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One lunch hour not so long ago, Witi Ihimaera walked into Roy Parsons' Bookshop in Wellington, New Zealand, to browse through the books. He picked one up and thought, "Gosh, this looks good."
Ihimaera took it up to the counter and bought it. Then he looked at it again. It was his own book, Whanau. He hadn't recognised it. Ihimaera went back to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, laughing at himself all the way because he had bought a book he had written himself.
"It's not modesty at all," he explains. "I had honestly forgotten about it."
The point is, he thinks there are two, maybe three, Witi Ihimaeras. He has a habit of saying "that Ihimaera" when talking of himself as a writer. "I think he's different from me," he says, perfectly sincerely.
Witi, the boy from Gisborne, is the most important one, he thinks. The kid who used to sit on the side of the road watching all the flash cars go past. That's the Witi that the people at home know, that the family knows. That Witi.
The second Witi is the diplomat here in New York. The third is Witi the writer. Whereas all he wanted to do was to stay home in Gisborne. He sometimes asks himself, "Would my life have been better if I had stayed at home?" His answer is always, "It probably wouldn't have been interesting, but nobody can tell me that this is a better life than I would have had if I'd stayed in Gisborne."
Because of that, he's never really regarded himself as a writer, until recently. He looked at the time it had actually taken him to write fiction, and it added up to only two years of a 42-year-old man's life. That made him feel insubstantial. He didn't at first recognise that it was also a measure of how easy and natural the act of writing was for him.
Ihimaera became a writer in the first place almost by accident. In 1968 he was working in public relations for the Post Office. One Sunday morning he read a book by Erik Schwimmer called The Maori People in the 1960s. It had an essay about Maori literature saying that there were no Maori novelists. It spurred his ambition. He thought, "I'll give it a go."
A second reason was this fatalistic belief he had. It gave tremendous urgency to his life. He had a premonition. He thought he was going to die by the time he was 30.
Ihimaera was born in Gisborne in 1944. At the time he grew up death was an everyday occurrence. The Maori mortality rate has always been high. His grandmother died when she was 55. When you've seen death so constantly, 21 feels middle aged.
"It was probably the most magnificent time of my life," he says now, "because when you expect to die at the age of 30, you really do cram everything that you can into those years."
He set himself a timetable: by the time he was 30 he would have a novel published. When he was 28, he and his wife Jane went to London with a caseful of manuscripts. Thanks to a reference from author Noel Hillyard, Heinemann publishers looked at his work. They sent him a contract for three books. One was the collection of short stories Pounamu Pounamu, one was the novel Tangi, and one was for a story originally called "Village Sunday" which was part of the short story collection. Because it was so long they felt it could be published as a separate book. It was renamed Whanau.
The third reason he became a writer was the most compelling. It had to do with voices, and with remembering things. The first memory he has is of chanting in the dark. It was complete blackness, then suddenly the dawn seared the sky.
And he has always been conscious of pressure from the past - voices chanting in the dark and saying, Yes that's right, No that's wrong. There is a lot of chanting in rural Maori society, particularly in the Ringatu religion.
It was something that developed with a great sense of certainty. He couldn't shake it.
"When you come from a tribal society you have a really great gift," Ihimaera says. "You have not just an instinct, but a collective memory, a collective force which guides you."
His first book, Pounamu Pounamu, caught the attention of Norman Kirk, then Prime Minister. Kirk was on a plane coming back from America with the U.S. Ambassador.
The Ambassador said, "Have you read this book?"
Kirk said, "No."
The U.S. Ambassador said, "I think you should read it."
The Prime Minister was also Minister of Foreign Affairs. He asked the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Frank Corner, to check to see whether Ihimaera could work for them. Ihimaera was back from London working for the post office again. He thought about it and decided not to.
Four months later he got another call. This time Corner told him a United Nations delegation had just looked at New Zealand's race relations. It had specifically commented that it was extraordinary a country that prided itself on its amicable race relations had not one Maori career diplomat.
Ihimaera said, "So it's because I'm Maori you want me there."
Corner said, "Yes."
It suddenly struck Ihimaera that it was the first time anybody had ever said they wanted him because he was a Maori. He was not put off by that. Rather, it seemed to him that his being Maori was important to them. So he took the job. Later he applied to be in the diplomatic stream itself and was accepted.
