A conversation about damaging myths, Moriori ancestry, and fluid cultural identities with novelist Tina Makereti.
Tina Makereti initially made a splash with her excellent short story collection, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa. Her 2014 debut novel, Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, is an exquisite tale of loss and identity. Spanning three distinct periods, Makereti’s novel looks at the social and cultural dislocation suffered by Moriori following the 1835 invasion of Rekohu (the Chatham Islands). Makereti’s novel floats through time and setting, concluding with a poignant yet hopeful reconciliation of the past, the present, and the future, while also mirroring her contemporary protagonists’ fraught sense of cultural belonging through Moriori, Maori, and Pakeha identities.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why writing?
TINA MAKERETI: I did try visual art, but I never got into art school. I did work with some artists and also did some theory, but even when I was painting or sculpting, I always had words in what I was doing. My first love was words but I didn’t actually know it until I was in my thirties. I didn’t know myself well enough to know that words were my thing. Then I just asked myself, if I could do anything in the world, what would it be, and it was just writing. I was lucky to have an answer to that question so I just pursued it.
BG: You started with short stories and moved to novels.
TM: I hope I get back into short stories.
BG: The multiple registers of short stories would have helped with Where the Rekohu Bone Sings. Did you find they overlapped?
TM: I guess the stories came first and when I wrote the stories. I wanted to try lots of different voices. When I got to writing the novel, I felt like I cheated a little bit because I always had three distinct, interconnected stories. It felt like writing three long short stories instead of writing a full novel. The novel I’m writing at the moment is one person and that seems like a much greater challenge to me now, staying in one voice.
BG: In Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa you had, tonally speaking, quite different short stories as well.
TM: Which was my aim, trying out, “how do you do this?”
BG: Your short stories are connected too, though.
TM: I was lucky that that happened in my MA year. One of the other students started talking about mythology, and it triggered a whole lot of stuff for me that went right back. I thought, “that’s right, that’s something I really want to play with.” It was lucky to get as a focus or a kaupapa for what I was doing.
BG: Where did the germ for the novel come from: your research, your PhD?
TM: It was actually when my daughter was born. I was asked what name she would be given, because we always have an ancestral name. My mother gave me a name from a Moriori ancestor. I’d always known the story that we had Moriori partial origins, but at that point, I thought, “this is real now, my daughter’s going to carry the name, I should know what that means.” I had no idea what that meant other than what I had read. I went back to Michael King’s book and thought, “one day, I’ll have to research this more.” I thought it might be non-fiction but very quickly wanted the freedom of fiction to recreate something where so much is lost. I could have written non-fiction, but I would have been limited by the meaningful and purposeful holes in the story.
BG: The loss has a key structural part of the story?
TM: The more I researched and the more I wrote, the loss became more active. At first it was just missing pieces and then when events like deaths and grief occured, it was important to have a reader not just think, “oh there’s a gap in this history,” but actually feel the gap.
BG: Where did the idea for the three time periods come from?
TM: I always knew I wanted to have a contemporary element to the story because I didn’t want a reader to encounter it and think, “that’s just history, that’s just in the past, it’s got nothing to do with me.” That was the most challenging part. Then 1835 is when the invasion happened. I needed eyes on the ground there to embody that and make it real. And where did 1880 come from? I think that was from my great-great grandmother. I was told she was Moriori. That was the story, [and so I] recreated a fictional version of what the circumstances might have been for a young woman in the late 1800s to end up with a Moriori man when it was so taboo. I have no idea whether it happened or how it happened in real life, but I do have tiny tantalising bits of evidence. I had to make up the rest, which is another reason why fiction is the way to do it.
BG: It’s a very evocative Wellington of 1880. It’s also interesting in the small community—Mere and Iraia’s differences were so stark, but as soon as they came to Wellington, it was just “white” and “other.”
