An hour with Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera

I was the one standing on the side of the road when Lady Muse drove by.

It turns out Leonard Cohen is not the only person on this planet who was born with the gift of a golden voice. Witi Ihimaera is right there with him. The first Maori author to publish a novel and a volume of short stories is erudite, charismatic, amusing and entertaining. He read to us from Pounamu Pounamu and The Parihaka Woman, shared some of his life story and broke into song several times. I could have listened to him all day.

Witi Ihimaera was in conversation with Dame Fiona Kidman today. Before the authors became household names they used to sit in Courtenay Place and discuss writing with their ‘feet in the gutter and heads in the stars’. They remain close friends and the mood between them was relaxed and intimate.

Witi Ihimaera was born into a large extended family with many grandmothers. The importance of home and whanau is fundamental to his nature. As a young man, he ran away to find the world but he’s never left his home in spirit. He says, “I didn’t just love the valley and the people in my life. I was in love with them”. Despite travelling widely, he wakes every day to that valley in his mind and goes to sleep with it every night.

Gala nightFiona Kidman raised the issue of The Trowenna Sea, the 2009 novel that contains passages re-printed without acknowledgement from four sources.

Witi – ‘Who told you to bring that elephant in here?’

Fiona – ‘You did!’

Witi Ihimaera apologised unreservedly for his mistakes and was pleased to announce that his publishers are reprinting the novel with all correct attributions. Although errors were made, the author’s desire to inform readers about the injustices Maori experienced in Tasmania in the 1840s was sincere and it’s a story that needs to be told. Witi raised the point that there are only nine Maori authors in New Zealand. The meteoric success of works such as Boy, Once were warriors and The Whale Rider has put pressure on these authors to achieve highly and I can imagine this must be a heavy mantle at times.

The Parihaka WomanThe session ended with a reading from The Parihaka Woman at the heart of which is the story of his mother’s unwavering love for his father. Conceived as a libretto adapting Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, to Aotearoa, the author pushes the limits of the novel to explore new ground. It’s fascinating reading.

Love for people, love for whanau, love for home and the determination to hold on tight to what you believe in – this is heart of Witi Ihimaera’s writing. I queued at the book signing to get his autograph and when I read what he had written, I wasn’t at all surprised.

Arohanui. I hope the people keep strong in Christchurch.

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