Thom Conroy

Writing First for Māori Readers: An Interview With Whiti Hereaka

Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa) is a playwright, novelist, screenwriter and lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University. She is a trustee of the Māori Literature Trust. In 2007, she was the writer in residence at Randell Cottage and wrote her first novel, The Graphologist's Apprentice, which was shortlisted for Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize South East Asia and Pacific 2011. Her second novel, Bugs, won the Honour Award, Young Adult Fiction, at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, 2014, and the Storylines Notable Book Award, Senior Fiction, 2014. Her third novel, Legacy, won the award for Best Young Adult Fiction at the 2019 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Her fourth novel, Kurangaituku, won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Thom Conroy: Tēnā koe. Whiti, thank you for taking time from your busy festival schedule to talk to me today. I know that pūrākau and Māori storytelling are very important to you. In 2017, Tina Makereti wrote, ‘Using the Journal of New Zealand Literature yearly census, I calculated that in the three years beginning 2007, Māori fiction in English made up 6 percent, 1.6 percent and 4 percent of New Zealand fiction respectively.’ Your latest novel, Kurangaituku, won the Ockham Prize for fiction this year. In 2020, Becky Manawatu won the same award for her debut novel Auē. A fortnight ago, for the first time ever, the paperback and hardback version of a single book, Kāwai by Monty Soutar, took both the number one and number two posts on the bestseller list. I know you may not be familiar with the current exact figures on publishing by Māori, but do you have a sense that something has changed since Tina Makereti wrote her assessment of the state of Māori publishing five years ago? Are we seeing something like the beginning of a new Māori flourishing in mainstream publishing?

Whiti Hereaka: It is very exciting to see the success of Māori writers and Māori literature at the moment. I think some of it has to do with programmes to nurture Māori writers and writing and advocacy to get Māori work recognised. I’m a board member of the Māori Literature Trust and one of our programmes, Te Papa Tupu, is aimed at getting more emerging Māori writers across the range of genres published. What I’m excited about is that there are a range of Māori writers being recognised in the mainstream who are writing in lots of different genres. When I have mentored writers in the past, some of them have been worried that their writing wasn’t 'Māori enough'. Just as I reject blood quantum, I reject the idea that Māori writers have to fit within publishing what a few (usually Pākehā) people have deemed to be Māori stories. I think this is what has changed—Māori are writing what they want to write. For me, particularly in my last two novels, I have shifted my thinking about who I centre as a reader. I’m writing first for Māori readers, and that doesn’t exclude other readers but they might have to work a little bit harder or get used to the idea that their experience is not prioritised.

TC: On the Vic Books ‘Getting to Know Whiti Hereaka’ page, you say that in Kurangaituku, ‘I was trying to capture the feeling of being told pūrākau as they might have been told traditionally—not necessarily in chronological order.’ I know from a conversation with you this aim of capturing the feeling of being told pūrākau also influenced your use of the passive voice in the novel. In an email exchange, you wrote, ‘We (me and the Te Reo Māori editors at Huia) decided to remove all the possessives from Māori names because it isn’t tika in Te Reo Māori. To make it work in English, I had to rewrite the sentences in a passive voice (so ‘the eyes of Hatupatu’ rather than ‘Hatupatu’s eyes’) but in doing so I discovered that the English read more like Te Reo Māori—it changed the rhythm to a more Te Reo Māori sort of vibe, which, in turn helped with the feeling that the novel is from an oral tradition/is being spoken.’ I’ve heard you read Kurangaituku aloud, and I agree that it really comes to life on the tongue. I was wondering if you might talk a little bit more about that negotiation between the oral and written forms of storytelling. What other opportunities were made available to you as a writer by drawing on pūrākau? Conversely, were there some compromises that you had to make to accommodate aspects of a primarily oral form to page?

WH: Pūrākau are important to my journey back to Te Ao Māori—they are one of the ways that knowledge is passed down, and lately for me a way to learn tikanga and kupu hou. In a way then I don’t really think of drawing upon them as a 'source' for writing—it is just that my art and my worldview are intertwined.

