The Interview – Patricia Grace
Patricia Grace was born in Wellington in 1937. She was teaching and raising a family when she began entering her work in competitions with local newspapers. Her first novel, Mutuwhenua, (1978) was the first novel ever published by a Māori woman writer.
She has published a number of influential and acclaimed story collections and novels that explore Māori experience, both historical and contemporary, and her work has been widely published, translated and anthologised.
Her numerous honours include the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2006, and Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) for her services to literature in 2007. Patricia lives with her whanau in Plimmerton on her ancestral land of Ngāti Toa, near her home marae at Hongoeka Bay.
This interview with Adam Dudding took place in April and May 2016, when Patricia’s seventh novel, Chappy, was a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
When did you realise you were a writer?
I’d always been interested in writing without really knowing what real invented writing was. From a young age I liked the act of writing, which might mean copying words or sentences from books or advertisements, or trying to write letters when my mother was writing letters. At school we copied sentences from a blackboard on to our slates. I enjoyed that but I never thought of making stories from my own experiences.
We weren’t encouraged in that either. We were given topics from textbooks from England to write about, so if we had a topic like a ‘walk in the forest’ I would write about forests I’d never been in that had brooks and bluebells in them. It seemed to be what was expected of us.
What I wrote was all from my reading, and my reading was from things like the Weetbix packet, Sergeant Dan the Creamoata Man ads, Chicks’ Own and other comics, and Whitcombe and Tombs primers which were our school readers. If given a topic like ‘A day at the seaside’ I’d write about ‘seasides’ – with the little stripy tents I’d seen in comics where you went in and changed into your bathing costumes. It never occurred to me to write about the beach where I swam and played daily in the summer holidays. I was using words in my little ‘essays’ – we had them once a week – that I’d never heard spoken, like ‘bathing costumes’, ‘meadows’, ‘briny’ – all those kinds of words. We might have heard the word ‘forest’, but we’d usually referred to our own forest as the bush. Real forests, to my understanding, were inhabited by wolves, foxes, woodcutters and all kinds of magic animals.
Who are the writers who influenced your writing, or informed your decision to be a writer in the first place?
So, in the early days I didn’t know what real creative writing was. I thought it was just imitating what had been read. I don’t know – trying to write a new Conan Doyle-type mystery, cobblestone streets, or something like that. That was until I came across writing by New Zealand writers, which was very late – after I’d left secondary school. I started to hear the New Zealand voice in literature and to understand that real writing is writing that comes from your self – your dreams, imaginings, emotions, dreads, desires, perceptions – what you know. Part of what you know comes from the research that you do.
Those early influences were people like Frank Sargeson and Katherine Mansfield. I started to experience the New Zealand settings, hear the New Zealand voice in what I was reading for the first time, and then when I came across the writing of Amelia Batistich, a New Zealander of Dalmatian origins, I thought well, this is a different New Zealand voice. It started to click with me that I might have my own voice too. The penny dropped rather late for me.
As well as Batistich there were all the Maurices [Gee, Shadbolt, Duggan], as well as writers like Dan Davin, Robin Hyde, Ruth Park, Ian Cross, Marilyn Duckworth, Janet Frame. All added to my enlightenment and to the realisation that I would have a voice of my own. I knew also that there were people who I could write about, or characters I could invent, based on people I knew, who hadn’t really been written about before. There were stories about them, but not written ones.
How old were you?
Early 20s. I was waking up to what writing was during my teachers’ college days, and after that.
In 1975 you became the first Māori woman to publish a collection of short stories. Apart from the absence of role models and predecessors, and the fact that you’d been raised on brooks and meadows, did you encounter specific barriers that you mightn’t have if you’d been Pakeha, or male, or both?
I wasn’t aware of any. I think the time was just right for myself and for people like Witi Ihimaera and Hone Tuwhare. The real pioneers were JC Sturm, Rowley Habib, Arapera Blank, Rose Denness and Mason Durie and those writers I had started to see published in the journal of the Māori Affairs Department, Te Ao Hou.
