50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Witi Ihimaera

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.





The Matriarch by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin) | Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards 1986


Witi Ihimaera writes:

When I was writing The Matriarch (1986, Penguin) I was thinking at a different level of consciousness. After all, ten years had passed since I had written my last book, The New Net Goes Fishing, published in 1977. A lot had happened in New Zealand politics as well as my own, including the 1981 Springbok Tour which saw the country at war.

During that decade I had endorsed postcolonialism and postmodernism, in particular metafiction as a literary form. But although the Orestaia was the classical analogue for the novel, The Matriarch’s mainframe was Maori sovereignty. It was my wero, my challenge, my dart placed in the ground. The book openly challenged any sanction of the Treaty process. It repudiated the assimilationist policies of Government and the continued alienation of Maori land. And in writing it, I was able to affirm the role of women as a force in changing the world.

The Matriarch won first place in the Wattie Book of the Year Award in 1986 and placed as runner-up for the inaugural Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1987. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood was also up for the Commonwealth Prize for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as well as Ben Okri for Incidents at the Shrine (1986). The winner was Olive Senior, Jamaica, for Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1986).

I rewrote The Matriarch as a redux edition, adding some 150 pages or so, published in 2009. The Dream Swimmer (1997) is a sequel.


 Extract from The Matriarch (Penguin)



She Is Artemis




Wellington, 1949

La luce langue, il faro spegnesi

Ch’eterno corre per gli ampi ceili!

Notte desiata, provvida veli

La man colpevole che ferira.


Light weakens, and the beacon

That eternally courses the far-flung heavens is spent.

O desired night, you providentially veil

The guilty hand which is going to strike the blow.


“So be it,” Riripeti said.

She pulled her dark veil down and over her face.

On the forecourt of Parliament, the Prime Minister, chiefs of Maoridom and all who were gathered there looked up into the sky, crying out in alarm. The clouds were joining across what had once been a brief space of sunlit sky, like viscous liquid poured, spreading and streaming into the blue gap of air. It was as if Ranginui, the Sky Father, so long separated from Papatuanuku, had finally wrenched free of his heavenly imprisonment and wished to embrace the Earth Mother again. With relentless power he descended, blotting out the sun in his inevitable embrace of earth.

“Grandmother,” the child cried out.

Like everyone else he was afraid. He felt the warmth withdrawing, and the light being sucked away, as the moon slowly began to bite into the edge of the sun. He looked up and saw the black cutting edge across the sun’s glowing face, and tears sprang to his eyes because the light was still blinding in its intensity. He averted his gaze a moment. He heard people screaming, even members of the ope, the group which had come with Riripeti. Through his blurring vision he looked at the group.

They were all staring into the sky. Only Tiana’s face was averted from the sun and, for a brief moment, the child saw his mother looking across at him. Her face was expressionless, immobile, yet it had intensity in the gaze. Then the child saw his mother’s eyes shift, almost imperceptibly, to the matriarch. Her responding glance was autocratic and triumphant.

The light lessening, lessening. The black disc of the moon closed like a gate on the sun. The pearls in Riripeti’s hair began to change colour. The lustrous pale of the pearls became drenched with blood.

The child looked up into the sky again. The sun was almost out now, but around the black hole where it’s light had been was a bright circlet of light and, from it, there erupted bursts of flame, spectacular, wondrous, curling into the black universe.

The clouds were completely joined, and the upstaring faces and the marae itself were bathed in a wan light. The sun seemed to stand in blackness for eternity. There it shone, a beacon smothered by the clouds, still, forbidding, angry, with its corona of fire. It was like looking through a piece of smoked glass. The effect was powerful and brooding.

Riripeti looked across at the elders where they sat on the paepae. She nodded at them. She inclined her head to the Prime Minister.

“So it is done,” she said. The crowd on the marae was still in a state of alarm. Some were crying out to her.

Then the child saw that the pearls in her hair were changing again, assuming their usual sheen. Whatever was happening would soon be over. Alert, he listened as Riripeti called to the ope and pulled them together with her presence.

“It will soon be time for us to reply to the speeches of welcome,” she said. “When the sun comes, I want us to be ready. As soon as the fullness of the light returns, I will give the sign, and our first speaker will begin.”

The sun, black and awesome. Then, gradually, the moon moved away from the sun’s face and the intensity of the light increased, ever increased, and, as it did so, Riripeti lifted the black veil from her face. The clouds opened. The sun hurled its light like a hammer to the earth. Ranginui, the Sky Father, returned to the heavens. Riripeti seemed to blaze on the marae.

(“Well,” the journalist said, “the sun going out like that was a brilliant coup de theatre, and Artemis’s sense of timing was absolutely impeccable. What a flamboyant trickster she was, such a charlatan, such a sorceress! I’m sorry if you object to my using those terms but, after all, you can’t believe that it was she who made the sun go out. It was a total eclipse, of course, and it lasted about seven and a half minutes, maybe less. I’d read that it was going to occur but I had forgotten the timing of the event. So had most other people. Your grandmother, clever woman as she was, must have known about it all the time. There is no other explanation. She certainly used it to her advantage, my oath she did.

