Potiki by Patricia Grace

Brilliant. Republished in 2020 as a Penguin Modern classic, originally published in 1986, a year before the New Zealand government finally recognised Māori as an official language, I hope many more people get to read this poignant novella.

Literature Awakens the Past

This book evoked so many thoughts, memories and dug up much buried deep within me, that it was at times difficult to concentrate on the story. I read and reread pages and deliberately took my time, scribbling in the margins, remembering stories and experiences from my primary school days, learning the Māori language, flax weaving, poi dances, sticks, songs, the legends and the gods, occasional participation in marae activities, including school attendance of a funeral for someone important in the community, and the cautionary tales of the taniwha.

Potiki – the last born

Maori culture literature New Zealand Potiki ClassicPotiki is the story of a family and the encroachment on their lives of the now dominant culture that is trying to usurp their way of life, a land developer wants to turn their coastal ancestral land into a holiday park, and will use whatever tactics necessary to do it.

In some ways the new culture has already succeeded in subverting their own, colonial style education conditions young minds, severing them from their language and traditions, causing divisions within the community as some are enticed by the individualism and material benefits of a capitalist mentality.

Told in three parts, the story is narrated by Hemi, his wife Roimata and the son they bring into their family Toko, raising him with their three children.

Each of them have their own stories, James’s of the earth and the universe, Tangimoana’s of the sea, Manu, in fear of disappearing, can not find his stories.

Roimata worries for Manu when he is due to start school:

What would be right then for a little one who called out in sleep, and whose eyes let too much in? What would be right for one who didn’t belong in schools, or rather, to whom schools didn’t belong?

Nurturing Stories and Life

Rather than go out to become a teacher as initially planned, she becomes the keeper, listener and narrator of stories, a writer and reader of stories, enactor, collector and maker of stories. Of continuity.

Then I knew that nothing need be different. ‘Everything we need is here. We learn what we need and want to learn, and all of it is here,’ I said to Hemi, but he had always known it. We needed just to live our lives, seek out our stories and share them with each other.

Their home, their land and community is under threat from outsiders, who covet their location and do everything they can to entice them to give it up, to sell, using the offer of money, then more threatening measures to get what they want.

Two cultures collide, but only one side is listening, the other is used to getting their way, is used to their tactics winning over. This family and community understand too well what they will lose if they let go of their land, they have already witnessed it. And though it is not them that fight, for their way is to talk openly, there are others who will intervene.

Ancestral Lands and the Tangata Whenua

Hemi worked the land in his youth but went out to work when his grandfather passed on. Now there is no job, he is back to caring for and caretaking the land.

They still had their land and that was something to feel good about. Still had everything except the hills. The hills had gone but that was before his time and there was nothing he could do about that, nothing anyone could do. What had happened there wasn’t right, but it was over and done with. Now, at least, the family was still here, on ancestral land. They still had their urupa and their wharenui, and there was clean water out front.

It is a new era, there is more determination which created hope, that turned into confidence and created an energy to confront the situation and demand the protection of the language, customs and way of life wherever possible.

Land, their homes, the meeting house, the food-house, the cemetery are part of a community that allows its members to leave or return, to be independent knowing they can come back to a place where family can come together, a refuge for the lost and broken.

The Gift Inherent Within All

Toko is visionary, a child that almost wasn’t, one with a special gift, who sees the stories changing and will become part of the story that is carved into the meeting house, remembered in wood and in the eloquent words of Patricia Grace’s reflection on the loss of an extraordinary one.

We have known what it is to have had a gift, and have not ever questioned from where the gift came, only sometimes wondered. The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies, that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours. The gift we were given is with us still.

Shared narratives move from one to another in a spiral, in the way of their culture, detailing their progress and regression, their ability to support and nurture and their deceptions, their desire to make the other understand, and their failure to be heard or respected.

It is not a tale with a logical solution, but a demonstration of the cultural differences that exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand and how the actions of those in power, with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

Further Reading

Patricia Grace, Biography – NZ novelist, short story writer and children’s writer of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent.

NZ History – Te reo Māori recognised as official language, 1 August 1987

Circe by Madeline Miller

Retelling Greek Myths From an Awakened Perspective

Greek Myth of Circe Odyssey UlyssesOriginally published in 2018, Circe is a reimagined version of one of the ancient Greek myths, which have been variously retold through the ages, but possibly never quite in a voice like Madeline Miller’s that brings a feminine perspective and knowing, to fill in the gaps and flesh out a story that reconsiders some of the motivations the exiled  protagonist Circe might have operated under.

I enjoy well handled myths and fables and the classical Greek myths are among the longest-lived continuing to inspire much creative output. I love the voyage of discovery a retelling takes the reader on, igniting our curiosity to seek out and understand a set of characters more, finding their origins, the connections.