But I have to say that once I understood what writing was all about, the real influences were the people around me – parents and brother, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents of the extended family. It was not so much because of the anecdotes they told but because of who they were, what they did, what they said and how, and how they interacted with each other, how we all interacted. My parents delivered some very intriguing one-liners which fired the imagination, such as: ‘You know, you had an uncle who rode on a whale.’ Or, ‘Your great-great-grandfather had two rows of teeth, top and bottom, and he used them when he climbed ships’ masts.’ Later, my husband’s family were also influential – great storytellers, great orators.
Once you’d found your voice, which parts of the writing life did you find you loved, and which were just a slog?
The slog is getting from the beginning to the end. The good part is going back and sorting everything out and doing the editing. That’s the part I really enjoy – knowing that everything is almost there and that I can get to work and rearrange or refine. I could go on doing that forever – you have to call a stop to it somewhere along the line.
I also love the research. I never used to do much research in the early days but in my more recent novels there’s been quite a lot. I probably do much more than I need to do, but doing much more than you need probably helps put everything in a fuller context.
I really love it when I’m writing and you get these areas when everything flows. That’s a good feeling. But I also don’t mind the struggle. Sometimes I have to put something aside because it’s not working and then I have it on my mind and stay awake at night working it all out. When I do work it out it’s satisfying.
I have a confidence now that I didn’t have in the early days, when I’d sometimes think ‘This is too terrible. I’m never going to be able to do this.’ I never feel like that now. I know there’s always going to be a way, or that you can just chuck something out if it’s too annoying. That’s a solution as well.
I’ve heard you say you’re not very technologically minded, but did the availability of computers from the 1980s on change that editing process that you enjoy so much?
Yes, though because I wasn’t brought up with computers I still always start off with handwriting, then I go on to the computer. It’s a wonderful tool.
I started using a computer when I was writing Potiki (1986) I think. I wrote it all in longhand, and I cut it up and stuck it back together with sellotape – the real cut and paste – and then typed it up on my Brother portable typewriter. I think I put it on to computer when I took up the fellowship at Victoria University in 1985 and there was a computer available to me. Vic Uni has the manuscript in its archive. They displayed a few pages of it, I think it was in 2012 or 2013. It was all handwritten on the back of old computer paper, and one of the pages they decided to show had a bit of a shopping reminder scribbled on one corner. It was after the publishing of Potiki that I was given a computer by Digital Equipment. They were giving away a computer each year as a way of supporting the arts. They’d given one to Tom Scott the year before and asked him to recommend someone. He recommended me. We’d never met but I was grateful.
Some of your most enjoyable writing is your dialogue, especially passages where you capture numerous people talking at once. I’m thinking the guys in the pub betting on horses in ‘Dream’ [Waiariki] or the kids playing bullrush in ‘Kepa’ [The Dream Sleepers]. Can you talk a little about how you capture that stuff? Are you scribbling on your shirt sleeve or pulling out a tape recorder? Do you just have a great memory? Where does all that talk come from?
I find dialogue the easiest of all, something that just flows. It comes from my own experience of being a kid, or listening to kids or being interested in what people say and how they say it. It’s because of having several registers within myself, which we probably all have, and making use of them. I remember the funny things that people say – or for that matter the striking or ordinary things that people say. No I don’t take notes or use a recorder. I can pull dialogue out at any time, Always had it in my head, all my life. I wasn’t a very talkative child and I’m not a greatly talkative adult even, but I do enjoy listening to people, and language and how it’s used. It becomes part of my own store. It’s enjoyable getting into a piece of flowing dialogue.
Several of your novels, the later ones especially, are sagas – lots of characters, lots of event, long timeframes. Do you map out these more complex narratives in advance or just follow your nose?
I don’t map them out, because I don’t seem to be able to work that way.
