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This Pākehā Life by Alison Jones

Reviewed by Stephanie Johnson

By September 16, 2020April 9th, 2024No Comments

Towards the end of her memoir, This Pakeha Life: An Unsettled Memoir, Alison Jones writes: ‘The desire for redemption is a powerful urge.  In our simple stories of goodies and baddies in New Zealand history, both Maori and liberal Pakeha tend to locate us Pakeha on the shameful baddie side…our neediness in this regard is humiliating, so we sometimes resent Maori for making us feel this way. A Pakeha need for recognition that we are not “all bad” in our history is not something we can or require from Maori; it is work Pakeha need to do for ourselves. Understanding the details of our history is a good place to start.’

This extract in many ways acts as both a summation of This Pakeha Life and a springing-off point from which to begin to understand Jones’s perspective, which is one all Pakeha would be wise to take on for themselves. Elsewhere, she notes how friends have remarked on her ‘bravery’ for her absorption in what is often called the Maori world. She refutes any notion of courage in that regard. Where she is certainly brave is in the creation of this searingly honest, big-hearted, erudite and compellingly humble memoir.

Alison Jones is a professor at Te Puna Wananga, the School of Maori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland. Widely respected as a teacher and historian, she is also the co-author, with her friend and colleague Kuni Kaa Jenkins, of two works He Korero – Words Between Us: Maori-Pakeha Conversations on Paper and Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds. In order for the reader to understand exactly how and why her life has taken the shape it has, Jones returns to the arrival of her parents in New Zealand in the early 1950s and her own ensuing childhood as the firstborn of new chums.

Basil and Ruth Jones were English, and like thousands of others after the Second World War, they made their way to New Zealand for a fresh start. Basil was of working-class stock and Ruth middle-class, although her origins were shrouded in mystery. She had grown up in an orphanage, never adopted, and lived there until she was eighteen. It was perhaps because of this loveless childhood that she was not a particularly maternal woman. The family moved several times, from Auckland to Blenheim to Whakatane to Tauranga, and in each place the young Alison made Maori friends. In one of the most truthful, almost wince-inducing sections of the memoir, she goes in search of one of these childhood mates, a now grown-up woman. This is Maria, who, it turns out, remembers Jones only slightly. Alison realises she has confused her memory of Maria with that of another Maori girl and her family, who were warm and welcoming, unlike her own.

Of late there has been a prevailing perception that Pakeha are all the same whether or not they arrived in the country in the last ten minutes, or if their families arrived in the early nineteenth century. Some of the stark contrasts between the Jones’ family culture and older New Zealand families seem to be related to the former’s more recent arrival. Alison was not permitted to read Enid Blyton or read comics, which I would conjecture was fairly rare among Pakeha families of the time. Her mother insisted on certain standards that perhaps had slipped a little for many other Pakeha New Zealanders. Also, her parents did not have Maori friends or workmates. Jones describes how she ‘dreaded meeting a Maori person in her [mother’s] company in case she was gushy’ and how her mother was prone to ‘…exaggerated enthusiasms’ about Maori achievement. Basil Jones’s racism was overt and stated; Ruth’s was wrongly well-intentioned. She was a victim herself of xenophobia, with openly expressed resentment from New Zealanders about ‘pommies’.

The young Alison Jones was a high achiever. She was a prefect and head girl of Tauranga Girls’ College. During her adolescence in the 1960s she became aware of the black liberation movement, and realised ‘…whether I liked it or not, I was a member of a dominant (white) group that was being unfair and even violent towards black and brown people around the world. The descriptor ‘white’, now firmly linked to bad behaviour, filled me with ambivalence and confusion.’ Many awakening Pakeha of the mid-twentieth century experienced similar despair, culpability and hopelessness.

