Wicked Ihimaera and the Speech We Love to Hate

Witi Ihimaera talks about his speech at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival and literature in Aotearoa

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Like it or not, Witi Ihimaera is a legend. As the first Māori writer to publish both a novel and a short story collection, he paved the way for many of New Zealand’s writers to have a career in which their work was taken seriously.

He recently spoke at the opening of the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival, to the chagrin of much of a small corner of Twitter. His comments, while released as paraphrased, incomplete slices of the original, were no doubt meant to provoke. To discover to what end, I asked him more about his speech, and his stance on literature in New Zealand. 

Kirsti Whalen: There has been plenty of discussion around your speech in Dunedin. I expect that your comments were intended to incite a response, but was it the response you expected?

Witi Ihimaera: Ah yes, the Dunedin speech.

The speech was written for the New Zealand Book Council and presented at a specific event, the opening night of the Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. It was written to entertain as well as to tease and to provoke the audience so I was paper-darting a number of ideas at them. They were questions rather than answers, and while I came up with a number of answers myself I did not necessarily agree with them - my answers, I mean. Instead, I wanted to engage the audience with the questions and propose answers to think about. If you had been there, you would have seen the audience engaging with the questions in situ.

They don't call me Wicked Ihimaera for nothing, right?

KW: My impression from the post-speech media is that you were proposing a notion of our national literature, and how to move it forward. What does this look like to you?

WI: You're referring to a part of the speech that has been cherry-picked, stripped from its contexts and "internetted", including that question of moving forward with our definition of a national literature.   

What I tried to do was to give the audience two or three propositions to consider. The first was: what are the characteristics they would use to define New Zealand literature and, based on that, which fiction qualified? The second was: what do they do with that literature written by New Zealanders that doesn't qualify? And the third was: is any literature written by a New Zealander automatically "New Zealand literature"?

What made me decide to tackle the subject was that although I am protective of the "New Zealand literature" I know, I had read some very interesting analysis, by novelist Catherine Robertson, of book sales statistics in New Zealand. She mentioned that 97% of all New Zealand book buying is of writers from abroad. She proposed, therefore, that our book community needed to advocate New Zealand fiction in all its forms and pride, not use any strict definition, and let commercial and genre writers in. Given that book shops are closing and book sales are declining - especially of "pure" New Zealand fiction which is usually heavily subsidised (and even then sells less than 2,000 copies and that's being magnanimous) - I thought it was timely for the Dunedin audience to think of the subject - question, dilemma, whatever you'd like to call it - in those commercial as well as in cultural terms.

Is any literature written by a New Zealander automatically "New Zealand Literature"?

As it happened, it was timely for me too, and I was glad to have the opportunity to audit and interrogate my own thoughts. In this respect, I was fortunate that the Book Council annually gives prominent and influential writers (Ellie Catton gave the lecture last year) the opportunity to present on something that's important to them.

So during the speech I gave two possible answers to this particular question in sequence. And after circling the question for quite a while, weighing it up, teasing and cajoling and arguing - with it, the audience and myself actually - I found myself proposing that New Zealand literature should include all literatures written by New Zealand fiction writers. In other words, I accepted Catherine's argument and, in the words of Anthony McCarten, "I've set many of my works in New Zealand, but it's not an obligation to me that I spend my whole life in the service of the grand New Zealand project, which is to define who we are. I think we've moved to a post-definition period, where we pretty much know who we are and can let our imagination take us where it will."

The other answer? Well, it outlined the default position, if you like, which was that "New Zealand" literature was nevertheless still an identifiable project (to use Anthony's word), driven by a historical kaupapa and constantly reinventing itself.

Knowing that both answers had their fishhooks, I left it to the audience to decide which definition they preferred based on which gash of the hooks gave them less pain.

KW: So how do we move forward?   

WI: Personally, I prefer the inclusive rather than exclusive approach. I suspect that "New Zealand" literature, as the grand New Zealand project, will become a genre pursuit. What's important is that we don't continue to denigrate the work of New Zealand writers that isn't the project.

I think we've moved to a post-definition period, where we pretty much know who we are and can let our imagination take us where it will

KW: As a young writer, I feel concern that coming from a NZ-focused ethos entails a certain amount of shame. I feel pressured into representing a country that doesn't represent me. How do writers like me seek to create a national literary identity when there's a sense of a lack of support?

WI: There's often a honeymoon period with a writer (or filmmaker or artist or musician) as long as they are grateful. We don't like what might be perceived to be ingratitude, especially since it's our taxes (so we think) that have Made Them Who They Are.

After the honeymoon period, some writers (or filmmakers or artists or musicians) become more visible than others, especially if they win awards. They seem to attract as much envy as they do admiration. New Zealanders are quick to cut us down to size if we become whakahihi and if they don't like our book or our art installation at Venice or if our next film isn't as good as Whale Rider or our second song isn't as great a hit as our first.

On the positive side, the democratisation of the peer review process via the internet and influential blogs has meant that media critics don't get away with it. Actually, they also ensure that we don't get away with it either.

If you are a fiction writer, you particularly attract negative ions if you make a mistake or hold a strong opinion. Apart from everything else, New Zealanders are so reactive and, before you know it, you're in the middle of a media and internet firestorm of reaction and counter-reaction. You're left wondering what the hell is happening as your critics and defenders battle it out, and the original intention - including the context - of what you said may be forgotten. 

Another thing: New Zealanders are good at cherry-picking what they like and having an amnesia attack on what they don't like. Now I am on Our Ellie's side but, honestly, nobody was denying her democratic right to say what she wanted to say. The argument became that after a series of escalations in which a lot of what she originally said got lost.     