When I started Potiki I thought I was writing a short story. I wrote the story about the carved meeting house, and when I finished that I thought if we have a meeting house there are people who belong to that meeting house. I asked myself who they might be. I started off with one character – that was Roimata – and how she came to be there, in that community. And then her children one by one, and her husband. I didn’t know from one chapter to the next what was going to happen – I was just following. That’s what I like to do. I just start out and follow the characters.
You gave me the opportunity before to say what was the best part of writing. The main thing for me is characters. I don’t really worry about anything else. I don’t think about the storyline too much actually – just the characters and what might happen to them because of who they are and where they are and who they interact with. The settings, the stories, the themes and the voices and everything else, the inter- relationships – all belong to the characters. So if you keep true to those characters and how they might develop because of who they are and who they have around them and, to a degree, what happens to them, then the story will unfold. I’ve learned to have faith that something will come out.
I didn’t know from the beginning to the end of Potiki what was going to happen. I had to go back and match the beginning up to what happened at the end. That’s the most extreme example of how it has worked for me. But it’s been a bit like that with all of my books.
With Chappy (2015) I knew the little story told to me by my husband about the Japanese shopkeeper in Ruatoria, where my husband was from, who was married to a local woman, probably a relative of my husband’s. My husband had told me how well-liked the man was in Ruatoria, how he was taken away to Somes Island during the war, interned as an enemy alien and was later deported, leaving his wife and family in Ruatoria.
I was very taken with that story, but at the same time I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get inside the head of a Japanese man, understand him culturally, or know his psyche. I had the core of a story but I didn’t know how I was going to tell it, how it would unfold. I couldn’t tell it from the inside, so I had to tell it from the outside. I had to choose the narrators, but I didn’t quite know who they would be. They had to present themselves.
When I heard the story I kept wondering how the Japanese man got to be in that Māori community and to be part of it. My husband was unable to tell me so I had to make up my own way of getting him here (my character, not the real one) and in thinking about that, came across the character of Aki, the seaman. I had an uncle in the family who had gone to sea at a young age.
Is that the same uncle who’s in your 1975 story ‘Kepa’, the one about the kids who are playing bullrush and waiting for their uncle to return from his faraway travels?
Yes. They’re based on the same person. He was an impressive man when we were kids – this uncle who was going to bring us home a monkey from overseas. I knew some of the ships my uncle had been on so I looked those up in my research. I knew he was on the boats during the war too.
So that was that voice. And then I wanted someone who didn’t know anything about Chappy, so I brought in the grandson – who had to come from far away.
So the grandson who’s raised in Switzerland got pushed to the other side of the world by you to ensure his ignorance of Chappy’s story?
Yes that’s right. I had to have someone who didn’t know, so he could find out. And I needed Oriwia as well, Chappy’s wife, grandmother of the young man from Switzerland. I needed her because the uncle was away at sea. He knew how Chappy got there but there were aspects of his new life that Aki was not aware of.
People need to inhabit the work. I’ve always been interested in writing about those interrelationships – especially the intergenerational ones. It’s a matter of finding ways of doing that which enable different characters to have clear identity.
Storytelling is one way I’ve found very useful – having different characters telling about the same things, each one bringing a new aspect and further enlightenment to the accounting.
If you find the story by following the characters, how does that work in a novel like Tu, where there are revelations and plot twists right near the end which have been set up early in the book. Did you always know the twists were coming and what would happen to Tu in battle, or did you have to go back like you did with Potiki, and tweak the beginning to match the ending?
With Tu the twists came to me as I wrote. My idea was to have three brothers going off to war but I didn’t know what was going to happen to any of them. Well, I had a vague idea. I like vague ideas that can rattle around in my head, but which are not too fixed.
My task at the beginning was to make each brother different. So I had the older brother with all his heavy responsibilities after what had happened to the father; the next one who was the opposite; and the youngest one who was kind of the hope of the family – the one to rise above the situation they were in, who was protected from the father, who was to be well educated and have advantages which would mean best opportunities and a better life.
