Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2016

I’ve Been Thinking About You Sister (2013), by Witi Ihimaera

ILW 2016For my last book of #IndigLitWeek I had been planning to read The Dream Swimmer, No #2 of the Mahana Family series, by Maori author Witi Ihimaera. I thought I was resigned to not having No #1, The Matriarch, but then I discovered that Bayside Library has a copy, and so I shall pursue it there.  But not this week: I already have five library books that have come in from reserve all at the same time, and The Matriarch is a long book.  I want to do it justice, so I’ll chase it up some other time.  In the meantime, however, there is just one lonely looking review of Maori writing for #IndigLitWeek 2016 – what to do?

I've Been Thinking About You SisterWell, I found an intriguing short story by Witi Ihimaera instead.  It’s called I’ve Been Thinking About You Sister, and it offers a lot to think about…

It begins in an unusual way.  Written in the tone of a memoir, it explains how the narrator is feeling fraught because he’s been approached to write a short story for an anthology but the publisher wants him to write the kind of story he used to write thirty years ago.  The narrator is a bit indignant about this: apart from the fact that the world has become a different place he’s become an professor of English, into post-colonial discourse, Freire, Derrida, and The Empire Writes Back.  When the publisher pursues him to write something suitable for the gentle reader and no politics, thank you, the narrator is cross.  He’s worked hard to become an indigenous writer of some distinction… not afraid to engage the complexities of race, identity and representation and examine the polarities that existed between majority and minority cultures.

But he gives in.  He writes the story.  A seemingly simple story of the narrator’s mother, still grieving the loss of her brother Rangiora who died in WW2.  And how, in her seventies, she decides to take off for Tunisia to visit his grave. How his father is dubious about the whole idea, and how she is dubious about him coming too because of his dodgy hip.  And how the anxious children call on friends and family around the world to keep an eye on things to make sure that the elderly couple don’t miss their plane connections.  Things go wrong, and a good Samaritan helps them out.  The story concludes with this mother’s poignant wish to bring her brother’s body home, only to be told by the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Maori Affairs that the Maori Battalion had made a collective agreement that all the boys who died on the battlefield should stay together in the country where they had fallen.

It’s a lovely story, but *chuckle* it’s not a simple story at all.  There’s the title, for a start: it’s an allusion to the spiritual beliefs of the Maori.  The story begins with Rangiora, who has been dead for over half a century, coming back for the last waltz with his sister, because he’s been thinking about her.  He’s not resting in peace, because he hasn’t been buried according to custom and ritual. (Those stones on the brooding cover design are an allusion to a burial practice).  And then there’s the ending.  You don’t need to know much WW1 history to know that the decision to bury the Fallen where they lay was taken by military authorities, not in accordance with any whimsical ideas about mateship but for economic reasons.

In between we see the power of Maori culture and ideas about family responsibilities.  Mother is a strong-willed woman but her family still has a responsibility to look after her welfare, wherever she is in the world.  And we see that although they can rustle up the money for this journey, it has to be done on the cheap.   Complying with the instructions of the condescending publisher, these matters (and others) are not made explicit: it’s not overtly political.  But by including the narrator’s peeved introduction, Ihimaera has made sure that his readers will be looking to see if this innocuous little story offers more than meets the eye…

‘I’ve Been Thinking About You, Sister’ was first published in The Best New Zealand Fiction: Vol 4, Fiona Farrell (ed.), 2007.

Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: I’ve Been Thinking About You, Sister
Publisher: Random House New Zealand, 2013.
ASIN: B00CL28YZI (Kindle Edition).
Source: Personal library, purchased for the Kindle $2.99

You may be able to pick up a second hand copy of  The Best New Zealand Fiction: Volume 4 (Fishpond), otherwise, I’m afraid there’s only Amazon, as far as I can tell.


  1. After worrying about lonely Tu, you put this review in with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders :).
    I looked up the author – “NZ’s first published Maori” – and indeed a professor. Sometimes I think writers attempting to be post modern get lost in their own trickiness, but by your account, Ihimaera has handled this well.


    • Oh good grief, filing was never my strong point…will fix it now…


      • Fixed, thanks for letting me know.
        Yes, postmodernism can be too tricksy to enjoy, but I like the way Ihimaera has tackled being patronised. I have a feeling that authors everywhere were asked to contribute pieces to do with the WW1 anniversaries for books designed to appeal to a mass audience and probably a conservative one at that.


      • Yes, that makes sense. WWI celebrations don’t seem to have been as prevalent, or jingoistic, as feared. Hopefully in a couple of years there’ll be an Armistice Day march. Which brings to mind that years ago I read an account of Bertrand Russell’s experience as a non-complier with conscription. I must see if I can find it again.


        • It’s ironic isn’t it, that there’s so very little interest in peace…


  2. […] ‘I’ve Been Thinking About You Sister’ (short story) by Witi Ihimaera of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent, see my review […]


  3. Thanks once again Lisa for these thoughtful reviews during the week. :)


    • I love ILW! It gives me an excuse to bombard everyone with reviews!


  4. What a fascinating story. Love the way the author handled his problem, Many thanks, Lisa.


    • It’s interesting also because it shows you the way modern authors think about how they’re doing their short stories – and they are probably the ones who win prizes.


  5. […] Hill’s Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at wordpress ANZ Litlovers 2016 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog made me think about the book that gave me the confidence to embrace creative writing. It was Sally […]


  6. Thanks for such a detailed review Lisa – it’s amazing how a short story can be layered and pack a punch. Although at the mention of Derrida and The Empire Writes Back I had a flashback to my Masters and academia – I don’t miss that style of writing at all! How long/short was the story? I love the cover and although you ‘shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ that one with its title just begs me to open it. Congratulations and thanks for all the books you have read and reviewed this week and all the encouragement to others, including me. Well done


    • Thanks, Mairi:)
      The story is only 35 pages long… and easy to read!


  7. Thank you Lisa for including a review of Witi Ihimaera’s short story to conclude Indigenous Literature Week. I will make it a goal for next year’s I.L.W. to read a work of literature by a Maori author. I enjoyed reading the comments and titles of literature read by the blog readers.


    • Thanks, Maxine, and thank you for taking the time to join the conversation, it is appreciated:)


  8. […] Been Thinking About You Sister’ by Witi Ihimaera (short story, Maori) (see my review).  Find this one at […]


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