Part of the Bargain: the Right to Write

A few months ago, I was commissioned to write a review of an exhibition at my local art gallery. The kaupapa was women’s suffrage through whakaaro Māori (a Māori lens). It was titled ‘Māreikura’. 

Mareikura

  1. (verb) nobly born female.
  2. (noun) an order of female supernatural beings corresponding to the male whatukura.

I was both excited by and apprehensive about this invitation. Commissioned pieces are a great way to develop new skills and to think about writing for different audiences. It’s also an excuse to dive into what I love most: social history and research. What I’m less enthusiastic about are reviews, in particular, the tikanga underpinning them. What’s the purpose of a critique? Is it to whakamana or whakaiti? Is it even possible or desirable to aim for ‘objectivity’? 

To give myself more space, I signalled early that I would be more comfortable offering a response to the ‘Māreikura’ exhibition rather than a critique. I’m not an art critic. I’m just your average curious individual. I wanted to engage with the exhibition subjectively, from my perspective as a Māori woman and as a Porirua local, declaring and owning all the biases that carries. 

I spent many, many hours writing the ‘Māreikura’ essay and I loved it. I was grateful for the exposure it gave me to mātauranga Māori, new creative writing skills and, most importantly, the Ngāti Toa history that surrounds me everywhere and that, until then, I was pretty ignorant of. I didn’t even try to hide my excitement for the subject matter and my affection for this land that I have come to think of as home. The essay was a mihimihi – it was intended as a celebration and a thanks. 

I took care to position the story in a way that upheld the mana of Ngāti Toa and was accurate according to the kōrero presented on the walls of the exhibition. I did a lot of background reading. My research even led me to the filing cabinets of the local library, and I spent hours filling my kete with stories to help add colour to the facts and details. I wouldn’t say my research was exhaustive, not by any stretch, but it wasn’t cursory either. I gave it my heart and intention. 

But the essay never made it to print. Not because it wasn’t wanted; a well-known magazine was keen to publish it, and the institution that had commissioned it was happy with it, too. As flattering and satisfying as that was, it wasn’t enough. I’d failed to engage the most important subject of the story: the haukainga, Ngāti Toa, the very people to whom the stories I was writing about belonged. 

I’m not a rookie when it comes to kaupapa Māori research. I didn’t go in with a mindset to ‘take’. I know that my responsibility as a writer, especially in non-fiction, is to engage with and think about ownership – no matter how difficult it can be to resolve some of the conflicts that arise. The reasons the essay wasn’t ultimately published are complex and not solely to do with me or anything I specifically did wrong. It’s not necessary to unpack the details here, suffice to say that the decision to pull the article was mine. Even though I cried about it, I knew it was the right call. 


I have attended quite a few writers’ workshops over the years, and whenever there’s a kaupapa Māori theme – whether a speaker or a panel or a masterclass – invariably someone in the room will put up their hand and say something that makes a lot of us groan internally. Usually, the question is some version of ‘I want to write about a Māori character or historical event, how can I do that authentically?’ Let me just say that if you have to ask this question in a Pākehā workshop, you’re probably a long way from the answer. The question itself, though, is a positive sign. It shows that a person is even thinking about ownership in the context of indigenous storytelling, which in itself is progress (hallelujah!). The problem is, I’m not too sure many writers are really willing to engage with the answer. An answer that may be ‘You can’t’, or ‘You shouldn’t.’

I will never forget the words of Maata Wharehoka, one of the kaitiaki of the film Tātarakihi, The Children of Parihaka. In response to a question about storytelling, to a packed audience, she said, ‘People write about Parihaka all the time, but they never come to us, and they never ask us. We are the subject of stories and invisible at the same time.’

I got goosebumps. I had just read an essay by a Pākehā writer that pivoted around Parihaka. It was emotive and stirring; I got all the feels. But something didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but as Maaka spoke, I wondered could it be that the author had never been to Parihaka? Could it be that the subject of the author’s story was invisible?

