by Nicola Morris
I love small collections of books… a hotel shelf of books, a “free library” on the side of the street that has popped up with a tiny collection, some books left at the laundromat. Here in New Zealand I went off to the library to find some New Zealand fiction. I found shelves full of U.S. bestsellers (why was I surprised?) and a small collection of New Zealand writers. One of the pleasures is a collection of stories, Pounamu Pounamu, by Witi Ihimaera, first published in 1972. Witi Ihimaera is a Maori writer, and in his “Author’s Note” he says that he wrote the stories in response to an comment from an eminent scholar who said New Zealand “still awaited its first Maori novelist. Ihimaera writes, “that first novel came later but, meantime, I decided to get some practice by writing short stories.”
His collection draws the reader into the world of a rural Maori community as it struggles with the shift of the young people to the cities.
Reading Pounamu, Pounamu reminded me of the particular pleasure of reading novelists’ first books, and how very often they are short stories, often short stories connected by idea or place or character: Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Jazz Age, Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, John Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven all come to mind, but this could be a very long list.
Ihimaera writes that publishers questioned who would read these stories because they were about Maori people. “Maori,” he replied, but it took a while for him to find a publisher. Now, when he reads these stories he sees “how important Pounamu Pounamu was in providing blue prints for the novels” and he notes the relationship between his story, “The Whale,” and his novel The Whale Rider, later made into a compelling movie.
From these stories full of emotion and details that convey the flavor and tensions of Maori life on the East Coast of North Island I found much to learn about New Zealand and much to learn about writing.