“Black Marks on the White Page” was one of my most enriching reading experiences of 2017. Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti have provided the New Zealand literary scene with a rich and varied collection of works from Oceanic writers. The works range from the heartbreaking, to the eerie, to the thought-provoking, with even a dash of humour thrown in.
Ihimaera and Makereti present stories in all forms: there are stories in verse, prose, images, and collages. The collection is really an exploration of what makes a story. Indeed one of the stories, Jione Havea’s “The Vanua is Fo’oahake’” presents the idea of “talanoa”, of storytelling as dialogue. This book has created a platform for Māori, Aboriginal, and Pasifika writers to begin a dialogue about their experiences and their perspectives. These writers have presented their stories here for the readers to absorb and continue with the conversation. The creators involved in this dialogue are from far and wide.
There are the well-loved names as well as rising stars, introducing readers to an extensive literary cast. The collection opens with a striking still from Pati Solomona Tyrell’s “FA’AAFA”, the dark backdrop in stark contrast to the figure’s hauntingly white eyes, accessories, and the fingertips almost reaching out of the picture’s frame.
Patricia Grace’s story “Matariki All Stars” is a heartwarming story about a single father defying expectations and trying to raise his seven daughters following the death of his beloved wife.
“Black Milk” by Tina Makereti, which won the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, is also included here in all its haunting glory, offering an intermingling of science fiction and magical realism.
“My Father Dream New Zealand” by Witi Ihimaera chronicles the narrative of a refugee family dreaming of New Zealand as a paradise, their hope and longing laced with the painful irony that New Zealand is divided on the issue of refugees.
Shane Hansens’s “I AM MIXED MEDIA” is a bright, proud badge of honour, identifying his mixed heritage.
Nic Low’s satirical piece “Rush” about a group of men from the Aboriginal Land Council taking down the Shrine of Remembrance to excavate gold drips with dry humour, while evoking pain and anguish.
Selina Tusitala’s “Pouliuli: A Story of Darkness in 13 Lines” takes the message of “talanoa” even further, by taking a story of Albert Wendt’s and blacking out sections with a marker to tell a new story, extending the theme of dialogue.
Rosanna Raymond’s “Beaten” is a defiant and challenging image that confronts the gaze, interlaced with symbols highlighting the artist’s Samoan heritage.
“Black Ice”, the titular story of Gina Cole’s short story collection which won the Hubert Church Best First Book Award at Ockham 2017 Books Awards offers a heartwrenching look at the types of racial discrimination that occurs, from the subtly poisonous to the overtly harmful.
David Geary’s claustrophobic and tense “Watchlist” examines the underbelly of the internet, the dark alleyway where organisations can dupe people, even while individuals use it to exploit one another.
“Ke Kahea: The Calling” by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada is an entrancing story about ancient mythologies and their continued presence in modern sensibilities, with a young Hawaiian girl learning to embrace her mother’s ways of the kahuna and greets the leviathans from the oceans.
This collection offers such a wide variety of narratives that it would be a shame to deprive yourself of such an encompassing reading experience. It is a strong collection that introduces a new, and much needed strand of dialogue to the New Zealand and Oceanic literary conversation. I look forward to reading more of such black marks on the white page.
Reviewer: Faustina Paustin
Penguin Random House, RRP $40.00