Paula Morris: Making noise for Māori writers

New Zealand novelist Dr Paula Morris wants diversity in our literature to be an outcome, not a goal

The Auckland Writers Festival begins on May 16 with the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. I’m on the NZ Book Awards Trust, proud of how these national awards have been reinvented and reinvigorated. We have new, far-sighted sponsors like Ockham; the Acorn Foundation which sponsors the $50,000 fiction prize; and the Royal Society of New Zealand, which funds the General Non-Fiction prize.

But this year there are no Māori writers shortlisted in the fiction or poetry categories, and only one Pasifika poet, Tusiata Avia. Courtney Sina Meredith made the fiction longlist with her story collection Tail of the Taniwha. I’d have loved to see another Auckland graduate, Gina Cole, longlisted for her debut story collection Black Ice Matter, and Simone Kaho longlisted for her poetry collection Lucky Punch.

This low tally disappoints me – but it doesn’t surprise me. Award shortlists are always subjective and often eccentric, and we all have our favourites who don’t make the cut. (Many poets were surprised that Lynley Edmeades, with As the Verb Tenses, isn’t on the poetry shortlist.) And I don’t think the 2017 judges are racist.

I think there simply aren’t enough books being written and published by Māori and Pasifika writers. They represent only 3 percent of all locally published poetry and fiction.

For the past four years, the University of Auckland has hosted a free lecture early in the festival, intended to provoke discussion. Invited speakers are accomplished outsiders, asked to explore contemporary culture and expand conversations ongoing at the university. The first year I gave the lecture – on the ‘Imperial World’ of international book prizes – when I still worked at the University of Sheffield. The next was Professor Peter Holland from the University of Notre Dame, talking about Shakespearean spin-offs, mash-ups and pop culture’s reinvention of the Bard; last year Steve Braunias gripped a packed lecture theatre of over 300 with his insights on the Mark Lundy case.

This year I talked with Anne O’Brien, festival doyenne, about showcasing a subject close to my heart: the current state of Māori and Pasifika literature. We agreed to stage the lecture for the first time down in Aotea Square, in the Heartland Festival Room (AKA the Spiegeltent) – and we have invited novelist Tina Makereti, who teaches at the University of Massey, to deliver the lecture. Like me, she’s alarmed by the 3 percent figure.

Tina’s illustrated lecture isn’t just another talk on how we need more ‘diversity’ in our literature. Jamaican writer Marlon James has complained that diversity is ‘an outcome treated as a goal’. I had this in mind last October at the National Māori Writers hui in Wellington, where Tina was one of the prime movers.

I didn’t really want to go to the hui. I say yes to too many things, and my life is one long late night of desperate preparation and self-recrimination. My health wasn’t great at the time; my father had been diagnosed – the day I flew to Wellington – with terminal cancer. I didn’t relish the prospect of spending a weekend in a cold marae to give a keynote address, a fiction workshop and a reading.

But I went, and spent a fruitful and stimulating weekend, exhausting in some ways and energising in others. There was so much enthusiasm for creative nonfiction that I ended up teaching an additional workshop, as a koha, on the final day.

The main thing I felt after the hui was this: I want diversity in our literature to be an outcome, not a goal. So anything small I can do to help that happen is better than just sitting around with lit-biz chums lamenting the lack of Māori novelists, poets or essayists.

As writers we must be generous to each other, and help each other – and the next generation. Giving a free workshop with lots of information on further resources was probably much more use than me chairing a panel on diversity – with Marlon James – at last year’s Auckland Writers’ Festival.

For the rest of us, helping our national literature to grow may mean buying more novels, collections and anthologies by Māori writers, giving them as gifts, recommending them to book clubs, setting them as class texts. It may mean coming along after Tina’s lecture to the launch for Apirana Taylor’s novel Five Strings at the Central Library – and buying a copy. We make our own culture. We need to make it a rich and reflective one, noisy with all our voices.

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