Contextualising Maori writing, Ruth Brown

When Keri Hulme’s novel the bone people received international acclaim in 1975 I thought that we needed to ask questions about what western culture is doing when it deems “other” races to be still “spiritual”. It seemed that a version of “Maoriness” was being recruited to meet white people’s psychic malaise — the need to locate spirituality somewhere in a world dominated by capitalist practices that seem both unassailable and necessarily exclusive of spirituality. My reading of the novel went like this:

the bone people is set in a landscape degraded by the European presence; the settlers have destroyed the forests and subjected the land to erosion and pollution. Against this, “Maori spirituality” appears as a soothing guarantee of permanence. In a crucial scene, Joe, the novel’s main Maori protagonist, is given his spiritual inheritance in the form of a mauriora, a small figure representing the secret and mysterious life principle. Yet the scene in which he receives the mauriora is full of contradictions. The old kaumatua who has been the mauriora’s custodian says that it is easier to explain the sacred heritage to Joe because he is a Maori, but then goes on to give the explanation in English. Furthermore, he does not require anyone to do anything inconvenient. When Joe suggests that destruction of the land has gone so far that the whole order of the world would have to be changed for the spirit to be revived, the kaumatua dismisses these fears. “Eternity is a long time,” he says comfortably. “Everything changes, even that which supposes itself to be unalterable. All we can do is look after the precious matters which are our heritage, and wait, and hope.” (p371)

Non-Maori can be comfortable with a spirituality that asks them merely to wait, hope and preserve some undefined “precious matters”. Joe becomes the paradigm of the westerner’s Maori — exorcised of all demons (including the desire to be anything other than a factory worker) and patiently awaiting the restoration of the spirit of the land. He thus fits docilely into place as a worker within the capitalist system: the system can demonstrate its regret that the land itself was removed from his ancestors by accepting that the “spirit” of the land is rightfully his but materially it doesn’t change at all. If anything, a divisive and individualistic free-market social order is supported, not challenged, by any culture which locates harmony somewhere else in an unassailable realm associated not with the everyday but with eternity.


Among reconsiderations of the bone people an essay by Rod Edmond has led me to re-read the novel and in some ways to change my response to it. By close textual analysis of a recurring theme of wounding and healing Edmond argues that the novel’s redemptive possibilities are tentative and should not be seized upon by readers as a banal and comforting myth of race relations. At the end of the bone people, Edmond concludes: “The maiming is palpable and the community embryonic.”

I think that Edmond is right to say that the novel is more complex than might be assumed from some critical studies of it, mine included. He has focused on what is actually in the novel, whereas my reading moved away to what is not, concerning itself with what job Joe might get, with what difference preserving the mauriora would make to the political economy of New Zealand and with how the novel was likely to be read. Broadly speaking, we might say that the two approaches represent the difference between the literary critic who finds a distinctive literary system of facts and values and the cultural materialist who reads into the literary text an effectivity provided by the larger culture. Stanley Fish has discussed these two ways of reading a text and concluded: “Cultural Studies tells us to look elsewhere to find the meaning of the literary text: I say that if you look elsewhere you will see something else.”

But if this means that the cultural materialist will probably overlook the subtleties of the text or misread it altogether, Fish has his reservations about “pure” literary criticism also. The title of his essay is “Why Literary Criticism is Like Virtue” and he concludes that they are alike in that they are both their own reward. In the end literary criticism can be defined only as what a literary critic does: it is not related to the world outside the text.

Critics like Rod Edmond who read the bone people as a challenge to dominant discourses appear to make the contrary assumption — that power in literary discourse transfers to power outside the text, although no-one is clear about how this will happen. In an essay which considers the bone people in the light of the question “Who can write as Other?” Margery Fee says that it is necessary for fourth-world peoples to resist majority discourse by communicating their difference and that first-world critics have a role to play in assisting this communication by reacting to fourth-world writing and interpreting it for the majority reader. Christine Hamelin also appears to interpret the bone people in the context of the belief that art has power: “In integrating Maori beliefs and rejecting his colonised self, Joe acquires a new understanding of the role of art: art can fill emptiness and contribute to the formation of personal and national identity.”

But there is nothing to indicate that the redemptive power of the bone people heralds significant material change. On the contrary, written into the text (and much of its attendant criticism) is the concession that hope is sealed within art. What happens after the bone people? Rod Edmond draws our attention to Kerewin’s suggestion at the end of the novel that it might be nothing. She writes that perhaps her Book of the Soul should be folded away and taken out in a decade to see “whether the flowering, that now seems promised, came; see whether it was untimely frostbit, or died without fruit.” (p437) Edmond comments, “If in the last decade of this century the novel’s visionary possibilities do seem ‘untimely frostbit’ this is not something which has caught it unawares.”

