Rebuilding the wharenui, Simone Drichel

Whanau II
Witi Ihimaera
Reed, $29.99,
ISBN 079008939

For someone who describes himself as “a person who always reflected what other people wanted”, Witi Ihimaera has made an impressive career out of doing the exact opposite. Once every decade or so, it seems, his concern to please others and “be like everybody else” fails to contain an equally strong desire to be different – a desire which finds expression in the radically cha(lle)nging directions his writing takes. The latest of these represents perhaps the most surprising of all literary turns: a return to his early work which even Ihimaera’s publisher Reed cautiously describes as “unexpected”.

Published as part of an anniversary collection to mark Ihimaera’s 30-year career, Whanau II is part of this return, along with a revised edition of Pounamu Pounamu (2003), an international edition of The Whale Rider (2003) and a revised edition of Tangi (yet to be published). What are we to make of this major rewriting project? Ihimaera’s previous shifts in direction have generally been politically motivated and, if we are to believe the author’s statement in a recent New Zealand Listener article, Whanau II is no exception: “I have written Whanau II according to the principles of tino rangatiratanga. I have added the once invisibilised political dimension.” But can an “invisibilised” political dimension simply be “added”, as one might add a new ingredient to an old recipe to spice things up a bit?

The link between rewriting and politics is of course not new in postcolonial contexts: J M Coetzee’s Foe and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea are well-known precedents to Whanau II. Yet Ihimaera’s project is different, challenging not the implicit colonial politics of key canonical works, but what he regards as his own colonised mindset and a lack of politics in his early work -– work that itself has gained canonical status in New Zealand literature. As a rewriting project, Whanau II is closely aligned not only with international precedents but also with traditional Maori forms of oral storytelling, where the same story is retold again and again, revealing ever new layers in the “original”.

While it is not the first time that Ihimaera has embarked on a rewriting project, Whanau II stands out as his most explicit attempt to re-vision Maori identity. In the foreword to the new version, he likens the novel to a wharenui, which, in Maori culture, is thought of as the body of an ancestor and as such functions as a key emblem of Maori identity. A rewriting of the novel must then be understood as a rebuilding of this identity. The many changes Ihimaera introduces are a tribute to an explicitly politicised postcolonial awareness.

In Whanau, the image that emerges of rural Maori life in the 1950s and 60s is predominantly that of a people preoccupied with change and a sense of imminent loss of a traditional life style. The image presented in Whanau II, on the other hand, is that of a family with a history of active resistance to colonisation. The interesting question is how this latter image is achieved, and it is here that some of the problems with Whanau II come into view.

If anything, the village of Waituhi is in an even greater state of desolation in the later novel than in Whanau, where the villagers were represented as at the cusp of loss but not yet “fallen from grace”. Senseless drinking and partying are as much part of daily life in Waituhi II as are darker, more insidious, malpractices. The history of active resistance, the “political ingredient”, then, is not immediately visible in Waituhi. In Waituhi’s “covert history”, however, the village, as Ihimaera informs us, “was from the very beginning a centre of active resistance to the Pakeha.” The rewritten novel accesses and displays this “covert history” successfully through the spiritualisation of key characters and, less successfully, through the inclusion of “essay chapters” in which the family’s history of resistance is unfolded.

Among the characters who are given a spiritualised rewriting are Miro Mananui and Nanny Paora. In Whanau II, Miro Mananui is no longer the impish cardsharp of Whanau and “A Game of Cards” but appears as a reincarnation of The Matriarch’s much darker Artemis. Endowed with the gift of matakite, second sight, Miro watches over the seen and unseen of village life as Matua – an authoritarian but protective parent. Similarly, Nanny Paora is re-imagined as Tamati Kota: a “Maori Methuselah” who not only comes from an “almost incomprehensible age of rebellion and resistance” but who also maintains a spiritual connection to that age. Spirituality in both cases allows access to a past not recorded, or even recordable, in the official history books and so imparts a sense of the “invisibilised” history of resistance to the reader.

Ihimaera’s insertion of “essay chapters”, on the other hand, is less successful. Like a simplistic exercise in revisionist history, these chapters articulate “the excluded” without challenging the underlying mechanism of exclusion. The essay chapters are clearly the product of a formula Ihimaera embraced for the rewriting process: “Aesthetics and Politics = the Maori Story”. It seems to me that this formula is fundamentally flawed. The simple “addition” of politics is too raw, too imaginatively undigested, to create a convincing story. Reading endless paragraphs of facts and dates and figures – some already known from The Matriarch, some apparently drawn from a recent submission to the Waitangi Tribunal by the Whanau a Kai – might add a clear political (or rather historical) dimension, but the very clarity of this addition turned me into a resistant reader.

In fact, I was reminded of Lydia Wevers’ recent review of Lawrence Jones’s Picking up the Traces in the Journal of New Zealand Literature, where she observes that Jones “keeps ‘political’ in a rather tight little box” when he associates “politics” with “political action”. Ihimaera, it seems to me, similarly views “politics” too narrowly if he imagines that the simple addition of “essay chapters” detailing historical facts and figures will make his novel more political. Like Wevers, I don’t believe that “politics is something separate from the practices of daily life”. Daily life in Waituhi II, however, does not necessarily seem any more (or less) political than it was in Waituhi I.

