Rivers, repetition and reproaches

Mark Williams re-assesses his position on Ihimaera’s borrowings and reworkings.

Reviewing a book on modernism by C K Stead in Landfall in 1986, Ken Ruthven revived the old saw that one cannot step in the same river twice, meaning that he judged Stead’s critical practice to be historically redundant. Stead was wearing old-fashioned formalist bathers rather than the speedos of contemporary literary theory.

Witi Ihimaera seems to have heard the news about rivers and repetition, and donned modish swimwear from the Eddie Bauer catalogue of postcolonial theory. The author has recently returned to his early work, reissuing it with refurbished politics. It is unfortunate that he also returns to his old habit of lifting historical sources without proper acknowledgement, and this time the repetition has not been sexed up to meet the passages of time and taste.

How unforgivable is The Trowenna Sea plagiarism, and is it more reprehensible as a repeat crime (just one short of a third strike)? Did critics, publishers and awards panels enable the later plagiarism by not being sterner towards the earlier one? Should Auckland University have taken stronger disciplinary action against such a serious academic transgression?

I first came across plagiarism by Ihimaera while writing a critical study of the New Zealand novel, Leaving the Highway, which appeared in 1990. I wish I could report that I did so by way of a Jolisa Gracewood epiphany while reading a novel – in my case The Matriarch – in which passages of text stood out from their context. In fact, the news came to me by way of Andrew Johnston, then editor of the Evening Post’s excellent bookpage, which broke the story that Ihimaera’s novel contained unacknowledged material from Keith Sorrenson’s entry on Maori land in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966).

What surprised me then was how minor were the consequences for the author. There was a fuss and no doubt Ihimaera was embarrassed, but his career was not interrupted. In the same year he became a professor. The books kept coming, the prizes were awarded, iconic status was conferred. Ihimaera progressively became not simply a prominent New Zealand and Maori writer, but the writer who represented the Maori Renaissance and bicultural New Zealand to the world.

This is what I wrote in 1990:

Ihimaera does not simply take over Sorrenson’s account. He works over the passage he borrows, inserting new sentences and deleting others. This process is deliberate, even calculated. Ihimaera does not simply add passages of his own or rephrase his source, as one might expect of someone trying to conceal a debt. Rather, he writes against Sorrenson’s account and against the historical kind of writing Sorrenson uses. When one separates Ihimaera’s interpolated sentences from Sorrenson’s passage, they make up a thread of commentary and protest on the context in which they have been placed. Sorrenson’s writing, although it expresses an opinion about the events it records is exact, balanced, restrained, objective, unemotive, factual. Ihimaera’s is angry, at times hysterical, subjective, partisan. No effort has been made to fit the two seamlessly together. Instead the distance between them has been exaggerated.


In light of The Trowenna Sea it appears I was wrong to postcolonialise plagiarism in The Matriarch, thereby removing it from usual standards of literary judgment. The method of using historical sources in The Trowenna Sea certainly discloses no such deliberateness as I discovered there. The material has been used passively, with minor tweakings of phrasing which show a lazy effort at concealment, but not political engagement with the original.

The interpolations in The Matriarch do display a difference of tone, style and stance to their borrowed matter, but it’s hard to conceive this was driven by political purpose given that such deliberateness is so manifestly absent from the later borrowings. The source of the problem would seem, then, to be one of writing method: the author gathers material from historical authorities in preparing his novel about history and loosely works it into his fictional narrative.

Inga Clendinnen in “The History Question” (2006) talks about “the gulf between ‘doing history’ and ‘doing fiction’ ”; Ihimaera’s method, by conflating the two, does a particular injustice to the practice of history. In retrospect, it seems to me that I also was guilty here; it was especially reprehensible to defend Ihimaera, as I did, by implying that Sorrenson needed rhetorical correction on issues of Maori land loss.

Was it pusillanimity on my part? Perhaps, but I did criticise Ihimaera and, as reviews editor of Landfall, I resisted the view that different standards should apply to Maori or women writers. I firmly believed I was not cowed by the political theologies (the phrase I think comes from Stephen Spender) of the period. Nevertheless, those politics did constrain what I wrote. Critics have a duty to apply literary standards rather than dress ineptitude in fashionable theory, and I failed in this duty.

