13 minute read

Witi (Tame) Ihimaera Biography

Witi Ihimaera comments:

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Gisborne, 1944. Education: Te Karaka District High School, 1957-59; Church College of New Zealand, 1960-61; Gisborne Boys High School, 1962; University of Auckland, 1963-66; Victoria University, Wellington, 1968-72, B.A. 1972. Career: Cadet reporter, Gisborne Herald, 1967; journalist, Post Office Headquarters, Wellington, 1968-72; information officer, 1973-74, Third Secretary, Wellington, 1975-78, Second Secretary, Canberra, 1978, and First Secretary, Wellington, 1979-85, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; New Zealand Consul, New York, 1986-88; Counsellor on Public Affairs, New Zealand Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1989; lecturer, University of Auckland, 1990-95. Awards: Freda Buckland Literary award, 1973; James Wattie award, 1974, 1986; University of Otago Robert Burns fellowship, 1974; Scholarship in Letters, 1990; Katherine Mansfield fellowship, 1993.



Tangi. Auckland and London, Heinemann, 1973.

Whanau. Auckland, Heinemann, 1974; London, Heinemann, 1975.

The Matriarch. Auckland and London, Heinemann, 1986.

The Whale Rider. Auckland, Heinemann, 1987; London, Heinemann, 1988.

Bulibasha. Auckland, Penguin, 1994.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Auckland, Secker and Warburg, 1995.

The Dream Swimmer. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1997.

Short Stories

Pounamu, Pounamu. Auckland, Heinemann, 1972; London, Heinemann, 1973.

The New Net Goes Fishing. Auckland, Heinemann, 1977; London, Heinemann, 1978.

Dear Miss Mansfield: A Tribute to Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp. Auckland, Viking, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.

Kingfisher Come Home: The Complete Maori Stories. Auckland, Secker & Warburg, 1995.


Maori. Wellington, Government Printers, 1975.

New Zealand Through the Arts: Past and Present, with Sir TosswillWoollaston and Allen Curnow. Wellington, Friends of the Turnbull Library, 1982.

Land, Sea and Sky (text), photographs by Holger Leue. Auckland, Reed, 1994.

Editor, with D.S. Long, Into the World of Light: An Anthology of Maori Writing. Auckland, Heinemann, 1982.

Editor, Te Ao Marama: Maori Writing Since the 1980s, Vols. 1-4. Auckland, Reeds, 1992-94.

Editor, Te Ao Marama: Contemporary Maori Writing. Auckland, Reed Books, 1993-96.

Editor, Vision Aotearoa: Kaupapa New Zealand. Wellington, BridgetWilliams Books, 1994.

Editor, Mataora, the Living Face: Contemporary Maori Art. Auckland, D. Bateman, 1996.


Critical Studies:

"Participating" by Ray Grover, in Islands (Auckland), Winter 1973; "Tangi" by H. Winston Rhodes, in Landfall (Christchurch), December 1973; "Maori Writers," in Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays by Bill Pearson, Auckland, Heinemann, 1974; The Maoris of New Zealand by Joan Metge, London, Routledge, 1977; Introducing Witi Ihimaera by Richard Corballis and Simon Garrett, Auckland, Longman Paul, 1984; Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction by Otto Heim. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1998.

There are two cultural landscapes in my country, the Maori and the Pakeha (European), and although all people, including Maori, inhabit the Pakeha landscape, very few know the Maori one. It is important to both Maori and Pakeha that they realize their dual cultural heritage, and that is why I began to write. Not to become the first Maori novelist but to render my people into words as honestly and as candidly as I could; to present a picture of Maoritanga which is our word for the way we feel and are, in the hope that our values will be maintained. I like to think that I write with both love—aroha—and anger in the hope that the values of Maori life will never be lost. So far I have written about exclusively Maori people within an exclusively Maori framework, using our own oral tradition of Maori literature, our own mythology, as my inspiration. Cultural difference is not a bad thing, it can be very exciting, and it can offer a different view of the world, value system, and interpretation of events. This is what I would like to offer: a personal vision of Maori life as I see it, the Maori side of New Zealand's dual heritage of culture.

* * *

Witi Ihimaera writes with a keen awareness of his cultural heritage, and a profound commitment to the values and traditions of his people. A central feature of his imaginative landscape is the whanau, or extended family community, an emotional and cultural bastion eroded by urbanization and social fragmentation. Writing with "both love and anger," Ihimaera documents the traditional Maori way of life and the changes it has undergone since the coming of the Pakeha. Although his early works can be seen as pastoral and elegiac, Ihimaera does not idealize his subjects; rather, he renders their trials and conflicts, joys and sorrows, shortcomings and strengths, with remarkable honesty and clarity. Drawing upon the rich resources of Maori myth and legend, he blends the past with the present, evoking the ancestral framework of historical continuity that is an essential part of Maoritanga. His work proclaims the vitality and significance of New Zealand's "other culture," one that Ihimaera suggests enriches the lives of Maori and Pakeha alike.