Just because I’m Māori doesn’t automatically resolve these issues, as my experience writing the ‘Māreikura’ essay shows. Being Māori doesn’t give me the right to tell any Māori story. Whakapapa is not a backstage pass to go wherever I want. Maaka’s words reminded me that ‘Māori’ is really just a descriptor and that iwitanga is really where it’s at. I don’t think Maaka was saying that nobody can write stories unless they inherently ‘belong’ to them, but it reinforces my knowledge that a solid framework for thinking about ownership and kaitiakitanga is imperative. Relationships are key. Interrogating your own reasons, stating them up front and declaring who you are and where you come from is as important on the page as it is in whaikōrero. 

Most of all, it is being willing to accept that you might do all this work, you might have the purist intentions and pour your heart into something, and the answer might still be no. 

As a writer in post-colonial New Zealand, this is all part of the bargain. 

My biggest challenge as I’ve pushed on with my manuscript for Te Papa Tupu has been to work into and through these issues. Some days I’ve felt like I’m walking up Whitireia into a headwind. I’ve had to stop many times to gather the energy to keep going. More than once, I’ve veered off track and had to go back to find the right path. I’m grateful to a few key people who’ve sat with me on the hillside in the dark and the rain and helped me to turn these issues over in my hands like stones pulled from my shoes. People who’ve encouraged me to find a way to keep going and to use these stones to improve my work instead of letting them stall it – to create art from the setbacks. These people have reminded me that tikanga isn’t a set of rules designed to keep us out but a model of thinking and behaving that keeps us safe.

I’ve thought about giving up, not just because it’s hard but because I’ve questioned my right to write. Most often, it’s been the supportive words of friends, all of whom are writers and editors, who’ve reminded me that the fact that it’s hard proves it’s worth it. Pēra i te whakatauki, whaia te iti kahurangi…


Summer is here. The winds have eased and the sun is out and I can finally see the path ahead of me. Yes, it’s a steep incline, but as anyone who’s scrambled hands and knees up Whitireia’s rugged spine knows the effort is worth it. I may have zig-zagged my way this far, and I know the steepest pinch is yet to come, but despite my slow pace and the toughness of the terrain, I haven’t quit.

This too, is part of the bargain. 


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

What Is Creative Non-fiction?

What’s creative non-fiction? What’s an essay? What’s the point of all this writing? These are the questions swimming around in my head right now. I began last month with a burst of energy and inspiration. I got out a bunch of books from the library and immersed myself in the genre of creative non-fiction. At first, I enjoyed all this reading and reflection. I could almost see the possibilities opening up in front of me. Unlike the academic essay, which intentionally fabricates emotional distance between the writer and their subject, a creative non-fiction essay is all about the spaces in between. The subjective experience is the motivation. You’re rewarded for admitting what you don’t know and examining your own ignorance on the page.

Cheryl Strayed (whose book Wild was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon) says that a good essay should end with the unwritten line ‘and nothing was ever the same again’. She’s talking about the way an essay should stay with you, change you. A good essay should pick you up in one place and drop you off somewhere else entirely. Of all the things I read and reread, her quote is the one I printed out and stuck on my noticeboard:

‘Behind every good essay there’s an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known. A good essay isn’t a report of what happened. It’s a reach for the stuff beyond and beneath. Essayists begin with an objective truth and attempt to find a greater, grander truth by testing facts against subjective interpretations of experiences and ideas, memories and theories. They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out. They grapple and reflect with seriousness and humour. They philosophise and confess with intellect and emotion. They recollect and reimagine private and public history with a combination of clarity and conjecture. They venture into what happened and why with a complicated collision of documented proof and impossible-to-pin-down remembrances. And they follow the answers to the questions that arise in the course of writing about what happens wherever they go. The essay’s engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road. This is what makes them so damn fun to read. The vibrancy and intimacy, the mystery and nerve, the relentlessly searching quality is simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and wow. And ouch and a yes. A stop in a go.’

‘A savage desire to know more about what is already known’ is the sentence that sticks out. And also ‘impossible-to-pin-down remembrances’. I feel like this is entirely the territory of my manuscript. I’m going through the stuff of my past, holding it up to the light and turning it this way and that, unsure what is true at the same time as I know how things turn out.

What I’m doing feels like a form of therapy. This gives me occasional attacks of self-consciousness. Who wants to read about all these unspectacular people and unspectacular events in my unspectacular life? It’s a question I try and avoid because doubt is debilitating, and I really want to submit this manuscript so that I can go to Aussie next year to the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers.

