CATARINA DE PETERS LEITÃO
The Weight of a Name
April 16th 2019
A response to ‘This is the Way He Walked Into the Darkest, Pinkest Part of the Whale and Cried Don’t Tell the Others’ by Talia Marshall:
I’m tentative in reading another piece about birds; it is such a common subject in poetry and other genres. I feel like it’s usually someone waffling on beautifully about birds, but that there isn’t much to be learned. I can never fully connect with it. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sensitive to birds as a subject for fear of being bored out of my brain.
But this wasn’t the case when I read ‘This is the Way He Walked…’ by Talia Marshall. I was surprised on the first reading to find that this was an essay, really, about birds. There were no indications from the title or the early paragraphs. Published in the 2018 NZ issue of Poetry Magazine, it was the first time I came across the Māori essayist. Her voice feels contemporary and her relationship unravelling before the reader in this trip. It’s written so openly that I immediately get a strong sense of Talia’s womanhood, her power over others.
The essay demands to be reread, from a writer’s perspective, to see how the narrator guides us into the second half of the essay. Talia has flipped the table in this imaginary dinner party and now she’s having a good laugh at me. So like with magic I look closer. It’s the third time I’ve read it and I find in each turn a golden detail, a passage that is pointed to my experience as a young Māori woman. It’s funny but mostly terrible that when I started writing poems (my entry into writing) I submitted them to journals. Even if they didn’t get published (though some did) I’d get feedback that would take me by surprise. Always the same words buzzing. Lively, strong. When these came with rejections I didn’t take them so well (who does?) — I saw them as harmful elements towards my writing, that perhaps these were hindering my chances at being published. Better to sound less like myself and then I’ll get published! I tried to bring the tone down a bit when I next wrote and I found through a more consistent writing practice that I didn’t have to strip this side of myself at all. Though in editing, there are definitely moments to strip myself back so that the story can continue. It turns out my voice can carry all of these things in a careful dance. I can be lively, I can be strong. Reading into a strong personality who is present in her nonfiction work is what reaches and stays with me after reading Talia’s essay.
‘This is the Way He Walked…’ marries the tradition of the unveiling, of moments like “uncomfortably hot girl cousins eyeing him up over the graves of their ancestors” which is so funny and evocative of burials from the perspective of rangatahi, to her troublesome streak and issues arising in her relationship. This is a really useful example for me to look back through if I use a story like “Browner Than Thou” in my MA portfolio, in which I open up about darker moments in my relationship with a Pākehā man. I’m buzzing about lines like “He says I am not to write about this unveiling but what he means is that I must not write about our fight.”
The essay begins with the family trip to her son’s father marae for the unveiling of Whiu’s stone. We learn about the hapū and the narrator’s connection to the husband’s hapū and iwi, the feeling that something underground is begging her to know who she is pervades. I’m left wondering as a reader why she decides to stay in the car for the ceremony, part of me thinks it’s because of the fight the previous day with her son’s father, but also the feeling that she has been to so many of these occasions.
As Māori, depending on how closely your immediate whānau is involved in the marae, you become conditioned to death from an early age. The first time I stepped into the urupā as a teenager I freaked tf out. In one of my recent visits to Ōpōtiki, driving back to town from Whakatāne, I shared the memory with my mother. In the dark violet sky and brisk of the night sea she told me not to be so morbid about it, her hands on the steering wheel. That I shouldn’t regard the urupā with dread but to think of it as a place to celebrate, where the ghosts of our tīpuna will be welcomed as new arrivals. “Finally cuz, you’ve made it! We’ve been waiting for you for years. Welcome back.” And the spirits will party all night.
In the second part of the essay, Talia writes about the history of birds from the time of Captain Cook’s arrival to Aotearoa, of rumours and traditions involving birds. She also evokes and writes of the East Coast as being its own world in details like “I remember hearing a talkback radio host say that everyone should go to the East Coast for a holiday because it is like going to another world. My son’s father scoffs when I tell him this and says this is the world.” I buzz every time I read this because it feels so real to my experience of the Coast. Though when I moved there at 15 I wanted to deny it as my own world, I just wanted to go back to Lisbon to be with my friends — I ultimately couldn’t deny it was a part of me. That’s the thing, whakapapa always pulls you back. You’ll never win against it. A big part of my project is trying to make the East Coast the main world of the book and the alternate is Portugal. It has to do with me literally being stuck in the whenua but the pull that tīpuna have. From the NZ literature I’ve read so far, people who write about the Coast seem to all share this special connection with it. I’d like to honour my whakawhanaunga with this world.
April 28th 2019
Though I’m trying to give less room to men in this journal and throughout my project, I am researching styles and ways of writing into Te Ao Māori. Writing about tīpuna, hell even thinking about it, can feel like a burden as a young Māori woman. I can’t bear the thought of disappointing my aunties.
I am trying to change my mindset going forward in writing my stories, pushing the limits of what I’ve done before, decolonising my scenes and characters, paying attention to themes. I can’t allow myself to look so darkly on some of the responsibilities that we carry with us, as other writers of colour do, especially when it concerns ethics. It will weigh my writing down otherwise and be present on the page.
Witi Ihimaera is one of the household names for Māori novelists and prose writers, being the first Māori novelist in New Zealand. I haven’t read any work of his before so I chose his first collection of fiction Pounamu Pounamu from the IIML library.
