Patricia (Frances) Grace Biography
Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Wellington in 1937. Education: Green Street Convent, Newtown, Wellington; St. Mary's College; Wellington Teachers' College. Career: Has taught in primary and secondary schools in King Country, Northland, and Porirua. Awards: Maori Purposes Fund Board grant, 1974; New Zealand Literature Fund grant, 1975, 1983; Hubert Church Prose award, 1976; Children's Picture Book of the Year award, 1982; Victoria University Writing fellowship, 1985; Wattie award, 1986; New Zealand Fiction award, 1987; New Zealand Maori Scholarship in Letters, 1988, 1992-93; Literary Fund grant, 1990; Victoria University Archive Project grant, 1993; LiBeraturepreis (Germany), 1994. D.H.L.: Victoria University, 1989.
Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1978; London, Women's Press, 1988.
Potiki. Auckland, Penguin, 1986; London, Women's Press, 1987;Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1995.
Cousins. Auckland, Penguin, 1992.
Baby No-Eyes. Honolulu, Hawaii, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
Waiariki. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1975.
The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1980.
Electric City and Other Stories. Auckland, Penguin, 1987.
Selected Stories. Auckland, Penguin, 1991.
The Sky People. Auckland, Penguin, 1994.
Collected Stories. Auckland, Penguin, 1995.
Other (for children)
The Kuia and the Spider. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1981; London, Penguin, 1982.
Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street. Auckland, Longman Paul, 1984; London, Penguin, 1986.
He aha te mea nui?, Ma wai?, Ko au tenei, Ahakoa he iti (Maori readers). Auckland, Longman Paul, 4 vols., 1985.
The Trolley. Auckland, Penguin, 1993.
Areta and the Kahawai. Auckland, Penguin, 1994.
Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth, paintings by Robyn Kahukiwa. Auckland, Collins, 1984.
Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction by Otto Heim. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1998.
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Perhaps it is inevitable that, as a New Zealand writer of short stories whose subject matter is the intimate, self-sufficient world of the family, Patricia Grace should suggest certain similarities with Katherine Mansfield. Both deal with themes such as the passing of innocence, the constraints of daily routine and close relationships, and the elusiveness of answers to life's meaning and purpose. Both seek to retrieve the past through a receptive and finely tuned consciousness, and cultivate a narrative style whose modulations extend from childish excitement to crisp exposition.
Yet when a reference to Katherine Mansfield actually occurs in one of Grace's short stories, "Letters from Whetu," it signals not their affinity only, but their separateness as well. For Mansfield (as for the little girl in her "How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped"), Maori life could only be, at best, a momentary escape from the Pakeha values of time, money, and respectability. For Grace, writing seventy-odd years later and from an insider's point of view, the life is binding and vital, qualities that are figured in the recurring images of the extended family (whanau) gathered within the home or at some other spot of cherished ground often located by the sea. The shared activities—feast-making, or gardening, or collecting mussels, or diving for kina—combine the dual aspects of work and play, and participate in the rhythm of the tides, the seasons, growth, and decay.
Even so, the life Grace celebrates bears the ineradicable marks of Pakeha encroachments and Pakeha progress. Old ways and old names are often put aside for the sake of seeming modern; land is abandoned for work in the cities; roads and buildings appear in places that were once held to be tapu. In a number of the short stories ("Transition," "And So I Go," "Letters from Whetu"), an awareness that the world is large and that new ways must be learned is explicitly stated. But running against this, and through all of Grace's writing, is the stronger and more insistent feeling of displacement and loss, and of an obligation to keep alive what remains of the old inheritance. The objective correlative of this burden of consciousness is the land, and in her best work—notably the short story "Journey" and her second novel Potiki—the complexity of this emblem, and therefore of the Maori experience, is fully and imaginatively developed.
At the basis of "Journey" is the very real issue of land ownership, dramatized here as a confrontation between the old Maori who claims the right to leave his land sub-divided among his heirs according to Maori custom, and the government department that has appropriated his land and the entire locality for development. Between the two parties no communication is possible, a situation underlined by the differences in their language. One argues for people and their need for houses, the other enumerates the engineering problems; one speaks from first-hand experience of the nature of the soil and the vegetables it will produce, the other resorts to maps and plans and the abstractions of "aesthetic aspects."
