50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Patricia Grace
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.
Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.
Potiki by Patricia Grace (Penguin)
New Zealand Book Award 1987
Patricia Grace writes:
The novel Potiki started out as a short story. At the time of writing my husband and son were both being tutored in carving and I became interested in the process. On the completion of the story of the carver, which eventually became the prologue, I began to think about the people to whom the new house belonged. The characters came out one by one, beginning with Roimata. I had no storyline in mind and just allowed the story to develop character by character, chapter by chapter. Gradually the ancient story of Maui Tikitiki a Taranga became a guiding influence, though this may not be obvious to many readers.
Excerpt from Potiki (Penguin, 1986)
From the centre,
From the nothing,
Of not seen,
Of not heard,
And a creeping forward,
To an outer circle,
Of breath –
There was once a carver who spent a lifetime with wood, seeking out and exposing the figures that were hidden there. These eccentric or brave, dour, whimsical, crafty, beguiling, tormenting, tormented or loving figures developed first in the forests, in the tree wombs, but depended on the master with his karakia and his tools, his mind and his heart, his breath and his strangeness to bring them to other birth.
……..The tree, after a lifetime of fruiting, has, after its first death, a further fruiting at the hands of a master.
……..This does not mean that the man is master of the tree. Nor is he master of what eventually comes from his hands. He is master only of the skills that bring forward what was already waiting in the womb that is a tree – a tree that may have spent further time as a house or classroom, or a bridge or pier. Or further time could have been spent floating on the sea or river, or sucked into a swamp, or stopping a bank, or sprawled on a beach bleaching among the sand, stones and sun.
……..It is as though a child brings about the birth of a parent because that which comes from under the master’s hand is older than he is, is already ancient.
……..When the carver dies he leaves behind him a house for the people. He leaves also, part of himself – shavings of heart and being, hunger and anger, love, mischief, hope, desire, elation or despair. He has given the people himself, and he has given the people his ancestors and their own.
……..And these ancestors come to the people with large heads that may be round or square, pointed or egg-shaped. They have gaping mouths with protruding tongues; but sometimes the tongue is a hand or tail coming through from behind the head, or it is formed into a funnel or divided in two, the two parts pointing in different directions. There will be a reason for the type of head or tongue the figures have been given. The carved ancestors will be broad-shouldered but short in the trunk and legs, and firm-standing on their three-toed feet. Or their bodies may be long and twisting and scaly, swimmers, shaped for the river or sea.
……..After the shaping out of the heads, bodies and limbs, the carver begins to smooth the figures and then to enhance them with fine decoration. The final touch is the giving of eyes.
……..The previous life, the life within the tree womb, was a time of eyelessness, of waiting, swelling, hardening. It was a time of existing, already browed, tongued, shouldered, fingered, sexed, footed, toed, and of waiting to be shown as such. But eyeless. The spinning, dancing eyes are the final gift from the carver, but the eyes are also a gift from the sea.
……..When all is finished the people have their ancestors. They sleep at their feet, listen to their stories, call them by name, put them in songs and dances, joke with them, become their children, their slaves, their enemies, their friends.
……..In this way the ancestors are known and remembered. But the carver may not be known or remembered, except by a few. These few, those who grew up with him, or who sat at his elbow, will now and again remember him and will say, ‘Yes, yes, I remember him. He worked night and day for the people. He was a master.’ They may also add that he was a bit porangi too, or that he was a drunk, a clapmouth, a womaniser, a gambler or a bullshit artist.
……..Except that he may have been a little porangi, and that he certainly became a master, none of these words would apply to the carver of this chapter of our story. He was a humble and gentle man.
……..He was the youngest child of middle-aged parents who, because he was sickly as a baby, decided that he should not go to school.
……..Before the parents died, and when the boy was ten years old, they wrapped him in scarves and put him at the elbow of a master carver who was just at that time beginning the carvings for a new house. This man had no woman. He had no children of his own.
……..The boy sat and watched and listened and, until he was fourteen, he barely moved except to sweep shavings and smooth and polish wood.
……..Then one day the master shaped out a new mallet from a piece of rimu and carved a beaky head at the tip of the handle, and gave the head two eyes. He handed the mallet to the boy and said, ‘Unwrap yourself from the scarves, son, and begin work. Remember two things,’ he said. ‘Do not carve anyone in living memory and don’t blow on the shavings or the wood will get up and crack you.’
……..The boy let the scarves fall at his feet, and took the mallet in his hand. At the same time he felt a kicking in his groin.
……..He never went back into the scarves. He dropped them in the place where he had sat at the elbow of his tutor and never went back for them. Later in life he, in turn, became master of his craft. There was no one to match him in his skill, and many would have said also that there were none who could match him as a great storyteller and a teller of histories.
