“Our own inimitable way”, Miria Simpson

Toi Wahine The Worlds of Maori Women
Kathie lrwin and lrihapeti Ramsden (eds)
Penguin Books, $39.95
ISBN 0140147241

How refreshing to find a collection of writing by my own kind ‑ some from my own waka, Te Arawa, another a fellow boarder at secondary school. Some I have adopted as my daughters without so much as a by‑your‑leave ‑ for we are like that ‑ and/or because I have taken an interest in their studies, their progress, and even more so because they have at various times sought my advice or view on matters that are of mutual concern. I become a willing universal aunt (in pakeha terms) but for us, it is a form of address in endearment.

At last a publisher has accepted a whole raft of work written in our own inimitable way! What is more admirable is that the editorial red pen has been held at bay so that we sound quite like ourselves. We have not been squashed into someone else’s conventional mould. We can recognise ourselves! Yes indeed, I can identify with all these stories.

I have chortled over some of them; nodded sagely over others; and been reduced to tears in others. Some are so real, in my mind’s eye I have even seen a little bit more into the story. Indeed, at times I am not sure whether it is fact or fiction that I am reading. Altogether, it is not only pleasurable, but also intriguing.

Over the years, there has been the boringly regular remark: Why is there so little writing by Maori? Why indeed? Is it too simplistic for you, dear reader, to accept that, our time had not yet come? But maybe it has now arrived?

I remember the edict to “cut it down by half” that happened to Keri Hulme. Or the slashing out of large chunks and the inserting of “improvements” (but termed amendments); or the rearrangement of the order of thought processes; but worst of all the interpreting of sections so that the end product is barely recognisable to the author. The “voice” has changed completely ‑ it is now the voice of the editor.


Look where Keri and the bone people took us! My own experiences of thumping the table and insisting on my way, with the result that leading Maori artists considered the outcome “an art treasure”.

I am a strong advocate for our writing showing life as we live it, and with all its idiosyncrasies. Our writing should ‑ must ‑ speak from the page. Emotions should not be repressed, for we are an emotional lot. We do not stand outside ourselves and merely intellectualise events, actions, experiences. I call that the “cerebral” stage and hope that we never reach it, for it would render our work lifeless, spiritless.

The change from an oral to a written form of communication is where we are now. Add to that that writing in the English language could take us a further step away from tradition, thus presenting us with a range of difficulties. For instance, should we be expected to adopt completely the New Zealand English?

For a Maori English is well entrenched in Aotearoa ‑ just as there is an Australian English with its drawled vowel sounds and an American English with its own sounds and spelling. We all know them when we hear or read them; and we accept them readily.

If we are forced into the New Zealand English mould, we must end up melting into oblivion. Please God, do not let that happen. Our writing must remain firmly rooted in its cultural context. It is up to us to decide what is fitting for us. That is not to say that flights of fancy into imaginative writing should be set aside, certainly not. We must venture forth into all avenues of writing but without relinquishing the spirit that is Maori.

So much for my soap‑box topics.

Tena koutou, nga wahine toa

me a koutou korero ka puta nei ki te ao!

Let me now greet the writers and their works going out into the world: Hail to you, blithe spirits! It is a pleasure to be reviewing your work. You have covered almost the whole gamut of our lives. Each one gives a different facet. Some of my pithy notes say:

Natural, heartrending, emotional,.

Clinical, analytical, GET REAL indeed;

Mana Wahine, uri o Porourangi!

STYLE … ! Few words, heaps of meaning;

Abuse is so real ‑ brutal ‑ no holds barred;

Hopeful final paragraph: ‘When I grow Big…”

One author takes us through her life from childhood to the present ‑ a widely extended whanau; a much‑loved grandmother who told of her unhappy school days. The outbreak of war led to urbanisation. The author’s first school in the suburbs and the ignominy of having our names mangled.

I myself keep telling people how soul‑destroying it is to have one’s name said so badly ‑ mutilated in fact. I wish people would try harder with our personal names in the first instance and with our place‑names next.

There is also the reference to libraries as terrifying! What a sad indictment on the place? or on the staff? Do libraries want to wear this label? The library is but a storehouse of taonga that should be available to all, therefore one would wish it to have a welcoming atmosphere. Where should the welcome emanate from, but the people who work there?

Nevertheless, it was onward and upward determinedly to complete a degree ‑ and then continue to master’s level. It was hard work, but she got there.

Then there are the stories in verse form ‑ short stories, page‑long stories ‑ all telling things as they are for the poet, for us. The first story, completely in Maori, is of “Te Timatanga, The Beginning” [of the world] ‑ the Genesis, in fact, told simply and lovingly.

The last one is addressed to graduands by a graduate of 50 or so years ago. Dame Mira Szazy traced the history of her education, through to graduation, her hopes and aspirations, which circumstances beyond her control channelled in another direction. I can truly say that Mira has lived and continues to live the life with which she exhorted those graduands: “Seek the seeds for the Greatest Good for all People.”

Miria Simpson of Mataatua and Te Arawa is Maori language consultant at the Alexander Turnbull Library and a member of the Maori Language Commission.

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Posted in Gender, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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