School was followed by university: a Bachelor of Science from Massey University in Palmerston North. During this period, she notes, her contact with Maori was minimal, although she was to witness Dun Mihaka on his famous university tour confronting a group of white male students on the subjects of colonialism and Maori rights. The spectacle had a powerful, singular effect: it was the first time Jones had witnessed pure Maori anger, and she felt his accusations personally, writing ‘I could not bear to be an object of Maori criticism’ even though she felt that in some way her fervent feminism precluded her from its full force.

In the early seventies Jones came to Auckland, where she has lived ever since, and which city has had the most influence on her passions and interests. This is the setting of her adult life, her scholarship, marriages, motherhood to two sons, flowering friendships – particularly with Kuni Kaa Jenkins and Te Kawehau Hoskins – and profound commitment to Maori education.

Breaking up the more autobiographical sections are short, potted histories of aspects of our past. Among them are the Wairau Affray, the first armed conflict after the signing of the Treaty; the long abasement of Rangiriri Pah as the site of the decisive battle for Waikato during the nineteenth century wars; the origins of the name of Auckland’s famous street Karangahape Road (although she, for some reason, does not mention Hape’s clubfeet) and the pah on Maungakiekie as it was before Sir John Logan Campbell took over the land. For readers of our histories, there will not be much that is new or surprising in these passages, but her ability to succinctly portray complex events and conflict is evidence of her skills as teacher and historian.

More interesting and arresting is her chronology of activism since the ‘70s. Many of us will remember chanting ‘The Treaty is a fraud’ and then, depending on our level of connectedness, being either bewildered or cheered by its rebirth as ‘Honour the Treaty’ in later protest marches. Jones’ courage in telling it as it is does not waver. She writes of the humourlessness of some earnest left-wing Pakeha women activists in comparison to the apparent cheerfulness and solidarity among their Maori counterparts. ‘… I did not mind even if they did find us ridiculous. The fact was that I found us ridiculous: we were so serious all the time, as we looked for the best political phrase and the most incisive analysis.’ She owns up to atheist discomfort at having to accept a spiritual life through her love for her Maori friends and attendance at Maori events. She notes ‘an unpleasant competitiveness among Pakeha about competency in the Maori world, and my going to wananga was regarded with some envy.’ Nowadays, or at least pre-COVID, many wananga are chokka with Pakeha and some Maori have had the experience of being denied entry because of it. The idea of dualism runs through much of the book, that is, the schizoid notion of European New Zealand and the more established reality of Maori possession and culture.

Acknowledgement is made of famous New Zealanders, among them the politician Donna Awatere, her father Colonel Arapete Awatere, writers Bruce Jesson, James K. Baxter, Michael King and his 1985 book Being Pakeha, Peter Wells with one of his more contentious quotes from Dear Oliver, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, who was an acquaintance of Jones’ mother. Ruth took Alison to meet her in 1974, a visit that gives an insight into the icon as an inventive teacher, but also ‘impulsive, self-centred and glamorous.’

This Pakeha Life is an important book. In the preface she states: ‘Mine is not a redemptive story of good feelings and togetherness; I try to show that Maori-Pakeha relationships are difficult and wonderful all at once, and that such complexities are not only exciting but also make us who we are as quirkily unique New Zealanders.’ There are many insights into how Pakeha must learn to adapt to a way of thinking that is not purely Maori, because it can’t be. As Jones writes in one of the more powerful passages of the book: ‘If “Pakeha thinking” has a reflexive openness to Maori, then it is quite different from European thinking. It is peculiarly located here, with Maori. And once you “get” that, you can no longer “un-get” it.’ Alison Jones has laid down for us a challenge – and also a road map – of how we can achieve this.

This review was originally published on the Academy of NZ Literature site.

This Pākehā Life

by Alison Jones

Bridget Williams Books

ISBN: 9781988587288

Published: September 2020

Format: Paperback and ebook, 240 pages

Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson’s most recent books are the novel Everything Changes (Penguin Random House 2021) and the biography/social history West Island: Five Twentieth Century New Zealanders in Australia (Otago University Press 2019).