Excerpts from a reading journal, 2008
Māori Tales of Long Ago
by AW Reed
There’s so much about these old mythology books that I love: the yellowed pages, the smell of the yellowed pages, the jumpy fonts and, in this case, the epic cover picture of Maui running away from the fire he has stolen from his grandmother’s fingernails. There’s also a truth to them that is often lost in more recent interpretations of the old stories – even though today the telling of these old tales is more sophisticated.
I also love the presentation of these old books and the illustrations work so well in their simplicity. I picked this book up at a book fair in Titirangi for ten dollars. The guy running the stall next to the guy who sold it to me said I was getting a bargain and I reckon I did. I was attracted to this collection because it includes ‘The Story of Hatupatu and the Ogress of the Birds’. This was a story that scared me out of my wits when I was a kid, I literally used to hide under the couch when it was being read but I couldn’t get enough of it – and I’ve heard several variations since then.
It should be mentioned that the Ogress’s name is Kurangaituku and friends from the Taupo, Rotorua area tell me she still pops up now and again – a more recent sighting was in the back seat of a car during the land march of 1975.
Kurangaituku is a powerful force and like so many of these characters has been misrepresented in the recalling of many mythologies as evil. Things are just never that straightforward. She has her own story and her own role to play in terms of protection of birds and forests. Kurangaituku is a force to be respected.
Lately I’ve been re-reading the Māori mythology of my childhood because my own book contains within it, a kind of mythology. It has at its heart – like most of these old stories – a moral or a higher purpose, something the reader should learn from. ‘Hatupatu and the Ogress’ is about greed, how wanting too much can get you into trouble. However the version of the story in this book is a little disappointing. The story I grew up with put Kurangaituku in a more favourable light. In that version she captures Hatupatu then grows to trust him. In a vengeful act he kills and eats all her children (the birds). In it, both characters are flawed. I remember feeling more sorry for Kurangaituku than Hatupatu. She just wanted the companionship of another person and grew to love and trust the boy, so left him alone with her birds. Reed’s version places less value on the characters and their relationships and gives more time to the ‘telling of the story’. This is a story within a story where whanau are gathered for a purpose and the story unwinds around the campfire.
The beauty for me about these old stories is the opportunities that are created within them for the exploration of the human condition: love, trust, fear and all of that! This book doesn’t quite hit that mark but is still really worth having, those yellowed pages…
The Art of Walking Upright
by Glenn Colquhoun
I read this collection of poetry because I knew that the author, Glenn Colquhoun, was a Pākehā who wrote about Māori. I needed to see if he pulled it off. I’ve read enough books where it hasn’t worked – where non-indigenous authors write about brown people as though they are a strange and exotic plant. Where the reader never gets to see these characters as real but only as drifters, ghosts or malevolent figures. In some cases it could be the author has a fear of misrepresentation but it also tells us that there is a void between their world and the people they write about. It says something about where a community is at in terms of cultural understanding. The other reason I was keen to read was because in regard to my own writing, it’s always a challenge to explore and own new worlds, so I can talk about them with some kind of truth, even if it’s my own and not this distant thing I can’t reach because it’s too challenging to try and access it. Possibly it makes me scared.
But as the author writes in his introduction to this collection, ‘These poems are about belonging. They are about discovering a place to stand within a Māori world. Ultimately for me they are about finding more clearly what it means to be Pākehā and to be human’. He talks about growing up on the ‘other side of the fence’ from Māori – while he knew some aspects of culture (hāngī, etc), he had no framework to put them in. The year he spent living in Te Tii provided him with a sense of not only Māori people and culture but because of that, himself.
It was refreshing to read this collection where a Pākehā author writes about what it is to be Pākehā and the issues living amongst a Māori community brought up for him as it’s usually the other way around.
The father of the father of my father/ was afraid that the sea would wash him away./ He cut the land into squares with his knife./ He lashed the soil onto his back.
– ‘v. a pākehā spiritual’
G.C. writes about the locals, not as ‘other’ or ‘they’ – but as part of the world he lives in and within his words he manages to celebrate the differences. I really enjoyed the warmth and humour of the chapter entitled ‘Nga Poupou’ where G.C. writes about pillars in the community he was part of.
My eyes are paintbrushes./ They dip in the light that falls through your window./ They colour on the edge of your hair.
– ‘Aunty Maude’
Subject: Does Duende Increase Your Word Count?
From: Briar Grace-Smith
To: Alex Keeble
Date: Sat, Aug 30, 2008 at 11:06 AM
I’m at Wellington Library.
This word ‘duende’ keeps coming up for me. I heard flamenco being described using this word but couldn’t find the context for it. The dictionary translation says, goblins and demons.
Now I have A.L. Kennedy’s book On Bullfighting – as a writer she finds her way into bulls and fighting in a way that I completely get. Anyway she goes on for half a chapter about ‘duende’. Lorca kind of redefined the word – she tries to define it but I get it’s indefinable because it’s so much of a feeling ‘it can act as a description for the “soul” which offers itself beautifully, cruelly to specific human beings at specific moments’.
‘Sad numinous beauty.’