"Journey" is characteristic of Grace's stories in that the action is sited in the consciousness of the main character. Virtually all her early work accesses this consciousness by way of first-person narration. In the first of her novels, Mutuwhenua, the "I" is a young Maori woman who—like the sisters in another celebrated story, "A Way of Talking"—moves between the worlds of Maori and Pakeha, using a different idiom and even a different name in each. In the Pakeha world she is Linda, and she says things like "I happen to like Graeme"—a remark that prompts her grandmother to scold, "Happen to like, happen to like, what's that talk? You talk like them already." But it is Linda's alter ego Ngaio who dominates the story, bringing to it not just a Maori idiom but—for the first half anyway—a distinctively oral structure. The story begins on the eve of Ngaio's marriage to Graeme but continually flashes back as Ngaio recalls episodes from her childhood, so that the marriage does not take place until the book is more than half-way through. Then, disappointingly, the format changes; the traumatic events that follow the marriage are set down in chronological order, with only a few contrived questions and premonitions to suggest the oral mode.
In her subsequent work Grace's narrative technique has become increasingly adventurous and assured. The early reliance on the first person gives place to third and even (in one section of Cousins) second person narratives, the former (e.g. in "Journey") using a species of free indirect discourse that enables her still to suggest oral Maori usage. And the subtle use of Maori myth as an undercurrent (e.g. the Rangi and Papa creation myth in "Between Earth and Sky" and "Sun's Marbles" and the Tawhaki myth in Baby No-Eyes) reinforces this effect.
All these threads come together in her second and most-celebrated novel, Potiki. Grace explains that she "modelled Potiki on the way an orator would structure an oration—which would begin with a chant, go on to greetings, then the main body of the speech, then conclude with awai-ata." Within this overriding structure Grace presents the viewpoints of several members of one family in distinct but overlapping chapters—or (as they are constantly called in Potiki) "stories." The effect is of unity in diversity—the ideal of the Maori whanau. Some of the stories are told in third-person free indirect discourse, but the two principal characters, Roimata and Toko, tell theirs in the first person. Toko is a crippled child with a "special knowing" who epitomizes the state of Maori culture—physically broken but spiritually profound. Given that his death saves his endangered people, that his mother's name is Mary and that his father is either an itinerant called Joseph or a carved figure of great spiritual significance in the wharenui, Toko has obvious affinities with Christ. In other ways—not least his success in catching a huge eel while out fishing with his brothers—he is akin to the mythical Maori trickster Maui.
This blend of Maori and Christian myths may suggest that Grace wants to preach an accommodation between Maori and Pakeha ways. She certainly does so in Mutuwhenua, where Ngaio's mission is evidently to marry the Pakeha Graeme and make him accept traditional Maori customs. She succeeds, and the book can be seen as an allegory that recommends that New Zealand society become a bicultural melting-pot, though the force of the allegory is compromised by the insipid depiction of Graeme, who never challenges Maori ways but simply accepts what he cannot understand. The plot of Potiki, on the other hand, comes to a less comfortable conclusion. The Maori community must adopt aggressive tactics to preserve their integrity and their land from the threat of Pakeha capitalism, and the book ends with an uneasy truce between the two races. The blend of Maori and Pakeha in Toko may be seen as a muted counterpoint to this stand-off, or it may be simply an indication that—like most contemporary Maori authors—Grace takes Christianity to be a traditional feature of Maori culture.
Though Grace claimed in a recent interview that she has "never thought about the political element" in her work, she would seem to have become an angrier, more committed writer between Mutuwhenua and Potiki. And a subsequent novel, Baby No-Eyes, focuses on a series of Pakeha infringements against Maori culture. The ownership and use of land is once again an issue, but there is also a poignant flash-back to the days when the Maori language was banned in schools, and the book's title alludes to a more contemporary problem: the way in which scientific—especially medical—research can ride rough-shod over cherished Maori beliefs and protocols.
Stories like "Journey," "Going for the Bread," and "House of the Fish" are similarly polemical. But other recent stories (e.g. "Ngati Kangaru") bring a note of levity to the treatment of Maori grievances, while still others (e.g. "Flower Girls" and "My Leanne") show that Grace is not impervious to the darker side of contemporary Maori society to which authors like Alan Duff have recently drawn attention. She is—as a recent critic has observed—"far too good and various a writer to allow herself only one side of any story," and her third novel Cousins bears out this point. Makareta, the most articulate of the three protagonists, becomes a Maori activist, but only after she has escaped the stifling atmosphere of the whanau where she was born and the arranged marriage that its formidable old matriarch sought to impose on her. (She marries instead a Pakeha who is even less substantial than Mutuwhenua 's Graeme.) The whanau is not entirely discredited, however; Missy steps happily into Makareta's role (including the arranged marriage), and the return of the book's third protagonist, Mata, after a desolate life in the city, reinforces the enduring value of the communal existence that characterizes the whanau at its best.
updated by Richard Corballis
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