In a moment of reaching, I sent my mentor, Paula Morris, an email, and asked her if it was normal to feel ‘icky’ about my writing.

She replied like an editor, not a therapist. ‘Avoid vague words like ‘eventually’. You need to give details. Specifically, when did these things happen? Where did you go? Not ‘across town’ but from which suburb to which suburb?

She’s right, of course. I could see what she meant as soon as she pointed it out. She also wants more characterisation, which is something I don’t think I’m very good at. Characterisation has to do with the little details that help the reader to picture the people that only you, as a writer, can see. It’s the kind of stuff Ashleigh Young nails. In her award-winning book of essays Can You Tolerate This?, she describes the vet as ‘a cheerful man with a loud guffaw who’s as tall as it is possible to be’. She likens her mother’s delicate mouth to the edge of an upturned saucer.

I’m not very good at this. I find it hard to describe people. My father, unoriginally, has brown skin and deep frown lines like gashes on his forehead. I don’t know how to liken him to anything else. He is the thing I compare other things to. I would describe the couch, for example, as something that holds the shape of my father.

Ashleigh makes all this seem deceptively easy. It’s not as though her words are fancy or complicated. It’s that she sees the world in a very peculiar and interesting way. I’m not quite sure if I do. I think it’s one of the reasons I struggle so much to ‘think’ in Māori. In Māori, you wouldn’t say that someone is forgetful; you’d say he tangata māhunga wai – that guy’s got a mind like water. You wouldn’t say someone is old; you’d say they have hairy ears – taringa huruhuru.

Perhaps that’s another reason I should prioritise my reo studies. Seeing the world with a Māori lens might give my characterisation in te reo Pākehā the boost it’s missing.


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

No Written Language


‘Because the early Māori had no written language all we have to go on is oral tradition.’

This is a quote from a book – it doesn’t really matter which one because we’ve all heard it a million times. The idea that Māori aren’t literary because our language was never written down is something that’s been drummed into us since the moment our ancestors walked through the school gates. How can people with no written language be considered literary? In a colonised mind, to be literary is to be a master of words on paper. There’s no place for oral traditions in this definition of literary. Unless words are communicated by means of a precisely arranged set of characters on a page, they are unreliable at best, suspect at worst.

I’m not interested in rebutting the idea that Māori aren’t literary. Anyone who thinks that subject needs debating probably isn’t reading the Māori Literature Trust’s blog. What I’m interested in is the tacit agreement within the literary world that there is something superior about written forms of communication over oral forms.

The notion that the printed word is more reliable or robust doesn’t stand up to interrogation, and yet we all go along with it anyway. We’re in the era of ‘fake news’ and white people everywhere are outraged, but indigenous people the world over are like, ‘oh, you just noticed?’ The dubiousness of words in print isn’t news to us. If it weren’t for the fact that printed words have caused so much mamae (Treaty of Waitangi, Tohunga Suppression Act 1907, every single New Zealand School Journal that called Māori a dying race), it’d almost be funny. 

Almost. 

The difference with oral cultures is that everyone knows that truth is subjective. We make sense of ourselves through story, but the story isn’t fixed. Everything can be challenged. Robustness is proven over time, and the person telling the story is as much a part of the narrative as the events they’re recounting. The vantage point – the papa on which they stand – affects everything. The only omniscient presence is Io.

Oral stories unfold fresh every time. They are old and new at the same time. Narratives full of potential that can be woven and rewoven anew in keeping with our changing world. As stories are handed down, new truths come to light and new revelations emerge. Last night, at the launch of Toi Māori’s latest poetry exhibition, I heard Briar Grace-Smith retell the story of Māui’s birth from the perspective of his sister, Hina. In this year of suffrage celebrations, even our ancient stories have modern applications. 

We have mōteatea, layered stories unfolding in verse and passed precisely and carefully from one person’s lips to another. Whoever planted the idea in my head that stories retold over hundreds of years are somehow less reliable than something that is printed once onto a page needs to be accountable for this fallacy in my thinking. 