Kurangaituku is an attempt to reshape the Western form of a novel to a more Māori way of storytelling—that’s part of the reason why you can start the novel at either end, the stories I was thinking of are more cyclical and would have been told according to the audience and event.

I also wanted to draw on my skills as a playwright (rusty as they may be!). I learnt to write for the stage first—and plays are primarily aural. I tend to spend a lot of time looking at speech rhythms of my characters in my work, I just took it to the extreme in this novel. I used features of oral storytelling in the novel—there are repetitions and motifs (particularly a reoccurring 'hum') and in some parts took on the high rhetoric style of whaikōrero.

I think Kurangaituku reads well aloud because I wrote it to be read aloud—I read all my work aloud when I rewrite so I introduced that earlier in my process.

I think the compromises are that it is written primarily in English! Some of the battles were to make English sing in the way that Te Reo Māori does—so I 'broke' some rules in 'good' English writing (like not writing in a passive voice) to get closer to that. 

TC: By this point, most readers will know that your novel Kurangaituku is constructed of two main narratives, one of which you call the ‘light side’, the world of Te Ao Marama (the world of life and light), and the other is ‘the dark side’ of Rarohenga (the subterranean realm where spirits of the deceased dwell after death). Drawing on my own background in European literature, one significant example of a narrative that explores the realm beyond life and light is Dante’s three-part epic poem, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante’s Inferno is acknowledged as entertaining mostly because of the many similarities between the Christian Hell and Earth, but the Purgatorio and Paradiso are often neglected because most readers find them to be, well, boring—they are just too abstract to hold any interest to most denizens of the world of flesh and blood. Were you in any way concerned that the time Kurangaituku spent in Rarohenga might be too abstract and conceptual to resonate with readers? Did you worry, for instance, that Kurangaituku’s immortality might diminish a reader’s investment in the outcome of her story, or am I reading your novel the wrong way?

WH: There are so few resources on Rarohenga (and so there should be! That sort of knowledge should be reserved for certain people) that Dante’s Inferno was a big influence in how I imagined it. I wasn’t worried about the ‘dark side’ being too abstract and conceptual—if anything I was worried that it was too tied to the journey through Rarohenga and it wouldn’t match the tone of the other half of the novel!

Yes, I think stakes are different for a character that is immortal—but it wasn’t really a concern for me. I was interested in the tragedy of her immortality, the idea that if a creature can’t die then are they really alive at all?

I think also some of this might come from my centring of a Māori audience first—so I’m assuming a base level of knowledge of my reader.

And I don’t think there is a wrong way to read a novel! I love the idea that the reader 'writes' their version of a novel as they read it. They bring all their knowledge with them. I think someone with a more extensive knowledge of those aspects of Te Ao Māori would have a different experience, but I don’t want to say that it is a better experience.

TC: As you know, Headland mostly features the work of new and emerging writers, so I always like to ask a question or two about craft with these writers in mind. We’re also both creative writing teachers, and the concerns of our students are usually not that far from our minds. Considering those who may be a bit closer to the beginning of their writing journeys, then, I want to ask if you would help resolve two bits of advice that you’ve offered to aspiring writers. In your introduction to the groundbreaking Pūrākau: Māori Myths Told by Māori Writers, you write, ‘It is a selfish storyteller who hoards the pleasure for themselves, who inflicts boredom upon their audience just so their voice is heard’ (27). In a piece you wrote for E-Tangata in 2019, you said, ‘But I think the most important thing for writers at any level is to let yourself write terribly.’ My question is what advice can you give to beginning writers about negotiating this tension between inflicting boredom on their audience and being allowed to ‘write terribly’? How do we both allow ourselves to write terribly and yet avoid inflicting boredom? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about balancing a concern for your audience and giving yourself permission to write terribly?

