Māori Boy: A memoir of childhood
by Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, $39.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan
Witi Ihimaera, the distinguished Māori author and the first Māori to publish a book of short stories and a novel, has adopted a new genre with his latest book. But despite its subtitle, this book is a great deal more than a memoir of childhood. There is far more in the book about Ihimaera’s whānau and whakapapa – and related stories – than there is about Ihimaera himself. In nearly 400 pages, his personal story only gets as far as School Certificate, with occasional allusions to his future life.
Clearly Ihimaera’s whakapapa deeply affected all aspects of his childhood. It is not just background to be covered in the first few chapters in chronological order: it permeates the whole book, sometimes repetitively to illustrate some aspect of his development, and sometimes with digressions to mythical and historical stories from Paikea to Maui to Cook to Te Kooti to Princess Te Puea and many others. After one such digression he admits, “I need to get a move on”.
Despite the notes provided at the front of the book, I found it hard to keep track of who was who amongst his numerous ancestors, both Pākehā and Māori, and his living relatives. His very close relationship with his much loved grandmother (who would have brought him up, had his mother consented) stands out. There are fascinating tales of the lives of other family members – for example his mother being taken from her family at a very young age to cook and keep house for three years for faraway elderly relatives – and interesting comments on how Ringatu and Mormonism impacted on the family.
To someone like myself who grew up in Dunedin (“Where are the Māori?” asked Witi, on his boyhood visit there), the differences in our contemporaneous childhoods are striking. Māori values predominated in Ihimaera’s home and wider whānau, while Pākehā values dominated school and town, with only 2000 Māori living in Gisborne, Ihimaera’s home town, at the time. Some of the most interesting aspects of the book are his commentary on the interactions between these value systems; the conflicts that arose and the adaptations that Māori made, willingly, reluctantly, or forcibly. There are revealing glimpses of racism that he personally experienced in the country as well as the town, but these are not dwelt on. His recollection of a spirited speech that he made during a school visit to the court, where white officials dealt with a succession of Māori, articulates some of the issues.
There are some wonderful insights into Ihimaera himself, not least his adoption of that surname. His parents searched unsuccessfully for his School Certificate results under their surname, Smiler, an anglicized corruption of Ihimaera that his forebears had adopted, so he had to admit that he had enrolled as Ihimaera. An eye opener to Witi at the time, and to the reader years later, was his mother’s reaction to the publication of his first book – she was not full of admiration but upset that he had not thought it necessary to consult the rangatira. On rereading some of those stories after reading the memoir, one can see how autobiographical they were and how readily some of the whānau would have identified themselves in them.
Personally, I would preferred a shorter book with more of Ihimaera and less of the past, but as he has said, Māori do not put themselves centre stage. I learned a lot.