Karanga: a sacred summons performed by a female to initiate a ritual of encounter. The looping words rise and fall like a wave, weaving a connection between the living and the dead, the haukainga and the manuhiri. The energy of the words seem to pull you forward from the chest, but their power does not come from any book. You can’t study the art of karanga simply by learning a repertoire of phrases. 

Whakataukī are proverbs of wisdom that draw deeply on metaphor, relying on the skills of an orator to say one thing while saying something else entirely, while whaikōrero is the art of pursuing words. When you turn up to speak with your words printed on speech cards, you are preparing to talk. When you turn up with an emotion in your belly and words yet unformed, you are preparing to listen. Which one now appears inferior? 

And yet still we seem to attach greater esteem to books than we do to history and knowledge that is spoken, sung, chanted or performed. As a writer, being published in a physical book brings with it legitimacy. To me, looking from the outside, it seems to represent acceptance. It’s like being invited into an exclusive club – and I can’t help myself, I want to belong.

For the briefest moment last month, I felt like I did. HUIA flew all six writers on Te Papa Tupu programme to Auckland for the National Writers Forum. They put us up in a lovely hotel at the top of Queen Street, across town from the University of Auckland where the two-day conference was held. I arrived exhausted after a day of missed flights and endless transfers and had to pinch myself that it was real.

I lay back on the bed and tried to take in all the images. The minibar stocked with little bottles of booze, my carry-on suitcase lying open in the half-light, a tumble of books strewn across the carpet and the sound of nothing – no children calling my name, not even cars on the street below. 

The sensation was still there the next morning when Whiti knocked on my door to take me downstairs for breakfast. It was surreal because once upon a time Whiti Hereaka was the name of an author I admired, not someone I ever expected to be picking me up for breakfast like an old mate. And yet here she was, sitting in my hotel room practising Mandarin in preparation for her upcoming residency in China, occasionally looking up to provide an opinion on the selection of my outfit. 

Later that night, after all the workshops and panel discussions were finished, I found myself at a table surrounded by a group of authors I’ve followed for years. People whose books were sitting on my bedside table at home. When a plan was made to go out for dinner I almost declined. I felt like an imposter. How to feign belonging? There was only one other unpublished person at the table, another Te Papa Tupu intern, otherwise, everyone else was working on their second, third, fourth or even thirteenth title. I felt like someone had opened the door to the club, and we’d snuck in while the bouncer was looking the other way. 

Coming home was a relief. Writers’ forums and book festivals can go either way for an aspiring writer. Some sessions leave you motivated and inspired. Others can make you doubt your capacity to fill out forms let alone finish an entire manuscript. I withdrew to gather myself. I wanted to spend less time thinking about the work and more time doing it. 

As the weeks have passed and I’ve settled into a rhythm, I’ve found myself returning to ask why I want to belong to this club of published authors so much. Part of it is to do with ego, I suppose. I have identified the pinnacle, and I want to know if I can reach it.

But lately, I have started to wonder if, in pursuing legitimacy in the Pākehā world of literature, I am turning my back on the inheritance offered by Māori literary traditions. How much better could my writing become, what potential could I discover, if I didn’t reject the qualities of excellence embedded in oral traditions in favour of those of the written word, but instead held both in my hands at the same time? It’s something our ancestors have been doing for a long time – perhaps this is the true pinnacle I should be aiming for. 


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

A Story to Tell

Tēnā tātou katoa. He uri tēnei nō Ngāti Hine, me Ngāpuhi. Ko Tokerau te maunga, Ko Taumarere te awa, Ko Waiomio te whenua. I tipu ake ahau kei Tāmaki Makarau ki te tonga i te taha o tōku Māmā – no Ingarani ia. Ko Wallasey te whenua, Ko Cheshire te rohe, Ko Mersey te awa. Nō reira, he Māori, he Pākehā ahau. Tokotoru aku tamariki, kei Porirua mātou e noho ana.

He mihi maioha ki te kaipānui.

All my life I’ve wanted to write fiction. Not sci-fi or fantasy but the kind of fiction that’s believable. Characters so real that when you’re finished with them the reader is convinced they exist. A few years ago, living in Abu Dhabi as an expat and stay-at-home mum, I had the opportunity to give this dream a shot. Every day, after dropping the kids off at school, I sat down to write. I wasn’t entirely sure of the plot or the characters, so I started with exposition (fancy word for blabbing-on). It sounded brilliant, but by the next day, I could see it for what it was: a yawn-fest.

