What It Means to be a Māori Writer

Shilo Kino with Patricia Grace and Robyn Bargh at the Pikihuia Awards in 2013.

Don’t call me a Māori writer.

I am a writer who is Māori.

Yeah, there’s a difference.

I tell stories. Stories I hope will shape perspective. Give life more meaning. And as clichéd as it sounds, provide a voice for the voiceless.

My Māori culture means everything to me. It is, of course, part of my identity. In fact, it is every part of who I am.

But one thing I have learnt from Te Papa Tupu is that we are simply not just ‘Māori’ writers.

We are writers who offer a Māori perspective, but our perspective is not the same. We share a gift of telling stories, but that’s where our similarities end. We were not chosen because we are Māori. We were chosen because we are writers.

I want the other five recipients to be successful just as much as I want to be successful. I am in awe of the support, love and inspiration that comes from the other participants and my mentor. It is refreshing and a change from a world often consumed by egotism and selfishness.

My book is a piece of my heart that I am laying out bare. I wrote it three years ago, in the space of six months.

The story lived inside my head for years. Niko, the thirteen-year-old protagonist in my story, nagged at me every minute of the day to write.

After I finished my manuscript, I went and served a mission for my Church in Hong Kong, a noisy, bustling city that gave me perspective. I came home and dug out my manuscript.

And now I’m here, a part of something special. But this is a lot harder than I expected it to be.

Shilo in Hong Kong

I recently got a new job, and I’m moving three hours south to a new place. In between a new full-time job, moving houses and juggling my social life, church commitments, family time and exercise, I have no idea when I’m supposed to write.

And if I’m not careful, writing becomes a chore rather than a joy.

But I write because I love it. I love being a writer. I’m proud to be Māori. There is a deep satisfaction and pure joy in my soul when I write. And I’m incredibly grateful to be part of a programme that encourages me to do what I love.

But do not expect my story to be the blanket ‘Māori’ perspective. There is no such thing. I am one voice among many.


Shilo Kino (Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is a journalist who previously worked for Fairfax Media and has had stories published in Huia Short Stories. She speaks fluent Mandarin from serving a volunteer mission in Hong Kong. Shilo is delighted to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

When the Writing Flow Starts to Congeal

Robert Louis Stevenson was quoted as saying ‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.’

At the moment, I am planting lots of seeds, but when I look at my fields, the crops seem like poor specimens – undernourished and not able to stand tall against strong winds.

I am in the middle of my novel, and this is the bit that I find hard. When something is hard, I don’t want to do it.

Last week, Renée kindly gave me the week off. I had a funeral as well as other things that needed my attention. I thought the break would do me good. Not so.

This week is even harder. I have had to glue my bum to the seat. I have had to wrestle every word, sentence and page and am still not finished. Even writing this journal entry. I suspect myself of procrastinating, again.

Half of me wants to find the easy way out. But, another part of me yearns for original and unique. I suppose it serves me right too. Up until this point, the pages were just flowing. Easy even. People have been asking how is the writing. Fantastic. Loving it. No one has asked this week.

Writing, I now see as a relationship. I was happy when everything was running smoothly, but now we’re being tested. For better or for worse.

So, I have to go back to the drawing board. Put in the effort and trust that I’m not just a fair-weather girl.

Must go. I have writing to do!

Suiting the Taste of a Target Audience

We are nearing the halfway mark of our journey, and I have just completed the manuscript in its rawest form – the unformed clay if you will.

My mentor has allowed the following week to go over this first draft and begin the editing process, so I am a bundle of nerves. Even now, I am finding some of its words distracting and some themes underdeveloped, but I wonder if anyone else would feel what I feel when they read the book.

Would Michelangelo find fault in the Sistine Chapel? Probably … but could you? This is the lonely and painful art of writing – and with it comes an age-old problem – taste.

I have written my book with a target audience in mind and the dream of attracting people who normally wouldn’t read that particular type of novel, but books are an acquired taste – what reads well for some does not often read well for others. There will be detractors of your work and fans alike.

I had dinner with friends the other night, followed by a glass of wine. I commented on its taste and how much I enjoyed its flavour, but one friend told me that it was too sweet, and another said it had a strong taste of blueberry.