The idea that the older brothers wanted the younger brother to be protected – a lot of that came from reading the official history of the Māori Battalion and other material – there were many examples of older brothers not wanting their young brothers to go to war because of the tukana/teina relationship and the cultural demand that the older brother be responsible for the younger one. But the big brothers knew that in theatres of war they wouldn’t be able to look after their teina. They didn’t want the younger brothers to go.
There was one story told by the padre for the Māori Battalion. His younger brother had come to war against his wishes, and he prayed every day that if one of them was to not go home that it would be himself, not his younger brother. He would not want to go home if he was to leave his younger brother behind.
There were other efforts by soldiers, who’d pleaded with their superiors not to accept their younger brothers, or to send them home because they’d put their ages up and they shouldn’t be there and so forth. But of course with the loss of numbers during battles, and the need for replacements, hardly anyone was turned away.
Those stories and anecdotes, from my research, were very impressive, so in some ways the stories in Tu were not difficult. I just had to think about how the two older brothers were going to get the younger one home again. I knew from the beginning that Tu was going to be saved but I hadn’t worked out how. I didn’t know what his life was going to be after the war and had some decisions to make when I came near to the end.
Paula Morris keeps saying Tu needs to be turned into an epic movie. Do you have any films of your work on the way?
The book Cousins has been in the pipeline for years and years, and I’d sort of given up hope with that, but it has recently come forward again, so we’ll see what happens there.
There was an option on Tu, and a discussion about Dogside Story. Barry Barclay had wanted to do Potiki. But they’ve never really come to anything, possibly because I was less than enthusiastic. I’m not holding my breath really, about the books becoming films.
I’ve seen, but not really understood, some pretty dense academic analyses of your work, with references to everything from Baudrillard to your use of ‘spiral’ form. How do you feel about academic slicing and dicing and labelling of your work, and do the things people say about your work often match what you thought you were doing?
Not always, not often. However, I do appreciate the scholarship, and the efforts that scholars make to unlock the work, especially where it may lead to societal enlightenment. Much of it is over my head. I read reviews, and if they say great things that’s good and if they don’t it doesn’t matter. You write and you do the best you can. You put the work out there, and everything else that happens after that is beyond your control. I’m pleased if the book’s being read. Beyond that comes interpretation and discussion – the third life of the book – and I think that’s all good.
The spiral thing though – I have tried to explain before how I position myself in the writing. I don’t have a sense, when I begin a new work, of standing at the beginning of a long road and looking along it to an end. Instead I have a sense of sitting in the middle of something – like sitting in the centre of a set of circles or a spiral – and reaching out to these outer circles, in any direction, and bringing stuff in. That’s what makes it all closer to me, being in the centre and having all I need within reach around me and piecing it together. So there I am, at the core, with my core idea – the few sentences about the Japanese man – thinking about what I need to bring this character to life and to shift him from A to B.
Writing from the centre of a circle – is it silly to suggest this could be a specifically Māori sensibility, and the straight road is a linear, Pakeha kind of thing? Or is that just stereotyping both Māori and Pakeha worldviews?
I don’t know. I don’t know how other writers see themselves placed. I just know that I have to have a sort of nearness to everything and if it’s not near I need to bring it near – that’s when I do research.
Some of the stories in your first collection, such as the story of the fisherman Toki, have a curious, poetic syntax, with the words in an unusual order for English. I was guessing that might be a transliteration of Māori syntax. Is that right, and if so, why did you do that?
Yes. It was a contrived style in a way, but I was trying to copy Māori structures in English, to make it seem as though the characters could be speaking in Maori, even though I was writing in English. It was experimental. It might appear here and there in later work as well, but it had too contrived a feel for me after a while, so I didn’t keep it up.
I believe you’re not a fluent speaker of Te Reo. Is that right?
No I’m not. I didn’t learn very much when I was a child because the adults who were fluent speakers of Māori around us wouldn’t speak it in front of us. I didn’t even know that that was my grandmother’s first language. The only time I heard it spoken would be at a tangi during formalities – and those experiences were quite rare. We had Māori words that we knew and used but that was all really. It wasn’t a Māori speaking community.