Many of the stories in Ihimaera's first collection, Pounamu, Pounamu, are set in the village of Waituhi, the geographical and cultural hearth—and heart—of the Whanau A Kai to which much of his subsequent fiction returns. Both celebration and lamentation, they are lyrical evocations of a rural, communal way of life that is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Pounamu, or greenstone-semi-precious jade traditionally used to make weaponry and jewelry, is Ihimaera's symbol of Maoritanga, and he contrasts it with the cold, glittering attractions of Pakeha culture in "the emerald city." One story in particular, "The Whale," dramatizes the conflicting claims of tradition and change, as an old man sits in the meeting house mourning the decay of the world that he knew and the loss of the young to the city's siren call. It is his granddaughter who articulates the dilemma that the young people face: "The world isn't Maori any more. But it's the world I have to live in. You dream too much. Your world is gone. I can't live it for you. Can't you see?"

Ihimaera's first novel, Tangi, is an extended meditation on the subject of Pounamu, Pounamu 's concluding story: Tama Mahana's return from Wellington (the emerald city) to attend the burial of his father. Structured by the ceremonial patterns of the funeral itself, Tangi is a work that mines the emotional intensity of loss and the communal rituals surrounding death. It is at once a mourning of the dead and an affirmation of the living, for Tama's personal grief and memories are tempered by the spirit of love and kinship that draws the community together on such occasions. Past, present, and future interconnect as Tama's individual response to his father's death is framed by the history of his whanau, and the mythic history of Maori legend: the separation of Rangitane, the sky father, from Papatuanuku, the earth mother, so that their children could dwell in the light. Coming to terms with his loss is, for Tama, a voyage of self-discovery and a recognition of his responsibility to uphold the tradition that is his father's legacy. Thus, Tama's journey into the future is focused through the myth of creation that underpins the novel, the separation of earth and sky that allowed "the dawning of the first day."

If, through the single consciousness of an individual, Ihimaera introduced his readers to the communal basis of Maoridom, then Whanau gives that extended grouping full fictional rein. Since the whanau is the combination of the land and its people, Ihimaera's approach is utterly in keeping with his title and theme. In an interrelated series of vignettes spanning a single day, he captures the lives of the individuals who comprise the Whanau A Kai. Although deftly drawn, no one character in this novel could be said to be central; rather, it is the whanau itself that is the subject and focus. Through the reflections of sorrowing elders, disillusioned adults, and rebellious adolescents, Whanau records the slow disintegration of the traditional way of life as Pakeha culture encroaches and many of the young people willingly embrace its values at the expense of their Maoritanga. But it also symbolically affirms the strength of the cultural ties that bind this community as the whanau come together to search for their missing kaumatua, the revered patriarch who is their living link with the past.

The New Net Goes Fishing heralded a new streak of anger in Ihimaera's writing that would find its most clear expression in The Matriarch and its sequel, The Dream Swimmer. Framed by two stories that allude to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The New Net Goes Fishing examines Maori in the urban setting of the emerald city. Although a few of the stories register success or acceptance in the Pakeha world, many focus on the conflicts arising from an impersonal, alien environment and the clash of two different value systems. While this collection often proffers a bleak view of race relations, it does conclude on a note of hope. Returning to Waituhi after twenty years in Oz, an old man stresses the need for his people to experience the best of both worlds. The complexities of Maori/Pakeha concourse, however, and Ihimaera's need to find a new means with which to express it, prompted a self-imposed hiatus. Nearly ten years later, Ihimaera broke his silence with a novel of epic historical proportions, The Matriarch.

Unabashedly aggressive, The Matriarch constitutes Ihimaera's battle cry. Mixing fact and fiction, biography and autobiography, myth and "reality," Ihimaera imaginatively reconstructs New Zealand colonial history from a Maori perspective. The novel challenges the claims of official history even as it declares its own contingency, and the inadequacy of any history to enclose and explain its subject. The woman warrior of the novel's title is Artemis Riripeti Mahana, the enigmatic figure who dominated the narrator's youth and who now dominates his memories as he struggles to understand her. Tama Mahana's recollective investigation of his grandmother leads him further back to two significant ancestors, the warrior prophet, Te Kooti, and the politician, Wi Pere Halbert. All three are linked by a common cause: the fight to retain Maori land under Maori control, and this theme is the driving force behind the various histories and narrative styles that compose the novel. Maori myth-history and spirituality feature prominently in The Matriarch, but Ihimaera also draws freely upon European history and culture: the trials of his people are likened to those of the Israelites in Egypt, and the matriarch's instruction of her grandson is liberally interspersed with snatches of Verdi (in a symbolic paralleling of nationalist struggles). Although the matriarch herself remains shadowed by historical controversy, her political legacy is clear: "to fight the Pakeha you must learn to be like him. You must become a Pakeha, think like him, act like him and, when you know that you are in his image then turn your knowledge to his destruction." Critics are divided over the success of Ihimaera's unwieldy epic; what cannot be denied, however, is the scope and power of this ambitious work.