TM: The interesting thing about Wellington is once I started researching the period, I had to become really exact about which year it was. From one year to the next, early in the 1880s, there was no sewerage, but I don’t know exactly which year it came in. At one point there were no steamships, and the next year there were steamships. I had to [check with] a Wellington historian whether I got it right.
BG: The 1835 account is quite harrowing and strangely disembodied, which captured what happened to him in the narrative. In terms of your PhD research, did that feed into the historical accounts?
TM: The PhD research was more about methodology and how you go about writing something that is either rewriting history or looking at it from a different angle that hadn’t been seen before. That was my critical research. Actually, the historical research wasn’t part of it. I was doing two sets of research: how to write this thing, but also what this thing was going to be.
The 1835 story came to me first because that was the story I was reading and worrying about the most—it was harrowing and brutal. I didn’t want to re-inscribe the trauma that had already happened. I was trying to find a way of telling the story straight as in the stuff that we know happened, but also the fact people did bad things, while not making them bad people necessarily.
The character Imi started waking me up at night and telling me his story. That voice, thankfully, was fairly organic, whereas with the contemporary story, I rewrote it three times. I think I ended up with both sides of fiction: stuff that seems magical because you don’t know where it came from and you just write it down, and stuff where I had to keep re-working it until I figured out what the heck I was doing.
BG: How did you go about structuring the three stories? Thematically, narratively?
TM: I wrote them out completely separately and I honestly just wove them together. I wrote them in chapters where they naturally made sense to me to fall and there’s a certain length and breadth there in the chapters. At one point, it stopped making sense to follow any given pattern. By the final draft, Imi’s story had reversed and his voice is mainly in the third part, whereas in the beginning it was much more in the first and the middle.
I’m not really into structuring things at the beginning of the process, more at the end. One of the problems with the contemporary voice I had was the idea of a young person discovering their past and learning these things, and it never worked when I tried to make her describe the things she was learning. If I put it in dialogue or described her reading it, it was a horrible rehashing of history, of research. In the end, I realised I had to get rid of as much of that as possible and leave it in Imi’s voice.
BG: There’s a key scene in the middle with Imi narrating in Wellington—he becomes the narrator. It had an interesting effect.
TM: Originally my big thing about Imi was that he would be able to encounter things in a way we can’t. It was all about him being able to go inside other people; when one of the characters gets sick, I thought it would be interesting to see that from a different point of view. Imi isn’t omniscient, but in a way he can see a lot more than we can. See the sickness from the inside. Some people don’t get him; maybe they don’t like that he’s not a living person and can go through barriers that humans have.
BG: That strikes me as a key part of the book, the way the past comments on the present and the future.
TM: Absolutely. There had to be a dance between the present and the past. Personally I don’t believe ancestors exist in the way I’ve written them in the book, but I do believe they’re around in some way. But I have no idea how, because I’m not God. But there had to be some interplay between the past and the present, and it was one of the points of the book. I did decide that interplay would not include the contemporary characters being aware of the ancestors in a material way.
BG: What was it like when you went to Rekohu for the first time?
TM: It was amazing. It was also scary because I felt that I was taking something that wasn’t mine to tell. In a way, it was, because I have that story in my family. But in a way, it wasn’t because I don’t come from there. Thankfully those people welcomed me and said that was okay. I did go to the Moriori marae, the Kopinga marae, which is just an astonishing expression of their culture, and something I’ve never experienced. I find that land to be quite extraordinary. The history is very much on the surface of the land. You can walk places and see middens just there, where they lived. It’s an extraordinary island. You hear it’s really rough. But on some days, it’s just like a tropical island with golden sands on one side of the island. On the other side, there would be stones and massive waves and black sands. For a small island it has a fascinating topography and flora and fauna as well.
