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Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold, Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (Editors)

Myths are the origin stories of every culture and civilisation. From the Middle-East and the Mediterranean, to Scandinavia, Asia, and the Americas, myths provide a map of meaning. Here in New Zealand, a catalogue of Māori mythology enriches our lives and culture.

Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold features some of Aotearoa’s origin narratives re-written and re-imagined by some of our most distinguished Māori storytellers. As editors Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka state in their introduction, “we have a duty as kaitiaki...to pass our legacy from one generation to another... to keep the whakapapa going forward into the future”. The writers featured in this collection act as modern-day storytellers for the same purpose as their tīpuna. They inform and entertain at the same time.

Writers like Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme and Hone Tuwhare need no introduction. However, the book will also introduce new writers to readers, all brimming with potential and possibility.

The book is divided into five sections – each related directly to the tekoteko on the book’s cover; creation, the ancestors, the sea to the land, mythical beings, and Rarohenga (the underworld).

While most are short stories, there are a handful of fabulous poems scattered beneath the pages too.

Whiti Heraka’s take in Papatūānuku is so simple, so obvious, yet so unique. Hereaka repositions the family as a modern day newly separated couple. It is touching, funny, and realistic. Likewise, Tina Makereti’s Shapeshifter invokes Pānia of the Reef. While the heart of the origin story is honoured. Makereti has Pānia tell the story from what she sees today. It is clever, imaginative, yet deeply honours the origin.

It was also refreshing to see writers challenging wider conventions within stories. There are at least four stories where the tables are turned – it is not the hero that gets to tell the story, but rather the women. Kelly Joseph’s Hinepūkohurangi and Uenuku and Patricia Grace’s Born. Still being two such contributions. Jacqueline Carter’s poem is also a powerful contribution in this vein.

Other writers simply retell their origin story in their own words. They feel like conversations and reintroduced me to some stories I hadn’t heard of for years.

However, there are some writers that really push the boundaries. Nic Low’s Te Ara Poutini is one. It falls somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy and sparkles with brilliance. Low is clever – so clever. He retells the Ngāi Tahu story of Poutini and how we got pounamu. Except he sets it in an almost post-apocalyptic future. He draws on solid truths though; riffing on Ngāi Tahu’s incredible knack of capitalising on tourism, while also retelling the origin story true to word. It is a dazzling piece of literature that stood out within the book.

A nice touch is the biographies of the writers at the back, which offers a little more about their story, motivations and connections with the myth they are retelling.

Rounding out the book, Ihimaera in Niwareka and Mataora likens moko with writing and how he sees his writing as his moko.

“It is possible to retrieve our world, our identity, our politics – our past and present but, most of all, our future – by rewriting back,” he writes.

Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold is a bold statement and something of a call to action. Ihimaera, Hereaka, and the writers of these stories challenge us to take these stories into the future. The stories are gifts that will challenge, inspire, and light the path ahead of us.

Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser

Vintage (Penguin Random House), RRP $38