Sunday, May 11, 2014

Narratives of history.

Thinking of Mother's Day today, and how that takes me back through the narrative history of my family. How much of that history is able to be found in patches, often intersecting patches. And how many spaces there are in between.

So, in honour of Mother’s day I wish to pay tribute all the way back to my grandmother’s great-grandmother Tiraha Papa Harakeke, 1808-1885. 

Tiraha was born at Utakura, Hokianga, daughter of Papaharakeke and Kopu. Kopu (her mother), was born in 1775. Tiraha was third cousin and adopted daughter of Tamati Waka Nene, kinswoman to Patuone, Muriwai, and Hongi Hika. Tiraha’s father, Papaharakeke was killed by Tuhourangi at Motutawa Island on the encouragement of Te Rauparaha, who wanted revenge for a relative lost during Ngapuhi's capture of Te Totara pa. Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika had a patu made to avenge his death, and attacked Te Arawa at the height of the musket wars, instigated by Hongi and a tragic time for Maori, but the patu was not used. In 1933 Sir Apirana Ngata presented the patu, known as Papaharakeke, to Te Arawa as a tohu (token of friendship) from Ngapuhi. The patu is owned by the Arawa trustboard, and for 70 years was held in the Auckland Museum. In 2007, I believe, it was returned to Rotorua.

Tiraha married English Battle of Waterloo veteran, later carpenter, and then whaler, William Cook in a Christian ceremony at Paihia 13th March, 1848, though they had been together for many years as a couple and already had ten children.

They would have twelve in all.

The ceremony was conducted by Te Wiremu (Rev. Henry Williams) he of the controversial translation of the Treaty of Waitangi. A prayerbook given to the couple after their wedding is now in the Russell Museum, as is this photograph of Tiraha. Tiraha passed away 1st September,1885, and is buried somewhere in the Russell churchyard, as is Tamati Waka Nene. Unfortunately, Tiraha’s grave, though it is entered in the parish registry, is unmarked. William Cook had died at Waikare in 1874. One of their sons, George Howe Cook was born on a whaling brig – the Independence. The Cook family of Whangamumu became famous as whalers, before finally ceasing operations in 1931.

This tribute speaks through my mother, Alice June Martha Maitu,1928-1995, and my grandmother, Hannah, 1901-1994. It also honours Hannah's mother - Ada - and Ada's mother - Martha, and all the wahine toa in my whanau's history. And finally, all due respect to the descendents of the many tupuna noted in this post.

The patu - Papaharakeke. (Te Arawa Trustboard)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Flash fiction for ANZAC day

ANZAC Morning

Next door the old fella’s coughing. He’s bent over the veranda rail. One hand holds the wooden post the other touches the red poppy blooming on the lapel of his navy blazer. On the radio Vera Lynn’s singing We’ll meet again.
When I was a child a dark passage ran like an artery between my parents’ bedroom and mine. When Dad coughed he leaned against the doorframe for support. He coughed and coughed, his bony chest heaving against his cotton singlet. Mum nursed Dad, who carried a piece of the war in his lungs. Often at night he’d wake, gasping for air. I’d creep along the passage; breathe outside the door for him.
Sometimes I still wake in the night and hear my father coughing. I listen when that cough recites its whakapapa. I sprang from the desert sands in Egypt it says; in Maadi camp I wound my tendrils into his lungs; when his battalion moved out I went with him to Monte Cassino; I was full-grown when he came home on the hospital ship with nightmares and a shattered hip.
Next door the old fella spits and straightens up. His son arrives and helps him into the car.
Who holds the world up so you can crawl out and breathe in the light-filled air?
On the radio Vera’s still singing We’ll meet again to the boys.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sara Paretsky on finding a voice and writing in an age of silence

In the last few weeks I've been reading essays and memoirs by three wonderful writers: Sara Paretsky (Writing in an Age of Silence, 2007),  Marilynne Robinson (When I was a Child I Read Books, 2012) and Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005).
 Over the years I've read and re-read all of Paretsky's novels featuring the Chicago south-side detective V I Warshawski; more recently I've read Houskeeping, Gilead and Home by Robinson and marvelled at the precision and beauty of her language as well as her extraordinary characters; and while it's been some time since I've read Gidion's The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem copies of them still sit on my bookshelves and I remember them with affection.

In later posts I'll try and explore my reaction to Robinson's amazing collection of essays and to Didion's very personal account of her husband's death and the year that followed it  - each deserves extended space and reflection - but in this one I want to acknowledge how much it has meant to me to read Sara Paretsky talking about her struggle to find a voice. In the introduction to the book she says:

"Perhaps it doesn't seem surprising that I became a writer, but it was, in fact, a difficult journey. This memoir traces the long path I followed from silence to speech, and the ways in which my speech has been shaped by what I've witnessed along the way. The book deals with the dominant question of my own life, the effort to find a voice, the effort to help others on the margins to find a voice, the effort to understand and come to terms with questions of power and powerlessness."(pX111)

One of the wonderful things about books is they seem to arrive just when you need them most. I picked Writing in an Age of Silence off the shelf at the central library on a day when I was feeling upset and depressed about a number of past and current instances in my life when I have felt silenced in important and damaging ways.
Trying to find the courage to speak (and write) about what matters most is never easy and the links between silence, marginalisation and powerlessness are intricate and complex, not just in politics and artistic endeavour, but also, and perhaps especially, in employment and personal and family life. A recent example  comes to mind. At a union meeting a colleague expressed how silenced she now felt in her job, how few spaces there were now where she felt safe to speak, to ask questions, to offer a professional opinion or to discuss important issues. Anything other than total agreement was seen as being 'negative'. The saddest thing was that those running the meeting failed to ask her where and when she wanted to speak and what she wanted to say (surely all important things to ask if you want active and effective membership) - they simply said that being in the union was having a voice. In other words, even though they were good people and 'on her side' they too shut her up by not giving her the space, time and attention her - and our - increasing sense of powerlessness deserved. I wonder if she will go to another meeting.

