Where’s Waari? A History of the Maori through the Short Story
ed Witi Ihimaera
Reed Publishing, $29.95,
“Here then are 28 stories,” writes Witi Ihimaera in his introduction to this anthology, “– 28 scenes if you like – covering the Maori in the New Zealand short story from the beginning of our history.” In many ways Where’s Waari? is as simple as this statement makes it sound, a collection that moves from Alfred Grace and Henry Lawson to Phil Kawana and Briar Grace-Smith, from the sentimentality of a colonial portrayal to the urban subculture of the late 20th century. And like so many good ideas, its simplicity is one of its chief virtues. As Ihimaera notes, most of New Zealand’s major writers have written short fiction at some point in their careers. The short story stands as the most important form of literary expression for New Zealanders to work through anxieties of belonging, from the 19th century onwards. As a medium it is suited perfectly to this telling of a longer story.
For it soon becomes apparent that a long and compelling story is at the heart of this collection, and it is a story that Ihimaera sees as being unfinished. “Is Waari more real for being written about by Maori?” he asks, anticipating the transition this collection records when work by Frank Sargeson and Maurice Shadbolt was joined by figures such as J C Sturm and Ihimaera himself. “And where is Waari going from here?” Implicit in the simplicity of Ihimaera’s questions is the knowledge that this history through the short story is no journey from painful misrepresentation to a portrayal of revisionist authenticity.
Though Where’s Waari? contains a clear movement from outside to inside, from the Maori spoken for to the Maori speaking, there is a sense in which this collection presents a curious symmetry. Both the very early and most contemporary material seem to carry distinct codes. The 19th-century obsession with the “inscrutable” native, with the exoticism of indigenous culture and the benevolent arrival of European civility and capital seems to play itself out in set forms in these stories. Likewise the stress in those stories from the 1980s and 1990s on the squalor of unemployment, of abuse and criminality, of voices locked and trapped and beyond articulation, becomes a form of shorthand of its own. As Where’s Waari? presents it, the fulcrum on which this range of representation turns is a story such as Maurice Duggan’s “Along Rideout Road that Summer”, or Shadbolt’s “The People Before”, where Pakeha culture begins to see the limitations of its own version of the nation, or possibly most graphically in Noel Hilliard’s “The Girl from Kaeo”, where Pakeha and Maori voice alternate as, respectively, institution and victim.
The earliest of the stories collected here are glorious in their packaging of the supposed virtues of European colonialism. Will Lawson’s “The Slave’s Reward” contains most of the imaginable tropes of the colonial imagination. It manages to fix its Maori characters within a set idea of “native” culture, to contain the slave girl Tairua in a standard romance narrative, and to conclude with a clear advocating of the necessity of European capitalism, military knowledge, and law and order – all in less than 10 pages. In the stories by Alfred Grace, Henry Lawson, Blanche Baughan and Will Lawson, Maori characters shuttle between stereotypes. They are cunning and childlike, enigmatic and noble, unknowable and yet seemingly deceitful. All the time, however, they are objects, and these pieces conclude with the clear restoration of an outside authority, whether it be within the text itself or a sudden swoop of the narrative voice, that makes clear how strong the power of representation is.
As might be expected, Katherine Mansfield is more subtle. “How Pearl Button was Kidnapped” contains none of the easy certainty surrounding Pakeha settlement that informs “The Slave’s Reward”. Mansfield’s critique of the narrow uniformity of colonial life highlights an idea of Maori community that assimilation cannot contain and control. Yet it is fair to say that this idea of Maori, the “fat and laughing” people at ease with the colours and sounds of the landscape, instigates a different misconception. “It is a funny place,” Pearl says to herself as she is taken into a Maori home, possibly speaking for a wider Pakeha community attempting to come to terms with the new national space once the first pioneer phase was completed.