Ihimaera's next two works can be termed "occasional": The Whale Rider was written in anticipation of a visit by his teenage daughters, and the collection Dear Miss Mansfield marks the centenary celebrations of New Zealand's most famous writer. While The Whale Rider returns to the mythic territory of Ihimaera's ancestry in a lyric and positive revisioning of Pounamu, Pounamu 's "The Whale," Dear Miss Mansfield is a response to the work of an equally important literary ancestor, Katherine Mansfield. The titular letter that opens the collection is a song of homage to the divine Miss M., but the stories themselves evoke the subversive notion of "writing back" that characterizes The Matriarch and The Dream Swimmer. Playing Maori variations on Mansfield's themes, or retelling some of her most famous short stories from a Maori perspective, Ihimaera presents the other side of Mansfield's New Zealand in a self-conscious, intertextual refashioning. Ihimaera interprets his world through the lens of Maori culture, but he is also aware that that culture is not a static entity. Although The Matriarch and Dear Miss Mansfield proclaim that the Maori cannot be subsumed under the banner of Pakeha history, they also demonstrate that the latter has become a part of an ongoing Maori genealogy. Like the old man of "Return from Oz," Ihimaera incorporates the best of both worlds.

Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies continues the exploration of New Zealand's dual cultural heritage in Ihimaera's typical blend of fiction and autobiography. In some ways, Bulibasha is the paternal complement to The Matriarch, since the central relationship of the narrator with his grandparent is intermingled with the history of the tribe. With this novel, however, Ihimaera eschews metafictional bricolage in favor of a straightforward Bildungsroman concerning the anxiety of influence. The king of the novel's title is the Mahana family patriarch, a powerful economic and religious leader who rules the familial shearing gangs with an iron fist. Set against Bulibasha is the rival Poata clan, and his grandson, Simeon, whose verbal audacity and intellectual pursuits label him as whakahihi: too big for his boots. It is from Simeon's precocious perspective that the twin rivalries are related, and, like the matriarch, it is he who both challenges and upholds the traditions of his people. Set in the era of Ihimaera's youth, Bulibasha examines generational conflict and social change, offering an often-humorous insight to the oral histories of which family legends are made. Simeon's perceptions testify to the intermingling of cultural landscapes: family dramas are often recounted and comically illuminated by the formulaic plots of the American movies that Simeon watches so avidly; the ritualized conflicts between the two clans are the rivalries of Montagues and Capulets, and his heretical challenges to Bulibasha's authority are construed as those of a mortal intent on toppling Olympus. The novel concludes with a resounding deconstruction of Bulibasha's mythic status, but Simeon's assumption of responsibility prompts a recognition of his grandfather's guiding principle: the family always comes first.

For Ihimaera, Bulibasha concerns the challenge of surviving familial influence and establishing one's separate identity. Nights in the Gardens of Spain explores the conflict between family and sexual identity. Equally as autobiographical as his earlier work, Nights in the Gardens of Spain nevertheless represents a radical new departure in Ihimaera's writing. The central character is a Pakeha, a university lecturer torn between the love of his wife and two daughters, and his sexuality as a gay man. A coming out novel, Nights traces David's exploration of his sexual identity and the social and emotional complexities of being married and being gay. Many of the minor characters in the novel are satiric caricatures, and the narrator's characterization is an odd blend of cardboard gay Everyman and particularized individuality. While Nights presents a provocative foray into the steamroom gardens of gay culture, the emotional center of the book—and of its web of Peter Pan allusions—lies in the narrator's powerful and often-anguished relationship with his young daughters. Nights in the Gardens of Spain is Ihimaera's novelistic declaration that his writing need not necessarily be restricted to exclusively Maori issues. It also indicates, as one commentator has noted, that the category "Maori writer" is not one in which Ihimaera can be expected to stay.

In interviews, Ihimaera has often mentioned an unfinished companion-piece to his award-winning historical epic. His most recent novel, The Dream Swimmer, is the long-awaited sequel to The Matriarch, one that continues Tama Mahana's odyssey as he assumes the mantle of power that is his grandmother's legacy. Less a sequel than a completion of the earlier work, The Dream Swimmer fills in some of the historical gaps in The Matriarch, most particularly in the narrator's relationship with his mother, Tiana, the mythically charged dream traveler of the novel's title. Although as monumental in scope as its predecessor, The Dream Swimmer is a much more coherent narrative, interweaving the history of twentieth-century struggle for Maori land rights with a dramatic tale of family conflict. With his characteristic cross-cultural blend of literary and mythological allusions, Ihimaera presents his epic tale in six operatic acts, and accords the fraught history of the Mahana clan the dimensions of Greek tragedy, likening their conflicts to those that divided the House of Atreus. If this novel is as politically passionate as The Matriarch, critics also comment that this intensity leads occasionally to the hyperbolic and the melodramatic. And, while The Dream Swimmer is compelling reading, it is also characterized by the autobiographical self-indulgence—even self-mythologization—that has tinged Ihimaera's work since The Matriarch. Nevertheless, the very breadth of its ambitious vision demonstrates that Ihimaera's is a powerful and important voice in New Zealand literature.

—Jackie Buxton

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: James Heneghan (1930-) Biography - Personal to Rick Jacobson Biography - Personal