Paretsky goes on to say: "It took many years of different kinds of support - from the man I later married, from psychotherapy, but above all from the women's movement of the seventies - before I gained an independent voice... it was feminism that triggered my wish to write a private eye novel, and it shaped the character of my detective, V I Warshawski."

Years ago, when I was still studying history at University I researched the differences and connections between oral and written accounts. One of the things I remember most from exploring oral traditions was the importance of, and need for orientation, that is, in order to speak to others you need (to be given or to find) a place/space to stand and speak from, one that allows enough grounding or solidity or legitimacy to orient yourself, to give direction and shape to what you are saying.

I think that is what Sara Paretsky is talking about so eloquently in this book: how hard it is for so many of us to find that place; how much support from each other we need to do it; how frightening and dangerous it can be, especially for those who are, or who feel, marginalised and powerless; yet how essential it is.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Excellent mini movie: First walk on the ice.

Excellent mini movie. Congratulations to the writer, director and cast. Structurally strong: begins with mystery (face hidden), has rising tension (what will her reaction be, how slippery is the ice), a good second act turning point/point of greatest reversal (at 0:09), a strong third act buildup (the reaching hand) then has an unexpected climax. Early runner for the Oscars.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Almost invisible again.

African American author Ralph Ellison's landmark book about dis-empowerment, and ultimately the journey to empowerment Invisible Man was recently banned by a school board in the U.S.A. It is not important so much that a single school district in the U.S. had chosen to ban a book as to look at the reasons why, and examine this issue in the wider sense. Read the article here

Each individual case needs to be looked at in its specifics, but in cases like this where the book is 60 years old and has been held in libraries since the 50's, a magnifying glass needs to run over why - now - it has been judged to have transgressed some social standard. There is often a repressive and oppressive gene in boards pretty much anywhere, but individual opinion can't be decoupled from the potential of structurally ingrained prejudice. 

These kind of episodes are concerning, and are important to highlight and speak back to. Often the concerns over content and appropriateness and judgements about literary value (laughable, in this case) are beards for suppression of narratives that run counter to traditional power. Terrible irony that 'Invisible Man' itself was subject to an attempt to render it invisible. 

This particular example demonstrates several things:

1) the potential for agendas to come into play at any time, and skew the mix of what is available to our culture, to their own ends
2) that the post-colonial era and its divorce from the colonial past is sometimes only a sheet of paper deep
3) that people, readers, writers, political activists, or just people who care, can fight back. That oppression loves a vacuum, and generally dislikes being daylighted. We can make a difference.The ban was overturned. 

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952

Monday, September 23, 2013

A few thoughts on theatre

On the weekend we went out to Unitec in West Auckland to see a production of Australian author Tim Winton's novel Cloudstreet.  This was put on by second year students from Unitec’s School of Performing and Screen Arts. It was an enthralling production, fast paced, full of movement - though not sacrificing depth and resonance for the speed and movement. While watching, a few thoughts struck me.

Firstly Tim Winton is one of the great chroniclers of the lives of the Antipodean working class. His warts and all portrayals are steeped in a sense of storytelling history, full of Australian vernacular (that NZ audiences can relate to easily), and they often reflect the lives of people whose lives resonate with characters from our own NZ and Australian past. At AUT today I did a lecture on ‘What is most personal is also most universal’ (quoting American psychologist Carl R. Rogers.) Winton’s stories reflect that principle, with his characters’ lives and conflicts riffing off our own, with authenticity and a refusal to compromise to any formulaic concepts of happy endings, characters who act as the ‘love interest. His stories detail the lives of the ordinary, though aren’t predictable. We know them, but we get to live them anew.

Another of Tim Winton’s stellar pieces of work, The Turning, has recently been turned into a movie. Watch the trailer here. The Turning, a short story cycle/composite novel does not seem a book to easily re-script as a film. I’m reminded of Robert Altman’s film ‘Short Cuts’ taken from nine short stories and a poem from by Raymond Carver, which never really worked as a coherent whole. I am hoping The Turning fares better.

Second thing that struck me is the physicality of theatre and its sense of three dimensional space. Physical in that the running feet are in the room with you (as an audience member), that the lighting effects include the audience, that each seat in the house has a different angle on the characters and action. If well used, and in this production it was, it can give an intimacy unique to theatre. I’ve seen a few too many productions that were 90% sound (mostly dialogue) and functioned almost as a radio play with some interspersed movement to keep your eyes awake. That physicality, the sense of being in the same space as the cast’s muscles and facial expressions and even momentary ‘fluffs’ gives the experience an extra tension, a special sense of the ‘now.’  

Third thing: just how vital live theatre is to the (storytelling) arts scene. Fortunes seem to wax and wane with theatre in New Zealand, and it’s important for funding bodies to recognize theatre’s intrinsic worth as both entertainment and as a context for developing writers/actors/directors. I’ve heard conflicting opinions on the demise of the Downstage company in Wellington, and I guess individual stars rise and fall, but live theatre as a concept and a unique medium is critical to the world of storytelling.

The Unitec cast of 'Cloudstreet,' 2013.