“Oh, the pandemonium when it happened. I’ve not been one to believe in witchcraft and all that, but when that sun started to go out I was struck with fear. Of course it didn’t take me long to realise what was happening. Artemis knew all along. Later, after the welcomes were over, Timoti and some other elders in the paepae refused to have anything to do with her. They were apoplectic with rage. But one of them, I think his name was Whai, roared with laughter and complimented her. “Legends will be woven of this day when the Matua made the sun go out.”

She had beaten them all, you see. But more was to follow -)

With the return of the sun, the mood on the forecourt do Parliament turned to elation. Smiling, Riripeti turned to Grandfather Ihaka, “Come, let us start out replies to the speeches of welcome which have been given to us. Let us be the best that anyone has seen or heard.”

She motioned him forward. “Kia hiwa ra! Kia hiwa ra!’ Grandfather Ihaka began. “Be careful. Be wakeful. Ka moe ararara ki te Matthias tuna…You have to stay awake to catch eels. You have to stay awake to catch a war party -”

His speech was taunting. It brought images of sentries patrolling the stepped terraces of an ancient hill forts in the red light of dawn.

“- Ka tiritiria, ka reareaia a tama tu ki tona hiwa ra. Scatter, rise up, stand in your places. Kia hiwa ra. Be watchful. Be wakeful. Be alert on this terrace. Be alert on that terrace, or someone will wound you and make you bleed -”

He patterns the ground like a sentry, springing back and forth, swaying, probing, seeking out the enemy on the horizon.

“-Papaki tu ana te tai ki Te Reinga. The tide is beating to Te Re Reinga. Eke pa Nuku. Eke Tangaroa. Hui e…taiki e.”

On the last words, the ope and the people gathered on Parliament Grounds joined in a huge shout of acclamation. “Taiki e!”

(“Your speakers were superb,” the journalist said. “I understand that your grandfather was the first speaker. The second was Tamatea Kota, the priest who was known as Artemis’s Left Hand of God. The third was your father, Te Ariki. From all accounts, they were so proficient that everyone kept on roaring with the pleasure of their imagery and wit. As you know, I can’t fully understand your language, but I can gauge when a good show is put on. Your speakers had the crowd with them all the way. Oh, they were so glorious to listen to, and to watch. They made references to genealogy and land and everything they said was appropriate and correct. The old man near me, well, his eyes were gleaming with the pleasure of it all. “I haven’t seen or heard such a fine display of oratory for years,” he said. One after another, your speakers followed upon each other, representatives from Te Whanau A Kai, Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga A Mahaki. It was just brilliant. Then it appeared as if the last speaker had spoken.”)

The excitement on Parliament Grounds had reached fever pitch.

“You have all done well,” Riripeti said. “Our mana has been sustained. Kei te pai. Ka nui te honours kua homai ki au. It is a great honour to serve you.”

But the iwi knew that the Matua was still angry at the slight done to her.

“Now it is my turn,” she said.

Instantly, there was a murmur in the ope.

“No, don’t do it,” Grandfather Ihaka said. “The Prime Minister, chiefs of Maoridom and the tangata whenua await us.”

“Haere mai koutou ki te ruru,” came the call.

(Well, you know,” the journalist said, “we thought it was all over. Everything seemed to be calm enough. People started to chatter among themselves again and to talk over the events of the welcome. You know, to relax.”)

“Don’t do it, no, don’t,” Grandfather Ihaka said again.

(The elders in the paepae called Artemis and your people over to meet in the hongi. But your grandmother didn’t move. And Timoti began to get angry again. “No, she wouldn’t do it, she’s a woman, she wouldn’t dare.” Everywhere, conversation began to fade, and silence fell. It was quite uncanny.”)

Riripeti turned swiftly to the child. “Listen, mokopuna, listen to me. This is a very dangerous and difficult course that I am embarked upon, but it must be done. Do you think the chiefs of Maoridom will let me say what our iwi has come here to say when this is the last day of the hui? No, I have to speak now, while our people still hold the ground.”

(You know your customs better than I do,” the journalist said. “Oh yes, the role of women must be difficult in your society. I must say that I felt an immense respect for Artemis.”)

“Mokopuna, you must pray for me. For while I have done what I am going to do in my own land, I have not done it outside the home ground. There may well be a price to pay.”

“Haere mai, haere mai,” the call from the tangata whenua echoed across the iwi again. One second, then another went past.

The child heard his grandmother’s bracelets tinkling like oriental wind chimes as she gripped her walking stick.

“No, don’t,” Grandfather Ihaka said for the third time.

Her knuckles went white as she pressed on the walking stick. Her long black gown rustled and swept into the wind. The pearls in her hair were shivering like drops of water on a web.

“Te Whanau A Kai hei panapana maro,” she said. “Our people never retreat, whether they be men or women.”

There was a roar of anger, like a whirlwind, as Riripeti levered herself to stand on the marae, her body climbing higher and higher against the backdrop of the sky.




© Witi Ihimaera, 1986, published in The Matriarch, Penguin.

'...we were there as faith-based writers, as believers in the mana of Oceania...' - David Eggleton

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