I swirled the wine about in the glass and asked myself, ‘What do I know about wine?’ and the honest answer was – nothing. I did not find it overly sweet, and I certainly could not detect the blueberry – but I was adamant about one thing – I certainly enjoyed the glass and quickly poured myself another to prove the point.

It is the same with books. I know as much about wine as I do books – all I know is what I prefer. No matter how much a book is recommended, there will always be a polarisation amongst its readers. There are those who rave about Treasure Island … and there are those who, like me, have not got past the first chapter.

Like wine – given time, we will discover if my book fulfils the desire of my intended audience – I only need to bottle it. When the cork is popped, I have to be satisfied in my work.

Characters: Hanging on to What Matters

When I last met my mentor, Alia Bloom, we shared coffee in the sun on the terrace of her home, and I hesitantly agreed with her suggestion to dispatch Buddy Winter.

I created Buddy, so it was only right that I be the one to destroy him. He was an awful man, but like a nasty old uncle whom nobody likes, he was part of the family and allowed everyone else to feel better about themselves.

Driving back to Hawke’s Bay, I lamented that the loss of the man whose, ‘complexion was the colour of wet slate with hands so swollen his knuckles were mere creases beneath angry skin’.  By the time I reached Woodville, I was having second thoughts. Without Buddy, there would be no ranting about the Vietnam War, ‘Westmoreland was totally incompetent. He couldn’t understand guerilla warfare. None of the brass did. Carpet bombing. What a mess. I flew over Cambodia and Laos in seventy one. Where they’d bombed looked like a landscape from the moon.’

On the long stretch of the Takapau Plains, Buddy fought for his life. ‘Who else will help Sam Yuan with an entry visa?,’ he taunted me. And ‘If you dump me you’ll have to get rid of Danny too and Mr Lau. What about Lau? You gonna kill him too?’  Buddy was ex CIA so knew all the tricks to seed doubt in my mind.

Fortunately, I had Leonard Cohen on my side. So I cranked up the volume and Buddy shut up for a while. But he was back again by the final verse.

I stopped in Flaxmere to visit a friend. He’s got a ‘green’ reputation, if you know what I mean, and Buddy, being a raging opium abuser, saw that as a way to play the moral high ground. He’s as cunning as a front-bench politician, and by the time I reached Waimarama, I’d conceded to his persuasion that rather than kill him off he play a diminished role.

About an hour into reshaping Buddy’s influence in my book, I heard my mother cry out. The tone of her voice had me on my feet and up the stairs real fast. My dad was slumped in his chair. ‘I think he’s dead,’ she said. I cupped his head in my hands. He was cold and blue. Did I think, it’s Buddy that has to die, not you? I don’t know. But I pulled my dad out of his chair, and when he hit the floor, I thumped his chest. He caught a breath. I rolled him into recovery position, and we waited for St John.

After that, it was easy to let Buddy die.

Eru Shares Snippets of Past and Present

I’ve recently had broadband connected at my house. The digital revolution finally revolved its way to my place, flashing its light-speed optics in my direction. It was a bit of a mission. First of all, Telecom refused to set up an account in my name. I have a credit history as peppery as the spice trade, so I had to call Mum. From my cellphone.

From her bed – where she receives all phone calls – she considered my request. I lowered my bait in slowly. She agreed that it was nice to hear from me. It had been a while. She agreed that it’s great news I’m being paid to write a manuscript. She agreed that there would be a lot of emailing back and forth between me and my mentor. She slowly agreed that it was a bit of a hassle to have to email from work. She supposed that it would be much easier to have a phone line and internet connection at home.

Then we shared a pause.

‘So would you mind if I got my landline connected? ‘Cause of my … past, it would have to be under your name,  Mum?’

I’d asked her before, but she had been very reluctant. This time, however, I felt like I had some leverage.

‘This is my best shot to finally get a novel published.’

I heard the bed springs creak. The air grew rich with anticipation.

‘Okay then.’

