Here be gods, monsters and mortals, David Eggleton

Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold By Māori Writers
Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (eds)
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143772965

In Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold By Māori Writers, the retelling of mythic stories is a communal activity, with one storyteller picking up where another leaves off, but then transmogrifying the story and often taking it in a completely new direction. Pū rākau means “tree roots”, and so these stories are an affirmation of the polytheistic animism running through the cosmology of the Māori world – Te Ao Māori – with story branching from story, and all interconnected to the main trunk of the mythology as part of a holistic continuum. Here be gods, monsters and mortals in tales of star-crossed lovers, of defiance and derring-do, of transgressive behaviour and comeuppance. These myths retold bend and blend genres, from the supernatural and fantasy to science fiction, ghost stories and magical realism – all this, the reclaiming and the repurposing, a far cry from the bowdlerised, even infantalised, interpretations found in the versions of A W Reed, Antony Alpers and other 20th-century Pākehā anthologists. 

As a selective anthology of contemporary Māori writing in English that adapts, abridges and reworks traditional tales, the book gathers together poems, short stories and extracts from novels and memoirs by nearly two dozen contributors. Over half of the material has been previously published elsewhere, beginning with work produced by Hone Tuwhare and Keri Hulme several decades ago, but a glance through the various explanatory and biographical notes about authors at the back of the volume confirms that most of these previous publications are out-of-print, or are in fugitive, hard-to-get-hold-of productions. More to the point is the kaupapa Māori behind this anthology, which is laid out by the editors Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka in their introduction.

Indigenous stories are never idle; they are a means of integrating past with present and activating elemental motifs of resonant power to assert the continuum of identity. For Māori, bloodlines, genealogies, tribal histories are generated from origin stories. Recital of whakapapa links back to the very beginning of time, and thus the universal archetypes of human storytelling are given a local habitation and name within the Māori imaginary. 

In her prologue, Hereaka proposes we think of these stories as being part  of a never-ending loop, one twisted like a Moebius strip and, no matter where we begin, constituting a sensuous all-embracing experience: “the leaves opened, the spine cracked … words like a pulsing heart”. Indeed, her whole prologue reads like an exercise in whaikōrero, in persuasive and eloquent rhetoric: silken, mesmeric. Inviting you to engage with these entangled tales, she writes: “Listen closely to the blank, the black, the dark. Let it invade you, colonise you; assimilate it.” This deliberately writes across the post-colonial narrative, mirroring Pākehā culture with all its blithe appropriations as the Other.

Meanwhile, in his fable “Niwareka And Mataora”, the story of how the intrepid Mataora brought the knowledge of ta moko – or the art of skin tattooing – back from the Underworld, Ihimaera comments: 

My writing is my moko. The technique of rhythmically tapping a bone chisel lashed to a small wooden haft echoes my tapping the keys of an iPad … As I tap away I get the extraordinary sense of Māori writing as an act of recovery. 

Yet cultural amnesia – cultural forgetting – remains a real and ever-present danger. In his story “Hine Tai”, Apirana Taylor writes of big city alienation and of the need for young urban Māori to reconnect with their heritage. A Māori schoolgirl resents learning te reo Māori to the despair of her grandmother and the chagrin of her uncle. 

Māori storytelling began as an oral tradition, but early Māori were also skilful readers of symbolic language, such as that encoded in ta moko or in whakairo (carving). Artist James Ormsby in his prefatory note to the anthology explains the symbolism of his cover image of the tokotoko – “the walking-talking stick held by speakers on the marae” – which functions as a mnemonic device. His drawing alludes to the five parts that make up the book: “Creation”, “The Ancestors”, “The Sea To The Land”, “Mythical Beings” and “Rarohenga”.

In the “Creation” section, Te Po – or Night, the Void – is hymned by both Hone Tuwhare (“Light … infiltered past  / the armpit hairs of the father”) and Patricia Grace (“Night of great darkness, long darkness, utter darkness, birth and death darkness”). And then Tina Makereti’s short story “Skin And Bones” goes on to describe Tāne – son of the primal deities of earthmother and skyfather – creating the first woman Hine out of “deep red-brown earth” and bringing her to life by “pressing his nose against hers so that they could breathe together for a while”. Grace takes up the same narrative from Hine’s point of view: “Tāne blew on me, my eyes opened and I drew breath.”

