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