…….Near the end of his life the man was working on what he knew would be the last house he would ever carve. It was a small and quiet house and he was pleased about that. It had in it the finest work he had ever done.
……..There were no other carvers to help him with his work but the people came every day to cook and care for him, and to paint patterns and weave panels and to help in every possible way. They came especially to listen to his stories which were of living wood, his stories of the ancestors. He told also the histories of patterns and the meanings of patterns to life. He told of the effects of weather and water on wood, and told all the things he had spent a lifetime learning.
……..At the time when he was about to begin the last poupou for the new house he became ill. With the other poupou, the ones already completed, much discussion, quarrelling and planning had taken place. The people were anxious to have all aspects of their lives and ancestry represented in their new house. They wished to include all the famous ancestors which linked all people to the earth and the heavens from ancient to future times, and which told people of their relationships to light and growth, and to each other.
……..But the last poupou had not been discussed, and the people, to give honour to the man, said, ‘This one’s yours, we’ll say nothing. It’s for you to decide.’
……..The man knew that this would be the last piece of work that he would do. He knew that it would take all of his remaining strength and that in fact he would not complete the work at all.
……..‘If I don’t finish this one,’ he said, ‘it is because it cannot yet be finished, and also because I do not have the strength. You must put it in your house finished or not. There is one that I long to do but it cannot yet be completed. There is no one yet who can carry it forward for me because there is a part that is not yet known. There is no one yet who can complete it, that must be done at some future time. When it is known it will be done. And there is something else I must tell you. The part that I do, the figure that I bring out of wood, is from my own living memory. It is forbidden, but it is one that I long to do.’ The people did not speak. They could not forbid him. They went away quietly as he turned towards the workshop.
……..He decided that he would leave himself hollow for this last work, that he would not bring out this final figure with his eyes or his mind, but only with his hands and his heart. And when he spoke to the wood he only said, ‘It is the hands and the heart, these hands and this heart before they go to earth.’
……..In his old age his eyes were already weak, but he covered the workshop window to darken the room, and his hands and his heart began their work.
……..The boy at his elbow asked no questions and no one else came near.
……..After several weeks the carver pulled the cloth from the workshop window. He called the people in and told them that the top figure was done. ‘I’ll tell you the story,’ he said, ‘but the lower figure must be left to a future time, for when it is known.
……..‘This is the story of a red-eyed man, who spent his life bent in two, who had no woman and no children of his own. He procreated in wood and gave knowledge out through his elbow. At this elbow of knowledge there is a space which can be left unfilled, always, except for this pattern of scarves. It is like a gap in the memory, a blind piece in the eye, but the pattern of scarves is there.
……..‘His head is wide so that it may contain the histories and sciences of the people, and the chants and patterns, and knowledge concerning the plants and the trees. His forehead is embellished with an intricate pattern to show the status of his knowledge. His eyes are small because of the nearness of his work and because, before my time, he worked in a dim hut with a lantern at night, and worked many hours after dark.
……..‘His tongue is long and fine and swirling, the tongue of a storyteller, and his neck is short so that there is no great distance from his head to his arms. His head and his hands work as one.
……..‘The rounded back and the curve of the chest tell of his stoopiness and his devotion. The arms are short because of the closeness to his work. He has come to us with six fingers on each hand as a sign of the giftedness of his hands.
……..‘The mallet in his right hand rests on his chest, and the mallet is another beating heart.
……..‘His left hand grasps the chisel, and he holds the chisel against his pelvis. The long blade of the chisel becomes his penis thickening to the shape of a man. And this chisel-penis-man resembles himself, like a child generated in wood by the chisel, or by the penis in flesh.
……..‘The eyes of the man and the eyes of the penis-child contain all the colours of the sky and earth and sea, but the child eyes are small, as though not yet fully opened.
……..‘There is no boldening of the legs, and they are not greatly adorned, but they are strong and stand him strongly to his work. And between and below his three-toed feet there is an open place. It is the space for the lower figure, but there is none yet to fill that place. That is for a future time.
……..‘All about the man you can see the representations of his life and work, but with a place at the elbow which will remain always empty except for the pattern of scarves.
……..‘A man may become master of skills in his lifetime but when he dies he may be forgotten, especially if he does not have children of his own. I give him to you so that he will not be forgotten. Let him live in our house.
……..‘“A life for a life” could mean that you give your life to someone who has already given his to you. I was told not to give breath to wood but . . . “A life for a life” could mean that you give your life to someone who has already given you his own.’
……..When the people had gone and he had sent the boy away the carver closed the workshop door. He put his face close to the nostrils of the wood face, and blew.
……..The next morning the people lifted the poupou from off him and dressed him in fine clothes.
© Patricia Grace, 1986, published in Potiki, Penguin.
'One of writing’s greatest magics is to allow us – to use Kiri Piahana-Wong’s phrase – to slide outside the trap of time.' - David Taylor