It seems Archimedes may have been right: ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’

*

Mum’s gesture of support meant a lot to me. I do not come from a family of readers. Sure, we had lots of books in our home, but they fell into two categories: scriptures and commentaries on the scriptures. Reading wasn’t really a hobby or a pleasure; it was a duty – one to be carried out on the Sabbath and during weekly gospel study sessions.  We escaped the ordinariness of everyday life through television or sport or food. Reading for pleasure was seen as a bit suspicious, a bit indulgent. I got the impression that the proper function of reading was to prepare oneself for The Great and Final Day of Judgement.

The only reading exception seemed to be Dad’s Herald Tribune – Hawke’s Bay’s daily paper. And it was definitely Dad’s paper. No one was allowed to even unfold the paper before Dad had carefully thumbed through it. He had a pair of scissors as long as his forearm and as sharp as his temper. He used those glimmering scissors to carefully snip out the articles of interest to him, mostly stock market reports on how well his tiny portfolio of Brierley stocks were doing and anything to do with the Meat Workers Union, of which he was a representative. When Dad was done, anyone was welcome to read the paper so long as they could hold it together with its dozen or so rectangular-shaped gaps. No one else read the paper. It was too much hard work.

I’m not sure, then, how I ended up as the family’s reader, the one child of seventeen who preferred to be indoors flicking through non-church-approved books. The one child of seventeen who seemed allergic to the outdoors but drawn to the inches-thick illusions between covers.

Fiction and secular non-fiction became the lever and fulcrum on which I shifted my world view.

*

So now that I have all the necessary shiny cables and light-speed currents pointed at my house, I wish I could tell you that I’ve been very noble with my broadband. I wish I could tell you that I’ve spent the last two months downloading pirated e-books on the art of writing. I wish I could tell you that I’ve set up RSS feeds to past Nobel literature winners. I wish I could brag at how many Booker prize winners I’ve friended on Facebook.

In truth, I’ve watched hours, probably days’ worth, of reality TV: Celebrity Rehab, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Flava of Love, Sober House with Dr. Drew and even Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I’ve devoured hours and hours of celebrities and ordinary folks lose weight and sober up. I’ve watched the famous and the forgettable falling in and out of love – with themselves and with each other. I’ve watched people climb on the dry wagon and fall off again only to be run over and crushed under wheels of hubris. And most of all, I’ve watched them fight: Jill vs. Bethenney, Danielle vs. Teresa or Sergeant Harvey vs. Fat Celebrity has-beens. I’ve streamed hours of quiet tension explode in moments of the loudest vile. I am ashamed to admit it, but I’ve loved seeing ex-lovers collapse into one-on-one war.

*

During the writing of this manuscript, I have often killed my own momentum with the question, What right do you have to tell this story? It has stopped me dead on several occasions.

I’m not the kind of author that could write the story of a seventeenth-century Dutch lesbian widow. As fun as it is to imagine myself outside myself, I doubt I could convince a reader. God bless the authors who don’t write from experience. I can’t. I am a doubting and easily wounded thirty-year-old single Māori. Experience has worn away my capacity to trust. I act with kindness not out of any higher moral calling but because it seems to disarm and pacify most other adults. I’d prefer to be arrogant and straightforward, but I’ve found I’m not pretty enough to pull that off.

I am pulling this manuscript out like a series of splinters. It is not easy, but some internal pressure is telling me that it is significant and necessary. Sometimes I even chance across an unexpected and lovely paragraph. What I am making is part autobiography, part fiction and part fantasy. It is a crossover of scripture, Dad’s paper and what was left of the newspaper. You, the reader, will be expected to hold it all together, to keep the pages upright enough to make sense of it. The rectangular-shaped gaps will be both your challenge and your chance to hide away with me. The value of the Brierley stocks will be up to you.

December the 3rd, the Great and Terrible Day of Judgement, approaches.

Larree Makes a Stand on Unsteady Ground

A few Sundays back, we went to the Art Show in Wellington, and I bought a picture. A small black and white print by Joe Wright of a figure standing on this very precarious base of branches like a kererū nest, holding a megaphone up to the sky, and out of the megaphone comes all these birds. I love it.

I love it because it says where I am with my writing, and coming to terms with being a Māori writer, standing on this very shaky base and trying to make a stance.

