Ihimaera a laureate amid controversy

Witi Ihimaera says history can be monstrous but there is always hope.
Photo: Dominion Post
Witi Ihimaera says history can be monstrous but there is always hope.

Author Witi Ihimaera has received a $50,000 national award a week after admitting his latest novel contains plagiarism.

He said yesterday that he was pleased to receive the award, despite the controversy threatening to overshadow it.

"Even though the current controversy is overpowering and is something that is an atmospheric around the award, the foundation award itself honours your exemplary work.

"I am really pleased the foundation has recognised that."

Ihimaera received an Arts Foundation laureate award last night, along with musician and cartoonist Chris Knox, carver Lyonel Grant, musician Richard Nunns and photographer Anne Noble. The award comes with a $50,000 grant for whatever purpose recipients choose.

Ihimaera apologised last week after Listener reviewer Jolisa Gracewood discovered he had plagiarised material in his novel The Trowenna Sea.

He was working with his publisher, Penguin New Zealand, on a new edition of The Trowenna Sea that would acknowledge all sources and apologise for his "inadvertent copying", he said.

Excerpts from multiple sources were used – often almost word-for-word – in The Trowenna Sea. They included Peter Godwin's Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, Sydney Wayne Jackman's Tasmania and Karen Sinclair's Prophetic Histories: The People of Maramatanga – one of the only sources on Hohepa Te Umuroa, the central figure in Ihimaera's novel.

He plans to use the laureate grant for research for future novels, including two historical novels he is completing now.

Stuart McCutcheon, vice-chancellor at Auckland University – where Ihimaera is an English professor – and arts dean Jan Crosthwaite did not return calls yesterday.

University spokesman Bill Williams would not comment on the timing of the award, but said the university "has investigated this matter and is satisfied there was no deliberate wrongdoing".

Fellow laureate recipient Chris Knox, who had a stroke in June and can say only a few words, confirmed his recovery was going well. His wife, Barbara Ward, said the grant was "a very, very gratefully received contribution to the next few steps to Chris' wellbeing".

Music and drawing were an important part of Knox's recovery and the family had been helping him to keep visual diaries, she said. Asked if they might one day be published, Knox said, "Oh yeah, yes."

The Arts Foundation has awarded 49 laureateships since 2000. Past winners includecostume designer Ngila Dickson, Wellington writer Lloyd Jones, concert pianist Michael Houstoun and poet Bill Manhire.


Witi Ihimaera is one of New Zealand's best-known writers and was the first Maori writer to have a novel published. Since 1973, he has had 14 novels and 12 collections of short stories published, including The Whale Rider, which was turned into the acclaimed film of the same name. Nowadays he is a Distinguished Creative Fellow in Maori Literature at Auckland University.

Chris Knox has been recognised for his music and cartoons since the late 1970s and was a key figure in the early days of Christchurch record label Flying Nun. He still performed regularly with his bands The Nothing and Tall Dwarfs till he had a stroke this year. He is still recovering and can say only a few words, but has provided a few vocals for album Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox.

Anne Noble has been recognised for her photography since the 1980s, both here and overseas. She has a special interest in Antarctica, travelling there three times since 2002 to photograph the icy landscapes. She is Professor of Fine Arts (Photography) at Massey University in Wellington and received the NZ Order of Merit for services to photography in 2003.

Richard Nunns is widely regarded as the leading authority on taonga puoro (Maori traditional instruments), despite his Pakeha heritage. Since the 1980s, he has gained an international reputation and following, touring with a wide variety of musicians – including Maori artists, jazz musicians and classical groups.

Lyonel Grant is a carver and sculptor who first learned his craft at the Maori Arts and Craft Institute in Rotorua. His many works include two wharenui: Te Matapihi o te Rangi in Tokoroa, and Ihenga in Rotorua. His work can be seen at the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, as well as in galleries, museums and marae all over New Zealand.

The Dominion Post