At the heart of Ihimaera’s political re-vision of life in Waituhi stands Rongopai, the family’s meeting house and symbol of communal identity. In Whanau, it is related that Rongopai was at one point a source of shame because its paintings were regarded as inferior to the carvings of more traditional meeting houses. Rejected by the elders, Rongopai was seen as a syncretic blending of Maori and Pakeha artistic forms and a monument to the “twilight years of the Maori”. This interpretation of Rongopai is expressly rejected in the rewrite, where it is dismissed as the product of a “colonised mind”:

The paintings were once seen as symbolising the twilight years of the Maori, but these are interpretations which come from a colonised mind. Decolonise that same mind and you will see the paintings for what they really are: petroglyphs of resistance, iconographs of resilience, statements of Maori surviving within the colonial world. Te Whanau a Kai pana pana maro.


The wharenui is here explicitly reinterpreted as an icon of resistance. This act of reinterpretation raises a number of important questions. It is clear that this reinterpretation is what allows shame to be turned into pride – but what does this suggest for Whanau II, seeing as the novel is likened to a wharenui? It seems that with regard to Whanau, Ihimaera has undergone a similar phase of shame and rejection, renouncing his more nostalgic early work as inadequate for housing a politicised “Maori identity”. In the rewriting process, both Rongopai and Whanau are being reinterpreted, reflecting changed attitudes.


But there is an important difference. While the wharenui itself is not affected by these changed attitudes, Ihimaera’s rewriting makes the reinterpretation manifest through an actual rebuilding of the house/novel. Could he have replicated the reinterpretation of Rongopai more closely, with minor renovations, maybe? But without a complete overhaul of structure and content? Could he have shown pride in the original? Ultimately, this is a question that once again turns us to the political dimension, for pride arises from Rongopai’s capacity to accommodate (an interpretation of) a history of resistance. Did Whanau have to be rewritten quite so radically to qualify as a “political” novel? Or could the original Whanau, like Rongopai, have housed a politics, a history of resistance?

Interestingly, this is precisely the view Ihimaera put forward in 1978 when he defended his early work against accusations of being apolitical: “I say my work is political because it is exclusively Maori; the criticism of Pakeha society is implicit in the presentation of an exclusively Maori values system.” While clearly defensive, this seems to me a valid claim. Whanau presents a snapshot of a rural community that in many ways is “exclusively Maori” – as much as a Maori novel in English can ever be. The articulation of this “Maoriness” necessarily concurs with political resistance, for it is that which eludes colonial appropriation.

The strategies for such an articulation are undoubtedly more subtle than what is offered as political dimension in Whanau II, but they are there. I can only gesture towards them here. One particularly obvious case of resisting appropriation in Whanau lies in the presentation of cultural concepts. Compare the different handling of the Maori idea of whangai, for example. In what seems an anachronistic return to internal glossing, Whanau II explains: “he had been given to them as a whangai child – an adopted son” and “as was Maori custom, Miro wanted to whangai the child – rear it and take care of it.” Whanau, on the other hand, simply states: “The mokopuna are the children of some of Miriama’s nieces. The usual story. They were Miriama’s children now.” The latter statement demands greater insight into, and understanding of, Maori cultural practices from the reader than do the equivalent statements in Whanau II. The change of narrative tense from Whanau to Whanau II is similarly indicative: present tense is replaced with past tense to allow for smoother insertion of background information, but often results in unnecessarily intrusive commentary and superfluous explanations.

Is Whanau II a better novel? And, importantly, is it “better politically”? It certainly is more explicitly political and offers a more complex and sophisticated rendition of rural Maori life. On the question of whether that also makes it better politically, I want to reserve judgement. The author’s politics seem to be informed by conflicting impulses, on the one hand asserting a history of resistance but on the other opening the novel up for easier absorption by a non-Maori reader. A look at the international edition of Whale Rider, also rewritten for the anniversary edition, reveals the same chasm in Ihimaera’s politics: intent on removing “barriers to understanding”, he edits out Maori words and expressions, as well as anything that might be too culturally specific (to be understood in America). Pre-empting Whanau II’s internal glossing, the new version of Whale Rider presents an easily digestible Maori-lite version rather than challenging the non-Maori reader to leave behind their own linguistic and cultural comfort zone and enter into a house that is “exclusively Maori”. Is this an articulation of resistance? Hardly.

Perhaps the best outcome of this rewriting project is that it makes us revisit the question of what constitutes politics, that it makes us return to the original to see how it can be reinterpreted as a taonga to be celebrated, not disowned. But it appears doubtful that we will even be given the opportunity, as Reed Publishers have just confirmed that the future of Whanau is uncertain. Judging by the epigraph to Whanau II, I am not holding my breath that we will see a new printing of Whanau in the near future, desirable though it may be: Mate atu he tete kura whakaete mai he tete kura – From out of one fern frond another arises to take its place.


Simone Drichel teaches New Zealand literature at the University of Otago.


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