Once Upon A Time In New Zealand…

Having started my week of indigenous writing here in Australia, I’m finishing it on the other side of the ditch in New Zealand.  Our trans-Tasman neighbours are well known for having a fairly robust multi-racial society, with the indigenous Maori population far more integrated than is the case with the Australian Aborigines.  However, things obviously aren’t quite as rosy as many would like to make out – today’s book shows that many things are (or were) rotten in the state of Aotearoa…

Once Were Warriors is an extremely popular New Zealand film, but the fact that it was originally a book is probably less known.  Alan Duff’s novel is a searing exposé of the myth of racial harmony in New Zealand, portraying the life of the Maori underclass in a small regional town.  From first page to last, it grips the reader, pushing them into places they would rather not go, making them wonder what exactly has hapepned to a proud race of people.

The story centres on the Heke family, typical inhabitants of the town of Two Lakes.  Jake is the father, a feared fighter, a constant drinker and a threat to friends, foes and family members alike.  His wife Beth sleepwalks through her days, living only for her kids and wishing she could summon up the courage to take the first steps towards improving her life.  Together the Hekes have six children of various ages, exposed to the misery of growing up in an area rife with drugs, violence and chronic unemployment – and not all of them will make it through the book unscathed…

The story is told through the eyes of several of the family members, primarily Jake, Beth and elder daughter Grace, and each of the voices is unique and shattering, rough and wild.  At times, the language verges on steam-of-consciousness, deteriorating as the level of drunkenness increases, almost Joycean in its beauty and impenetrability.  In fact, one particular chapter, a thirty-page chunk which largely takes place in a bar, is as breath-taking in its own way as anything you’ll find in Ulysses – but a lot more violent…

What comes across in the book’s 200 pages is a picture of a society in ruins, a people with no hope, cast into a permanent cycle of unemployment and debt.  The streets of Two Lakes are home to casual, sickening violence, making it a very bad place to be if you’re not a fighter.  It’s not that there is any personal malice or bad blood – it’s simply that the suppressed rage of living a life without prospects needs to be released somehow.  Jake and his friends just need to lash out at someone, anyone…

With no work, and little prospect of any, people spend their days wasting what little money they have on cigarettes and alcohol, unwilling and unable to put a little aside in the vain hope of improving circumstances.  In the first chapter, Beth makes the staggering discovery that her house is bookless, with not a single real book to be found from top to bottom – a symbol of the hopelessness of her situation.  The only other place the locals can look to restore their pride is their heritage, but the reality is that this new suburban underclass has lost its ties to its tradition.  When they left their villages, they abandoned their culture and their language, and now they are caught in a no-man’s land, stranded between the Maori society they have voluntarily left and the white culture they will never be a part of.

Last year I read Witi Ihimaera’s The Rope of Man, two collected novels which also dealt with the issue of Maori tradition and the importance of keeping a hold of it in modern society, but where Ihimaera’s work was largely positive, Once Were Warriors is savage in its negativity.  It’s over twenty years old now, so perhaps things have improved in New Zealand, but if this is (or was) a reflection of reality, it’s a sobering one.

A book Once Were Warriors frequently reminded me of was Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, another look at a post-colonial society struggling to achieve equality.  While the oppressors have gone home in Ireland (at least in most of it…), they have left behind a similar legacy to the one portrayed by Duff, that of an ethnic group which is struggling to keep up its own language and culture.  Paula Spencer’s troubles stem less from ethnic than social issues, but the end result is the same – frequent, unmerited beatings…

One path to take out of the mess is to embrace the violence and join one of the local gangs, a choice one of Jake’s sons decides to make.  The gangs are a law unto themselves and represent a substitute for the traditional extended Maori family.  However, there is always another – a better – path to take, and that is to return to traditional values and embrace the past.  By working as a community, the individuals can take strength from shared numbers, and by the end of the novel, this seems to be the path Duff is suggesting his people take.

Another point which comes across in the book is that Duff lays the blame for his people’s decline squarely on the shoulders of the Maoris themselves.  Despite the disadvantages that the indigenous population faces in a white-dominated society, the writer refuses to take the easy way out and blame the Pakeha (Europeans) for Maori problems.  In fact, in the glimpse we get of Jake’s family history, and the issues he and his ancestors faced, it’s clear that the Maoris, in their own way, are just as guilty of discrimination as the Pakeha …

Once Were Warriors is a book I would recommend to anyone, a biting critique of a people at a turning point, a proud race at rock bottom, trying to find their way back to old glories.  Duff insists that this is to be found in a greater sense of community and a return to traditional cultural values – and it’s hard to disagree.  One of the enduring images of the book is the passion and energy shown when those Maoris who have retained the ties to their culture sing, dance and mourn.  The city-bred Maoris can only stand and wonder as their distant relatives show them the way out of their miserable lives:

“On and on and on, a reincarnation of what was, a resurgence of fierce pride, a come-again of a people who once were warriors.”  p.127, UQP (1991)
As Jake finds out the hard way, being a warrior is about more than just fighting…

7 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time In New Zealand…

  1. A great review Tony of a very important piece of writing in New Zealand. It is brutally honest about a sad and violent life style that does exist in our communities. However this is just one perspective. There are many who are seizing the opportunities presented and yes Witi Ihimaera's writing reflects his experiences. I guess this is what this Indigenous Reading Week is all about.


  2. Thanks Helen 🙂 I agree that there are many views, and that not all Maoris will have this sort of existence, but I thought this book was particularly interesting as we have a bit of a rose-tinted view of Maoris from abroad. 'Once Were Warriors' shows us that NZ has racial issues, just like any country.


  3. A great review, Tony. This is one of my all-time favourite books — I read it YEARS ago — but whenever I mention it to anyone they look at me blankly. No one even seems to know the film, which, by the way, is terrific and slightly more optimistic than the book.

    Sadly, the author seems to have got himself into trouble recently… I believe he declared himself bankrupt last year.


  4. Kim – The film is very famous here in Oz; not surprised though that it's not so well known over in England. I still haven't seen it, but I'd like to 🙂


  5. It's an AMAZING film, Tony. I saw it at the cinema when it was released and bought the VHS video (!!) when it became available. The acting in it is incredibly powerful — and often violent. But this one really made an impression on me…


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