Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 23, 2011

Potiki, by Patricia Grace #BookReview

Potiki is such an interesting book, it would make a great choice for book groups.

It is the story of a Maori community’s struggle to regain control of their ancestral lands.   Having had their land acquired to build an airfield during WWI, these landholders were dispersed into rental accommodation so that it became almost impossible to sustain their culture and traditions.  But as is so often the case in land rights matters, a dispirited and apparently ‘broken’ people were rejuvenated by a charismatic leader who used the legal system to facilitate the return of the land – not all of it, but enough for those who wanted to, to resume farming and rebuild community life.

A pragmatic people, these Maori accepted that even though they did not agree that their land had been ‘improved’ by the building of sports grounds and club-houses, they had to pay recompense for these ‘improvements’ – and since they didn’t have any money, they had to forego the return of some of their land.  It was the use of this adjacent land for the development of a resort that is the focus of Potiki.

 Potiki is an education for people like me who know very little about New Zealand or the Maori culture.  From this book, I learned that a meeting-house called a wharenui is central to Maori life: it is where the community meets to discuss and solve problems, and welcome visitors.  It is not a sacred building, but it is where rituals take place.  And it has to be right in the centre of the community.

So when the adjacent development needs an access road right through the meeting-house, the small community is vulnerable to great pressure.  There are fruitless negotiations; there are implied threats, and eventually both sides take the law into their own hands.

Potiki makes no pretence at being even-handed.   Roimata, her husband Hemi and their children reject the values that lie behind development but the developers are not only unempathetic, they have (to put it mildly) no redeeming features.  Although the community farms at subsistence level and they themselves have some anxiety about the future of their children, they attach no importance to amenities for tourists.  They already have a view, they say.  They can already go fishing, they say.  They can already see wildlife.  There is no need to build a Disneyfied resort to please visitors, and it offers no benefits to their community because they (the Maori) never get the good jobs anyway.  Some of this writing strays into didacticism, in my opinion.

Nevertheless it is an interesting book for discussion.  The diverse perspectives within the Maori community, and their rejection of mainstream culture offer opportunities for lively discussion:

  • The small community offers a supportive environment for people who are often marginalised in mainstream society.  Mary is intellectually disabled; Toko is physically disabled; and Manu has epilepsy. They do not go  to school, except for Mary who spends her days cleaning and polishing it.  Does this limit their choices, or is it an alternative which offers greater dignity?
  • Is it enough for these children to learn ‘Maori’ science instead of the real thing? Is folk knowledge idealised?
  • When, if ever, is environmental vandalism justifiable?
  • I had no previous experience in reading the Maori language, but I didn’t have too much difficulty working out what was meant from context.  However, Aarti at BookLust felt that the use of Maori language was a deliberate strategy to alienate non-Maori readers.  Patricia Grace, she says ‘seems to have meant for non-Maori people (pakehas) to feel lost and out-of-place in the reading’.  Is it too risky for an author to use a minority language in the global book market?
  • Toko is said to have a special kind of ‘knowing’,  Are the ‘spiritual’ elements of the story convincing?
  • Roimata seems to be a kind of bridge between Hemi’s view that the farm is ‘enough’ and her older children’s desire for more.  She loves Hemi and understands his contentment but she sees the reality too: there is dignity in working the land but there is also its shabbiness, the subsistence diet, the vulnerability of their position and the shabby clothing.   Is it possible for a lifestyle like this to survive in the 21st century?
  • James and Tangimoana – who did go to school and on to university – bring back skills learned in the wider world for the benefit of the community that are crucial in their battle to take on the developers in the media and in the courts.  What are the risks for traditional communities in encouraging their children to learn the ‘system’ so that they can use it when they need to?

Contemporaneous with reading Potiki and the battle of the Te Ope people to regain their land rights, I was also reading Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones about the transitional period between Aboriginal Australians as masters of their own destiny and their subsequent relegation to an underclass of white colonial society.  This marvellous book uses museum artefacts from this period as a springboard for exploring history in a remarkable way which – like That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott – shows that there were some men of good will on both sides of these vexed issues.  Much as I admired Potiki I did find myself wishing that it had been a little less polemical…but perhaps some stridency was necessary in order for Grace to get her point across in the 1980s.

Potiki won the 1987 New Zealand Fiction Award.

Update April 25, 2012
Curious about why this review is suddenly getting so many hits, I went exploring via Google.  Ah ha! It’s been chosen as a senior secondary text for students in New Zealand – and I am so pleased to see that in this case anyway students are being offered entry into the wonderful world of adult books instead of YA.

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Potiki
Publisher, Penguin 1986
ISBN: 9780140088038
Source: Personal library.

PS It so happens that I finished reading and blogging this book just as news broke of the catastrophic Christchurch earthquake.  To donate to the relief appeal, please visit Red Cross Australia,  or Red Cross Britain.  The Red Cross site in NZ is obviously swamped at the moment, but Australia and Britain are running dedicated appeals and the money will definitely get to where it’s needed.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I haven’t read an NZ book for a while. I gave Ochre and rust to my brother for his 50th a couple of years ago. He works in the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery and loved it. But, I haven’t read it myself yet.

