Red book cover titled The Fire that Kindles Heart

Te Hā Hui 2019 – Reflections #4

So, back to that feedback session.

I dyed my hair a week before the hui but it turns out that not even 100% grey coverage can disguise the fact that this month I’m turning 42. But whatevs. Listening to Patrica and Renée reflect on ageing during the most beautiful session chaired by Arihia, I have begun to think it’s time to embrace the silver stripe that stubbornly reappears every month. Patricia likened ageing to the poutama, and pointed out that “the staircase doesn’t lead to middle age, it just keeps going up and up.” I could have sworn I saw Renée Taylor wink when she said that, and the two of them chuckled. “It’s true,” said Renée. “Life just keeps getting better.”

Oh, but we can mix our metaphors in different ways on different days. The whakatauki this hui will most likely be remembered for is “Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi.” On the last day, the inaugural scholarship students of 2019 told us they want to have their own hui next year, one especially for them, and they want to pack it out with young Māori writers from all over the motu. In addition to workshops on fiction and poetry they want to learn from lyricists and spoken word poets and performers. They weren’t being disrespectful, they were revealing their enthusiasm. Part of me was glowing inside because surely this aligns perfectly with the original aims of Te Hā? Isn’t this exactly the kaupapa – to identify, support and promote new writing by Māori?

But what about the past being in front of us? That’s true too, isn’t it?

One night, a few months ago, when I was feeling particularly tired and frustrated, a mate sent me a photo of a book called ‘The Fire That Kindles Hearts’, and said I needed to read it. The next day I went to the library and brought it home. In each chapter I got to hear the life story of a prominent Māori academic in their own words. It was like having a procession of very wise and very brainy and very straight-up no-bullshit Aunties and Uncles come and sit in the corner of my bedroom every night and give me a talking-to. A couple of people I knew from my University text books – Ranginui Walker, Mason Durie, Linda Tuhiwai Smith – but most I knew only vaguely by name. Regardless of their different academic fields and varying life experiences, all these people had one thing in common: they know how to work. The more I read, the more I started shutting up: The road is hard. Working on committees and inside institutions can be challenging. But you don’t complain about it. You just get on and do the mahi.

In the early days of Te Hā, volunteers maintained handwritten databases and typed up newsletters and licked envelopes and posted them out. Witi Ihimaera was the treasurer for awhile. Te Hā ran writing workshops and competitions and held public readings. Te Hā made connections with indigenous arts festivals so that Māori writers could travel and be billeted overseas (Joe Harawira talked about that on Friday night). Te Hā held meetings to discuss the ways that writers could support each other, including challenging Pākehā reviewers who pedalled stereotypes about Māori writing. There was even a resource created to keep a record of everything ever published by a Māori author in English. This project extended to include searching old newspapers for even a single poem that may have been published by a Māori writer. The person who created that resource is still a member of Te Hā national committee – her name is Bridget Underhill and this is what she says in the acknowledgements: “The project would not have been possible without the vision and encouragement of the founding members of Te Hā – the Māori writers committee of Toi Māori Aotearoa and particularly the long term support of Patricia Grace, Charles Royal, James George, Robert Sullivan, Powhiri Rika-Heke, Chris Szekely and many others.” The resource is called Komako and it’s available online at komako.org.nz.

Perhaps one of the most legendary things Te Hā is known for organising is the Writers on the Bus tours. I don’t know much about this kaupapa except that James George gets a wistful look in his eye whenever he talks about it. Pre social-media, they traveled all over the country doing poetry readings and holding writing workshops in local community halls. How fucking cool is that?

This year, Te Hā got a website and a some flash bells and ticketing-whistles. It’s temping to think that these activities signal a new era. There was talk during the feedback session about our constitution, our governance model, how the committee works and if we have any mechanisms in place to ensure diverse representation on the board. These are all good questions. There’s hope that we could do a bunch of new and practical things under the umbrella of Te Hā and Ngā Pou – not just in terms of supporting rangatahi but also in terms of helping emerging Māori writers (i.e. with things like contracts and engaging with publishers.) The New Zealand Society of Authors offers this kind of advice but it costs money to belong and it’s a Pākehā structure by default and by design, even if they don’t actively put barriers in front of Māori writers. The Māori Literature Trust is more aligned to Te Hā, running competitions and a comprehensive mentoring programme, but what I love about Te Hā is its whakapapa.

Just listen to the meaning of the name:

“Te Hā refers to the breath, to the very essence of who we are. You draw in, you give out. Simple, really.”

(Patricia Grace).

The word I took away from the feedback session on the final day is *re-imagine*. “Can we reimagine Te Hā?” I’ve been thinking about this ever since. It might all be about the new net and energy and momentum for the future, but all weekend long, it was Papa Danny Makamaka I had my eyes on. Every time I caught a glimpse of him he was working. If people didn’t know him they may have thought that he was employed to be there, but he was there for the kaupapa. He was there because he is haukainga of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and we, from Te Hā, were his manuhiri. He was on the paepae and he was in the kitchen. He wore an apron and wiped tables and cleared plates. When he stopped it was only to manaaki tangata with his words – generous, poetic Tūhoe gifts to fill up our kete. Like all those academics in The Fire That Kindles Hearts, Papa Dan was a constant reminder to me not to forget the ones who lay the foundations. The ones who’ve done the hard yards before us, who get on and do the job without complaining. Yes, we can reimagine the future, but not unless we know where we’ve been. Not just the names of the ones we know, like Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, but all the Papa Dans around the regions whose names and faces we might not see or hear. Theirs is the fire that kindles hearts. From licking envelopes in the early 80s to publishing blog posts in the 21st century – we can draw a direct line from there to here.

And so we should.

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Postscript: The whakapapa of Ngā Pou Kaituhi Māori (the pou representing writers in te Reo) is another kōrero altogether. I would love to know about the whakapapa of this too but I’m still learning it. Mēnā Kei a koe etahi whakaaro, maumahara rānei, Tēnā koha mai!