New Zealand: cultural values

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)

10 responses

  1. A very sensitive review, well done and thank you. I guess my hesitation in recommending “Once Were Warriors”, despite having loved the book myself, was due to that fear that it could be perceived as a definitive political statement about the position of Māori in contemporary New Zealand society.

    When the movie adaptation came out in the 90s, for example, I felt that that was what precisely what happened. Worse than that, many people held Jake up as a hero. In fact, a number of lines from the movie have achieved a level of infamy in New Zealand over the years, thanks to the boys and men, and even some women, who will quote them back to each other in a warped display of humour.

    This upset me not least because, as you rightly pointed out, the takeaway message of the BOOK at least, was precisely the opposite: it was a heartfelt argument, albeit on controversial terms, to look deep within ourselves as a culture and to reclaim our lost treasures.

    However, I should thank you because your review showed me that a) I can trust the book to stand on its own merits. It is NOT the movie, a poor cousin in fact (aren’t they always!), with ample room in which to convey the subtleties of its vital message. A message which for me at least, is as much about the far reaching consequences of colonisation as anything else. Long after the wars and laws have been fought and laid down, we hear the echoes down through the generations. And therefore in some way, we are all responsible. It is an issue for ALL of us. And b) I can trust readers, to be able to read and hear for themselves, as you have so eloquently displayed.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I’m really glad that you took the time to explain your hesitation in recommending it. All very insightful points.

      I know very well that feeling of cherishing a book to the point where you want to protect it from clumsy interpretations. And I’m very glad you went ahead and suggested it anyway.

  2. Hello there again! I’ve just finished re-reading Once Were Warriors and wanted to congratulate you again on your review – it’s even better and more articulate/accurate than I previously appreciated.

    This time around I found Once Were Warriors so very difficult to stomach. I felt as though Duff was on a simple mission to horrify and disgust, it felt like a political statement in the extreme. I had to keep reminding myself it was written in 1990, twenty years ago (and set even earlier than that, in the 80s). The segregation implied in Once Were Warriors, doesn’t exist now, like it did then. The society it depicts, is not the same society we live in now.

    Or is it?

    Or am I simply responding to the political correctness of MY era which prevents us, rightly so, from labeling particular social ills (alcoholism, poverty, child abuse) a “race” or cultural issue.

    Because that’s what jarred with me: an apparently deliberate attempt by Duff to make these issues the sole domain of Māori, i.e. bordering on racist (criticisms he would have deflected on account of being Māori, of course).

    And then, by extension, to ignore the impact of those historical, legislative and political factors that, to a large extent, have ensured that Māori would always have lesser opportunities to succeed in a Pākeha-dominated world. Instead, there is this constant sense that responsibility and blame rests solely with Māori when in reality, things are never that black and white.

    It left me quite angry actually – and re-reading your review helped me to regain some sympathy for it!

    On another note, isn’t it so weird that the same book can have such different reactions in the same person with the passing of years! Perhaps I’ll read it again in another decade, and check back in then too 😉

    • Thanks so much for your comment – I really appreciate your taking the time to write so fully about the experience of re-reading. And I’m very glad that you found my take on the book useful. It’s a very interesting point about the effect a book can have on us at different stages in our lives. Perhaps if I read the world again in a few years my experience would be quite different!

      Do please keep checking back and letting me know how your responses change.

      • indeed… I am on a bit of a mission to re-read my top ten or so books of all time, just to see if they’re worthy of still being there. I have a feeling that a number will lose their lofty perch… though I do think re-reading is a little bit indulgent in this day and age, what with so many new books piling up waiting for our attention. If only I could read at your pace… I could barely keep up with your reviews let alone whole books…!

      • “… though I do think re-reading is a little bit indulgent in this day and age, what with so many new books piling up waiting for our attention.”

        Really? If re-reading is indulgent, then what is the point of buying books at all? That just turns them into disposable goods…

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