Still, I baulk at the highly charged moral atmosphere that has surrounded The Trowenna Sea scandal. If I was too eager to excuse plagiarism in The Matriarch, the New Zealand Listener (NZL) has been overzealous to condemn as a failure of literary ethics what might rather be seen as a failure of method. Where I saw exonerating political purpose in 1990, NZL now finds theft. Where postcolonial sentiment made one reluctant in the 1980s to level blame, a more strenuous age is determined to punish. But where does the punishment end?

NZL itself has recently been accused of covering up an equally convincing act of historic plagiarism by its editor Pamela Stirling. Anyone who has marked student essays knows that plagiarism is common enough, but is not always the outcome of deliberate purpose. Students borrow material from the web, rework it sloppily, and hand in contaminated work. The universities take plagiarism seriously, warning students against it, monitoring their work and taking disciplinary action where it is found. But those caught plagiarising are not automatically expelled or failed. The extent of the debt and the intention of the student are taken into consideration in determining disciplinary measures.

Nor is Ihimaera the first major author to be accused of plagiarism. Katherine Mansfield borrowed heavily from a Chekhov story, Malcolm Lowry from a Nordahl Grieg novel. In both cases the debts were those of young authors to writers with whom they strongly identified. Before Chekhov, Mansfield had been besotted with Oscar Wilde, and her early diaries and sketches are full of Wildean imitation. Mansfield became a major writer not by abandoning her literary models but by laminating the influences that overwhelmed her as a young writer into her own style. Bill Manhire has written wittily and without moral outrage in the poem “On Originality” of the way writers find their voices by assimilating and “killing” the writers who influence them.

Ihimaera, of course, is no longer learning his craft as a novelist. The question is, how did he come to commit the same crime twice? Perhaps he is a slow learner. My guess is that he simply followed the same method of “doing” historical fiction he cobbled together writing The Matriarch, expecting a Penguin editor to pick up any problems.

When researching The Matriarch as a diplomat in the US, he made notes partly drawn from the New York Public Library, then reworked them into fiction by superadding his own voice. His early stories, derived from experience, heard speech and remembered worlds, did not require sourcing in other writing. The key shift in the narrative design of his fiction comes from his response to the heated politics of the 1980s over colonial history that led him to dip into the written record of historians.

This is not to excuse plagiarism in The Matriarch or The Trowenna Sea. In both cases the simple addition of notes on sources with page references to actual words used would have saved the author and his publisher a great deal of distress. His university would also have been spared the appearance of applying a double standard in the way it disciplines students and staff, especially as Victoria acted much more severely against plagiarism by another Penguin author in its employ. But in the latter case an historian appropriated the work of another historian, arguably a more serious academic fault than careless use in a work of fiction.

Academics used occasionally to lose their jobs for what was called “gross moral turpitude”. These days, like Paul Buchanan, you may also be dismissed for linguistic turpitude, that is, for using language judged offensive by students. But the modern university is part of the market-regulated state, and generally academics are squeezed out of their jobs when their subject areas decline or they fail to meet research output expectations.

Ihimaera is himself a subject area, and one still worthy of attention in spite of lapses in his manner of translating history into fiction. The question is not whether the 2009 return to the plagiarism of 1986 deserves a more rigorous response than it received from his university, but which part of his large output will really last. To my mind the work of the 1970s has the deepest resonance and will still be read and valued when the celebrity status of the author has become a minor footnote of literary history.

In this respect Ihimaera’s revisitings of his own early writing may turn out to be as damaging to his reputation as his lax treatment of sources. Ruthven’s point was that one wears the intellectual fashion of the present or risks irrelevance. By returning to his past with the intention of making it conform to a later political template, Ihimaera risks turning his work into fancy dress.


Mark Williams teaches New Zealand literature at Victoria University. His most recent book is Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, co-authored with Jane Stafford.

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