Hiwa, the title of Paula Morris’ anthology of contemporary Māori short stories, refers to Hiwa-i-te-rangi, the ninth and last star of Matariki, to whom Māori address wishes and hopes for lush and vibrant new growth over the coming year. That wish is amply fulfilled in this beautifully curated and presented collection, introduced by a karakia to Hiwa-te-rangi from reo consulting editor, Darryn Joseph.
The collection features 27 stories – 23 in English and four in te reo – covering three generations of Māori authors of diverse iwi and mixed tauiwi origin. The writers range from leading figures of Māori literature Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera to award-winning writers like Becky Manawatu, Whiti Hereaka and Alice Tawhai, to five authors of recent debut story collections, to emerging authors of all ages, many of whom have not yet published a book. Some live overseas: David Geary (Canada), Aramiha Harwood (Australia) and Nick Twemlow (US). Fifteen of the writers are graduates of writing programmes, here or overseas.
Among the collection’s many strengths is Morris’ editorial decision to provide a one-page introduction to each author, their whakapapa, writing background and life journey. This is followed by background to each story, sometimes with comments from the author. Not unlike a powhiri welcoming guests onto a marae, the introductions serve to welcome the reader into the stories, providing context and stylistic and thematic insights that amplify and deepen the reading experience.
The layout also demonstrates thoughtful and culturally resonant design. Each story introduction is structured around a space, following the author’s name and iwi affiliations, composed of geometric patterns evocative of tukutuku and covering almost a third of the page. The introduction then continues over two pages so that the story begins seamlessly, in the same breath, without a turn. Likewise, authors’ stories are visually linked to one another, sharing a space as it were, with the end of one story appearing on the same double-page as the following introduction.
The anthology is unusual in eschewing an overarching theme or genre, presenting its stories by author, in alphabetical order. Familiar tropes, whether traditional, mythical or urban, are retold and reinvented, sitting side by side with more unfamiliar narratives. This apparent lack of a central thematic focus, the wide range of subjects, genres and styles, is, to my mind, the book’s unifying kaupapa and its greatest strength : a celebration of the sheer talent of Māori writers, embodying and expressing the diversity of Māori identity and experience in the 21st Century.
Jack Remiel Cottrell’s edgy flash fiction explores the difficulties of not appearing to be Māori enough in some contexts. In ‘Reasons why I called in sick rather than go to the mihi whakatau for new employees last Friday’, reason #3 reads:
In my first year of uni the RA asked if anyone on our floor was Māori. When I said yes, a guy yelled ‘What tribe are you from, Ngāti Ginger Ninjas?’
And this is reason #5:
Two years ago, my journalism class had a lesson on te reo Māori in the news. We prepared our mihi, but when I spoke, I tried to sound more Pākehā so no one would think I was pretending to be something I’m not. Then I sat down and burned with shame.
The homeless central character and narrator of K.T. Harrison’s ‘Colours’, more lucid than the Mental Health System he is constantly dodging, maintains a quiet dignity, sense of humour, and sympathy that extends to those more fortunate than himself.
I’m sitting here in seat E-18, just re-living the thrill of the V-8 races. I. Was at the races. I. Saw the races. I, Mr Hakitero Brown, went to the V-8 races.
Soon the plastic seats, the concrete safety barriers and the corporate boxes will all be taken down and packed away for another year, and the red pipe sculpture that cost somebody eighty thousand dollars will be put up to remind us of good times to come again. In February I read in the paper that the race organiser had to sell his two-million-dollar home in Raglan because he’d run out of money to put the races on. Lucky for him, someone gave him some money and now, him and his wife and children still have their house. That’s good, because everybody needs somewhere to live.
Māori professionals don’t necessarily fare better. In J. Wiremu Kane’s ‘Polypharmacy’, young doctors are literally pushed to the edge by the pressures of their profession, self-medicating to stave off burnout, self-doubt and more definitive self-harm:
30 tablets mitte.
Mitte. Latin for send. Only. No more than. A frowning mouth scrawled at the bottom of the script. How much Latin have I picked up? It’s important that our patients cannot always understand us. We need a secret language, one thought long dead.
Mitte means no more.
30 tablets ONLY.
Potential for abuse.
May cause drowsiness.
Bad for operating cranes but okay to reassure a colleague and sort-of-friend and not-really-patient that he’ll be okay.
To type a hasty discharge summary without lingering on details.
To hang a mostly unneeded stethoscope around my neck as a badge of honour.
‘No, you see I work here.’
Māori often say we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that is absolutely the case in Hiwa, where our living literary giants Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera stand tall and strong as ever. And still growing. I particularly applaud Morris’ choice of stories here: Grace’s ‘The Kiss’, set in Italy, and Ihimaera’s (newly revised version of) ‘Der Traum’, set in Germany, showcase the international reach, narrative range and stylistic brilliance of both writers. Ihimaera and Grace both acknowledge those giants before them, notably J.C. Sturm, the first Māori fiction writer published in a New Zealand anthology, whom Morris references in her opening introduction and to whom she dedicates the book.
The intercultural whakapapa of Māori literature is also acknowledged by Morris’ own stunning homage to Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’: ‘Isn’t it’, set during a tangi in an increasingly gentrified Mt Roskill. Like ‘The Garden Party’, like Particia Grace’s short stories, every word and every sentence is perfectly chosen, perfectly placed, breathing life and colour into places and people, painting relationships and predicaments with the lightest yet sharpest of strokes.
The one small disappointment for me is the absence of English versions of the four stories in te reo Māori, written by Earle Karini, Atakohu Middleton, Zeb Nicklin and Ngawiki-Aroha Rewita. I did give these stories my best shot, and was sometimes able to get the general gist, but the gaps were too numerous to be filled by the occasional recourse to a dictionary. It was frustrating to know I was not able to appreciate and honour the quality of the writing. So while I understand that the zero-translation decision was a political choice, I would nonetheless underline the role of translation as a language revitalisation and accessibility tool for those of us currently disabled by the state of our reo. Perhaps the editor might consider including English versions on a website?
That said, both avid and new readers of Maori fiction, indeed anyone who appreciates a beautifully crafted short-story, will find much to treasure in this collection. You will be delighted, uplifted, shocked, sobered, saddened, challenged, perhaps sometimes repelled. But above all, you will be enriched.
Ko Hiwa nui
Ko Hiwa pūkenga
Ko Hiwa wānanga
Takataka te kāhui o te rangi
Koia a pou tō putanga ki te whai ao
Ki te ao mārama.
Let the stars fall from the sky [my wishes]
And be realised in this world
The world of light.
[from Matariki: The Star of the Year, by Rangi Mātāmua]