Set in the East Coast, Pounamu Pounamu was a breezy overnight read, full of memory and whānau characters. From the cheeky, card-cheating Nani Miro to that real Pākehā friend at the tournaments to Mrs. Jones and the mākutu that was placed on her. I was mesmerized by the simplicity and straightforwardness of the narrator. Witi’s style, even at a sentence level displayed such constraint and simplicity. Sentences were perfectly balanced, peppered by characterisation and felt generous. The world of his book opened to the reader. The highlights of the book were A Game of Cards and The Makutu on Mrs. Jones. It’s pretty artful seeing the way in which Ihimaera describes Mrs. Heta and her best mate, Maka Tiko Bum, while Mrs. Heta is alive and even after she’s gone. The mana of Mrs. Heta breathes through the pages and inspires me to do the same for my late aunties.
Although I fangirled over Pounamu Pounamu as the invaluable resource it is, I found the tone a bit dated for a 21st century young Māori reader. Māori literature should reflect the conditions of our lives in the many ways that we exist and our worries: millennials’ weird obsession with wellness and protein supplements, climate change, Trump, anxiety, Jacinda Ardern’s virtue-signalling politics, I can keep going. I can’t do all the mahi in my first book, but as an emerging Māori writer, all I can hope for is to make my own contribution in the future. Ihimaera’s collection reflects family life in a time where huge pressures caused a drift by many Māori to the cities. I think it’s time to revamp this in my Coastie book, in my own way.
May 15th 2019
I’ve begun writing about wāhine toa who have influenced me for my MA folio, namely in my maternal side of the whānau. I was a bit skeptical about sharing some essays in my first portfolio session because I hate the thought of an audience possibly not ‘getting’ something that I’m trying to show, especially people that I’m writing with love or admiration for. I know this is part of maturing as a writer but I have cancer rising. That means I’m hella sensitive, dear reader, so you actually can’t tell me that.
Thinking and writing about the brilliant wāhine who have inspired through their strength and character, I feel like I owe them so much by placing them on the page. Having my joint portfolio session with Ash this week, the workshop allowed me to share life-marking formative experiences that weren’t all mine with my MA colleagues, like my mother’s moving from New Zealand to Portugal in 1985. I wrote that piece, ‘Kiwi Sophisticated’, because I wanted to know about the conditions in which my mother had made the big shift — as a Sagittarius she laughs so much of it off today with her signature joie de vivre. You will notice this if you sit next to me in our regular FaceTime calls that last an hour, at minimum. But I know it had to have been a wild experience for her, the dislocating and the dismembering of so much that had been familiar to her.
Before I started the course I thought of the family essays more adventurously — that it will allow me to practice whakawhanaungatanga with those who are still with me and perhaps take for granted. Those with whom I fleetingly engage with in family functions, all the way back to the history of some of my tīpuna. I’m a strong believer that to know who I am or who I am meant to be, first I need to do the work of looking back. But now that I’ve embarked in this, I’m forced to deal with the actualities of writing about real people. The weight of a name. Without a doubt, for the sake of ethical purposes, I would love to progress through this book without having to change someone’s identity. The question of naming a loved one is one which I don’t take lightly with each essay I write. Reading Helen Garner’s ‘A Scrapbook, An Album’ from Helen Garner True Stories makes me think of the function of a name itself within nonfiction.
The person who is reading this will likely find out this year how much I love Jane Austen and how much of a boss bitch I think she was. Austen knew how to throw shade in her writing but she knew equally how to write from the perspective of a sibling.
The essay begins with an Austen quotation from Mansfield Park—it speaks to the unique bond siblings share, a connection that cannot be found in other relationships. Part of the charm in Austen’s work are the close relationships that she establishes between sisters, how boldly it influenced her home and upbringing. Growing up with two other sisters I felt the hierarchy within the household as the youngest child, and for the most part it’s been a sweet ride, I won’t complain.
I relished this essay’s generosity towards each sister and how through its progression, what I could make of each. Thoughts like Five seems a bit flighty and self-absorbed. Typical youngest sister syndrome! Crossed my mind after the reading. It was interesting that Garner omitted their names — we know only that Garner is the eldest, labelled ‘One’ — it’s quite a bold choice for the length of the essay. Would the essay have benefitted from the sisters’ real names? For ethical purposes, they are good placeholders if the sisters want their privacy. Though in the essay Garner said that, upon acquaintance, it is obvious who each sister is. Thinking of my project, I wouldn’t be too keen in having numbers instead of proper names as Garner did for this essay (also I don’t have nearly as many sisters) in my own work, but I respect Garner’s ethical hustle. It’s done seamlessly within the text, like there is no second thought between what the feelings of Two and Five are, in face of certain situations. The characterisation of each sister is lively and scintillating, I particularly enjoyed the section about laughter and who is the favourite. It’s just so funny! Being the youngest of the sisters, I identified with some of Five’s moments. The best for me was in p.57, “Everyone loved me endlessly,” says Five “I was born so many years after Four that I didn’t have to fight anybody for anything. But sometimes now I feel a rather pathetic figure in the family—like the dregs of the barrel. As if what I’ve got to offer is somehow less. Everything’s been done before, and better. If I’m patronised or ignored, I bow out. With my friends I feel more entertaining and clever than I do with my sisters—more relaxed and free.” I felt entirely seen.
I found some of Garner’s techniques in the essay interesting too, like in p.56. Garner starts a section with her own recorded response from an interview and writes of herself in the third person, to fit into the sisterhood narrative. It’s curious seeing Garner place herself directly as a subject. Seems kind of bizarre but fitting! This could be something useful to think of, when I begin writing with material from recorded interviews with my own family.
I wish I had more sisters after reading this. But maybe, I don’t [sunglass emoji].
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catarina de Peters Leitão (nō Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) is a writer based in Pōneke. Her work has been published in Mimicry, Turbine, Ruru Reads and Sport 2019. Catarina has just finished her first collection of personal essays as part of her MA thesis at the IIML this year.