    • I think you’d *love* Ochre and Rust. I’m taking my time over reading it, just a chapter each weekend, and writing reams and reams about it in my journal because it’s so thought-provoking. I’m going to have to precis my review considerably!!

  2. I ve this on my tbr pile – it was rereleased by Capuchin Press in the UK a couple years ago, I really must read it, picked it up for the Maori connection in it a culture that is very interesting and I know very little about apart from a couple films I’ve seen,all the best Stu

    • It’s good to know it’s available in the UK Stu. I was worried that no one overseas would be able to get hold of it.

  3. I read Grace’s short stories last year and have planned to read her novels this year. I loved her stories and their insight into Maori culture.

    • It’s also available in the Popular Penguins series, Kinna:)

  4. I am reading this book right now for my IB Extended Essay on the manifestation of colonialism in colonized countries. Some of your comments here really gave me some ideas.
    Even though I’m only halfway through, I have to admit that I really loved this book. I have always been interested in specifically New Zealand and the Maori culture for some reason.
    Could you recommend me any other novels/short stories about the effects of colonialism in NZ?
    And what are some key facts to approach post-colonial NZ literature? What should I keep in mind as I write?
    So far, I’ve found the cultural and ethical dilemmas, language, the mixture of oral tradition in narrative, “national identity” problems and the whole thing about historical and economic effects of colonialism.
    I would really appreciate some help here :)

    • Hello Pirilti, I’m glad to see that my review has given you some ideas, IB is a tough gig, isn’t it!
      NZ is an interesting choice for study because unlike other colonised places but like Australia the indigenous people are a minority. (About 15% Maori, I believe).
      Unfortuntely I’m not best placed to help you with what you want to know. As you can see if you click New Zealand in the COUNTRY OF ORIGIN category, I haven’t read very many NZ books – and that’s partly because they’re not so easy to get hold of here in Australia. I do know that there are bookshops there that specialise in Maori issues – perhaps you could try Beatties’s BookBlog (see – he may be able to refer you to someone who can help you.

      • What about the US? Or Canada? Both have tiny, tiny indigenous populations, surely?

        • Yes, Marie, you’re right. I was thinking more of countries like India and countries in Africa where the colonised people were always in the majority.

  5. its a good book. the only bad thing about is that it doesn’t have a maori-english glossary.

    • Hello Stuns, and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers. As an Aussie reader with no experience of Maori language I didn’t mind the Maori. Most of the time I could figure it out, and when I couldn’t I just kept going.
      But you raise an interesting point. I’ve seen very few novels with glossaries, and it’s made me wonder why not. (I’m reading something with bits of German in it at the moment, which I don’t know at all so I just have to skip them). Perhaps it’s because by not having a glossary, the author is saying something about how the use of those words in another language is natural and that the language has equal weight with English? If you have a glossary, maybe it implies that the language is weird and strange and Other? Definitely food for thought…

      • regarding to the isuue of Maori in the book, I have an easy solution for this, mabe too late (3 years) but it can be used for further Reading and for further visitors, is the Maori-English nline dictionary, a very useful and practical tool. I used in my post-colonial class when we read the book. Here you have tthe link:
        ps: congratulations for the blog!

        • Thank you! That’s a great resource, and I’ll certainly use it when I come across Maori terms in other books from NZ:)

  6. I’ve just finished my read of this wonderful book & hope to find such a glossary on line, my edition is the 1987 one from ‘The Women’s Press’ of London UK & I felt sure lots of people would have been curious for it or translations (especially the final paras!)
    I believe such stories of traditional cultures and sustainable ways of living will increasingly be valued as we grapple with transition and ecological crises and find new permacultures

    • Hello Jane, and welcome:)
      How about putting the bits you don’t understand into Google Translate? You can usually get the gist of it if you do that…

  7. I really enjoyed this book, and a few of Grace’s other books, and whilst they sometimes feel a bit unfinished I do appreciate her style an her message. Anyway the thing that’s bugging me is this: why do you say Manu is epileptic? Was it stated and I missed it or did you assume that? I’m just wondering! Also what actually happened to Toko at the end? I came away from the book not entirely clear on what brought his death?!

    • Hello Felicity, I’m so sorry, it is such a long time since I read this book, I really can’t remember the details well enough to answer the questions you’ve raised.
      But I know this post gets a great many hits, so now that you’ve raised the question, perhaps someone who has read it recently can answer it for you – I hope so:)

  8. […] between the wars is emblematic of Grace’s interest in cultural disruption.   As explored in Potiki, Maori families that were able to hang onto their land in the face of Pakeha acquisition were […]

  9. […] in the period, which is often a feature of Patricia Grace’s novels as well, especially in Potiki. […]

  10. […] Pita before he embarks for war rather than when he gets back.  Compared to the dynamic women of Potiki (1986), Cousins (1992), and Baby No-eyes (1998), these women are insignificant.  Perhaps it is the […]

  11. […] but it’s an enjoyable journey.  As in the author’s earlier novel Potiki (see my review) alongside the human story there is a land claim to be dealt with. Mahaki the lawyer […]

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