I’m a girl who likes a challenge. So when Nadine stopped by the blog to share her thoughts on what my NZ choice should be, I couldn’t help but be struck by what she had to say. One comment in particular caught my eye:

‘Of course many might say the New Zealand book to read is “Once Were Warriors” by Alan Duff. It was made into a chilling film in the mid-nineties that had a ripple effect on the country that we still feel today. And for all of that the film wasn’t a patch on the book, written in a kind of vernacular. But if you read Once Were Warriors, you would have to read “Tangi”, by Witi Ihimaera (of Whale Rider fame) lest you be left with a completely skewed impression of our indigenous heritage.’

Nadine’s words made me think of several things: she reminded me of the dilemmas I’ve had choosing books from countries that are home to several cultural communities and what this has taught me about the short-sightedness of thinking that one book can speak for an entire group, let alone a nation. She also made me curious: what was it about Once Were Warriors that might skew my perception of Maori culture? And why had this book and film had such a profound effect on New Zealand society? At the risk of permanently warping my perception of the nation’s heritage, I was going to have to take a look.

Set on the grim council estate of Pine Block, Once Were Warriors follows Beth and Jake Heke and their children as they lurch from crisis to crisis. Alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, unemployment and crime are all facts of life in their urban Maori community, where books are non-existent and most teenage boys’ highest aspirations are to be accepted into the brutal Brown Fists gang. Yet, as Beth discovers when overwhelming catastrophe strikes, the greatest enemy she and her peers are up against could be themselves.

Alan Duff is a master of the thousand ways we humans have of justifying our failings to ourselves. Writing in a roaming monologue, which flows in and out of the thoughts of each of the Heke family, he lays bare the contradictions, self-delusions and false promises by which the characters navigate through their days. We see Beth repeatedly touching her bruised face to reassure herself that she couldn’t have made it to her son’s court hearing and Jake telling himself that he is interested in far more things than sport and violence, ‘though he couldn’t name specifics’, while their eldest son Nig begins to learn the same process of compartmentalising emotions his parents have used for years so as to be able to present the steely front demanded of local gang members.

Each locked in the lonely labyrinth of his or her own narrative, the Heke family members grope desperately for something to allow them to connect with one another and the world. They and their neighbours seek it in the blur of alcohol, the rush of fighting – ‘the only taste of victory they get from life’ – and clumsy physical encounters.

Maori heritage presents a possibility for bonding too. Yet the urban group’s grasp of it is weak and slanted – fixated on the physical prowess of previous generations and devoid of the celebration of legends, rituals and culture that binds the community in the town where Beth grew up. Intimidated by the Maori language that they cannot speak and practices they do not understand, the Pine Blockers are a lost tribe, for whom cultural background is little more than a further justification for the cycle of abuse and disadvantage in which they remain – until Beth is forced to explore what it might take for this to change.

It’s easy to see why this book was made into a film: Duff is great at raising the stakes and racking up the tension, and the episodic style of the narrative already reads like a series of scenes. At times, this cutting in and out of events can feel a little abrupt, with certain key episodes glossed over or skipped out altogether, so that you have the disconcerting feeling of being in a lift whisking past the floor you expected to stop at. I also wasn’t convinced by the star-gazer who appears at a couple of key points in the narrative, presumably to put events into a sort of cosmic context.

But these are little things. On the whole, this is a powerful and thought-provoking book. Far from being a negative account of indigenous New Zealand cultural groups, it is a passionate argument for engaging with and cherishing that heritage. It is essentially a story about identity and the stagnation that sets in when people are cut off from their roots – a theme that resonates all over the world.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (Vintage, 1995)

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