Here, the prescience of the writer is deemed more important that the book’s (tacitly conceded) failure to produce the promised flowering. If it is difficult to see how a novel which argues for a predominantly Maori culture offers comfort to white readers, here is an explanation. The book’s failure to flower is predicted within the book itself: the possibility of flowering remains intact in art, antiseptically quarantined from worldly affiliations (to use Said’s phrase) and not requiring any material change. Any reading of the bone people which fails to take into account what has actually happened to Maori people in the 10 years since its publication is a confirmation of Stanley Fish’s argument that literary criticism is, like virtue, its own reward. Edmond’s criticism has as an ideal the recovery of the text’s “true” meaning. This search involves a scholarly and trenchant study of the text and of other critics’ readings of it since 1984 but it ignores the world outside the text.

In the specific circumstances of New Zealand in the 1990s I believe that cultural materialist readings of texts by Maori are more appropriate than the purely literary. Before trying to prove this point I should concede that it is not just literary criticism that can be like virtue, quarantined from the world outside: as Jean Baudrillard has pointed out, there is nothing quite so startling as capital’s ability to collapse social transgression back into itself, remanufacturing it and reproducing it for general consumption as a commodity that looks normal. The cultural materialist might be defined in the same terms as Fish defines the literary critic — someone who does cultural materialism and not influencing anyone apart from (possibly) other cultural materialists.


Cultural materialism isn’t guaranteed to empower Maori either but by keeping a persistent hold on the world beyond the text it is more likely to do so than “pure” literary criticism in New Zealand’s specific and peculiar circumstances.

The 10 years since the publication of the bone people coincide with a period when successive governments have embraced free-market policies more enthusiastically than has happened almost anywhere else: These policies have worked in that inflation and government expenditure are down and the GDP is up. The Economist says that New Zealand’s is a success story and that the future looks promising. The journal of the British National Farmers’ Union envies New Zealand marketeers’ freedom from the rules and regulations which protect the weak in Europe. If Man Alone is no longer a dominant trope in New Zealand literature, he has re-emerged in life, pitting his individualism against the harsh elements of market competition.

The Independent points out the downside to the success story: one in seven people is below the poverty line, there are record numbers of people in jail, armed police on the streets and queues at charity “food banks”.

Maori comprise 12% of the population but they are unemployed and imprisoned in disproportionately large numbers, the main victims of poverty, deprivation and social polarisation. Rather than remedying this situation, the valorisation of Maori culture may have colluded with it, by providing in art a holism that material life is seen to lack. In a country where all commodities, including time, nature and people are subjected to the doctrines of rationalisation, user-pays and cost-effectiveness, a holistic Maori approach is not a part of everyday life, but is a valuable cultural export.

At a conference in Dijon in 1994 a French academic referred to the episode in Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki, when some Maori resist a development which was encroaching on their community by hijacking the offending bulldozers and dumping them in the sea. She said she found the incident a cheering antidote to the ubiquitous bulldozers used for property development on the south coast of France where she lived. All of us listening shared the Maori mind and mentally dumped bulldozers in the sea but the alarming thing about this vicarious act of resistance was that it implied that there was nothing else that could be done. Or, as the world moves further away from wholeness, the world colludes by providing it. Terry Eagleton has suggested that the new right encourages religiosity as a refuge from the utilitarian social order that their own policies help to sustain. Another speaker at Dijon may have been illustrating this point when he argued that holism was a comparatively recent development in Maori art, which had traditionally stressed hierarchies and had been the preserve of an élite.

The response from the New Zealanders present (generally outraged) showed how difficult it is to confront the possibility that one influence on the evolution of Maori art has been western self-interest. The point has been made in relation to other indigenous cultures. Jimmie Durham of the Cherokee nation, aware of what white America expects of him, ironically reassures his readers:

Don’t worry — I’m a good Indian. I’m from the west, love nature, and have a special, intimate connection with the environment. (And if you want me to, I’m perfectly willing to say it’s a connection white people will never understand.)

In Australia Michael Tjakamarra reacted dramatically against Aboriginal art being appropriate and displayed as national icon, by digging up his mosaic, which had decorated the forecourt of the new Parliament House in Canberra.