Wake up print ©Joe Wright
An artist’s print signifies Larree’s own awakening ©Joe Wright

Later that day, we were lucky enough to catch Donna Dean at Lembas Café in Raumati South. She is such an open and honest person, a very genuine singer songwriter musician. Her songs are straightforward, and she just tells it like it is. It was an inspiring day.

I was very much reminded of my mentor’s – Reina Whaitiri’s – words. ‘The language should disappear for the reader … we forget we are reading. If you use language that insists on being noticed the story gets lost.’ My recent experience with art and song writing are very apt examples, ie. KISS.

So, my own writing. I think how I am affected by art, songs, music, stories, and it’s the openness of the writer, artist that fades behind the work that captures me. Reina has given me a list of books and authors to read as points of reference. She has also suggested changing tense, using the present. Try it, she says, see what you think. So I have, and in some cases it works; other times, I get confused. It’s hard to give up the preciousness of your work, but it’s a good lesson. Reina said she can be tough; she is, but she is also absolutely right.

The last few weeks have been about learning to let go – trying to rid the author from the writing and let the narrator get on with the story.

Learning New Tricks (and Old Ones)

This last month has been such a roller coaster ride, but I’m loving it. I’ve had to learn to be self-disciplined (I’m forty-six and have never felt the need for it until now). I’ve learnt to say no to people when they want me to do something (something I should have mastered years ago) and that self-doubt is a thing to embrace.

Rollercoaster
© Jimmy Lopes | Jacquie finds the writing programme is like a roller coaster ride.

Each week, I send my pages to Renée (my mentor) for critiquing, and each week, she sends me back some positive feedback and then writing that has red marks all over it. The red marks are not expressions about how wonderful my writing is but points to address. Every week, she’s been right.

She is urging me to go deeper, more detail, show me don’t tell me. The ‘show don’t tell’ is a writing technique that has been around for a while and one that I thought I had mastered a few years ago. On closer inspection of my writing, I see that this is not the case. Learning something and remembering to use it all the time are two separate things.

I also thought that the story was not about me. The characters are different, the things they do are so removed from me, but it actually comes down to universal truths. If I had to sum up my story, I would say it’s about authenticity and loss. The main protagonist loses herself in grief and isolates herself in an obsessive compulsive disorder. Even though the characters are different from the ones in my life, I share with them grief, shame and hope.

For me to write well, I really have to take myself to those places. It’s not nice but necessary. The lovely gift is that it’s also quite cathartic.

The tapestry of life still unravels around me. If I’m honest, I would rather be writing than doing all the other things that are expected of me, but that is not how it works. I am learning balance. I know this week I will struggle to find any time to write, but this course means I will.

I am in awe of people who have written books without a mentor because after only one month, I am so grateful to Renée, who is my mentor, and don’t want to ever let her go.

If you can, run out and find one!

How Jekyll and Hyde Help Refine Writing

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I am experiencing the dual identities of writing – which I affectionately think of as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – two different personalities sharing the one body. I refer to writing for pleasure – a sudden rush of great ideas in a story that lives and breathes as it passes from your imagination to the page, and the editing stage – the realisation your text is riddled with cliché and characters are short on personality – that some ideas will die horribly, to be removed from the document forever.

I was always aware of the schism but never fully understood the eternal struggle of keeping both egos on a tight leash. Both characters are essential to completing my project, but they compete for attention, and however hard I try, I always favour one over the other – no matter that both personalities have something beneficial to offer.

I prefer Dr Jekyll – he may appear to be civilised and mannered, spending many years and large amounts of money training to become a doctor so that he can provide a service to the community. However, there must be an underlying madness in one who allows their mind to be subject to experimentation – and such is the way when you start out writing. You have the best intentions to craft an enjoyable book – ideas and words flow forth and your fingers furiously tap the keys, and days pass and pages mount. Yet in your heart, you know your ideas are out there – that deep down you have created a story you can no longer contain – so you develop a formula to help.

You call this formula editing.

It’s at this point we release Mr Hyde – the beast in its truest form. He is free from restraint and cares little for the world you develop – casually destroying ideas going nowhere and removing characters who add nothing to the storyline. Yes, he appears uncontrolled, but he is the only side of your personality that speaks true. Very few people care for Mr Hyde, but it’s only his hideous appearance that creates the fear – how he reacts essentially distils bold ideas back to their purest form.

