'I write for the New Zealand I wish it to be'

BY MEGAN NICOL REED
Last updated 05:00 18/10/2009
Witi Ihimaera
Photo: Dominion Post
Witi Ihimaera says history can be monstrous but there is always hope.

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FIVE-HUNDRED-and-twenty-six pages. One-hundred-and-sixty-three years. From Tasmania to England to New Zealand to Tasmania to Rhodesia to Scotland to England to New Zealand to Tasmania to Rhodesia to Tasmania to New Zealand to Tasmania and finally back, back home to New Zealand. The great British diaspora.

Witi Ihimaera, who wrote Whale Rider, whose 1973 novel Tangi was the first novel published by a Maori, has written this book, this really big book, this work of fiction based on our histories, and called it The Trowenna Sea.

He has dedicated it to the descendants of the historical characters whose lives he has re-imagined; to the people of Tasmania, Maramatanga, Patiarero and the Whanganui River; he has dedicated it to James Anthony Ihimaera-Pritchard, his mokopuna, his first.

"I think he's the inspiration for this whole book, is young Jamie. And why I say that is because I never really write for New Zealanders as we are now. Really, I always write for the New Zealand that I wish it to be...Never forget that you are the product of so many different histories even though you might not agree with some of the viewpoints of some of your ancestors. Like one of these days his great-grandchildren will look at my work and say, `Oh gee, wasn't our great-grandfather terrible to say these things'. But you know it's really good for them to know that out of all this difference, out of all this dissension, out of all the problems that New Zealand faced, we finally got there."

In 1987, discussing the state of Maori and Pakeha relations in an interview with The Dominion, Ihimaera said that he saw "grave dangers ahead" and that "violence is a very real possibility".

Two decades after he predicted such a fearful future, does he still feel like that? "Oh I don't think that same way any more. I think that there's been a huge shift. I'm very proud to be a New Zealander; I'm very proud of the way in which we've negotiated our way through all of the Waitangi issues and I think all New Zealanders now are rapidly becoming the kind of community and society that I've always dreamed that we would become."

He has said of The Trowenna Sea – a book which concerns itself with some of our more brutal, shameful past – that history can be monstrous and yet there is always hope.

It began as the story of Hohepa Te Umuroa, a Maori warrior whose story Ihimaera stumbled across when he was giving a guest lecture in Tasmania in 2005. Te Umuroa and four other Maori were illegally transported to Tasmania (or Van Diemen's Land as it was called then) in 1846 for taking up arms against the New Zealand government. As Ihimaera researched the "five Maori chiefs", as they were popularly known, "amassing in my mind and around the house a lot of material, a lot of paper, a lot of books", he found himself more and more interested in the story of the Pakeha couple who were appointed to look after them while they waited for word on whether the Colonial Office would overturn the judgement. In the finish he had two books within one, each divided into three – Te Umuroa and Ismay and Gower McKissock's stories – and an epilogue, Kui's story, the great-granddaughter Ihimaera re-imagined for Te Umuroa, and how she was finally able to bring his remains home to rest in 1988.

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It is a complex, coiling book that, for a Pakeha at least, can be a confronting read. Ihimaera says he hopes there will be many different responses to the book. "I think that there will be some readers, obviously, who won't like the Hohepa parts of it because...I don't think it's anti-Pakeha, it's just trying to recreate from within a Maori mindset what it was like to be fighting for their own country and against a huge military force. And so from that perspective it tells the truth." However, as he points out, through Ismay and Gower's stories, it's clear that whether it was because you were Scottish, a woman, poor, a child or a convict, life could be pretty cruel in the 19th century. "It's not as if it's always a thing with respect to race. It's just that this is the way that people used to treat each other."

His first work of historical fiction, he says it was a book that had to be written in pieces, that he then had to have help smoothing into a narrative.

"You know, these things are bloody hard. I never realised how much there would be involved in it. Every now and then you've got to try and check up the facts and think, `Well, is it possible for this particular event to happen in this particular year?' and then you look up your sources and, bugger, it couldn't. There was a lot of backwards and forwards and going frontways and sideways and all over the place before I actually had the historical pattern correct. And then once the historical pattern was correct I could begin to lay the characters over that and re-imagine again."

Rather than keep to the parameters of a particular period in time as historical fiction usually does, Ihimaera says he wanted to do something different in order to show the impact of history throughout the world and on the present. "I wanted to make a bigger book so people could understand, and especially New Zealanders, but also Australians, that we all came to the Southern Antipodes, we all had to work with each other in attempting to try to create the countries that we have."

One of the potential stumbling blocks in taking on a book which deals with fact is that real people are affected by what you write. Ihimaera met Te Umuroa's descendants twice. Because the book's epilogue is actually based on them, Ihimaera says he was prepared to scrap it had they been unhappy with it. As a result there is a soft ending about two-thirds of the way through the book after Gower's death, which is where it could have ended.

Lucky for Ihimaera that the family gave it their blessing. Otherwise he could have found himself a few years down the track with the same misgivings about The Trowenna Sea that he has had about some of his earlier books. In fact he has spent the past few years rewriting his first five novels, informing them with a more contemporary perspective, incorporating new material, improving them. "I'm very relieved and proud that I did because nobody gets the chance. Well, maybe they don't take the chance, but I've always felt that I was a young boy then and maybe I didn't know that much and now that I'm an older writer I do know that much."

Ihimaera is 66. He still writes fulltime, with plans for another two books to form a trilogy with The Trowenna Sea under way, and works as a professor of English and creative writing at Auckland University. "I love the full life," he says.

The Trowenna Sea, Witi Ihimaera, Penguin/Raupo, $37, out October 26.

- Sunday Star Times

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