Maori culture tends to be resistant to this kind of response. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that Maori are stronger numerically than American Indians or Aborigines, not only in the country at large but also in the academy. When Allan Hanson, a respected American ethnographer, argued that Maori mythology was not autonomously Maori but owed much to the desires and interpretations of western anthropologists, he faced the same outraged reaction that greeted the French anthropologist at Dijon. Hanson was confronted at Auckland University by a panel of academics, three of whom were Maori and therefore well-positioned to argue that cultural incursions by people unfamiliar at first hand with the language and customs of an indigenous people were at best irresponsible and at worst mischievous. The only speaker to argue on Hanson’s side was not Maori and his credibility might already have been cast into doubt by the argument about first-hand familiarity with indigenous culture. It is probable that neither in the United States nor in Australia would there be a group of academic indigenes of such power to rebut what they perceived as a slur on their culture.

Another reason for Maori culture being valorised in ways that Jimmie Durham and Michael Tjakamarra resist as hegemonic is that it can be linked to material gains for Maori people, influencing ethical judgments in the material world just as commentators on the bone people seem to hope will happen. In the Hanson affair, one of the arguments used against him was that it was politically insensitive to cast doubt on the authenticity of tribal memories at the very time the perceived accuracy of those memories was crucial in the negotiations being carried on for the restoration of Maori fishing rights.

There have been material gains for Maori people as the Waitangi Tribunal attempts to redress grievances over the dishonouring of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. It could be argued that this happened as a result of a re-assertion of Maori culture — that art does connect with ethics and eventually politics in the world beyond.

Another reason for Maori culture being differently placed from that of other indigenous minorities is that within a small nation with a correspondingly small academic community, debate can easily become polarised so that either you want to promote Maori culture or you’re seen favouring a predominantly European heritage. A third option, that the Maori part of biculturalism is being appropriated to legitimise a free-market economy or as a fresh stock of nationalist and potentially republican iconography, is not really open to discussion.

The valorisation of Maori culture has not empowered Maori. A strong Maori presence in the arts and increased opportunities for the well-educated have not been matched by a better life for the poorest section of the community which is where most Maori happened to be when free-market economies were first embraced and where they still are. If the Maori renaissance has served to link Maori rights with traditional ways of living, this has helped to regain fishing and land rights but other, non-traditional rights like the right to a job and decent housing in the 1990s may have been downgraded by the emphasis on past tradition. Steven Webster has pointed out that research about Maori culture has served pakeha desire by perpetuating idealist myths at the expense of materialist analysis.


To look beyond the literary text is to see something else. Not to look beyond it, in New Zealand now, is a version of fiddling while Rome burns. If the Maori renaissance has brought a new pride and sense of identity to Maori people, it has evolved dangerously in tandem with a social order that denies to many the opportunity to express this new-found confidence. In an analysis of Britain in the 1990s Stuart Hall argues that people addicted to the market principle should not be surprised by an increase in crime against property because in a period of severe unemployment theft ought to be seen as a perfectly understandable “rational economic choice”.

More disturbingly, Hall refers to forms of violence involving young men without a sense of purpose outside of the framework of social belonging. Hall doesn’t say that violence in these circumstances is a rational choice, but if we transfer his argument to a New Zealand setting and a culture where men once were warriors, it might, within the discourse of the market, seem to be so. Denied any constructive role in a society where market forces dominate, there is a certain logic in the self-invented role of skilled fighter.

In the 10 years since the bone people there has been a shift in the tenor of writing by Maori in English. In a review in New Zealand Books of Patricia Grace’s most recent short stories, Lydia Wevers notes:

Unlike the work of Bruce Stewart, Apirana Taylor or Alan Duff, Grace’s writing has not typically dealt directly with the violence and despair that characterises some aspects of Maori life in New Zealand. But there has nevertheless been a shift in her last two collections of stories towards a darker context, a more disturbing environment … Violence is a much more usual element of her characters’ lives than it was before.

The film of Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors is one fight after another. How violence is represented in art and whether in this case it is an authentic picture of urban Maori life are questions too complex to go into here. But it can be argued that the healing suggested by the bone people has not happened, that on the contrary things have got worse and that artists and critics collude with this degeneration if, instead of confronting it, they allow themselves to be used as a part of a holism industry.

The holism which Maori culture is seen to offer should be in life, not quarantined in art and this involves analysis of economic structures and of the relationship between these structures and art. As Edward Said writes in Culture and Imperialism, “If it has been the practice in the west since Immanuel Kant to isolate cultural and aesthetic realms from the worldly domain, it is now time to rejoin them.”

Rejoining cultural and aesthetic realms to the worldly domain when there are powerful vested interests to keep them apart is no easy project. But if the first responsibility of literary criticism were to be to the community outside the text, critics might then have a role to play in shaping a society in which the wholeness we all seem to crave is a part of life, instead of being isolated in the art of the “other”.

Ruth Brown is a New Zealand academic living in London.

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