Sunday, May 11, 2014

Narratives of history.

Thinking of Mother's Day today, and how that takes me back through the narrative history of my family. How much of that history is able to be found in patches, often intersecting patches. And how many spaces there are in between.

So, in honour of Mother’s day I wish to pay tribute all the way back to my grandmother’s great-grandmother Tiraha Papa Harakeke, 1808-1885. 

Tiraha was born at Utakura, Hokianga, daughter of Papaharakeke and Kopu. Kopu (her mother), was born in 1775. Tiraha was third cousin and adopted daughter of Tamati Waka Nene, kinswoman to Patuone, Muriwai, and Hongi Hika. Tiraha’s father, Papaharakeke was killed by Tuhourangi at Motutawa Island on the encouragement of Te Rauparaha, who wanted revenge for a relative lost during Ngapuhi's capture of Te Totara pa. Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika had a patu made to avenge his death, and attacked Te Arawa at the height of the musket wars, instigated by Hongi and a tragic time for Maori, but the patu was not used. In 1933 Sir Apirana Ngata presented the patu, known as Papaharakeke, to Te Arawa as a tohu (token of friendship) from Ngapuhi. The patu is owned by the Arawa trustboard, and for 70 years was held in the Auckland Museum. In 2007, I believe, it was returned to Rotorua.

Tiraha married English Battle of Waterloo veteran, later carpenter, and then whaler, William Cook in a Christian ceremony at Paihia 13th March, 1848, though they had been together for many years as a couple and already had ten children.

They would have twelve in all.

The ceremony was conducted by Te Wiremu (Rev. Henry Williams) he of the controversial translation of the Treaty of Waitangi. A prayerbook given to the couple after their wedding is now in the Russell Museum, as is this photograph of Tiraha. Tiraha passed away 1st September,1885, and is buried somewhere in the Russell churchyard, as is Tamati Waka Nene. Unfortunately, Tiraha’s grave, though it is entered in the parish registry, is unmarked. William Cook had died at Waikare in 1874. One of their sons, George Howe Cook was born on a whaling brig – the Independence. The Cook family of Whangamumu became famous as whalers, before finally ceasing operations in 1931.

This tribute speaks through my mother, Alice June Martha Maitu,1928-1995, and my grandmother, Hannah, 1901-1994. It also honours Hannah's mother - Ada - and Ada's mother - Martha, and all the wahine toa in my whanau's history. And finally, all due respect to the descendents of the many tupuna noted in this post.

The patu - Papaharakeke. (Te Arawa Trustboard)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Flash fiction for ANZAC day

ANZAC Morning

Next door the old fella’s coughing. He’s bent over the veranda rail. One hand holds the wooden post the other touches the red poppy blooming on the lapel of his navy blazer. On the radio Vera Lynn’s singing We’ll meet again.
When I was a child a dark passage ran like an artery between my parents’ bedroom and mine. When Dad coughed he leaned against the doorframe for support. He coughed and coughed, his bony chest heaving against his cotton singlet. Mum nursed Dad, who carried a piece of the war in his lungs. Often at night he’d wake, gasping for air. I’d creep along the passage; breathe outside the door for him.
Sometimes I still wake in the night and hear my father coughing. I listen when that cough recites its whakapapa. I sprang from the desert sands in Egypt it says; in Maadi camp I wound my tendrils into his lungs; when his battalion moved out I went with him to Monte Cassino; I was full-grown when he came home on the hospital ship with nightmares and a shattered hip.
Next door the old fella spits and straightens up. His son arrives and helps him into the car.
Who holds the world up so you can crawl out and breathe in the light-filled air?
On the radio Vera’s still singing We’ll meet again to the boys.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sara Paretsky on finding a voice and writing in an age of silence

In the last few weeks I've been reading essays and memoirs by three wonderful writers: Sara Paretsky (Writing in an Age of Silence, 2007),  Marilynne Robinson (When I was a Child I Read Books, 2012) and Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005).
 Over the years I've read and re-read all of Paretsky's novels featuring the Chicago south-side detective V I Warshawski; more recently I've read Houskeeping, Gilead and Home by Robinson and marvelled at the precision and beauty of her language as well as her extraordinary characters; and while it's been some time since I've read Gidion's The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem copies of them still sit on my bookshelves and I remember them with affection.

In later posts I'll try and explore my reaction to Robinson's amazing collection of essays and to Didion's very personal account of her husband's death and the year that followed it  - each deserves extended space and reflection - but in this one I want to acknowledge how much it has meant to me to read Sara Paretsky talking about her struggle to find a voice. In the introduction to the book she says:

"Perhaps it doesn't seem surprising that I became a writer, but it was, in fact, a difficult journey. This memoir traces the long path I followed from silence to speech, and the ways in which my speech has been shaped by what I've witnessed along the way. The book deals with the dominant question of my own life, the effort to find a voice, the effort to help others on the margins to find a voice, the effort to understand and come to terms with questions of power and powerlessness."(pX111)

One of the wonderful things about books is they seem to arrive just when you need them most. I picked Writing in an Age of Silence off the shelf at the central library on a day when I was feeling upset and depressed about a number of past and current instances in my life when I have felt silenced in important and damaging ways.
Trying to find the courage to speak (and write) about what matters most is never easy and the links between silence, marginalisation and powerlessness are intricate and complex, not just in politics and artistic endeavour, but also, and perhaps especially, in employment and personal and family life. A recent example  comes to mind. At a union meeting a colleague expressed how silenced she now felt in her job, how few spaces there were now where she felt safe to speak, to ask questions, to offer a professional opinion or to discuss important issues. Anything other than total agreement was seen as being 'negative'. The saddest thing was that those running the meeting failed to ask her where and when she wanted to speak and what she wanted to say (surely all important things to ask if you want active and effective membership) - they simply said that being in the union was having a voice. In other words, even though they were good people and 'on her side' they too shut her up by not giving her the space, time and attention her - and our - increasing sense of powerlessness deserved. I wonder if she will go to another meeting.

Paretsky goes on to say: "It took many years of different kinds of support - from the man I later married, from psychotherapy, but above all from the women's movement of the seventies - before I gained an independent voice... it was feminism that triggered my wish to write a private eye novel, and it shaped the character of my detective, V I Warshawski."

Years ago, when I was still studying history at University I researched the differences and connections between oral and written accounts. One of the things I remember most from exploring oral traditions was the importance of, and need for orientation, that is, in order to speak to others you need (to be given or to find) a place/space to stand and speak from, one that allows enough grounding or solidity or legitimacy to orient yourself, to give direction and shape to what you are saying.

I think that is what Sara Paretsky is talking about so eloquently in this book: how hard it is for so many of us to find that place; how much support from each other we need to do it; how frightening and dangerous it can be, especially for those who are, or who feel, marginalised and powerless; yet how essential it is.