Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 182 4
Both Sides of the Moon
ISBN 1 86941 362 8
After retiring from journalism, Alan Duff’s grandfather Oliver wrote a Shepherd’s Calendar (1961) about his life as a farmer. He explained that although he wanted to be honest and to include in his account the violence that was an inevitable part of living by animals, he had concluded that for the sake of our sanity and human dignity, some things were best left unsaid.
Otto Heim’s study of violence in contemporary Maori fiction, which originated as a PhD thesis at the University of Basel, is based on the opposite premise: the value of immersion in the most troubling aspects of existence, pain and suffering. He theorises this position in terms of the value (and difficulty) of empathising with extreme pain, when such a state is beyond language, “a state of pure sentience, which blocks out everything else in our consciousness.” Through exposure to this condition in good literature, however, there is a transition from pure sentience back into language, and into connectedness with the world.
This progress out of violence, pain and suffering has particular relevance to Maori fiction because violence is seen as an authentic part of Maori cultural heritage, a source of honour and pride requiring no apology or sense of inferiority to European civilisation. For Heim, however, this does not mean that violence is to be sanctioned for itself: rather, it is the revived contact with cultural memory that is of value, in restoring previously broken links with the past and paving the way for a new, spiritually orientated world-view. Where James Belich in his book Making Peoples (1996) identifies two contrasting understandings of Maori tradition – “Red” Maori with a special propensity for violence, and “Green” Maori living in harmony with one another and with nature – Heim shows Red evolving into Green.
The text that best fits the theory is the bone people. Concerned to rebut the view attributed to Mark Williams that Hulme’s vision mixes violence, religion and nationalism in a manner that comes dangerously close to political fascism, Heim praises the novel for its “careful attention to sentient states and psychological responses.” He says that wounding is a necessary prelude to healing, and that violent sacrifice heralds a spiritual relationship between people and their world.
Witi Ihimaera’s book The Matriarch relates more tenuously to Heim’s theme, because here the distinctive violence of the Maori past is seen to be controlled by fate and the supernatural: if there was slaughter, this was an inevitable function of religious nationalism and out of human control. How is this to lead to a new vision, based on connectedness? In Heim’s reading, the violence itself is not so important as the fact that a distinctive cultural heritage has been reclaimed, so that Tamatea, as guardian of cultural memory, can then move forward confidently in new ways.
Heim’s emphasis on the community-forming propensity of tradition/myth is timely, particularly in the wake of studies like Belich’s which tend to stress the falsity and flaws in myth/tradition. But there is an unease throughout this analysis, marked by the author’s concern to vindicate Ihimaera’s vision of a violent past. The argument depends on the progression of Red into Green, on the emergence from a darkness that is both distinctively Maori and psychologically beneficial in the long run, into a new light that is also distinctively Maori. But there are so many other ways of looking at violence – unrelated to Maori cultural memory – so few texts that illustrate the theme without major apologetics, that the book reads better for its commentary on individual texts than for its thesis.
In many of the texts discussed, violence is neither Maori nor potentially healing. Rather, it is a social pathology related to an unjust power structure. Thus in Patricia Grace’s Potiki violence originates with Western developers, not the Maori they want moved, and there is no indication that bulldozer-operating companies could emerge into any form of spiritual growth or connectedness. Bruce Stewart’s story Broken Arse is read as identifying conflicting strands in Maori cultural heritage, one violent, the other creatively harmonious; and it is in Western prisons that the first is amplified and the second marginalised.
Some texts link violence to class rather than race, in a way that illustrates the theme of a speech made in New Zealand last year by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeku Anyaoku, when he said that global integration is happening in parallel with growing inequality, and with national disintegration which in many countries is accentuating conflicts rooted in poverty and ethnic differences. Thus, in Apirana Taylor’s story “In The Rubbish Tin”, Philippa is stuck with the rubbish as a metaphor for an urban underclass in which children suffer most; Bob, in Patricia Grace’s story “The Geranium”, is violent at home as compensation for lack of control over his life in any other sphere. A detailed reading of Apirana Taylor’s novel He Tangi Aroha suggests that Heim agrees with the author in relating violence to global forces causing unemployment, pollution, and war.
Another aspect of violence is the daily killing that was once the basis of the New Zealand economy (2000 animals a day in high season at the Patea Freezing Works). This is referred to in a reading of Keri Hulme’s story “A Tally of the Souls of Sheep”, which sees a fateful retributive link between the deaths of two children and the slaughter of countless sheep. Although the analysis of the stories in Te Kaihau/The Windeater is excellent, it is a pity that Heim did not delve further into the institutionalised violence that Oliver Duff didn’t like to think about, and that many Maori were recruited into as workers.