It wasn’t till my teenage years I started to take an interest in the language itself. I’d always had the idea that it was not a useful language, and had even heard it said that it wasn’t a proper language because it had ‘no grammar’. But then I met young people at teachers’ college who could speak Māori, who came from Māori communities, who didn’t have any trouble with English, and seemed to thrive from having two languages rather than only one. I started to feel that loss.
I made some efforts to learn but I haven’t been that successful. My children have learned but I’ve found it quite difficult. I can understand much more than I used to, but I’m very timid about trying to use it.
As for using it in my books – we just grew up using certain Māori words in English sentences so that’s what I’ve used in my writing. It’s because I wanted to be true to the characters and the way they spoke, not from any sense of wanting to alienate readers, which I’ve been accused of. I don’t think anyone would want to do that.
But I understood that you’d made a deliberate decision not to put a glossary of the Māori in Potiki, which is the thing that reviewers considered alienating. Is that true?
So guilty as charged in that instance?
Well yes, but I don’t feel guilty. When Potiki first came out there was quite a bit of criticism of it. One of the reasons was because of the use of Māori terms and passages in the book; the other was that some people thought I was trying to stir up racial unrest. The book was described as political.
I suppose it was but I didn’t realise it. The land issues and language issues were what Māori people lived with every day and still do. It was just everyday life to us, and the ordinary lives of ordinary people was what I wanted to write about, so I didn’t expect the angry reaction from some quarters.
But there was one deliberate political act, and that was not to have a glossary for Maori text or to use italics. A glossary and italics were what were used for foreign languages, and I didn’t want Māori to be treated as a foreign language in its own country. When I told my publishers I didn’t want the Māori italicised or glossed, and gave my reasons, they agreed with me.
I’ve not read Potiki recently, but when I flicked through the pages looking for the alienating Māori words I didn’t see all that many. There are some short stretches of song that you can skim over, and occasional ‘haeremai’ or ‘karakia’ or ‘whanau’ which most Pakeha understand these days anyway. These would be totally unremarkable in a book published today.
Yes, but nobody knew them then. Since Potiki I’ve not come across any negative comments regarding the use of the Maori language in texts, except when one of my books was shortlisted for an Australasian prize, and it came back to me that mine was strongly rejected by the Australian judges because of the Māori language and no glossary – though that may not have been true.
One difficulty I have come across is that sometimes there’s a word that, if it isn’t glossed or italicised, you’d just think was an English word. ‘Mate’ means sickness or death but it just looks like the English ‘mate’. So I avoid words like that.
You have a knack for picking out the ironies within the politics, such as in the story ‘The Journey’ where an old man is saddened by Pakeha ‘progress’ but notices that the digger drivers are all Māori. Do you ever feel a tension between the artist’s desire to be nuanced and aesthetic even if it undermines the polemic, and the activist’s desire to shout from the rooftops about injustice?
I don’t think there’s a tension. It’s just however it comes out. Sometimes, quite often, I have to pull back rather, because politics can be overdone. You don’t want your work to become a drag. Rereading and editing you find what needs to be there and what doesn’t.
From the casually racist Pakeha woman in 1975’s ‘A Way of Talking’ onwards, you have drawn many vivid little vignettes of everyday racism. Have you personally experienced much of that yourself?
A lot of it’s from personal experience. When I was a child, and I think even now, you come across something every day that you might find disagreeable, and mostly you just put it behind you. If you can make a difference or say something about it then you do, but if you think it’s going to be a waste of time you don’t bother.
But I feel our race relations are good in this country, even though not perfect. There’s a level at which we all get on and really care about each other. But there’s also a level to do with the politics of the country, where elements of racism are brought into play for political reasons. Learning about each other is not as one-sided as it used to be.
Those overt, quasi-official examples of racism you’ve written about – you can’t come into this cinema because you’re Māori; you can’t get a home loan because you’re Māori; you get a smaller widow’s pension because you’re Māori – they’re starting to feel like the distant past aren’t they?
