The short story has risen again: new Māori writing

Steve Braunias hails a new collection of short stories by Māori  writers – in English, and te reo.

Seven stories in the new Huia Short Stories 13 collection are in Māori. I can’t read a single sentence of them but it’s a brilliant idea, even an essential idea, to connect to a particular kind of audience and to show due and proper respect to te reo. Everything about this book comes out of good intentions and a sense of generosity:  the Huia book collects the shortlisted stories from the 2019 Pikihuia Awards, organised by the Māori Literature Trust, a worthy, serious body charged with identifying new Māori writers as well acknowledging established Māori authors.

But worthiness and seriousness of purpose only goes so far. All I’ve described so far is politics, and social responsibility. Good intentions, all that. The exciting thing about the new Huia book, though, is that many of the 16 stories in English work way beyond any kind of remit, work as striking, original, beautifully crafted literature. Great that the Māori Literature Trust has social value. Great, or better, that the book has such literary value.

It comes at a time when the New Zealand short story is enjoying a kind of renaissance. The series I publish every Saturday at ReadingRoom is the most evident sign, with a wide range of stories by authors such as the intensely observant Charlotte Grimshaw and the wily old master Owen Marshall, and younger, newer writers including Rijula Das and Jackson Payne.

Probably the strongest or most shocking story in the series so far has been by Alice Tawhai. Her story was titled "The Rapist." If you saw Malcolm Rewa in it, then fair enough; if you recognised families in it (“Thomas had knocked most of the teeth out of Matemoe’s head”), and noticed the way it travelled the country (“Some boys that he was hanging with while his parents were drinking showed him how to get into other people’s houses”), and that it went to places you didn’t want to go to (“He remembered each woman or girl by their bedrooms, a head spin of pastel hues, lilacs and powder blues”), then you saw New Zealand in it.

A story can be anything the author wishes. Escapist, romantic, funny, whatever; even journalism is allowed a range, can make entertainment or something really interesting out of any kind of subject. There is no imperative for a work of fiction to expose or even notice modern society, to report on the haves or with any more urgency the have-nots, to see New Zealand. But it’s a fact that four of the stories I enjoyed the most in Huia 13 shared the same kind of social documentary urge as “The Rapist” by Alice Tawhai. Māori  writers, writing about Māori New Zealand.

Actually there’s nothing explicitly Māori about “Murray’s Special Day” by Tracey Andersen. It’s set at a funeral, not a tangi; the characters are called Murray, Andrea, Joe, Betty; there’s not a single word in te reo. And yet a subtle, tangible New Zealandness seeps through every sentence.

I thought the way she set it up was on course for something sentimental. It opens, “It’s just the right kind of day to be buried.” But the writer slowly, evenly draws the story along to a darker place. A central truth is revealed but she doesn’t hammer the reader - or, more importantly, the story - over the head with it. It paddles along at the same pace, and there’s an almost sensual pleasure in her description of “each dull thud of dirt that is shovelled on his finally silent resting place”.

I’ve arranged with Huia to publish “Botched” by Marino-Moana Begman in the ReadingRoom story series. I chose it not because I thought it was the best, but because it had such charm, and like “Murray’s Special Day”, it had a kind of languid movement to it, nothing hurried. Little Heemi is taken to and dropped off at the side of the road. He’s young and vulnerable and hungry. His mum drives away. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m too thick to get it? Probably, but the sense of mystery gives the story an extra dimension.

“My Three Friends at Primary School” by Josh Hema has an artless feel to it. It reads like a first draft. It’s sketchy, and the ending is too abrupt. So why is it that I read it with such deep consuming interest? It’s a portrait of three kids, Duncan, Harrison, and “Sean the Pedophile”. The narrator meets Duncan as adults, at a party, where his friend picks someone up and takes her back to the narrator’s house. “I let them fuck in my bed, and I took the couch. When I saw her the next morning, it was clear that it was Duncan had been doing the fucking.” As for Harrison, “his father was national president of Black Power.” As for Sean...Three kids, three authentic and very casually drawn portraits of New Zealanders.

I thought the best story – the most assured, the most well-crafted – was “The Pledge” by Nadine Anne Hura. I’ve read her personal essays and published one; everything she writes is class, the mark of a hard-working mind, always wanting to get it down and get it down right. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the fine detail and emotional strength of this story. Hura ought to be regarded as one of our major writers. This is the work of someone who sees things clearly and has an artist’s ability to present it with sensitivity and real feeling.

It’s set during a Telethon. You can date it by the appearance of Judy Bailey. The time doesn’t matter so much; the sense of place, and the sense of danger, is more important. Hura examines a family dynamic. There’s a little girl, an older, wary brother, a quiet mum, and, rumbling and heaving, the focal point of the household, an angry dad. New Zealand in a house. Exceptionally good story, from a very, very good collection. Recommended for anyone who can read.

Huia Short Stories 13 (Huia Publishers, $25)

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