I moved on to writing scenes. I used my kids as inspiration. These stories were better, with the added bonus that the kids loved them. Each day, they’d jump in the car and ask if I’d written another chapter. They’d argue with each other about the story arc of ‘their’ character and push me towards outrageous and implausible plot twists. But it was hard to get these fictional characters to do what I wanted them to do. The caution I had to exercise to protect my kids’ feelings was like writing in a cage. I was more captive than captivating.

Eventually, I gave up writing and started reading. Not leisure reading, but the kind of reading that takes hours and hurts. I deconstructed passages of my favourite novels the way an architect might eye up a building to see how it’s put together. The more impressive the novel, often, the more invisible the author.

One weekend, enrolled in a writing workshop, a teacher asked us all a question: ‘Who feels as though they have a story to tell?’

I didn’t dare put up my hand. In fact, I suddenly felt ridiculous. I had no story to tell, and this frivolous dream of writing a book became apparent for what it was: self-indulgent and egotistical. I finished the workshop and went home and not long after that we came back to New Zealand.

I returned to what I knew: policy and research. The thing is, I didn’t stop writing. Instead, I stumbled into a genre I didn’t even know had a name: creative non-fiction. To me, I was just writing introspective, rambling stories about the things I cared about: my reo journey, my kids, education issues and a few long-winded pieces on identity politics.

E-Tangata gave me my first break in 2015, publishing the first essay I sent them. From there, I had a few other things published, and I won a couple of awards (thanks NZSA and Michael King Writers Residency). Then along came Te Papa Tupu. I thought for a long time before throwing my hat in the ring. Resurrecting the dream of writing a book was something that filled me with unease, not just because I was scared of failing (again), but because I wasn’t really sure if I was ready.

Most of the essays I’ve published up until now have been pretty formulaic – 1500-word think pieces pivoting around a single idea or theme. They’ve tended to explain rather than explore. They’re persuasive essays intended for an online audience, but they stop short of deep introspection. The manuscript I sent in to Te Papa Tupu was something quite different. They’re still essays, but they’re longer and more personal. They don’t deal with just one idea or theme but multiple. The stories are about people and relationships as much as they are about issues.

This is the real reason I was afraid: in telling my story, I invariably end up telling the stories of everyone else close to me. My whole family gets implicated. Fiction seems so much safer because you can hide the truth behind a veil. But these aren’t made-up characters, they’re real people, and they all have a stake in what I have to say.

I wasn’t sure what scared me more: that my manuscript would be rejected or that it would be accepted.

In the end, I’m so glad it was accepted. I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be to work through these doubts and fears. The first workshop emphasised manaakitanga as a foundation of this programme. As well as creating the conditions necessary to become a better writer, we’re supported through strong relationships. My mentor is Paula Morris, someone who I’ve admired and looked up to for a long time. I get the sense that she’s going to be tough, but I know that the quality of my work depends on it. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time with John Huria, whose feedback has helped me see so much more potential in this genre than I’d ever seen before. In addition to our mentors, we have each other – five other writers going through a similar journey.

It’s early days, but my unease has already begun to dissipate. I’m beginning to feel more excited than nervous. Outside the restrictions of the formulaic 1500-word essay, I can sense a freedom to explore language and ideas and to weave history and research into the narrative. I’m keen to challenge myself in new ways and in new directions. Best of all, I can see all the skills of fiction that I spent all those years trying to master finally coming into play.

I’m looking forward to writing about this journey here on the blog. I’d like to use this forum to discuss the mentoring process and to share some of the highs, lows and general insights. If you’re interested in reading some of my essays, please feel free to stop by my website: nadineannehura.co.nz. You can also read a more in-depth piece about Te Papa Tupu that I wrote for The Spinoff here.

And if you’re reading this feeling as though you might have a story to tell and wondering if Te Papa Tupu could be for you, chances are it is! Don’t let the doubts get the better of you. Keep writing, keep reading – and one day it’ll be your turn to write this blog.

Noho ora mai.
Nadine


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.