Week in Review

Māori boy: young Witi Ihimaera

In this extract from his new memoir, Witi Ihimaera remembers his apprenticeship as the first Māori writer to have his fiction published in New Zealand.

Following our wedding [in 1970], Jane and I started to save money again, this time for a delayed honeymoon to Europe.

I thought I would keep the momentum up and make extra cash from writing. And seeing as the Listener had accepted one story, they might accept another, right? On June 4, 1970, they went for “Queen Bee”, and then on August 4 they accepted “The Child”.

[Books editor] Noel Hilliard, whom I had not yet met, sent me a lovely letter about “The Child”.

He wrote, "It is one of the very best stories I’ve read in my life by anyone. The tenderness, the compassion that you convey so movingly are found only rarely in literature today — and are rare enough in the works of past times too, and are found with such sincerity as you convey only in the greatest writers. You have a unique and splendid talent and — to me most important — your human values are right...it’s as if you’ve been writing for years and years and have worked through the arithmetic and algebra and the geometry of the game and are now in the rarified atmosphere of pure maths."

Nicholas Zisserman, Professor and Head of the Department of Russian Language and Literature, University of Otago, also wrote to me.

“Not only did the story touch chords of personal memory,” he said, “but I admire your story as a work of art — its language, its manner of representation in its seeming simplicity! They reveal a great writer’s talent.”

Nicholas was a friend of Vladimir Nabokov, so I was more than happy to bask in the association. The third person to comment about “The Child” was my English lecturer Professor James Bertram. At the end of the class after the story was published, he stopped us as we were leaving. “By the way,” he began, “one of the students in this class is being published in our distinguished weekly journal.”

I blushed red and was relieved that he didn’t mention my name.

He had a faint smile on his lips, “Congratulations are therefore in order.”

*.

Finally I met Noel Hilliard. He invited me to come to lunch, and I turned up at his office at the Listener.

“You’re Ihimaera?” he asked. He came bounding from his desk. He was slightly taller than me, his eyes lively in a big, open face, and he shook my hand.

After having admired Noel for his novel Maori Girl (1960) it was exciting to meet him. “When your story ‘The Liar’ crossed our desks here,” Noel said, “nobody was sure if you were a Māori writer or not. Some thought you might be a Pākehā writer masquerading under a Māori name, so I asked around my mates, Hone Tuwhare, Bill Pearson, Harry Dansey up at the Star and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell over at School Publications, but nobody had heard of you. A couple of weeks later you send in ‘Queen Bee’ and it’s so bloody good everyone wanted to take a look at you!”

Noel was 40, appeared to have won a bet, and was chortling with glee. He looked like a cowcocky, not a journalist or writer. “Come on, we’re going to have a beer and lunch.”

A few weeks later, Jane and I drove out to Titahi Bay for the day. Noel lived with his wife, Kiriwai, in Richard Street overlooking the sea. I can never think of Kiriwai without getting a huge grin on my face.

“Noel’s in his writer’s shed,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Don’t disturb him,” I answered. “We’re in no hurry.”

She introduced us to the kids, Moana, Harvey, Hinemoa and young Howard, the apple of the family’s eye. “Do you want to see the crocodile’s tail?” Howard asked.

Out on the sea was a low rock formation which indeed looked like a scaly amphibian lashing the waves. A few fearless skindivers were tickling its underbelly for shellfish.

While waiting for Noel, we played cards in the sitting room. Kiriwai could have been one of my card-playing Waituhi aunties, and she had a laugh that was worth a million dollars. After a while, though, she yelled out to Noel, “Hey, Hilliard, get your arse in here.” When he didn’t respond, she told me to go and get him.

Noel’s typewriter looked like a relic from World War I. He was crashing out words on the keys. The most prominent sight in the hut was a clothesline strung back and forth across the ceiling of the shed. Along it were pegged pages of the novel he was working on — with gaps signifying there were pages still to be written.

“Once the line is full,” Noel told me, “I know I have a book.”

Later, on our walk, he saw the skindivers, still there, and began to shout at them to fuck off. He feared the area would soon be denuded of kaimoana.

Very soon we all joined in. “Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!”

*

Following that first visit, my relationship with Noel became another in the line of older man–younger man relationships in my life. By now, however, I wasn’t as interested in “the meaning of life” but, rather, how to realise my life’s ambition: a career in literature. And when I discovered that as a boy he boarded at Gisborne Boys’ High School while his father worked on the Railways, my hopes lifted. If one Gizzy boy could crack the literary business, so could another.

"It’s the most relaxed shot you’ll ever see of me": Witi Ihimaera with novelist Noel Hilliard, Titahi Bay.

There was some deeper empathy driving our friendship. I think one of the reasons why Jane and I got so close to him and Kiriwai was that they had had a hard row to hoe as an interracial couple in the 1940s; they wanted to be there for Jane and me in the 1970s. When they arrived in Wellington, Noel had been shocked to see advertisements seeking people for jobs and accommodation which said “No Maori”. Had things changed since then? Maybe. Possibly. Better look after Witi and Jane, just in case.

His house at Richard Street was always busy with people coming and going. Hone Tuwhare, who introduced Kiriwai to Noel, and whom Noel helped in establishing his reputation as a poet, was a frequent visitor (and his wife, Jean, was Pākehā). The conversation was always political and inflammatory, and Jane and I often found ourselves still there for breakfast.

In argument Noel became a raging bull, and at the height of his fury the veins on his neck stood out. It didn’t matter that he only had one lung, he couldn’t help punctuating his words with a damn cigarette — one day smoking will kill him. I learnt later that, as flatmates, Noel and Alexander Fry, his Listener colleague, became tubercular when sharing an unheated flat.

We began the kind of correspondence that every young writer hopes to have with an older writer. In one exchange we must have been discussing nationalism in literature. Someone had told me I was Māori to my fingertips. It may have been Nicholas Zisserman, whom I finally met when he arrived in Wellington to assess Russian exam papers. Or it may have been Mrs Heinegg, with whom Nicholas was staying, or Professor Lopyrev, who told me that good writers must have a political bias.

About the comment Noel writes, "Tolstoy was Russian to his fingertips, and it is the very Russianness of his writing — and of Dostoevsky’s which enhances its great technical power and facility. No Frenchman, not even Napoleon, was as French to his fingertips as Balzac; he didn’t happen to be French, no, his Frenchness is the very bone and blood and marrow and sinew of his work.

"Only a fool or worse would try to make out that Richard Wright’s or James Baldwin’s Negroness has nothing to do with their accomplishments as writers. It’s surely obvious to the whole world that it is the very Negro component of their work which gives it the special strength and depth and relevance that it has.

"If you write from the deepest well-springs of your spirit (and that’s the way I think the greatest writing is produced) then your Maori nature will be implicit in what you write — not added on, not grafted on, but there, root-and-branch."

There’s a photograph of Noel and me sitting together at Richard Street. In my opinion, it’s the most relaxed shot you’ll ever see of me. With Noel I didn’t need to be anybody else except myself.

I truly loved the man. Still do.

From Native Son: The writer's memoir by Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, $40)

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