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Witi Ihimaera. Photo/Simon Young/Listener

Native Son: Witi Ihimaera's memoir contains multitudes

The second volume of Witi Ihimaera's memoirs is threaded with myths and emblems.

How many other New Zealand authors have re-examined and redefined themselves and their work as much as Witi Ihimaera? In the process, he’s made readers reassess their roles, too. You’re not just a recipient, you’re a participant in a dialogue where each work is another stage in a search for meanings. Ihimaera’s shifting, nuanced, sometimes rewritten narratives evoke Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes”. Each book introduces you to another few (dozen) of the crowd.

Five years on from Māori Boy comes this next memoir. Ihimaera called his previous volume “creative non-fiction”, one of the decade’s more over-exploited labels but apposite in his case. It finished, in Norway in 2014, with a sequence in which the author goes through a family photo album with scissors, “decapitating me, dismembering me, disembowelling me”. Colourful stuff.

Emblematic, mythological stuff, too, and that continues in Native Son, both in its presentation of the author and in the legends of Hinenuitepō, Mahuika and Tāwhaki that are threaded through his narrative. Ihimaera writes of “creating a new mythology” and affirms that he “created it to avoid telling the real story” – whatever that slippery chimera might be. This book, he says, is about three things: “the making of a writer … a Māori writer … the magnificent accident of making me. (That final phrase is quintessential Ihimaera: spectacular, adjectival, disarmingly subversive.)

Ihimaera starts this memoir by recounting his teenage years, at Te Karaka District High and plodding through his duties on the over-peopled, under-developed family farm. He’s working on his sideways smile, which he suggests may have come from the whānau’s ducks. He writes words all over his bedroom walls, bridles at provincial Pākehā condescension, makes the world’s slowest drive from Gisborne to the Waikato.

After that … well, the book also contains multitudes. His “Māui-esque journey” has him questioning his faith and sexuality at the Mormon college in Tuhikaramea, becoming a journalist for the Gisborne Herald and working at the Post Office in Wellington, where he sees a bearded James K Baxter running along the gutter.

He plays the piano, plays hockey and hooky as well, and does military service at Waiouru. He marries the admirable Jane Cleghorn and gets published – especially after he stops trying to imitate clever European authors. He is honoured in France, gets a lift in his smart suit on a Wellington Council rubbish truck and forms grand and generous friendships with Fiona Kidman, Noel Hilliard and Patricia Grace.

All the way through, he explores, examines and adjusts himself as a Māori, a writer and a sexual being. He’s trenchant about conventional academia: “White curricula sustaining White culture; it was as simple as that.” He tells anecdotes about gratuitous and graceless prejudice and goes into detailed, distressed analysis about breaches with and within his whānau.

It’s big. Ihimaera isn’t inclined to leave things out: “In at least one of your books, you should shoot for something epochal.” It loops around the decades “in a tangential Māori way, rather than in the accustomed Pākehā linear way”. Roads taken or not taken are a recurring motif. Substantial passages from his fiction provide literary landmarks and show more facets of their writer.

It ends (this instalment does, anyway) as author and wife sail for England. Three dolphins accompany the ship: emblems and images all the way. He’s confronted himself and the reader with his dreadful rape when he was just 11. At a Berlin performance of Parsifal, he’s called a halt to old enmities – images of Holy Spear and Holy Grail this time. I’m not being snide: he uses such emblems daringly, memorably and often.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote TS Eliot in Little Gidding. “And the end of our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Ihimaera is getting there; in some cases, he’s pretty much arrived. It’s a rewarding trip to join.

NATIVE SON, by Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, $40)

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.