A further explanation for violence in fiction, scrupulously admitted by Heim even though it disrupts his thesis, is that it might just be perverted and sadistic. At what point does sensitive immersion in destructiveness that is integral to Maori cultural independence turn into gratuitous violence in ethnic dress for the voyeur market? When it comes to Alan Duff, Heim’s unease with his theme increases. The assumption in Once Were Warriors of a genetic propensity for violence (as opposed to a valid cultural tradition) seriously limits Maori options for the future; and furthermore, violence seems to be relished. Heim worries: “clearly, the novel knows more about violence than it cares to say, and perhaps this in part accounts for its great commercial success.” He thinks that the descriptions of Jude’s violent sexual escapades in One Night Out Stealing “seem somewhat indulgent in their extent and pacing, as if the author wanted to offer his readers the same impression of something ‘at once repulsive and a turn-on’ as Sonny gets from looking at Mr Harland’s pornographic prints.”
Duff’s latest novel Both Sides of the Moon was published too late to be included in Heim’s study, but any concerns about Duff bringing ethnic violence into disrepute must now surely be magnified. Both Sides of the Moon is a series of graphically described violent incidents, loosely connected by a story-line about Jimmy, growing up in the 1950s and 60s and having to come to terms with the Maori part of his cultural heritage before he can extricate himself from the mess his life’s in and move forward to the brighter side of the conceptual moon, the Pakeha half. We are certainly immersed in violence as eyes are gouged out, the heart plucked from an enemy and forced into her mouth, and so on, and on, but we never emerge into a new, spiritually orientated world-view. By page 149 when bodies falling over a cliff “smacked and splattered and thumped with terrific groaning outbursts that just as suddenly ceased; burst life vessels, shattered blood gourds, spilled brain, splattered…”, I thought it must be a spoof. By page 177 when a “gang of filthy men and youths plunged themselves into cunts”, I’d ceased to care.
So central are all these gory incidents that the conclusion, in which Jimmy finds that Love is the answer, can only be described as gratuitous non-violence. Equally peripheral to the main theme is a curious syntax apparently aimed at an historical ambience of some dignity. “Oh, men mighty in their utility of what each is born with” heralds the slicing of throats. When Te Aranui is bothered by flies he “swatted at them not.”
An authorial voice repeats that savagery is a genetic inheritance: “a thousand years’ warrior breeding”, “a people sublime in their savagery”, “wild innocents who are genetically programmed – or something – to break out fighting”; but if there’s any bright side to this book, it is that the tale sometimes outwits the teller. Te Aranui, unmanned by a vision of innocence, loses his heart for violence, thus apparently subverting his genetic inheritance. The singing of Maori Battalion members at an Anzac Day Dawn Parade suggests idealism rather than savagery, and Jimmy sometimes wonders whether the rot is general amongst contemporary Maori or whether his mother’s family and friends are an exception. So the genetic programming might not be so pervasive after all.
Why was this book published? I suspect that the Red Maori idea has licensed a wallowing in violence in writing about the past, and conferred literary credibility where none is merited. Both Sides of the Moon will probably be a commercial success. If the concept of Red Maori emerged partly out of objections to the way ethnic spirituality or Green Maori have been commodified (as in, “The tribal look is the hottest interior design trend in years … Primitive people are more in harmony with the earth. Their designs represent that” – from “The Good Weekend”, supplement to The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 1990), ethnic violence can also be marketed for home and overseas consumption. The world-wide success of the film of Once Were Warriors and some of the language used to describe it – “dark, tough, almost unwatchable”, “real, raw, to the point, vicious” – might suggest that New Zealand’s own particular brand of violence is a profitable cultural export.
In his concern to endorse Maori traditions of violence and of spirituality, Heim does not think through the implications of the former, nor does he acknowledge that spirituality can be expressed in many ways. The UK organisation Church Action on Poverty, for example, argues that dominant political and economic structures are inimical to the Christian vision of human wholeness and keeps up a critique of them, even though this understanding of spirituality is unlikely ever to have the popular appeal of more distant “ethnic” versions.
There are no easy answers and certainly none that are universally applicable, but like many of the texts Heim draws on, there are versions of spirituality which point towards encouraging the light as far as possible without getting too embroiled in darkness. Alan Duff’s latest offering is surely a warning of the hazards of the latter as deliberate cultural policy. Some of the novel comes close to autobiography, and it is dedicated to, amongst others, his children, “by way of explanation”. There is much to be said for his grandfather’s belief that a writer should hesitate to hurt family and friends by “a too ruthless exposure of himself as he really is.”
Ruth Brown is an expatriate New Zealander living in England.