Ihimaera has been driven to succeed since he was about 13, but it didn't become a fierce passion until after he turned 30. He says, "If you think you're going to die at 30 and you don't, then every year becomes a tremendous bonus. That's why I enjoy life so much. I've gone through that shadow of death so every minute is very precious."
Crossing that barrier of death, and being one of the first Maori writers, brought him a lot of problems as well.
Most authors go through an apprenticeship period. Most of them don't have, after a year's writing, a contract for three books. Ihimaera felt the recognition was premature.
Worse, people started to read the work as if it were representative of Maori experience. Ihimaera knew it wasn't. It was representative of one small family group, one small tribe's experience. That brought him problems from those "voices".
Ihimaera decided to stop writing. He could not keep going because he felt he was doing a disservice to Maori culture. He could not re-enter the field until other Maori writers appeared - novelists, short story writers, and people who wrote for radio and television.
That was one of the reasons, a "sneaky" reason he calls it, for editing the anthology, Into the World of Light. After waiting a while for the new writers to emerge, he thought, "Damn it, some of these people will have to be brought kicking and screaming out into the light."
They were reluctant because of their sense of the sacredness of Maori ways. They felt putting such things into print was a sacred matter, a tapu matter. But Ihimaera already had an unspoken contract with his god. He knew that if he went wrong, he would have to pay the price. So far he's been lucky.
His voluntary retirement lasted ten years. Then he wrote The Matriarch. This was his second novel to begin life as a short story. He started it in July 1982 when he was at Victoria University. Forty pages later he realised he was in trouble. It wouldn't go away. Every time he got onto another page it would change and keep on changing. It opened up doors and memories - "like trapdoors for spiders to come out of," he says - all over the place. By 1984 it had grown to massive proportions. It was 1,200 pages long.
He talked to his wife Jane about it and she said, "Why don't you cut it in half." So they did. He is still working on Book II, Tiana.
The 10-year layoff gave him a much denser and complex style, even though he believes that the way he writes now is based entirely on his weaknesses. Ihimaera's problem was to figure out a way of turning a short-story technique into a novel-writing technique. The solution he came up with was to use building blocks. He unashamedly reveals that he copies the devices of soap operas and blockbuster films.
"Most of my technique, or structure as you call it, has come from watching television," Ihimaera says. "From the way television is constructed, the way in which mini-series are constructed, the way in which Peyton Place in the early 1960s was constructed."
He uses lots of different characters who reappear in different sections of the plot.
And he loved the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. "I thought it would be really interesting if I tried to interpret Maori myth and legend in the same sort of fire, the same sort of hologram imagery as Stephen Spielberg used," he says.
He laid all of that on a strong Maori, Ringatu religion, local turanga or Gisborne base, and mixed it up and juggled it round until he got this - kaleidoscope - which is The Matriarch.
Ihimaera believes the result is far from perfect. "When you impose a structure on the material, as I do, then your material is really limited. Whereas Keri Hulme and some of the others are able to express themselves because they are naturally expressive, my work, to my mind anyway, is more limited because I lack that kind of ebullience or that verbal virtuosity."
He kept the tension and momentum going by treating The Matriarch as a mystery novel. "I've always thought that what I was writing was a great detective story to the boy who's trying to discover things," he says.
One of his primary motives in writing The Matriarch was revenge on the European. He wanted to hurt the European reader. Hurt him badly. That was why he wrote in such graphic detail about the deaths of the mostly white military men and their families during the Matawhero massacre.
"If you want them to hurt, you don't write about the massacre of Maori people, you write about the massacre of European people," he says. "If I was to write in that book in similar detail what had happened to the Maori people, that would only make Maori people cry. My business is to make European people cry."
The motive stems from the predominant European view of New Zealand history. There are few histories written by Maori people. Maoris want to express their view as part of their sovereign rights as Maori people. When that happens, Ihimaera says, "then maybe we can look at a situation where we're not completely fazed by too much Pakeha interpretation."
But he also recognises that Maori people will have to begin to understand and to have more grace about the creative spirit of Pakeha people. "We are not the only ones who will interpret our culture," he says, "now or in the future."
