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Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka

Kurangaituku is a modern retelling of the Māori myth of Hatupatu and the bird-woman Kurangaituku. In the original story Hatupatu is captured and finds the strength within him to trick the bird woman and escape from the clutches of Kurangaituku. In that original version it is Hatupatu who is the hero and celebrated as such.

In Kurangaituku, the same story is told from the perspective of the bird woman herself. Hereaka brings a remarkable voice to the character. She accentuates, in places, her own vulnerabilities and seeing herself as the monster that others see her as.

The narrative follows her life through her version of things beginning with the creation story where light emerged from the darkness (te pō) through to the various stories that have been passed down through generations. All the while she has a presence in the aspects of the stories. Her spirit is in the birds, or she sits on the periphery of the story, somehow involved.

Hereaka’s writing really is something quite special. The structure of the book is complicated to get your head around and upon picking up the novel the first thing you notice is that it can, to a point, be read both ways, and while the order in which you read the novel (back first, or front first - whichever you think is which) won’t change the understanding of the text, but it will change the events. The pages are tête-bêche [printed so that one is inverted in relation to the other] in what must have been a logistical and structural mountain for both the writer and the publisher.

What surprised the most, was the readability of this. On first glance the complexities seemed to be both strange and challenging, but that is where the real beauty of the text lies. It challenges conceptions and beliefs to their core. The very premise to take the well known mythological stories and rewrite them with such a unique and powerful female voice brings out some startling revelations.

For example, a stand out is the way the Maui death story, in the clutches of Hine-nui-te-pō, is told from Maui’s perspective. The great goddess destroys the fearless Maui in what is often presented as heroic circumstances. However, no mention is ever made of the violation that the goddess of the underworld has to endure, nor the natural response to retaliate under such circumstances.

Kurangaituku exists prior to the arrival of Māori, in the world of the birds, but adapts when the ‘song-makers’ (people) arrives she transforms into more of this mythical woman that becomes a feared presence in the world. She is highly self aware and, with a retrospective viewpoint, is able to engage with both her stories, and with the stories that are told about her. She is a betrayed woman from what she believed to be a connection with Hatupatu and spends much of one half of the book travelling through Rarohenga (the underworld) to bring some justice to her situation.

Overall, it is the bringing together of mythology and perspective that has a tremendous impact on the reader. The book is quite different from the standard novel and yet the format really works well. It is a very strong indication of the pioneering spirit that Hereaka has with her writing and challenges the status quo of a lot of things in our society, including giving a voice to the voiceless. The book is absolutely outstanding as both an academic study, and a fascinating read for the ages.

Kurangaituku, herself, says it best with, ‘Just as this story was never really mine. It can only ever exist in the space between us’.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Huia Publishers


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