'Maori mythology is very rich. All the narratives are multi-layered, complex, extraordinary and transcendent. They occupy a place between the real and the unreal, the natural and the super-natural - the world you can believe in and the world you are told not to believe in...'
Witi Ihimaera The Whale Rider ~ Extract from Author Notes
While I am on the subject of New Zealand I must share some thoughts on The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, a pioneer of Maori writing in English and this book in particular a New Zealand literary classic sent by Offspringette for my birthday.
This from The New Zealand Companion to Literature on Witi Ihimaera...
'Novelist, short story writer, anthologist and librettist, was born in Gisborne. He has the distinction of being the first Maori writer to publish both a book of short stories and a novel. He is of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent, with close affiliations to Tühoe, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Kahungunu, and Ngai Tamanuhiri, and links to Rongowhakaata, Ngati Porou, and Te Whakatohea. His family marae is the family house of the Pere family, Rongopai, in Waituhi, near Gisborne. The extraordinary paintings, rather than carvings, decorating the meeting house’s interior, have been described in rich detail in his writing.'
I've added that detail to give you some idea (if you weren't aware of it) of the depth of breadth of Maori descent which I found was treated with huge respect whilst I was in New Zealand. With no claims to any prior or working knowledge of the Maori people or their culture I don't want to step in and get it wrong, or presume in any way, but I sensed a vast well of heritage and tradition, and a country that has done much to bring it to the fore and make reparations for past indiscretions.
'In the old days, in the years that have gone before us, the land and sea felt a great emptiness, a yearning. The mountains were like a stairway to heaven, and the lush green rain forest was a rippling cloak of many colours...'
'The sky was iridescent, swirling with the patterns of wind and clouds, sometimes it reflected the prisms of a rainbow or southern aurora....'
It wasn't long before I was transported back to memories of the rainbow at Mount Cook...
'The sea was ever-changing, shimmering and seamless to the sky. This was the well at the bottom of the world and when you looked into it you felt you could see to the end of forever.
Witi Ihimaera's opening paragraph to his 1987 novel had won me over, as did the story that followed of the tribe searching for a male heir and overlooking the next in line, Kahu, because she is a girl. So disappointed is Koro, Kahu's grandfather, that he refuses even to acknowledge her existence..
'Our Koro was like an old whale stranded in an alien present, but that was how it was supposed to be because he had his role in the pattern of things, in the tides of the future.'
But likewise does Kahu have her 'role in the pattern of things'.
Descended from the legendary 'whale rider' it will take an event of dramatic import to reveal Kahu's sacred gift and her true claim. With her ability to communicate with whales Kahu can re-establish her tribes ancestral connections and lead them to a bright new future.
Whilst I was in New Zealand Offspringette bought me my own piece of pounamu (nephrite, jade or greenstone, in Maori, pounamu) from a shop in Hokitika, a locally owned small family business who are of Ngai Tahu descent. In 1997 the New Zealand government handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu to the South Island tribe Ngai Tahu as part of the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement.
'Ngāi Tahu are therefore the kaitiaki of all South Island greenstone, the only known source of authentic New Zealand pounamu. This was a huge moment both for the tribe and for the greater identity of New Zealand.
The importance of the stone to the greater identity of Māori cannot be undervalued. Along with rights to pounamu came the key responsibility of ensuring pounamu can be sustainably managed. This means not just caring for the stone but also protecting and advocating for the rivers it comes from, the artists that shape it and the communities that surround it.'
The pieces are regarded as a taonga or prized possession and considered an honour to receive, along with an implicit message of returning (this latter I was told by a Kiwi shop assistant in the Lake District who spotted me wearing mine.) I have a Koru or spiral signifying new life or beginning, growth, harmony and peace which I put on every morning and instantly feel as if I keep our distant child close.
This all a roundabout way (as usual, sorry) of getting to the nub of a great book as experience but one that would hold real general appeal even if you knew nothing of the country or the culture. With its themes of heritage and tradition, myth and belief, gender and race, and above all respect (and with a great deal of that respect accorded to the whales themselves) The Whale Rider has much to say about the ways any country can respect its people and its history whist forging new ways into an uncertain future....and, dare I say it, with women at the helm too.
It is little wonder that The Whale Rider has become such an important book in New Zealand, studied in schools as well as being made into a successful film, and no surprise either that I loved it.
I really wish I had seen a whale but I haven't, instead I have enjoyed them vicariously through the Kayaker's travels, cue his iconic picture taking whilst working as a photographer on the whale-watching boats in Bay of Islands in New Zealand...
Or there was this bit of a whale on the clifftops on Orkney this summer I suppose. A vertebrae that seemed to be looking right at me and trying to tell me something..
Meanwhile, if anyone has any suggestions about books with a Maori theme I would love to know of more. I haven't read The Bone People by Keri Hulme for starters, and really should...