At least now, he says, Pakeha people have a better information base, a better language base, and a better understanding and appreciation of Maori things. "The last time that I was regarded with some amusement because I was the only Maori that they had seen in a black tie, is long gone. We are part of the fabric of New Zealand now."
Nevertheless, he sees grave dangers ahead. It is a critical time for Maori aspirations. He thinks the issues must be resolved within the next few years. Violence is a very real possibility.
"This is our last ditch stand before the year 2000. It really is. If we don't establish a sense of biculturalism in New Zealand now, which is an equality between Maori and European in New Zealand, then either New Zealand will be completely mono-cultural, or else there will be another revolution or retaliation like Te Kooti's and after it there will be another backlash against the Maori people. In both cases, Maoris will lose.
"It's the person who stands up and shouts the loudest who will get the policy for the next 10 or so years," Ihimaera says. "All of a sudden it's been forced on us to be that individualistic, to keep on shouting. Because we know, if we don't we're going to lose. Someone's going to shout louder and say - No, we don't want Maori language, we don't want Maori culture.
"I've seen that happen already in Trinidad. I've seen that happen in Hawaii. I know that we don't want to be like the indigenous Hawaiians who occupy a very small emotional space in Hawaii. Or like the Trinidadians who make their money by simply strumming the banjo or something and singing a calypso song. We don't want our culture to be downgraded to the extent that nobody knows about it except through pretty postcards or leis when you're met at the airport, but nothing more. We've got more to offer than that."
It is an emotional issue, but he believes the problem can best be resolved within the established system.
"At the moment we have a situation where the power to determine what is happening in New Zealand rests with Parliament and Pakeha people, and Maoris have no power in that sense," he says. "They can be outvoted whenever the European majority wants to. Biculturalism will only work if Maoris implement it and Pakehas allow it. It's an equality of power, that's what biculturalism is all about. Power to make decisions about New Zealand's destiny, a destiny which involves two peoples in the South Pacific."
He thinks the best solution is for Maoris to stand for Parliament in European seats. He points to moves to put three Maoris up as candidates in National electorates. "If that process continues, then we will be a success."
Strangely enough, he sees his own role as becoming less public and more private. The reason is that since he has been in New York, he has become much more aware of his power as a writer. He has a list of seven or eight books that he wants to write.
Writing his latest book, The Whale Rider, was easy. He wrote it last summer at enormous speed, in three weeks, during one of his busiest times in New York. He wanted it finished so he could give it as a present to his two daughters when they came to stay with him the following month.
"It opened up and opened up all the time," Ihimaera says. "When I'm excited I work very fast."
But he knows the new books he wants to write won't be that easy. They are not going to burst out like that. Which puts him in a dilemma. He is going to have to decide what to concentrate on: the private life of a writer, or the public life of a diplomat.
It already seems evident which way he is going to go. He talks about his diplomatic service as a project he has taken as far as he can.
"I think I have fulfilled, or have begun to feel that I have fulfilled, what I set out to achieve, which was an attempt to biculturalize policy," Ihimaera says. "We have a marae in Foreign Affairs. We have regular meetings. We have language training. And we now have nine Maori people who are in the career stream."
It is these achievements that have given him the hope that change can be effected from within. He believes the wish to change things can become part of the Establishment. Even when he was banned from Parliament for taking part in a demonstration against the Springbok tour in the Gallery of the House of Representatives, Foreign Affairs did not impose sanctions on him.
And only now, after 20 years, does he think he is becoming a writer. Ending that adolescence and becoming serious about it.
"Sometimes when things come so naturally, it's just a part of you," he says, "It's like walking and breathing and eating and sleeping. But then you never really think about how good or bad it is. You just think, three weeks a novel, five weeks a collection of short stories." He laughs. "It just doesn't make sense. And then all of a sudden you realise - my god, if I actually tried, I could really become pretty good."
The voices, the tribal voices in his head, are urging him on.
"I have a voice, a particular voice," Ihimaera says. "If I don't pay any attention to it now, then it will stop talking to me and it will be lost."
He knows what he wants. "My creative life is more important than my public life. I've made that decision now."
Sunday Times, New Zealand, 1987
A Writer's Life

Witi Ihimaera