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Interview: Richard Shaw talks about The Unsettled

Richard Shaw is a professor of politics at Massey University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is a regular commentator on political issues and the author of a number of academic publications about government, Parliament and politics in Aotearoa New Zealand. His heart increasingly lies in the historical and emotional territories explored both in this and his 2021 book, The Forgotten Coast (Massey University Press). Richard talks to NZ Booklovers about The Unsettled.

How long after The Forgotten Coast was published did the idea of this book come to you?

Pretty quickly. More or less immediately after The Forgotten Coast (and an article for The Conversation that was based on the book) I started hearing from people. Some of them — a minority — were angry and abusive, and not keen on what I had to say about the ongoing consequences for Taranaki Māori of the confiscation of their land, or the ways in which the benefits of that process continue to accrue to people like me. But mostly I heard from Pākehā — old, young, urban, rural; the lot — who wanted to share their own thoughts about how to live with the colonial past, present and future of this country. Both sets of voices, it seemed to me, had something to say — so I thought I’d write a book about them.

You describe some of the really unpleasant feedback you got after writing about the family farms in Taranaki for The Conversation and in The Forgotten Coast. Perhaps some of the tone of our recent election and policy announcements by the new coalition government did not surprise you then?

No, not in the slightest. Lying behind some of the abuse I received is an underlying fear — which is often expressed as anger — about what might be required if we start telling a more honest, less self-serving account of the ‘settlement’ of Aotearoa New Zealand. I think the same fear informs some of what the new coalition government is doing. Also, I think there is a fragility amongst those who feel the need to suppress the use of te reo Māori, or to undo policies that address the health and other inequities disproportionately experienced by tangata whenua — or who obstinately refuse to acknowledge the extent of the violence committed in the name of colonisation. That, too, often takes the form of anger and abuse, both of which are really just tactics for avoiding addressing the real issue.

But the other responses that you received — some from the people about whom you write in The Unsettled — were of another order entirely. What does that tell you?

It suggests to me that alongside the fear and loathing in Aotearoa there is a growing appetite among many non-Māori for a more forthright, historically informed conversation about what really went on here during peak colonisation and about the contemporary consequences of those things. Actually, the early working title for the book was ‘Conversations with the Unsettled’: while the eventual call was to go with The Unsettled (better, snappier), the initial version reflected what I think is a growing appetite among non-Māori for figuring out how our personal circumstances today (the ‘small stories’ of the book’s title) are shaped by the ‘big story’ of colonisation.

What struck you about all these people?

Those people who got in touch with me are feisty, thoughtful, honest and compassionate. You need to mind your step when you journey into the territory that The Unsettled traverses, which includes the abandoned, forgotten corners of families’ stories and the nation’s foundation narratives. So, there is something in those whose voices are heard in the book — a sense of fundamental fairness and justice that has prompted them to start asking challenging questions of their own pasts — which I find hugely admirable.

A process has begun that cannot be unwound by grumpy politicians and dismissive Pākehā, right?

The need to make sense of how one’s own personal circumstances are tied to the colonisation of the country is far bigger than the policies of any single government. More importantly, I think, this is not a Māori thing: the people whose stories form the basis of The Unsettled are pretty clear that this is something non Māori, and Pākehā in particular, need to sort out amongst themselves. A political party that won under 9 per cent of the vote at the 2023 election may well want a referendum on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, but long after that has been forgotten plenty of Pākehā will still be wanting the kinds of challenging, fruitful conversations those who appear in The Unsettled are already having.

You and your wider family, and the individuals in this book and their wider families, are a small cohort, though. They are descendants of old settler families and as time goes on they are an ever tinier subset of the population, and so what does it matter whether they front up to the true story of the land that their ancestors farmed?

It matters because many of those of us whose families made a start here because of colonisation — whether farmers, miners, shopkeepers or whatever — continue to benefit from that history, even if we rarely acknowledge this. Often, the benefit has little to do with wealth. In my case, the really significant thing is the inheritance of a strong sense of place — which can be traced back to the farms my great-grandparents ran on land that had been taken from Taranaki Māori. And I don’t think this issue is limited to older settler families, because whether your family’s time in this country stretches back 10 or 150 years, one way or another we are all beneficiaries of colonisation.

If you live in the Waikato (or Taranaki, Te Urewera or the Bay of Plenty), chances are you live on land that was stolen from Māori. If you’ve made your life in Canterbury, you’ve done so in an area in which the colonial state returned just 0.031 per cent of the land it solemnly promised to give back to Ngāi Tahu when it purchased the Kemp Block. None of us are personally responsible for these historical facts but we do benefit from them — just as Māori continue to live with the consequences of that dishonourable behaviour. Should we not at least reflect on this?

Tell us about the image on the book’s cover.

I love this cover! It’s an image of a work of art that masquerades as a curtain which hangs in the home of a good friend of mine, Carolyn Morris. As well as being a fine social anthropologist, Carolyn (who also hails from Taranaki) makes superb works of art, and she made this one after reading The Forgotten Coast. It’s called The Agricultural Campaign, which is a reference to a line I used in the earlier book in relation to my great-grandfather’s farming of confiscated land. Taranaki maunga is the dominant feature, but if you look carefully you’ll also see imagery — ploughed fields, fences, an invasion road — associated with Parihaka. It’s an unsettling piece of work and I’m very grateful Carolyn allowed me to use it for The Unsettled.

What’s your definition of decolonisation?

Decolonisation is a word I have trouble with, because it seems to suggest that it is somehow possible to strip out the effects of colonisation (which I’ve always thought of as this big thing that exists in the world of colonial governments, imperial regiments and armed constabularies) and I struggle to get my head around how that could be possible. But one of the things I hope The Unsettled shows is how many people’s small family stories have been shaped by the ‘big C’ colonisation story featuring states, governments and parliaments. Seen that way, decolonisation makes way more sense to me: it becomes the personal, intimate process of understanding both how I continue to benefit from colonisation (for one thing, no one shouts at me when I speak my native language in public) and how I might act on that understanding (including by writing this book).

Is guilt a useful outcome of this work?

Only if it’s what American civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin called ‘useful guilt’. Common, garden variety guilt (about which I know a fair bit, having been raised in the Catholic Church) is an indulgence: it immobilises you and encourages a self pity that easily slips into narcissism. Baldwin’s type, on the other hand, can generate a sense of responsibility for addressing the thing that causes the guilt. Once that happens, stuff starts to happen.

Can you explain how this process is in fact liberating rather than threatening?

For many of the Pākehā I’ve listened to while writing The Unsettled, setting guilt and anger aside so as to take responsibility for learning a more truthful, better informed personal history is a freeing thing to do. It’s also very much focused on the future: time and again I’ve encountered people who see a better understanding of their (and the nation’s) past as central to the way they act now and in the future. This is not easy or especially comfortable, but every single person I’ve listened to who is trying to do it tells me that they are gaining something by doing so. It was expressed best, I think, by the nun who patiently explained to me that there is a sense of liberation to be had by letting go of the selective historical amnesia and replacing it with something that shows greater fidelity to the historical record. What she was saying, I think, is that one of the sources of the ‘fretfulness’ Bill Pearson once identified as a characteristic of New Zealanders is the refusal to listen to a full, frank account of colonisation — and that by doing so we might all find our way to a better future.

Massey University Press


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