Witi Ihimaera's charmed life

Charmed: It's a big year for Witi Ihimaera.
Charmed: It's a big year for Witi Ihimaera.

Witi Ihimaera is charming, possibly even to the people who were very snarky about his astounding plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea. That was 2009. This is 2013, a very good year for Ihimaera. White Lies, a film from his novella Medicine Woman, is about to be launched, and a revised version of the story has just been published.

Revised? He's done it before. Maori carvers return to their work, he reasons, why not writers?
The movie is produced by John Barnett, who also produced the phenomenally successful Whale Rider from Ihimaera's best-selling book. That must bode well.

Ihimaera has the writing of several new books in mind "and each book I try to make better than the last; I think I'm getting somewhere, finally". He feels, he says, "ready for another burst".

He has got over the year of the plagiarism, when a Listener reviewer revealed there were 16 passages in The Trowenna Sea cribbed from other writers, and then other bits were shown to be suspect. His answer was to apologise. He says - as he's said many times before - that in his family, people apologise and move on. "I hope everyone else has got over it."

Possibly not. The 69-year-old, who'd already had a brush with plagiarism in the past, was sitting on too elevated a pedestal. He's both rueful and slightly defensive about the fate of The Trowenna Sea which he says "is, in my opinion, the first Commonwealth book written in New Zealand. It's going to be republished late next year."

And if it doesn't come off with the publisher, he says, "I'm damn well going to publish it myself, in velvet covers."

Meanwhile, the stacks of books he bought back after the literary debacle continue to moulder in his care.
It's hard not to be charmed by Ihimaera, even over the phone, since he hasn't the time, in his busy teaching and writing schedule, to visit Wellington for the preview of White Lies and talk in person. Charm is his overt weapon: "I was always charming, always wanting to charm the pants off everyone."

He's talking, specifically, of his days at the Mormon Church College of Tuhikaramea in Hamilton, where he was a pupil for a while, after his parents decided he might make something of himself in the world, probably in the realm of music. He was sent there from Gisborne to board.

Gisborne was where he was born, at Cook Hospital, in 1944, and where his parents were farmers and shearers. "For the first five years of our lives we trailed after them from farm to farm: Manutuke, Matawai, Te Karaka."

At the age of 5 he went to live with his grandmother at Waituhi, northwest of Gisborne. "On my first school day she was at the gate to see me off and see me back home and the first thing she said to me was, 'What did the Pakeha teach you today?' And I said, 'Jack and Jill.' And she said, 'Why is Jack wearing a crown and why are they going up the hill?' "

The next day it was Little Miss Muffet and his grandmother had a host of questions, including: What kind of girl would be frightened of a spider, and why didn't she just say kia ora?
"And I thought that was my first political lesson. After that we went to live in town with our mother while Dad kept on working at the farm."

Vivid memories of early schooling include listening, rapt, to a teacher reading Kate Seredy's The Good Master. "I'd run to school to listen to this fantastical story about a young girl in Hungary in time of warfare."

He also recalls a school pageant in 1953, the year Edmund Hillary climbed Everest. "A boy called Stan had to climb up a papier-mache mountain. I forgot the script and got to the top before he did. It caused quite a lot of consternation. I think in lots of ways I've been trying to get to the top of Everest in my work."

Then came the Mormon college, "wonderful, white and sparkling; it has been closed down, earthquake risks."
There he was "always falling in and out of love" and not concentrating enough, and playing piano to the point where his nickname became Witi "Fingers" Ihimaera. It did lay the foundation for substantial musical involvement, which includes collaborating with Gareth Farr on a recently staged work based on his book, Sky Dancer, a production involving Capital E and the NZSO.

"I think that literature aspires to the condition of music," he says.

In his writing, he employs "statements and recapitulation of statements" as one of his literary devices and sees bigger novels as having much in common with the framework of opera.

But, at the Mormon college, all this was in the future and his efforts did not impress his mum. "Mum pulled me back home." The fallback plan was that he finish his education at Gisborne Boys' High. "My parents saw the headmaster, who said I didn't look as if I'd be anything, and 'take him home and put a shovel in his hand'." His father was about to do just that when Ihimaera's mother insisted: "You take him right back and enrol him."

"I went back and the headmaster said 'I will give him one term'.

"In the first term, in English, I met Mr Grono, who asked me to write a story. He was the first to see the literary talent. He asked me to write something in the school magazine and I wrote The Prodigal Daughter, in 1962, the first [story of mine] ever published. It was a terrible story. My sister hated it. It was about her. I learned you stop writing stories about the things you're reading, like Biggles. I realised it was about stories I knew about, things happening around me, and that was the big breakthrough.

"I was so casual about writing. I still think Lady Muse was coming along the road in her Peugeot waiting for someone and I came round the corner and hopped in. I think it has been an accidental career. Once I got into it I thought I'd better be good at it."

The Prodigal Daughter did not immediately launch the distinguished career that would see him become the first Maori writer to publish a book of short stories and a novel, win multiple literary awards, residencies and scholarships, become a professor at Auckland University, receive the Queen's Service Medal and, in 2004, become a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. It was the huge success of Whale Rider that made him famous.

