Deceptive understatement, Apirana Taylor

Attack of the Skunk People
Phil Kawana
Huia, $19.95,
ISBN 1 877241 20 2

Attack of the Skunk People is a collection of short stories and poetry with a cover that is colourful and mysterious in itself, a tempting invitation to open up the book and read what’s inside.

The first story is “The Photograph of Uncle Raka”, and it seems more like a short vignette or character study than a story. The strength of the piece is in the deceptive simplicity with which it is written. The recognisable contemporary characters and the understated family conflict – which is hinted at rather then signposted – permeate the piece, adding a malevolent threat and power to what initially seems to be just a descriptive exposé on family members sitting about getting drunk.

The second story, “Himiona’s Knives”, displays the writer’s minutely detailed knowledge of his subject. What could be merely the description of a humdrum, everyday event, such as Himiona sharpening his knives, suddenly becomes more poignant and pointed when the reader is informed of a family tragedy that adds an edge to the story; through fine and deliberate use of understatement, it cuts and pulls at one’s heart strings, leaving one wanting to know more.

“Standing on a Cloud” is a story in which the writer pulls fewer punches. The tale shows the terrible drunken loss and unhappiness of a people who seem to have no idea of how to get themselves out of such a violent lifestyle. As in the preceding stories, Kawana shows a fine sense of understatement, prompting readers to reach their own conclusions. The deeper meanings within the tale unfold of their own accord, and this is partly what makes the story so powerful.

“Whales”, like some of the previous stories, suddenly becomes more compelling when the writer imparts some information to the reader halfway through the tale which sheds a disturbing and illuminating light on everything within the drama. One feels aroha for the characters without having one’s intellect clouded and dulled by a too overt use of emotion.

There are some stories that didn’t quite confront me or compel me to read them as much as some of the others. “Listening to Berlioz” has some delightful lines, such as “Daisies grew in joyful patches next to the dirt road which streamed from their house to the village like a ribbon in the wind.” However, I couldn’t quite get the point of the story, which may be just a matter of personal taste. “Looking for Audrey Hepburn” didn’t seem to have the power, punch, pathos or humour that permeates many of the other stories. I do however feel the urge to re-read it. A silent voice within the writing keeps whispering to me that I’ve missed out on something. This is probably because in this collection Kawana repeatedly demonstrates that he is a skilful and talented writer, and sometimes a reader must give such talent a little more leeway and spend more time with it in order to fully understand and appreciate what it is trying to do.

Not all the stories follow the same style or pattern. “Sleep” differs in format and general subject matter from the rest of the collection. It’s a conversation in dreams between the writer and the reader. “The Last Christmas Piss Up” once again reads like a conversation between the writer and the reader. Its slightly blackened humour and portrayal of characters such as Uncle Jimmy provoked interesting memories and insights into life’s ironies.

Kawana frequently displays an ability to write about violence, tragedy and frustration, but with humour; and this is partly what gives the book its distinctive appeal. Humour wends its way through many of the stories, and “Visitors” in particular is a story that frequently had me cackling away as I turned the pages.

“The Greatest Guitarist of all Time” and “What I did in the Holidays” present scenarios which many Maori would be familiar with, and it’s in these pieces – because of his humour, familiarity with the subject and his well-honed insights – that Kawana writes best.

On the whole, the poetry – in comparison to the stories – seemed a little anaemic for my taste. I asked myself whether or not I was making the mistake of reading to the poems instead of letting the poems read to me. I’ve consequently re-read the poems several times to find that they have their own beauty and that there is enough good poetry in the collection for lovers of poetry to enjoy.

Any quibbles I have about Attack of the Skunk People are minor and by far outweighed by my admiration and positive feelings about the collection as a whole. Phil Kawana is indeed a worthy talent and like a lot of other talented artists he deserves to be nurtured. The cost of publishing probably means that physically the book won’t hold together for a thousand years. Nonetheless, Huia publishers have produced a beautiful little book under difficult circumstances and should be commended for its artistic layout and visual appeal.

Apirana Taylor (Ngati Porou, Te Whanau a Apanui, Nga Puhi, Ngati Ruanui and Ngati Pakeha) is a writer and actor who lives in Paekakariki.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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