I can't remember who it was, but a columnist in The New Zealand Herald alluded to the possibility that in New Zealand we lacked an intellectual fraternity that could balance out, test and evaluate propositions that get swept up by the atmospherics and into the land of subjectivity. Is that true? If so, and if you become a target, my advice is to maintain your clarity about who you are so that you can evaluate the reasonable from the unreasonable, keep your sense of humour and try not to get buried beneath the avalanche of opinion. As well, here's something else to remember: unlike in the old days when controversies lasted only for as long as the weekend newspaper edition was out, these days courtesy of internet postings they last forever, so get used to it, you will be visible to everyone who googles you from Manhattan to Mogadoodoo.     

My advice is to maintain your clarity about who you are so that you can evaluate the reasonable from the unreasonable... and try not to get buried beneath the avalanche of opinion

KW: Why do you think New Zealand has a tendency to exile and reject its literary champions? Is it tall poppy syndrome or something more complex? Is there inherent danger in taking a stance in our writing?

Well, a writing career is not for the faint-hearted and what I've said above comes with the territory. Believe me, I know, I've had rocks thrown through my window, people wanting to pick a fight and news media who Never Forget. 

The actual danger is, in fact, not taking a stance in our writing. And I have a sneaking suspicion that New Zealanders are proud of people who speak out. As well, there must always be writers who lead or take a position or who assist to coalesce opinion whether for or against. How does writing get from one level to the next, whatever that is, otherwise? 

Personally speaking, there was no other stance for me to take, as a Māori writer. Although Māori writers are part of the New Zealand canon now they weren't when I started out. I continue to write it mindful of the "inherent danger" not just from Pākehā but also from Māori, the most critical people on earth. 

Here's a paper dart: the sooner we start writing Our World and disconnect the umbilical to the Old World, the better.

KW: I’ve read that your speech also touched on a homogenous voice emerging from the various creative writing programmes across the country. Do our programmes blunt the edge of our new writers?

WI: In Dunedin my comments on homogeneity in creative writing courses must have been, say, three minutes of a forty-minute speech. What I said is not new, it's an opinion that's been around for quite a few years. It's based, in my case, in the observation that most of our fiction courses take a textbook approach to teaching the three or four act structure, usually linear and mainly around one signifying individual who takes the reader on a journey. There's a secret somewhere which has to be resolved and, through it, a redemptive act which leads to transcendence or catharsis.

KW: I’m particularly interested in this stance since, as we both know, you were my creative writing teacher at certain points over the last couple of years. Does your cynicism counteract your own position?

WI: Yes, I suppose I am being cynical and unfair about all this because, after all, I taught creative writing myself and I know the writer has to start somewhere with some basic tools, methodologies and theory. But at some point, he or she has to really evaluate all that contributes to this homogenous methodology and - well, I guess a good way of saying this - find "home." For Māori writers, and I was delivering my speech from a Māori perspective, this sort of de-colonisation is the hard part. In my case I based my theoretical approach to writing the Māori text on the English equivalent of Māori literary tools and also on what my readers (both Māori and Pakeha) didn't like, rather than on what they liked. 

Our books are brave but I'd like to see some that are braver

In the case of the "New Zealand" writer - because, after all, New Zealand is a different place to the UK, America or Europe - it's more difficult. The straitjacket of the linear approach, especially when it's coupled with the minimal style preference that passes these days internationally as beautiful writing, doesn't allow much possibility for organic writing and New Zealand inflection. I call it "no elbows jutting out" writing when, in fact, those elbows might very well be the writer's genetic ID.

Nor has the New Zealand writer the different semantics, word patterns, imagery and symbolism that Māori, Pacific, Asian and other non-Pākehā writers have to work with and which can make, even at the linguistic level, a difference.

But we have to keep at it. As Steph Johnston recently said of writing New Zealand, "If we don't do it, who will?"

KW: What kind of risks would you like to see our books taking?

WI: Our books are brave but I'd to see some that are braver, that risk more stylistically, structurally, thematically and, sure, there are some that do this.

One of the things I miss is the sense of the anarchic. In Dunedin, I asked the question: "Where are the anarchic novels?". I understand there was a bit of a Twitter feeding frenzy after I posed the question. What I meant by anarchic was books that change our world or, at least, the ways in which we think about ourselves. Now, I know that there were people who then proposed various books that they thought were anarchic, and that's great. And apart from Once Were Warriors which had such a distinguishing language and style, there are other books that have this sense of challenging old shibboleths. I mentioned Steph earlier; well, her John Tomb's Head is another one, mainly because it had a brilliant central idea and Steph was not afraid to go to places where saner New Zealand writers wouldn't. Nor did her and Alan's book come out of American or UK sensibilities either. They both engaged the politics of the grand New Zealand project, as well as the aesthetics of writing in stand-out ways.

I understand there was a bit of a Twitter frenzy after I posed the question

But I called Once Were Warriors the last anarchic book in New Zealand and not Steph's or anybody else's for one major reason: Warriors hit a raw nerve, it achieved more than a literary audience, it was debated throughout the world, especially after the film came out, in places as diverse as micro-communities like the Turkish community in Berlin to First Nations communities in Canada - I'm naming them particularly because I found myself in the middle of exciting audience debates, really visceral, about how Warriors was their book, not New Zealand's. Other New Zealand books may have anarchic intent but none have mainlined through all our societies Māori, Pākehā, national and international like Warriors and, certainly, none have had the same impact on government policy in race, health, social welfare and education in our country.

However, that was my opinion in Dunedin and I was working with my criteria. I'm perfectly happy for others to propose their own lists according to their own criteria. As I said earlier, my answers in Dunedin were proposed to encourage the audience's own answers, what's yours?