BG: The characters encounter a bit of caginess from the locals
TM: That’s definitely a thing. I didn’t encounter it so much as I was lucky to go with people that I’d already met and stayed at the marae. If I went and tried to stay in the community: people say, “I’ve lived here twenty years and I’m still not a Chatham Islander.” And it’s a very special thing. I don’t have a problem with it. One of the sad things is that their community is getting smaller because people don’t have jobs or houses. There’s no infrastructure for them to hold onto. In terms of resources, they’re resource rich, but there’s a little bit of a conflict over how that’s managed with New Zealand and it’s all too big for me. Fantastic place, a real treasure.
BG: There’s a shifting notion of identity, and you don’t present identity as necessarily something that’s stuck in one time, which seems to me a hopeful part of the book, especially through the character of Lula. She thought in one particular way and was able to acknowledge a different approach.
TM: By the end, I had set up a bit of a division between the brother and the sister, but in my head, they’re much closer than the division appears. Actually, I see a future in which they’re kind of on the same page. I’ve seen it in my own family. Your sense of who you are culturally shifts all of the time. Especially those of us with lost histories or conflicting family stories. I encountered it with the people I met on Rekohu or associated with Moriori history. It seemed like everybody had been through the shame or the hidden nature of that history and had come back to claim it, or encountered parents or grandparents who didn’t want to know, or had been proud of it but had been told by other people in New Zealand their people don’t exist.
BG: That’s one of the most damaging myths around isn’t it? Your people are extinct.
TM: That was a huge aspect of my motivation and I’ve gone through this myself. You want to claim that you’re Maori, claim that you’re Moriori, and then you get together in a room full of young people who say, “I don’t know.” Neither do I. And a sixty year old beside you says, “neither do I.” We’re all trying, we’re all getting there, or finding our way.
BG: Whereas the character of Bigs seemed to let the shame prevent him from acknowledging another part of his identity.
TM: It’s shame and defensiveness. There’s a position when you have found something real in your culture. For him, his discovery of Maori culture saves him. For him, to let something else in is a bit scary. It might threaten that which is quite solid in his life. That’s really common as well. You get people saying to be authentic means one thing. To be Maori you must be like this. It’s not people trying to shut something out; it’s because they’re want something to be solid that they can hold onto. That fluidity is really uncomfortable. It has taken me a very long time to get comfortable with a fluid identity. There’s no other option for those of us who are of mixed cultures. I don’t think there’s any option for most people, but a lot of us can pretend we are one thing or another.
BG: For me, as part of a diasporic community, that spoke to me a lot, the notion you’re seen as one, or necessarily don’t feel connected. It really captured that tension.
TM: I was always interested in diasporic writing. As a young person, that spoke to my experience, which is weird, because I always lived in New Zealand. I never felt comfortable in one cultural side or the other. Look at me, I’m not just one thing. Even when I tried to do that, I was still attracted to stories of people who migrated. And now when I look at my Maori ancestry, all of my ancestors migrated post-European down the island except for one group. Migration is such a big part of our story, and intermarriage right from the beginning. I was let go from trying to be one thing. I do get jealous when some people say I’m Ngati Porou and that’s all I am. That would be so nice.
BG: Less complicated.
TM: Yeah, though it might be just as complicated.
BG: Going back to the myth of Moriori being extinct, how aware were you of its pervasiveness?
TM: It’s funny, because it was always there. The story in my family is that there’s no Moriori left but we have some Moriori blood. It never even clicked in my head as a child that that made no sense at all. It was kind of cool and weird in a way, but then as I got older I heard so many different versions of the story. They’re all mainly wrong. That was another motivation behind the novel. This story is different than most of us know. Isn’t that stupid and isn’t that a shame? It’s an amazing story and an amazing culture and a living culture. Wouldn’t it be great if we were all aware of that?
BG: It must have been incredibly difficult being told your own identity doesn’t exist and also the way the pre-Maori myth was used as a way to justify other discriminatory practices.
