Part of the bargain: The right to write.
In October 2018, I was commissioned to write a review of an exhibition at my local art gallery. The kaupapa was women’s suffrage through whakaaro Māori (a Māori lens). It was titled Māreikura.
- (verb) nobly born female.
- (noun) an order of female supernatural beings corresponding to the male whatukura.
I was both excited and apprehensive by this invitation. Commissioned pieces are a great way to develop new skills and to think about writing for different audiences. It’s also an excuse to dive into what I love most; social history and research. What I’m less enthusiastic about are reviews; in particular, the tikanga underpinning them. What’s the purpose of a critique? Is it to whakamana or whakaiti? Is it even possible or desirable to aim for ‘objectivity’?
To give myself more space, I signalled early that I would be more comfortable offering a response to the Māreikura exhibition rather than a critique. I’m not an art critic, I’m just your average curious individual. I wanted to engage with the exhibition subjectively, from my perspective as a Māori woman and as a Porirua local; declaring and owning all the biases that that carries.
I spent many, many hours writing the Māreikura essay and I loved it. I was grateful for the exposure it gave me to mātauranga Māori, new creative writing skills, and most importantly, the Ngāti Toa history which surrounds me everywhere and which, until then, I was pretty ignorant. I didn’t even try to hide my excitement for the subject matter and my affection for this land that I have come to think of as home. The essay was a mihimihi – it was intended as a celebration and a thanks.
I took care to position the story in a way that I thought upheld the mana of Ngati Toa and was accurate according to the kōrero presented on the walls of the exhibition. I did a lot of background reading. My research even led me to the filing cabinets of the local library and I spent hours filling my kete with stories to help add colour to the facts and details. I wouldn’t say my research was exhaustive, not by any stretch, but it wasn’t cursory, either. I gave it my heart and intention.
But the essay never made it to print. Not because it wasn’t wanted; a well-known magazine was keen to publish it and the institution that had commissioned it was happy with it, too. As flattering and satisfying as that was, it wasn’t enough. I’d failed to engage the most important subject of the story; the haukainga. Ngāti Toa: the very people to whom the stories I was writing about, belonged.
I’m not a rookie when it comes to kaupapa Māori research. I didn’t go in with a mindset to “take.” I know that my responsibility as a writer, especially in non-fiction, is to engage with, and think about, ownership – no matter how difficult it can be to resolve some of the conflicts that arise. The reasons the essay wasn’t ultimately published are complex and not solely to do with me or anything I specifically did wrong. It’s not necessary to unpack the details here, suffice to say that the decision to pull the article was mine. Even though I cried about it, I knew it was the right call.
* * * *
I have attended quite a few writers’ workshops over the years and whenever there’s a kaupapa Māori theme – whether a speaker or a panel or a masterclass – invariably someone in the room will put up their hand and say something that makes a lot of us groan internally. Usually, the question is some version of ‘I want to write about a Māori character or historical event, how can I do that authentically?’ Let me just say that if you have to ask this question in a Pākehā workshop you’re probably a long way from the answer. The question itself, though, is a positive sign. It shows that a person is even thinking about ownership in the context of indigenous storytelling, which in itself is progress (hallelujah!). The problem is, I’m not too sure many writers are really willing to engage with the answer. An answer that might be – you can’t, or you shouldn’t.
I will never forget the words of Maata Wharehoka, one of the kaitiaki of the film Tātarakihi, The Children of Parihaka. In response to a question about storytelling, to a packed audience, she said ‘people write about Parihaka all the time, but they never come to us and they never ask us. We are the subject of stories and invisible at the same time.’
I got goosebumps. I had just read an essay by a Pākehā writer that pivoted around Parihaka. It was emotive and stirring; I got all the feels. But something didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but as Maaka spoke, I wondered: could it be that the author had never been to Parihaka? Could it be that the subject of the author’s story was invisible?
Just because I’m Māori doesn’t automatically resolve these issues, as my experience writing the Māreikura essay shows. Being Māori doesn’t give me the right to tell any Māori story. Whakapapa is not a backstage pass to go wherever I want. Maaka’s words reminded me that “Māori” is really just a descriptor and that iwitanga is really where it’s at. I don’t think Maaka was saying that nobody can write stories unless they inherently ‘belong’ to them, but it reinforces my knowledge that a solid framework for thinking about ownership and kaitiakitanga is imperative. Relationships are key. Interrogating your own reasons, stating them up front, and declaring who you are and where you come from, is as important on the page as it is in whaikōrero.
Most of all, being willing to accept that you might do all this work, you might have the purist intentions and pour your heart into something, and the answer might still be ‘no.’
As a writer in post-colonial New Zealand, this is all part of the bargain.
My biggest challenge as I’ve pushed on with my manuscript for Te Papa Tupu has been to work into and through these issues. Some days I’ve felt like I’m walking up Whitireia into a headwind. I’ve had to stop many times to gather the energy to keep going. More than once I’ve veered off-track and had to go back to find the right path. I’m grateful to a few key people who’ve sat with me on the hillside in the dark and the rain and helped me to turn these issues over in my hands like stones pulled from my shoes. People who’ve encouraged me to find a way to keep going and to use these stones to improve my work instead of letting them stall it; to create art from the setbacks. These people have reminded me that tikanga isn’t a set of rules designed to keep us out, but a model of thinking and behaving that keeps us safe.
I’ve thought about giving up, not just because it’s hard but because I’ve questioned my right to write. Most often, it’s been the supportive words of friends, all of whom are writers and editors, who’ve reminded me that the fact that it’s hard proves it’s worth it. Pēra i te whakatauki, whaia te iti kahurangi…
* * * *
Summer is here. The winds have eased and the sun is out and I can finally see the path ahead of me. Yes, it’s a steep incline, but as anyone who’s scrambled hands and knees up Whitireia’s rugged spine knows: the effort is worth it. I may have zig-zagged my way this far, and I know the steepest pinch is yet to come, but despite my slow pace and the toughness of the terrain, I haven’t quit.
This too, is part of the bargain.