In essence, we should really fear Dr Jekyll, knowing that what appears on the outside is merely a shell that houses a disturbingly twisted and unrefined story.

Still, I know which friend I will be calling when a good story pops in my head … Am I wrong?

Until I write again …

Jeremy Latimer and the Joys of Writing

Well – here is my first journal entry, and for the first time, I have no idea of what I want to write.

Oh, the joys of writing!

Jeremy Latimer
‘The joy of writing never truly fades, it just changes direction from time to time.’

The whole experience has been a bit of a whirlwind affair, and the prospect of having a ‘completion date’ is daunting. It’s funny to think that I have dreamed of this experience all my life – and now that the opportunity is a reality … I am terrified.

I have had good feedback from my mentor, and I know her ideas and direction will strengthen my story, but I am still in awe of the whole idea, and my fellow writers – where will we be come late December?

What will the reading public think?

Here is a taster of the revised version of my draft:

‘The wind-swept sands of the lonely desert caked the bloodied sword – its notched steely blade shimmered in the blistering midday sun, clutched in the grip of a masked warrior. Dressed in splendid silk-robes, the boy was barely in his teens, yet destiny had brought him to the edge of the oasis, where he faced his greatest rival. Standing opposite the boy was a dark assassin of immense size – covered from head to toe in black fabric that clung to his brawny frame to reveal a hardened physique – the enemy was none other than the “Scorpion Monk”.’

Yes – my mentor approved of the opening lines, and my ego came alive – but it is still early days, and the workload continues to mount, but the joy of writing never truly fades, it just changes direction from time to time.

Well – there truly is no rest for the wicked, and new ideas and possibilities are swirling madly about my head, waiting to be written and revised.

Until I write again …

Jacquie McRae Puts a Dream into Action

Jacquie McRae
Jacquie McRae’s success in last year’s Pikihuia Awards motivated her to keep writing.

For me, the whole process of writing has been a long journey. I thought about writing this book eighteen years ago. Somehow, I got waylaid by life, but on the way, I kept adding to my dream: a writing correspondence course in 1994 (I only managed ten out of the fifteen assignments), one paper at varsity in 2000, a continuing education writers’ week in 2006 and a contemporary Māori writers’ paper in 2008.

I had a birthday that made me realise that if I didn’t commit to writing now and give it my all, it may always remain a dream. I read somewhere that a dream is just a dream, but if you add action, it can become reality. I quit my job at the school library, enrolled in an e-learning course for a year at Wairiki. My point in telling all this stuff is that when you focus on something, amazing things can happen.

My entry for the Pikihuia Awards in the middle of last year was chosen as a finalist. This was incredible feedback to get. Up until this point, I think most people presumed I was just dicking around, as my husband said, ‘Being a writer is the perfect job; no one can tell if you’re working or not.’

This past week, I have been working on my project. It’s called Behind the Varnish, but that may be up for review. Having a mentor on board is invaluable. I am incredibly lucky to have Renée. I get the sense that she will get the best out of me, even if she has to wring it out! Getting feedback on your writing from someone who has knowledge and doesn’t know you keeps it real. A mentor will question all sorts of things, and if I can justify why it is there, I get to keep it.

I have spent the week with all the characters I have in the book. I am amazed that I wrote several drafts of this book but failed to really know why the characters did what they did. If I didn’t know, then a reader is never going to work it out. I have to know what they eat, what they like to do, what their childhood was like – even if it never comes to light.

By knowing the characters more, it made the story change. I’m still not a hundred percent sure that I have the best possible storyline but will go with it for now. At Te Papa Tupu hui in Wellington, someone suggested reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. This is an amazing book about archetypes. I am only halfway through but can see that most writers would benefit from reading this.

Lastly, I would also like to say how grateful I am to be on Te Papa Tupu programme and to the sponsors, Māori Literature Trust, Huia Publishers, Creative New Zealand and Te Puni Kōkiri. A lot of thought has gone into making this programme as supportive, nurturing and inspiring as possible. A day spent in like-minded company, meeting my mentor and having Huia Publishers (in the shape of Brian Bargh) cheering us on makes the daunting task ahead seem possible.