The tension in Mansfield’s story between an awareness of the restrictions of colonial New Zealand at the start of the 20th century, and the projected virtue of Maori communal life, is one that subsequent stories also display. Robin Hyde’s “The Little Bridge” is striking in its form, a dialogue between the narrator and Te Kawhaia, “the last of the seriously anti-English chiefs”, that allows Te Kawhaia to dominate the story by recounting a narrative of his own. Yet, as with Hyde’s 1936 novel Check to your King, much of the sentiment here is tinged with a pull towards the conventions of colonial romance that, for all the modernist nature of much of her writing, Hyde could never quite release.
Possibly more common in the immediate post-Mansfield stories, as Where’s Waari? presents them, is an elusiveness and ambiguity, sometimes written into the fiction and sometimes more a point about narrative authority. They seem to speak of a clear unease within the Pakeha community by the mid-20th century. Frank Sargeson’s “White Man’s Burden” and Roderick Finlayson’s “The Totara Tree”, both well known from previous anthologies, emerge from their positioning in this collection as texts that speak of a troubling uncertainty in how to read relations between the two cultures. In his introduction Ihimaera draws specific attention to Douglas Stewart’s “The Whare”, noting how when he first read it at school in 1958 he was so outraged at its portrayal of Maori that he flung it out of the window. Yet he invites his readership to look again at the story, wondering if an audience at the start of the 21st century might find “redeeming characteristics” he might have missed. It is a clever move to do so, for Stewart’s account of Jack, a Sargesonesque drifter who stays in a Maori community only to flee as he senses he is being permanently drawn into family life, is a schizoid tale that displays Maori as culturally other and primitive, yet suggests a critique of Jack’s ability to understand his own story. If Stewart can’t help but resort to certain 19th-century notions of cultural strangeness, he nevertheless presents a nervy and clearly problematic idea of Pakeha selfhood.
What we might think of as contemporary Maori writing dominates the last third of this collection, beginning here with stories from the 1960s by Arapera Blank and Rowley Habib that, with their stress on the inherent difficulties of day-to-day life, prefigure writing of some 30 years later. Time and time again, the same themes emerge. The fraught subjects of Habib’s “Strife in the Family” seem transformed by further prejudice and degradation into the substance abusers of Phil Kawana’s “Redemption”. The institutional violence of Bruce Stewart’s prison story “Broken Arse” is also the criminality of Apirana Taylor’s “Freedom Hill” or the domestic violence of Briar Grace-Smith’s “Rongomai does Dallas”, realities which Grace-Smith in a succinct phrase terms “darkness and sharp edges”.
In all of these stories the narrative voice sits close to the subjectivities of the central characters, picking up hurt and anger. The better stories, such as those by Kawana and Grace-Smith, pick up emotion too, fleshing their characters out and making their fiction something more than cultural politics. Reading the last third of Where’s Waari?, it is impossible not to feel the presence of Alan Duff’s Once were Warriors, though the point to be made is how Duff’s novel drew
upon a significant and already existing body of work, as well as extending the parameters of Maori writing.
With this in mind, some of these later stories stand out precisely because of the contrast they offer to an orthodox literature of Maori hardship. Patricia Grace’s “Ngati Kangaru” is a wonderfully inventive and ironic reversal of the logic of the New Zealand Company’s settlement policies. Its playfulness marks it out in this collection, and suggests that there may be less flexibility in theme and method in Maori writing than is found in, say, comparable writing from
North America, such as that by Sherman Alexei or Thomas King. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, iconoclastic in the overarching story Where’s Waari? presents is Keri Hulme’s “He Tauware Kawa, He Kawa Tauware”, where the holistic view of Maori seems uncomfortably situated amidst the work of others collected here. All of these representations depart from the real of course, but Hulme’s seems more willed than most.
In his introduction, Ihimaera refuses to say that his anthology “names” the Maori subject. Waari is as frequently lost from these stories as present in them. But that in itself is something to know, and to understand. Straightforward in its composition, Where’s Waari? is anything but straight-forward upon contemplation.
Stuart Murray works in the English Department at the University of Leeds. He is Secretary of the UK-based New Zealand Studies Association.