Last year I read Icelandic author Sjón’s The Whispering Muse, introducing me to Medea, Jason and The Argonautica, an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC). I read and reviewed Miller’s award winning The Song of Achilles, but I wasn’t nearly as animated by it as Circe.

Review

I absolutely loved the book and the evolution of the character Circe from a somewhat insular, jealous nymph, not really knowing her place in life, though her gesture towards the punished Prometheus was a clue; to her fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that is revealed when she lives in isolation on the island Aiaia.

I decided to read the book straight through before looking up Circe in Myths of Greece and Rome by H.A. Gueber, because I knew Miller was going to tell us her story from Circe’s perspective and I wanted to absorb that without any  pre-conceived influence.

It starts off slowly as Circe is living in the Halls of the Gods, she is the daughter of Helios the Sun God, who rides his chariot cross the skies each day, ensuring the sun rises and sets on time the world over and her mother Perse, a naiad (a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains and bodies of fresh water).

Her family don’t pay her much attention and in her lonesome wanderings she encounters a mortal, the fisherman Glaucus, whom she begins to meet secretly and worrying about his future, she creates a bed of flowers wishing he might transform into a God, so he can become immortal like her.

However, once he enters the Halls he is distracted by all the other beauties, no longer seeking Circe out, upset she seeks revenge against one of the nymphs Scylla, creating a spell to turn her into what Circe believes is her nature within, and Scylla becomes a multi-headed sea-monster.

Beautiful Scylla, dainty-doe Scylla, Scylla with her viper heart.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Circe is punished by her father and exiled to the island of Aiaia, which doesn’t sound too bad, despite being alone, there is a well equipped home with self-cleaning capabilities, plenty of plant, animal and bird life and rather than a dog, she befriends a lioness, who sleeps at her hearth.

I learned to recognise the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral.  I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac,  and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the safe harbour for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud…I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s hall had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea.

From the moment she is exiled, something changes, Circe comes into her own and without the distraction, drama and judgement of the halls she has left behind, she begins to listen to her intuition and develop her knowledge of plants and remedies, experimenting with tinctures and seeds and leaves. Developing a skill that was not divine, not magic, something ‘made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung.’

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease.  I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little  did not care to stay.

Dragonfly Nature Circe

Photo by Marian Florinel Condruz on Pexels.com

She discovers her inner power and outer skill through practice. But as we know, solitude becomes less of a novelty over time and when visitors arrive she is happy to see them; Hermes checks in on her, bringing a prophecy, punished daughters are sent to do time and it is said that Odysseus himself will come, a turning point in her story.

In the origins of the story, she is perceived as evil, as if when she cast her spells upon these men who arrive by ship, she has no reason. They who feast at her table, drink her wine and then discover she is a woman alone without a husband – before able to act on their dishonourable intentions – are turned into four legged swine.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to read between the lines, however things change when Odysseus sends his men ahead of him and arrives later alone, no surprise that he who acts with respect toward the hospitality offered meets a different fate.

There was always a leader, he was not the largest, and he need not be the captain, but he was the one they looked to for instruction in their cruelty.  He had a cold eye and a coiling tension. Like a snake, the poets might say, but I knew snakes better by then. Give me the honest asp, who strikes me if I trouble him and not before.

There is so much more to the story, but it is one that has to be read and experienced. Brilliantly written, inspired by the epic tales but told in a compelling way appropriate to the 21st century when the woman’s story is given voice, being listened to and shared, rising to bring balance to a skewed narrative of the past.

Madeline Miller Answers Questions on her Inspiration

What classics did she rely on to write Circe?

The Odyssey Emily Wilson TranslationAlong with the Iliad and the Odyssey, I also drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vergil’s Aeneid, the Argonautica, the Telegony, Euripides‘ Medea, Sophocles‘ Philoctetes’, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and lots of small pieces from all kinds of other scattered places.

I like to throw open the doors, and read everything I can about all the different figures, not just the protagonist. I never know where I might find the key detail that animates the character in my imagination, so I try to look everywhere.

In most tellings Circe is depicted as an evil sorceress, you chose to show her humanity and make her likable, why?

Circe has been portrayed as a two-dimensional villain in most post-Homeric works. In the Odyssey itself, however, she’s actually a much more balanced and complex character. Yes, she’s frightening, and yes, she turns men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus become lovers she offers to help him and his men, giving them shelter and helping them heal from their griefs for an entire year. Her house is the only place in the Odyssey that Odysseus doesn’t agitate to leave; his men have to come and remind him that it’s time to go.

Then, when he tells her he’s leaving, Circe doesn’t try to keep him, nor even complain about his going. She instead offers him vital help and advice on the difficult road ahead. She ends up, in fact, being one of the most helpful people he encounters!

So I think it’s very interesting that she’s been made into such a villain. It has much more to say about our fear of powerful women than it does about Homer’s poetry. Even the detail of Circe’s connection to humanity comes from Homer–he calls her “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” I wanted to return to that complexity, and expand it further.