Dirty washing, Bruce Stewart

Once Were Warriors
Alan Duff
Tandem, Auckland, 1990, $35 (paperback $19.95)

At last a Maori writer has managed to hang out all the dirty Maori washing with some kind of dignity and at the same time place the blame where it belongs. No other Maori writer has achieved this to the same degree – small loads of dirty washing yes, but not the front fence covered in rags and holey underwear. Most of the Maori writers have been careful not to hang it out in case the Pakehas would see it and use it against them. In the backyard – amongst themselves, it’s family and it’s okay.

‘… the kids played in the car wrecks. Used em as playhouses. You could see them at any time of the day wriggling and crawling and wrestling away in there, or just sprawled out amongst the cobwebs and spiders and exposed seat springs and the rusty jagged metal edges added to their infected, half the time pus-oozing wounds, and the steering wheels sucked on by every mouth that ever sat in a wreck, because they must be suckable you only have to watch the kids… and for some, the car wrecks were home… you could go past of an evening and see em huddled up in there with some old blanket or nothing at all, just this pathetic shape cringed in the frozen outline of a broken-down car, and the strains of music coming from inside the house it was sat out of, may as well’ve been a gravestone. And those arseholes in there drinking up large… and fuck the kid out there huddled up dying’…

I love it. It is a raw, honest-as-it-is view of a fairly normal state house block – the kind we find in every backwater of our cities – the other side of town – the reservation – the Pa. England has them – so does America, Australia, South Africa and even here in Godszone. Once were Warriors is a story of a Maori family dominated by the father Jake who is locked in the ‘slave’ mentality – a slave to the negatives from his own Maori people and a slave to the Pakeha system – he is a victim – a dump of negative energy – he is caught in a trap from which escape is almost impossible. Jake lives in a small, limited world. He is a violent kingpin – his world is his fist – everyone, even his wife Beth is often thrashed. Beth is the survivor – she is determined to do the best for her family even though the deck is heavily stacked against her. In Beth is the living myth of the Mother figure – the female deity – the giving, the receptive, the cornerpost.

I enjoyed Alan Duff’s unconventional style – for me it worked – it became voice. I especially like the way he stayed in the head for most of the book – it made it real – straight from the horse’s mouth. When he was outside the head it didn’t work as well – like the Maori elder and when Beth took in the youth.

Alan is typical of the Maori writer. He is gutsy, emotive, naked not manicuredly clever, sophisticated lit, full of strained understatement. What you see is how it is. Once were Warriors is an important document from many points of view for Aotearoa and the rest of the world. Tenakoe to RANGATIRA Alan mo to taonga.


Bruce Stewart is a well‑ known Maori writer who lives in Wellington.


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