For 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?
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.