Monday 9 May 2022



An interview with WHITI HEREAKA

Stella: The first striking element that readers will notice with this novel is the structure — the two starting points and the intersection of these visually in the book. The two parts are distinct, although intricately related, and have their own tone. Why did you decide to approach your novel in this manner?


Whiti: I think I spent a long time fighting against the structure that this novel finally took on — I tried very hard to write it as a lineal, chronological story! But the story presented in that way was always lacking to me. While I was trying to force it into a “normal” structure it had already separated into the different strands of the story for me — part of my struggle when I was trying to make it into a lineal story was to make the different parts of the book sit together. So this approach solved some of those problems which is great! But really this structure came about because I wanted the novel to read like how a pūrākau would be told — I worked on the rhythms of English so it would read like Te Reo Māori, and I was very well supported by the editors at Huia to do this.


Time and the experience of deep time was also important to me — a creature like Kurangaituku wouldn’t experience time in the same way we do, so I wanted to replicate that in her story. I wrote Legacy while I had put this novel on hold, and I think you can see me figuring out time loops and how to use structure as a vital storytelling component in that novel.


I also wanted to push myself as a writer and because I’ve written across genre and forms I’m interested in how far you can push a novel, I’m interested in the experience of reading a novel and how that experience is unique to the form.


It was also cool! I think ye olde thespian in me is still wanting to put on a show, to put bums on seats — and I think there’s a sort of delight in turning the book when Kurangaituku’s world is overturned, in seeing the story strands weaving together. Again, I have to thank the design team at Huia for taking my outlandish plans and making them work beautifully (in the mechanical sense and the aesthetic!)


: I was struck by Kurangaituku's curiosity and circumspect attitude towards humans. It reminded me of Max Porter's Papa Toothwort character in Lanny — listening in and watching — both standing outside of the action, but wanting to be noticed. Does Kurangaituku desire legitimacy or a place to stand, to be recognised as worthwhile? And do think wahine Maori have this same concern?


Whiti: Oh, I don’t know if I can presume the desires of Kurangaituku nor those of wāhine Māori! I don’t think either need to seek legitimacy or recognition from anyone — they are inherently so. I think what is important to Kurangaituku and Māori is story sovereignty, hell, sovereignty full stop — but that is a much bigger conversation. I think it is important for people to be able to tell their own stories in their own ways — and I think it is helpful for readers to read stories that are told from their cultural view point (and for those not of the culture to spend a bit of time in those stories too.)


: This is a visceral novel full of passion and anger. What is the role of literature in confronting violence?


Whiti: I think literature should both reflect the world and comment on it — at least, I hope that’s what I do in my mahi.


I think the violence in Kurangaituku both in the action and the character is shown to be ultimately hollow and toxic. Without giving too much away, some of the most gory scenes the violence amounts to nothing and the actors playing out the violence are stuck in a loop — nothing changes because of the violence, it is a useless waste of energy. Often when Kurangaituku herself uses violence, it frustrates her efforts to get what she wants.


I think the anger of Kurangaituku is different from her violence because it is creative — her anger spurs her exploration and her need to tell her story.


: Kuranagituku is a feminist retelling. Do you see yourself as exploring similar territory as Angela Carter in her Bloody Chamber stories and the more recent wave of feminist retellings of Greek myths? And do you feel a responsibility to articulate these often silenced voices? 


Whiti: Wow — I don’t think I can dare to say my name and Angela Carter in the same breath . Angela Carter! While I think Kurangaituku is a feminist retelling, I think more importantly it is an attempt at a decolonised retelling. Because the only place where the women’s voices in pūrākau have been silenced are in the retellings that originated with British ethnologists that published our stories and put their own patriarchal lens on them. It is unfortunate that those retellings of our stories have become those that we are most familiar with.

Being a Māori writer means always having the responsibility of articulating the voices of a community, whether I intend to do that or not! No matter what my work is there will always be the question about how that reflects on Te Ao Māori as a whole. I try my best and I’ll often get is wrong, because it is impossible for one person to speak for the multitudes of people from a community. In this retelling of Kurangaituku and in the retellings in Pūrākau, I hope we are moving away from the idea of a “definitive” telling. My novel is one of the stories told about Kurangaituku — it is one strand of many and I hope that the rope that it is a ply of will become thicker and stronger. Because a strong rope can slow even the sun.

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