To me there’s something about duende that’s relevant also to karanga, haka and those big moments of giving oneself up – letting your heart out all over the world. Sad. Beautiful. Dark. The bullfight and flamenco (Lorca says cante jondo, the deep songs of flamenco music).
Anyway it’s relevant somehow someway somewhere. Any thoughts?
From: Alex Keeble
To: Briar Grace-Smith
Date: Mon, Sep 1, 2008 at 12:40 PM
how are you!? your writing? heading towards something you feel happy about handing out to class in a couple weeks?
duende. i love duende. i do know that it can be misunderstood. but it is close to all the ‘deep song’ things. love and death, love and sex. mr darwish writes a lot about the connection between lorca and duende and arabic poetry.
did you know that lorca was gay? but completely unexpressed, because it was spain in the 30s. and then he was killed by the fascists, in Madrid.
lorca was the first book of poetry i ever read. my godmother in spain when i stayed with her gave me the most beautiful, leather-bound original copy of his complete works, also with some of his drawings in colour plates. i keep it wrapped up in muslin cloth. i wish i could show it to you.
there is a book i have been meaning to order for you for ages and ages, and now i’m going to, through that kiwi books site. it’s john berger writing about a spanish painter, miquel barceló, who paints these extraordinary, almost abstract paintings about bullfights. he hates them, but somehow captures the violence of them like nothing else. i’ve been wanting this book for ages so i’ll get it and we can share it.
amor y lucha
From: Briar Grace-Smith
To: Alex Keeble
Date: Mon, Sep 1, 2008 at 1:20 PM
I think there needs to be so much more to what I’m writing and I’m not just talking pages. I need to know more about Lorca and all those guys and haven’t done much and I won’t be happy with it until I know all about everything. I did read that he was gay and hung out with a bi-sexual bullfighter, then was executed. We want to go to Spain.
Have an inspirational day. Pour any duende you have all over those pages.
by A. L. Kennedy
I find it interesting thinking about the writers people recommend me to read, because of something I say or, more likely, am trying to say. Sometimes I hunt out books by these writers but can’t read them. I was told I had to read A.L. Kennedy years back and got a collection of her short stories. It blocked me. I couldn’t get past the first one.
However, after reading On Bullfighting I might have to take another look at it. I enjoyed this book immensely and bullfighting can’t be an easy thing to turn people onto. It discusses some of the concepts I’ve only touched on in my own writing – it fired me up and told me to dig deeper. I wish I’d read it earlier.
I’ve read a lot of articles recently about bullfighting but have avoided Hemingway’s account because I haven’t been after anything too emotive. That needs to come from the characters. What A.L. Kennedy did for me was just a bit of both – I was both inspired and informed by her perspective. She explores what it is to be someone who risks their life to make a living and the sort of force that drives them. She goes beyond the theatrics and focuses on the fact that a man (or woman) faces his/her death while a crowd looks on. What drives a person to do this? What drives a crowd to watch?
Of bullfighting she says, ‘Whatever you or I think of how and why they do this, they are making that commitment every working day – a commitment which I am pointing out I know that I can’t equal… But I’ll give you as much as I can. I do promise that.’
A.L. Kennedy was contemplating jumping from a window when she was commissioned to write this essay – reckoned she just couldn’t write anymore – I find this a little hard to believe, not the inability to write part but the jumping part. It makes a good introduction though. A.L. is fearless in her descriptions of gore and at times this can feel cold but really, she just has the ability to stand back, observe and be fascinated by something that would make many of us vomit. A telling chapter was one written about dissecting cows’ eyes at school, because no one else would. While she had no problem at all with the dissection, it wasn’t a purely scientific exercise for her – she talks in wonderful detail about the ‘beauty’ of those eyes. In fact she found the diagrams and scientific explanations that followed boring.
A.L. views the world deeply, her ideas are stunning. In regard to the bullfight it never feels as if she’s taking sides. She doesn’t come across as pro the bullfight, only empathetic to the matador.
I also found that A.L. responds to her reviewers! Here are a couple of typically sharp replies.
As she shows in this book she is a natural writer, and writing, though it can offer her little solace against the pains and losses of life, will not release her… A writer who can write like this has nothing wrong with her backbone.
– John Banville, Irish Times
ALK says: Mr. Banville is a fine man and also a born writer.
…you can’t help feeling that this archaic sport has been honoured beyond its worth by the attention of such an open-minded, articulate intelligence.
– Rosemary Goring, Scotland on Sunday
ALK says: She always wanted to be a vet, I believe.
I so believe that we cannot have joy or beauty without risk, but I am still uneasy about the links that Kennedy is forging here between brutality and ecstasy, religion and death. I was also uneasy because almost every sentence makes clear that she can write, that she is writing… So either she or we are being deceived.
– Tana Dineen, Openmind
ALK says: What happens when they get a psychologist to review books. God help her patients.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Briar Grace-Smith is of Ngāpuhi descent. She writes for theatre, television and film and her short fiction has been included in various anthologies. Her plays have toured both New Zealand and internationally. She was an inaugural recipient of the New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2000 and Writer in Residence at Victoria Universityin 2003. Her screenplay The Strength of Water will première in 2009. She is currently working on her first novel.