TM: That’s right. It’s pretty painful for those people and there’s a lot of conflict and pain for the Maori people that are accused of perpetrating genocide on Moriori as well. For both of those groups. I’m from those Maori tribes, somewhat. I was aware of it, especially when I was writing. I didn’t want to make more pain for people, so hopefully that actually assisted the understanding. It’s so easy to slip into that situation where you’re causing more harm without even realising it. There was no point in which I was comfortable and I’m still not comfortable now, even though I’ve been given good feedback. I’m sure there are people who don’t like it who wouldn’t tell me. I don’t think it’s for granted that I’ve done a good thing.
BG: I know the Hoketehi Moriori Trust [the Trust that represents Moriori] were doing a great job in preserving the culture.
TM: In terms of preserving what’s left, and opening the door for re-generation, you’ve got to keep what’s left and allow something new to grow out of it. I went there and had a certain way of doing things there that has grown out of what has happened. For example, the Pou in the middle of the room. They don’t have a similar tikanga to Maori because they don’t have war as part of their culture. You just go straight into the wharenui. Whereas usually you do the powhiri outside, which is the domain of war, they don’t have a domain of war. You stand around the Pou. I remember Maui [Solomon, general manager of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust] said, “all cultures evolve and anyone can speak there, women, children.” And they just open it up and people say what they want to say. Ancestors are at the centre of that. I thought when you’ve got so little you have to allow it to grow into something. That’s really nice to see. Nobody knows what the tikanga was before, but they built this house, which has these certain things built into it. Get the culture around that. It’s something to behold.
BG: Your next project is an exhibition of a Maori boy in England, Victorian, pre-Victorian?
TM: Victorian. Early Victorian.
BG: Where did the germ of that novel come from?
TM: A friend, Lynn Jenner, said, “the end of one story is the beginning of the next.” Early in the PhD, I did this to distract myself—I thought of this other idea I wanted to do even more. I thought how interesting it would be writing a novel from the perspective of someone who had been taken and exhibited and put in human zoos. I wasn’t stuck on a Maori chapter at that stage. It didn’t happen to Maori as much as other groups.
BG: The awfulness of what happened to Sarah Baartman.
TM: While I was researching, I came across Sarah Baaartman, which triggered the thinking, what would it have been like? I would never assume to embody her perspective, because she’s this amazing character and I don’t come from her culture. But what if a Maori character, a young Maori was over there? This was before [Paula Morris’s] Rangatira came out, and he wrote from what he saw. Then I went to a symposium where somebody was talking about this young man, which my story was going to be based on. There’s probably four or five pages in the world written about this person and yet it’s completely fascinating, riveting stuff. He’s a young boy, a young man who was taken. People said he was hilarious, incredibly smart, and he impressed everyone with his humanity, which sounds stupid, but they were surprised by that.
BG: You’re almost inverting the gaze?
TM: Absolutely. He has a very pre-European upbringing but he gets this real English education so he can speak in both of those registers. He’s not going to have a voice like Imi, which is a weird mix of ability in English. He’s going to be very well educated, and is going see things in action and not understand why these people are doing them. It’s really odd behaviour putting people on display. Putting a tiger in a cage half the size of a living room and letting it pace up and down. Or chimpanzee tea parties. That’s horrible. And they were doing that to humans, though not quite to the same extent. If you come from a culture where that’s not normal behaviour and to go and stare at something, how are you going to encounter that? He’s going to be both astonished by the culture, the great empire, and also absolutely repulsed by it. It’s nasty what happened in that culture. Yet we hold it up as where our civilisation comes from. I know we’ve moved on from Victorian England, but so much of our culture has derived from it.
BG: It’s an interesting counterpoint to Where the Rakohu Bone Sings in which identity is fluid. Here, his identity is fixed.
TM: In a way, he’s still the in-between, he’s still the guy on the wrong side of the tracks, just trying to figure out how to be. He’s attracted to this education, to these words. Our people were. They were really fascinated by writing and reading. How does that change?