In these made-over tales, archaic and flowery language is eschewed; the idioms are up to the minute, reflexive, alert – if sometimes a bit tract-like and preachy. One story, though, by Australia-based Nic Lowe, uses amped-up, carnivalesque language to give the underlying didacticism an ironic and unsettling twist: “We fed the tribe’s entire archive into a learning AI and used it to create simulations of fifty tīpuna.” Ihimaera’s “Hine-tītama – Ask The Posts Of The House” employs a high-flying Māori businessman, a stylish dandy of a character with great powers of empathy, as a narrator to tackle the tapu subject of incest, together with family fault-lines and inherited resentments, in a compressed saga with operatic overtones, and with parallels in the Oedipus-like myth of Hine-tītama, Girl of the Dawn.

So the old tales are scrunched up and smoothed out again to be made relevant. In Paula Morris’s “Tāwhaki: Real Life”, the eponymous T, a marginalised anti-hero, has just lost his job, been evicted from his house and forced to sleep in Albert Park, clambering up a tree for protection at night only to be caught in a thunderstorm. The Tāwhaki of legend climbed up to the heavens where he avenged old grievances before becoming a healer.

Throughout the anthology, Christianity doesn’t get a look-in, being irredeemably tainted as an ideological device for cultural suppression, as well as a by-word for encouraging unscrupulous 19th-century land-sharking. Instead, the redeemers are figures like the navigator Kupe, as celebrated in Robert Sullivan’s chant-like poems. His Star Waka series is now canonical, here joining much-anthologised poems by Hone Tuwhare (“The Kūmara God Smiles Fatly”) and Keri Hulme (“Headnote To A Māui Tale”), which serve as landmark peaks, rising sharply above the sometimes meandering rainforests and boggy wetlands of the book’s prose.

The life of the charismatic demi-god Māui is charted variously in several works. In Briar Grace-Smith’s story “Born. Still”, Taranga ministers to her boisterous offspring, five jostling brothers all called Māui, and their quiet and responsible sister Hina. Jacqueline Carter, in a poem about emblematic mana wāhine, or strong women, reminds us of the fate of a feckless Māui, encountering Hinenuitepo, Goddess of Darkness, and being crushed “between her thighs” for failing “to pay heed / to the strength that is woman”. In Canada-based David Geary’s “Māui Goes To Hollywood”, Māui, the once agile survivor, is washed-up, on the rocks; by turns a has-been movie star in Hollywood and an over-the-hill rugby league player in Australia: “Once the joker in the pack, he was now reduced to bad dad jokes.”

Evocations, hauntings, ancient lore reincarnated in the inhabitants of the here and now. Night witches, hags, crones. Kelly Ana Morey’s short story “Blind” spans three decades, moving from 1960s decadence to millennial political correctness with the shrewd attentiveness of a social anthropologist as it chronicles the incarceration of Ruruhi-Kerepō, “the Matekai Street Child Killer”, in Kingseat Mental Hospital and her eventual release out onto the streets as “one of the broken husks, blown across the city to gather in doorways and gutters before being slowly washed out to sea along with the stormwater”.

Also in the Ogresses section, is “Kurungaituku”, Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku’s revisiting of a legend about a creature “half-bird … half-human … sometimes beautiful … sometimes ugly” turned vengeful harpy in pursuit of the all-too-human Hatupatu, who has seduced her, desecrated her cave and stolen her tāonga. Changelings, optical magic, fabulism. Kelly Jones, Renée, Tina Makereti all deal in tales of metamorphosis from unexpected perspectives. In “Shapeshifter”, Makereti ventriloquises the voice of Pania of the Reef from the point of view of the bronze statue immobilised in Napier’s Marine Parade Gardens. 

All in all, lush, but also harsh and brash and often brassy, this anthology is made up of a kaleidoscope of colourful fragments, most of them satisfyingly charged with psychic energy and loyal to the legends they are based on.

Geary’s “Rarohenga And The Reformation” is perhaps the most subversive story in the collection, and the most discombobulating in its confrontational mannerisms, which are styled on interactive video games: “It doesn’t matter if you close the book now. You’ve already been scanned.” And “We live in a post-narrative world. There’s no glory in story.” But what gives the best of these short takes on the ways of the gods their moral heft, in these decentred, internet-enabled times, is their stubborn insistence on Māori essentialism as a potent mystery. These are fables showing a pantheon of flawed deities, demi-deities and semi-demi-deities learning wisdom after the fact. The admonition might be: do good where you can and bad deeds will be punished; nevertheless, sometimes cruelty, brutality, our baser natures, will prevail, human nature being what it is. The most memorable stories here acknowledge human interdependence and a fundamental humbleness of attitude. Hubris always ends in a fall.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based writer, critic and poet; his most recent poetry collection is Edgeland And Other Poems (2018) with artwork by James Robinson.

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