Ihimaera continued his education at Gisborne's local high in an era of subtle racial discrimination that he seems not to have experienced or acknowledged, although he tended to be closest to teenagers who were marginal outsiders. His best friend was the son of Dutch immigrants. Possibly his positivity and charm overrode obstacles. "I used to think it [Gisborne] was kind of like a laboratory of what race relations should be. There was little racial discrimination and it was a joy of a boyhood."

As Ihimaera headed toward life beyond school, his mother was "constantly pressuring, wanting me to go to university". Eventually he spent five years at Auckland University, passed only a sprinkling of units, and was excluded. He did, much later, finish a degree and got a telegram from his father saying: "Congratulations. About time."

Meanwhile, he returned to Gisborne, and tried to get a job on the local radio station. "They'd just employed Derek Fox, so they had their Maori of the year."

He failed to get into training college, but his sprinkling of units impressed The Gisborne Herald, and he was taken on as a cadet reporter. Once he graduated into the reporters room he was required to make early calls to the airport to see if there had been any crashes, the police to see if any miscreants had been caught overnight, and the Harbour Board to see what ships were on the horizon.

"Apart from wanting to be a writer, you have to know your craft. If you can't write a sentence how can you write a short story or a novel? If you can't structure 500 words, how can you structure a novel of thousands of words?" He might have been learning his craft at the Herald but he wasn't, he says, "behaving". And he dreamed. His mother would tap him on the head and ask where he was looking. "I think she knew I was looking beyond Gisborne. I think she threw me out because she knew I had to go, that I would die in small-town New Zealand, because I have a life of the mind."

He took a job with the Post Office in Wellington. A perceptive boss encouraged him to finish his degree at Victoria University. There he met librarian and student Jane Cleghorn. They married in 1970 and headed off to England for 18 months. There, she worked as a teacher and he wrote.
"She encouraged me to send my work to The Listener and Landfall, all rejected. I wasn't a very good writer."

Finally, in 1970, shooed into the garden by Jane, he wrote The Liar in two hours and it was accepted by The Listener. He had broken away from "clever literary pieces like Faulkner and Hemingway" and discovered the ability to be "spontaneous, never thinking, not going back on work till it was finished, doing a first draft rough as guts. That's my process since then. I'm not a careful writer. I grab things from all over the place. Liar seems an appropriate title for a first-published work. My family says I've been lying ever since."

Publishers Heinemann Educational contacted him and asked him to write several short stories. He returned to New Zealand and the Post Office and after a serendipitous meeting between a Foreign Affairs official and then prime minister Norman Kirk he was offered a job in public affairs in the diplomatic service. Back in 1973, Foreign Affairs was dutifully looking for a Maori diplomat after a United Nations committee concerned with race relations had noted to Kirk that it was an anomaly for a country with a pride in race relations not to have a Maori career diplomat.

"I got angry. I said they only wanted me as a Maori." The Foreign Affairs official looked him in the eye and said, bluntly: "Yes."

The Maori world was changing, Ihimaera took the job and concentrated on it. His first two novels - Tangi (1973) and Whanau (1974) - were completed in six months, and then it was more than a decade before The Matriach was published in 1986, "to show a new Witi Ihimaera. The person in the Peugeot with old Lady Muse was taking literature seriously and ever since I've taken it seriously, for the Maori tribe and the tribe I call new Zealand."

The following year, still as a diplomat in New York, he wrote Whale Rider, prompted by reports of a whale in the Hudson River. "The people in New York say she's a New York Jewish girl. They say 'our New York book is doing well'."
Closer to home, informed by his own homosexuality, he wrote Nights in the Gardens of Spain, also made into a film. He did not publish it immediately out of consideration for his children, daughters Jessica and Olivia. The first draft was finished five years before it was finally published in 1995. He had come out to himself much earlier. He and Jane remain married but don't live together.

"I am a very lucky man," he says. "What I do, I try to look through a Maori lens. When we come to sexuality and gay identity, what are the Maori definitions?" In hindsight, he "dropped the ball" with the book "because I made the man white, not Maori".

In 1990, he returned to New Zealand, with no job, and was asked by poet and writer Albert Wendt if he wanted to teach at Auckland University. In 1998, he was made a professor in the English department, "attempting to get a younger generation writing about New Zealand".

Three years ago, some time after the Trowenna Sea furore, he resigned from the university, which stood by him against criticism, and is now teaching at the Manukau Institute of Technology. He says it is "fantastic, low-decile, teaching young Maori and Pakeha about a career in art and literature".

He's contemplating writing a memoir that will "reflect not [just] my life but a life of all New Zealanders".
Ihimaera lives in Auckland but will eventually "bite the bullet" and return to live in Wellington where his daughters and three grandchildren live.

"I want to raise those two handsome grandsons of mine and that lovely grand-daughter so they are aware of their Maori and Pakeha heritage. We're all involved in securing the future for all of our children. Isn't it great? Once upon a time Maori felt they had to do it alone. Now Maori is spoken on TV and the radio and at schools. We believe in a common destiny. "That's how optimistic I've always been."

Whie Lies, the book by Witi Ihimaera and Dana Rotberg (who wrote the screenplay and directed the film), is available now from Random House, $36.99. The movie White Lies opens on June 27.

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