uses Maori in her stories is one of Grace’s signatures, the way she uses English is even more distinctive. ‘The power of language to silence or to rewrite cultural identity is never more evident than in the work of Maori writers’, as Lydia Wevers has remarked in her chapter on the short story in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. The Maoriness Grace achieves in English is deftly rendered, whether through her widespread use of the idioms of ordinary speech or through unusual instances of linguistic creativity. Examples of the former abound.
In ‘The Urupa’ the children race past the old part of the burial ground because it’s so spooky (‘an old woman with wetas in her hair who came out of the ground sometimes … ‘), and when well past it they collapse gasping and say ‘Had it, had it’, and ‘Made it, made it’. In ‘Waimarie’ the woman instructs her son before leaving the house ‘…and don’t you smoke while I’m out, putting the place on fire … You come down the marae after…’. On the way to the tangi, she asks her niece Lucy to ‘…get me a leaves from my little tree’ for her mourning headband. Expression after expression that is English and yet not quite, the idioms of Maori English as she is spoke declaring time and again the linguistic otherness of the speakers, their cultural distinctiveness.
The distance between Maori English and English is even more marked in examples of Grace’s creative use of language. In ‘At the River’ a morepork cries out. ‘Out and out it cries’, Grace writes, releasing the preposition from the phrasal verb and letting it function independently. The dissociated state of being of the woman in labour pains in ‘Hospital’ is conveyed strangely by references to ‘this one of her’ and ‘the other one of her’. Is there a gesture towards primitivism in constructions like these’? Something of the kind was probably behind Tokowaru’s references to his ‘borning mother’ and his ‘making father’ in the novel Potiki, invented usages that fall like lead compared with the odd airiness conveyed by ‘Out and out it cries’. But the un-Englishness is the important thing.
The otherness of Grace’s linguistic medium, especially at the level of idiom, is strategically right for one who is by nature doubly other to begin with, in her Maoriness and in her womanhood.
Cultural and gender-based approaches to her work are, inevitably, rewarding. A number of the selected stories extend the power Grace has shown as a political writer since ‘A Way of Talking’, a power she shares with Ihimaera, Habib, Stewart, Tuwhare and other Maori writers, though no other has rivalled the intensity of Potiki‘s indictment of the Pakeha. Most of the stories, however, explore non-polemically the condition of women and children in small, isolated other-worlds like those created by Mansfield in ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’. Grace’s impressionistic and symbolistic similarities to Mansfield are surprisingly strong.
The Selected Stories provides an excellent bold outline of the range of Grace’s work and the nature of her present concerns. The most striking feature of the volume is the progressive darkening of its emotional spectrum, which evidently parallels a deterioration in the relation of the races in this country. The existential nightmare that supplies the dominant tone of ‘Hospital’, the final story in the book, is one that recalls Camus, Frame, and Wendt at their bleakest. Grace has so far demonstrated an admirable ability to move on, to avoid getting stuck in stylistic or ideological ruts in her work. Where she will go from here, given the prevailing temper of life in these islands, is anyone’s guess.
Ken Arvidson, an Associate-Professor of English, Waikato University, has published extensively on New Zealand writing.