Saturday, December 7, 2013

New Zealand: "Potiki" by Patricia Grace

Get this book!  It is an antidote to oppression and depression of other colonization stories read so far in this series. Potiki describes strengths of Maori culture, as it was lived in 20th century New Zealand (and one hopes, still is). The outcome of the major drama of the tale affirms that at least some times, right(ness) prevails.

Patricia Grace is, says the book cover, "of Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Toa, and Te Ati Awa descent," and her descriptions and use of language transported this reader to the shore where the family of Roimata and Hemi live, to the meeting house (wharenui) that holds their stories and the communal dining hall (wharekai) where their extended clan gathers for meals.

The editor's note says the name Potiki has dual meanings. The first is a demi-god named Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga and the second is the youngest child. In this tale, a child nicknamed Toko plays play central role as the potiki in both senses, as a special person who hears the stories of the past and foresees the changes in stories to come.

Carvings in the wharenui are visual memories of the past stories, going back centuries, and so are perhaps similar to religious icons in Western European tradition.  The importance of oral tradition and story-telling is emphasized in the entire book, with major clan meetings including storytelling, current affairs given meaning by reference to stories of the past, and children educated by collecting news articles to create a "book" that narrates important events in the family's life.

It is hard to select just a few passages to share as examples of Grace's writing. I've tabbed nearly every page. She reveals different voices and perspectives through several of the narrators we encounter. Here is Hemi, adoptive father of Toko, reflecting on cultural transitions that occurred in his lifetime (roughly since 1945, as the book appeared in 1986).

"Kids were different these days. They wanted knowledge of their own things, their own things first. They were proud and didn't hide their culture, and no one could bullshit them either.

In his day they had been expected to hide things, to pretend they weren't what they where...Funny how you came to see yourself in the mould that others put you in, and you began not to believe in yourself.  You began to believe that you should hide away in the old seaweed like a sand flea, and that all you could do when disturbed was hop about and hope you wouldn't get stood on. But of course you did get stood on."  (p. 65)

The tension in the novel is the desire of someone named Dolman, nicknamed Dollarman by Hemi and his relatives, to get access to the shore by going through the Maori community, even relocating the wharenui and the clan's cemetery. The people want none of that, not for love or money, as the saying goes. Dollarman says, "I really believe that you people...have come a long way..."  and Uncle Stan answers,

"Wrong again. We haven't come a long way at all. All we've done, many of us, is helped you , and people like you, get what you want. And we've been all left out of it in the end. We've helped build a country, all right. Worked in the factories, helped build the roads, helped educate its kids. We've looked after the sick, and we've helped the breweries and the motor firms to make their profits. We've helped export our crayfish and we've sent our songs and dances overseas..." (p. 93-94)

Dollarman is behind an act of arson intended to intimidate Hemi's group. The people put out the fire but the entire wharenui is burned, with the exception of one poupou (standing figure). Toko describes the destruction like this.

"The walls had fallen...taking and changing the tipuna of the people--the loving, warring, singing, talking, shouting, guardians of the night and day. Taking also the patterns belonging to the lives and deaths of people, the stories and histories of people, and the work of hands and minds. Taking the people's place of resting, their place of learning, of discussing, singing, dancing, joy, sorrow, renewal, and whanaungatanga. Taking the world inside which all else may be left behind, as dust is left on shoes beyond the door." (p. 136) 

The next-to-last chapter is called simply, "The Stories," and an omniscient narrator summarizes for us. Toko's older brother has learned the ancient carving art, remaking poupous for a rebuilt wharenui. We read
"The young man did not tell his story in words but gave it to the people as it was, chiselled into shape at the base of the tree.

It was an old story, an ancient story, only now there was a new phase to it, an old story beginning with the seed that is a tree. ...

It was a story that opened and put its seed into the time of remembering. It became a people story through wood, both people and wood being parented by the earth and sky so that the tree and the people are one." (p. 177) 

Toko, as Potiki, has the last word, which is in Maori. I don't trust Google to translate that but I trust that if I understood it, it would make me weep.

Quotations are from Grace, Patricia. 1986. Potiki. Honolulu: University of Hawai'1 Press.

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