Yes, but not the too-distant past. We’ve all worked very hard on those things over the years, but we need to be mindful. There is still much that is discriminatory in our institutions and workplaces which affect the powerless. Statistics will tell us there’s still a way to go.
Which of your works are the most explicitly autobiographical?
In the short stories, it would be ‘Going for the Bread’ (Electric City, 1987) which is just completely a story about what happened – there are hardly any changes at all to something that happened to me when I was about five years old. And for a novel, I would say Cousins (1992).
You’ve kept swapping between novels and short story collections. Novels often get more kudos, but do you place more value on one rather than the other?
I’ve always loved the short story form. Short stories are like little gems that you can keep polishing and polishing in your aim for perfection.
When I’m in the mood to get my teeth into something I’ll go for the novel, but there’ll always be a short story hanging around that I might start, and when I have enough starts I come up with a collection. I don’t think one form is superior to the other.
When you write the first word of something new do you know whether it’s going to be a short story or a novel?
I usually know when something’s going to be a short story. Potiki is the only ’short story’ that’s turned into a novel, really.
Going back to when I first started writing, there are several little stories about Mereana dotted through the first three collections. I had the idea that they might be a novel, or if not a novel, a collection of stories that formed a whole story in themselves, but that never worked out.
I’d not even heard of the Neustadt Prize before researching for this interview, but it turns out it’s a huge deal. A US$50,000 prize that some people have described as America’s equivalent of the Literature Nobel. How did it feel to win it in 2008, apart from the pleasure of getting a fat cheque?
Well, I was amazed, because I hadn’t heard of it either. The way the judging is done is that different academics take a book that they think would be a worthy recipient of the prize. They meet and read each other’s choices and judge them and talk about them, They advocate for their own choices, but finally come up with the one they all agree on to be awarded the prize.
Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke/Creek nations – writer, musician and academic – and who I had met, rang me one day and said that she had entered Baby No-Eyes (1998) for the Neustadt Prize. She said it was an international prize and that she was one of the judges. She explained to me how it all worked and I was saying ‘Oh thank you very much for that. I hope it doesn’t give you too much stress…’, thinking that it was all still in the pipeline. And she interrupted and said ‘… and it won.’ So it was an enormous surprise.
I went to Oklahoma to collect the prize and met the benefactors of the award. I didn’t realise it was such a big deal really. I was very proud to have won it. There’s been only one other nomination from New Zealand, when Bill Manhire put one of Janet Frame’s books forward, but unsuccessfully. I think we should have more nominations from here.
Your stories have found audiences here and abroad. Do you ever think about who your reader will be as you write?
No. I don’t like the feeling of anything that’s limiting to me, such as directing my work towards a particular group. I just think my audience is people who will read, whoever they may be.
Forty years after a published Māori writer was a rarity, it seems to me that what interests the outside world most about New Zealand culture nowadays, apart from Hobbity scenery, are the stories from or about Māori: books by you or Witi Ihimaera or Keri Hulme; films like Whale Rider or Once Were Warriors or Boy. Even The Piano or The Luminaries hark back to that early colonial contact. Is it pleasing for you that Māori voices and stories are being heard strongly beyond New Zealand?
Yes it is pleasing, and I’m aware of that too. Though sometimes you wonder what is heard. I have a feeling that there are stereotypes out there and some of the work that’s reaching out may be strengthening those stereotypes. The warrior image. The haka. In Once Were Warriors there’s the image of the male dominance and the brutality and so forth. I know that that had an impact on a lot of people, and you don’t know if there’s enough out there to balance that. There could be negative images, there could be romantic images, and you don’t quite know what it all adds up to if there’s not enough about ordinary Māori daily life. You don’t know if your own work is setting up new stereotypes.
Adam Dudding is a feature writer from Auckland. His memoir about his father, the influential editor Robin Dudding, will be published by VUP in November 2016.