Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood
It is sometimes useful, in reading a review, to have some sense of the reviewer’s positioning in relation to the material. After all, the New Zealand literary community is small, and it is not uncommon to read a review that says as much about the reviewer’s biases and assumptions as about the book in question. Therefore, it might help to admit that I am not as familiar with Witi Ihimaera’s fiction as some might assume, given my own writing and teaching interests, although I have encountered Ihimaera’s words, many times, as a passionate advocate for Māori writing through his series of anthologies, and through his essays. As a young person struggling to piece together some understanding of a fractured identity, these collections, and Ihimaera’s insistence on supporting and giving visibility to a community of Māori writers, were immensely valuable. My relative inexperience with the author’s prose, however, meant I came to this book with few preconceived ideas about what or how it might be. Perhaps this is somewhat relevant because ardent long-time fans most likely bring with them expectations. For some, his work reveals a world they have not encountered before, but long to be closer to. For others, his stories give voice to their own way of seeing the world. These are immense gifts to offer a reading public, but I did not encounter Ihimaera’s stories at school or university. I have a lot of catching up to do (as does our education system).
Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood is a big book in many ways. Literally so, because, at 370 pages plus, it brings us only to the author’s late teens. Figuratively also, because it encompasses not just one boy’s life, but a community’s whakapapa, history and mythology. As is fitting in a Māori setting, the writer introduces himself by way of his ancestors, grandparents, and parents, mountains and waters and marae: “Mount Hikurangi takes its place in my whakapapa as the epic manifestation of my mother’s mana, strength or prestige. Of course it is not only her mountain, it is the mountain that all Ngāti Porou regard as theirs.” Thus we are given the tribal history via its interconnections with the author’s own family stories. All too soon, Cook and his cohort arrive, and the histories change: “That was the beginning of the end for traditional Māori society.” But leaders like Te Kooti and Wi Pere soon make their mark on the colonial landscape. Not only this, but Māori creation is woven through the entire memoir, so that the stories of Māui begin to weave in and out of the personal and familial histories: “The Spiral always turning, and the forward spiral of my kōrero has rubbed against another, which is running parallel with it. We will have to cross over for a moment, but we will come back again.” The book both describes a culture and inscribes that culture in its structure, which frequently turns back through generations and epochs of time, in order to move forward.
There are a few different ways to approach a memoir, and there were moments when I was in two minds about which I’d prefer in relation to this volume. Because of the extensive detail in Māori Boy, I tended to think of it more as an autobiography. The difference between autobiography and memoir is probably a matter of degrees and semantics, and I imagine the book is titled a memoir because of its rhetorical flourishes and speculations. However, in my own understanding, an autobiography almost always takes several volumes (this is the first of two), and goes into great detail in a more or less linear recitation of a life. A memoir is often a more shapely and petite text, centred around a theme that allows the writer to choose his or her moments. It might make less of attempting to encompass an entire life. When teaching life writing, I would often advise my students that memoir gave them the power to choose the most evocative focus. Being more selective with detail can improve the pace and power of a story. Reading this memoir, I was again struck by this question: how to shape a life on the page?
There is no doubt that a great deal of shaping and choosing has taken place here. Even a volume as extensive as this can only provide glimpses of a life lived. There were points at which I stopped and wondered how much detail was required, however. For example, about going to the movies:
Sessions were normally at 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., and additional children’s sessions were held at 10.30 on Saturday mornings. If you were a child you paid 6d or 9d to go to a movie. Adults paid up to 2s 6d for the best seats.
Though I also often advise students that specificity is important, this does tend to slow the pace of narrative.
Even so, I concluded that these specifics bring the East Coast of the 1950s into sharp detail. That, in fact, what I was looking at was a socio-historical document, not just a memoir. If someone were interested in writing a story set in this era, I would recommend studying this book for the qualities of experience not often captured by history texts. In this context, Ihimaera’s decision to widen the scope of the book, but also include the minutiae of everyday life, is an ambitious project that preserves his memories of a time and place lost to most of us.
To steal a phrase from the book, “and now the tika”. Sometimes reading Māori Boy was like listening to my mother’s stories, in which she shares similar legends: My father was so handsome. He was so good at rugby. My mother gave so much. She looked after everyone. This is my ancestor from Ireland (I share with Ihimaera ancestors from Cork), these are our mountains, this is your tūpuna who had a great love affair with this one, your other tūpuna. I recognised so many stories in Ihimaera’s book, even though he wrote about different people. And this is how I knew it was tika, I knew it was true to a way of life and a way of thinking and seeing the world. This seems an important thing to preserve, and it has been preserved well.
The other element of tika is a dark thread that runs through the book: sexual abuse and pain that overshadows what seems for the most part to be a happy childhood. It’s important to acknowledge the courage and openness it took to write down these experiences and condemn the behaviour behind them, when there might be personal repercussions for the writer. It’s also encouraging to see the author grapple with the decision to share all on the page. His mother’s childhood is a shadow that pervades his own childhood, so that I often felt haunted by her story as I read his.
And there were many pleasures to be found in the prose itself. The voice on the page is very much the voice of the man: eloquent, endearing, cheeky, somehow proud and humble at the same time, willing to put it all out there. Sometimes, prosaic, colloquial: “I must apologise for the digression. Let’s face it, when you’re dealing with whakapapa you sometimes have to double back.” I endorse this approach – a memoir, I think, should reflect the real spoken voice of its writer. The greater pleasure for me, though, was in the rhetorical flourishes that promised and hinted at more, a world beyond our grasp, a place of magic: “I begin with my mother … Blood, dawn, incantations, a profile lined with crimson – from the very beginning, Mum was emblematic”; “I deliberately darken the palette now”; “This is the story. Imagine it is happening in sepia.” These flourishes, almost always at the beginning of sections, hint at the writer the boy would become, and remind us that, while non-fiction, this is still the world of story.
As the memoir closes, the young man picks up his pen. I look forward to the next volume, in which the author will begin his work. No reira, tēnā koe, e te rangatira.
Tina Makereti is a writer and curator who teaches Māori & Pasifika Creative Writing at the International Institute for Modern Letters in Wellington. The review of her book, Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, is available on the NZB archive, https://nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.