WH: The writing terribly thing is really about the first draft or getting over writer’s block—sometimes all that is stopping a writer from the actual work of writing is the fear of not producing a 'perfect' piece. I think that’s why I like 'playwright' so much—the title implies that words must be worked and wrought (I am pushing to be a 'wrighter' instead of a 'writer'). Write a terrible first draft so that you have something to work with. Be brave and try that weird structure and see if it works, use placeholders so you can run to your next plot point—fixing it is a second, third, fourth draft problem (perhaps at that stage you are both a wrighter and a righter).

The quote about inflicting boredom stems from some very good advice I got from Phil Mann when he mentored me through the second draft of my first novel. I thought I was being VERY clever by introducing a red herring to the story and he asked me why I wanted to trick the reader. And the only thing I could really say was that I wanted to show them that I was a good writer. Phil said something like 'So it doesn’t serve the story?' (only in a much nicer way—he was a very generous teacher!). That question from Phil made me think about the relationship between writer and reader. It is rare that a reader comes to a work to hate it, so they come with a heap of goodwill. It is up to us as writers to 'spend' that goodwill wisely. Perhaps that word play (see above) is fun for you—but tiresome to the reader, you’ve lost some goodwill that might have been better spent challenging the reader’s worldview. I think boring stories are stories that don’t let me in as a reader, that don’t give me the space to be part of the experience of a story.

TC: I want to close by talking about what readers can look forward to next. In an interview with Stuff in April, you said, ‘When I was writing Kurangaituku and struggling with it, I was talking with Witi Ihimaera…[and] he very calmly asked if some of my problems were because I was trying to write three novels and squish them together as one. He was right.’ In that same interview, you revealed that you were working on the second novel of that trio, titled Ariā at that time. How is this novel coming? Is it still called Ariā? Are you willing to reveal anything about the content, themes, or shape of this second related work? Finally, when do you reckon we’ll see it in bookshops?

WH: Ariā is coming along... slowly! The plan was to get stuck into it around June/July this year in between teaching commitments and I was instead (delightfully) distracted by post-Ockham engagements. I have already written a fair chunk of it (around 20K words) but that was a few years ago so I’m not sure if those words still fit with my ever-evolving vision. Truthfully, I’m at the stage when I’m talking a big game—lots of ideas and enthusiasm and not a lot of words on screen.

The name of the novel—Ariā—is the name of the protagonist, hints at her vocation as an artist (when translated to likeness, concept) and what will happen to her (the likeness of an Atua—Kurangaituku here). This novel will be a haunting or possession (and perhaps obsession?) story, and Kurangaituku will appear again but as the muse and obsession of Ariā. I’m building on the idea in Kurangaituku that the more her story is told, the easier it is for her to manifest in this reality.

I’m also not quite finished with the idea of who is the actual monster in stories—so I’m thinking of perhaps subverting what we expect in horror stories, that the supernatural is the source of horror. Instead, perhaps 'reality' is actually more terrifying.

Ariā is also an alternative history. It is set in the 1980s through to the end of 1999 or early 2000—when something catastrophic happens to the world. Perhaps that’s really an alternative future by the time I get to the third book.

I’m playing with page design (or hoping to!). I quite like the idea of a literal marginal story pushing the main story off the page. I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I didn’t know how I was going to work the structure in Kurangaituku either.

I’m aiming for each of the books to be interlinked by themes and motifs (and Kurangaituku!) but they are all stand-alone and can be read in any order.

When will it be in bookshops? Hopefully within the next ten years! I would like to get stuck into Ariā properly in 2023, so I’m hoping for 2025...



Photo credit Tabitha Arthur

Thom Conroy

Thom Conroy is the author of The Salted Air and The Naturalist (Penguin Random-House) and the editor of the essay collection Home (Massey University Press). His short fiction, widely published in New Zealand and the US, has been recognised by Best American Short Stories and received other awards, including the Katherine Ann Porter Prize in Fiction. He is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University and the Editor-in-Chief of Headland.