So today’s the last day of Diversiverse, at least where I am, and I thought I’d quickly get in at least one of the posts I had planned for it.
Mutuwhenua is one of the first novels published by Patricia Grace, New Zealand’s first female Maori writer to ever be published. I actually read this one awhile back, but it’s one of those deceptively simple stories that manage to resonate loudly long after you’ve finished it.
The power of this story is in the narration. It has a quiet, rhythmic tone to it that is almost soothing as you read. It is not a plot-driven story, it’s a character-driven one, and if you were to go in expecting the former you would be disappointed. The prose glides along in smooth waves, and it’s easy to sink into. It’s as if you’re being told the story by mouth. It conveys the melodic beat and rhythmic repetitions of a good conversation.
It’s a coming of age story about Linda, a young Maori girl growing up in New Zealand. But unlike other coming-of-age stories what I appreciated in this one was that Linda doesn’t enter a storm of “MUST BE AGAINST EVERYTHING MY PARENTS STAND FOR” in order to establish her individual identity. Yes, she does try to distance herself from them, and make an attempt at differentiating herself, but there is still an element of respect in there between Linda and her parents which I really appreciated.
As a young girl, she feels confined, acutely aware of the image that she can’t escape, as a young Maori girl. She comes to the harsh realization that there is a gap between herself and her European school mates.
“I was glad of the excuse, that last day of primary school, to run off without saying goodbye. Running home over the hills that afternoon I realised I was going towards the only place in the world that I knew. I was glad that afternoon of the excuse to cry and stamp my feet and blame my mother for everything.” (p. 24)
It’s heart-wrenching observing Linda reaching this realization. This fear clearly travels with her into adulthood, paralysing her whenever she feels she might allow Graeme, the young man she grows to have feelings for, access to the inner circles of her life.
My favourite part was her relationship with her family. As I’ve already said, it was refreshing to see a bildungsroman rooted in cultural identity depict a young protagonist who is willing to respect their family, and the elders in their life. Grace shows that it’s possible to assert your individuality while showing respect for your family and culture, and while acknowledging that you’re part of a bigger whole. It’s not an easy journey, but an important one.
“There was no light at all, it being the night of Mutuwhenua, when the moon is hidden, when the moon goes underground to sleep. And in the darkness my thoughts were a confusion, thinking of what the old lady had said to me, thinking of my father and of what the past had given me and of what the future held.” (p. 75)
Grace’s stories are very much about the daily life, but her writing is such that the ordinary ends up becoming the extraordinary. As a piece of realistic fiction, it’s a great read, and an important one, not least because it’s by one of New Zealand’s first female Maori writers.