It’s Waitangi Day! For those of you who are unaware, the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) is one of New Zealand’s founding documents. Signed in 1840 between the British Crown and over 500 Maori chieftains, it is an item of central importance to the history and political constitution of New Zealand. The signing of the Treaty has been commemorated in one form or another since the early 20th century, so it seems fitting to mark the occasion with some of those creative works that shine a light on our nation’s history.
1. Mutuwhenua by Patricia Grace (1978)
Mutuwhenua is the story of Ripeka, a young Maori woman who leaves behind her traditional family to marry a white (Pakeha) schoolteacher named Graeme. The more she tries to fit in with Graeme’s world, however, the more Ripeka finds herself haunted by the past, and the less she is able to make a place for herself away from her whanau. Notable for being the first novel by a Maori writer depicting the difficulties of straddling these two different worlds, Mutuwhenua is a thought-provoking read about what it means to be yourself while being torn between two conflicting cultures.
2. Bulibasha by Witi Ihimaera (1994)
Bulibasha won the Montana Book Award for Fiction in 1995, and was recently made into a motion picture (Mahana (2016)). Set in the 1950s, the story follows the fortunes of the Mahana family, as told by the adolescent Simeon. The Mahanas are a sheep-shearing family, ruled by strict adherence to tradition and a rigid hierarchy enforced by Simeon’s grandfather, Tamihana. As Simeon’s natural teenage rebelliousness brings him repeatedly into conflict his grandfather’s rules, however, he begins to unravel the secret at the heart of their family, a secret which calls into question what it means to share a past and highlights the subjective nature of history and memory.
3. Waiora by Hone Kouka (1997)
Written by acclaimed New Zealand playwright, Hone Kouka, Waiora tells the story of a 1965 Maori family who recently migrated to the South Island from the East Cape. As they prepare to celebrate the 18th birthday of Rongo, the youngest daughter, the family welcomes two Pakeha guests, whose ignorance of Maori custom turns a joyous occasion into a spiritual struggle for identity and belonging. Set in an era where assimilationism predominates and cultural borders are being continuously redrawn, Waiora brings to light the destructive impacts of colonialism and its effect on personal identity, heritage, and the will to survive.
4. A Dangerous Vine by Barbara Ewing (1999)
Barbara Ewing was born and educated in New Zealand, but has spent most of her life living and working as an actor in London. Her novel, A Dangerous Vine, is a coming-of-age story about a young Pakeha woman who braves her conservative parents’ displeasure and takes a job working with the largely Maori staff of a government department. There she encounters romance, culture clashes and the complicated social mores that govern race relations in 1950s New Zealand.
5. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
And of course, such a list wouldn’t be complete without reference to The Luminaries, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Set in 1866, during the height of the Otago Gold Rush, the story follows immigrant Walter Moody as he sets out to make his fortune in the New Zealand goldfields. No sooner does he arrive, however, than he is drawn into a complex local mystery, one that ties together the fates and fortunes of numerous souls in the nascent colony. It’s a little on the long side, but it’s worth it for the intricate plot and detailed world-building, where everything is connected but nothing is as it seems.