Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2017

Aukati, by Michalia Arathimos

Aukati is utterly absorbing reading.  The debut novel of Michalia Arithimos, (an author I discovered via BooksellersNZ) it couldn’t be more contemporary in its concerns: it tells the tale of a battle against fracking in the Aotearoa region of New Zealand while also exploring relationships amongst people of many different identities.

The author has a delicate way of making a point.  Alexia, who joined the protest group as an outsider, is escaping from a bereavement, her oppressive Greek family and the obligations that they force onto young women, and also the end of a relationship:

Her friends in the capital were ambitious lawyers-in-training, journalists and media people. They tended to be polished and articulate.  They tended to be highly strung and well presented.  They tended to be busy.  Since she and Stephen had broken up there had been a notable absence of texts and calls.  Aside from a few close girl friends, no one had been messaging her.  But she had effectively gone off the map, away from the bars, the fashionable restaurants.  She had withdrawn.  But so many of these people she’d considered friends had turned out to be only acquaintances.  So many of them must have decided, in that fraught period that followed her break-up with Stephen, that they fell on his side of the fence, not hers.  (p. 146)

The capriciousness of friends is one of the hard lessons of life, one that begins in the schoolyard and continues into old age when death leaves half of a couple alone, taking the friends who should be supportive along with it. Arathimos also charts the rise and fall of commitment in a protest movement, with some supporters abandoning it when certain risks arise.

The land on which the fracking takes place abuts Taranaki land, Māori land which has seen many challenges to its Indigenous ownership and which has, to some extent, exhausted the owners’ will and wisdom.  The matriarch, Polly, is adamant that in all their contests over land ownership, their protests have been non-violent.  But the younger generation thinks differently:

Polly lifted a hand.  The room fell silent.  She leaned forwards over the rug on her knee.

‘We at this pā have never benefited from violence.  Action, but not violence.’ Her voice was quiet but her nostrils flared.  ‘If you are violent in response to the pākehā, they will have an excuse to crush you.’

‘But where has peaceful action got you?’ Kate asked.  There were many nods in the room amongst the younger Māori.

‘We lie down,’ Matiu said. ‘We always lie down. I offer no disrespect to those who have gone before.  But what happened here in the 1800s?  And in the thirties? And the seventies?  We did what we have always done.  We greeted the pākehā.  They took our land.’  The murmurings in the room increased.

‘When they put up fences, we protested,’ Rangi said. ‘When they came later with bulldozers, we protested.  And both times we went out there, with our hands up, and we said, Come, take it from us.  We will not fight.’  He looked around the room.  ‘When do we get to fight?’ (p.124)

At this meeting Isaiah finds that he is expected to take a leadership role, even though he has a somewhat tenuous place in the Taranaki iwi [the social unit in Māori society] because his mother was pākehā (non-Māori New Zealander) and therefore not part of their hapū (clan or descent group).  When he first returned to the marae (community meeting house) Isaiah was diffident about the welcome he might receive.  He does not speak te reo Māori, and he is awkward and uncomfortable about not knowing the traditions of his father’s family because his father disappeared out of his life when he was small.  Yet faced with disagreement within the group, he finds a middle way, while always conscious of the identity issues that threaten to derail the group’s coherence.

Isaiah has returned with a group of fellow protestors, one of whom is Sam, an ardent feminist with whom he’s been in an ‘open’ relationship for some time.  Sam is utterly focussed on the fight to protect the land and seems indifferent to Isaiah’s interest in Alexia, but there are hints that her dislike of Alexia is not just because she distrusts her as an outsider.  Although things are friendly enough on the surface, there is also distrust between the two groups, Māori and Pākehā, especially when it is realised that someone within the protest movement is leaking information to the police.  The poverty of the Māori extended family is also an issue because they are living a subsistence existence while the protestors from the city are not fully aware of the pressure they are putting on the hospitality of the marae.

There are times when Otherness becomes an issue almost by accident. At the first meeting of the city protestors and the Māori Alexia is confronted by values that she instinctively rejects:

She noticed with a jolt that everyone had naturally sat together with the people they knew, and that this meant one side of the room was Māori and the other white.  It reminded her of her church, where she had recently tried not to weep out loud.  They maintained the old tradition of seating women on one side and men on the other.  The rule was not strictly obeyed, but when people followed it the church looked like this.  At the last moment she sat with the Māori side, on a chair near the wall. (p.34)

At this same meeting there is conflict when Bryce, spokesman for the city protestors, starts the evening with an explanation of what fracking is and how it causes pollution.  (Which is a clever way for the author to explain it for readers who are not au fait with the problems of fracking). But Rangi takes umbrage at this assumption that the Māori are ignorant about it:

…’I’m not putting up with it anymore.’ He turned to the group.  ‘We’ve been patient for weeks.  Let them do it their way, we thought.  But then he comes in here and tells us everything we already know?  Where do you get off?’

Alexia was embarrassed.  She’d not known any of the information Bryce had covered and had been interested in his presentation.

‘We do have the internet here,’ Matiu said.  He seemed almost apologetic.  ‘All the info’s out there.  There’s even documentaries on it.’

‘Of course we know the risks,’ Polly said.  ‘We wouldn’t have put out our call for help if we didn’t know how dangerous it was.’

‘Come in and educate the natives,’ said Rangi. ‘Who do you think you guys are – missionaries?’ (p.35-6

There’s a rather wry sequence later on when Sam, who because of Alexia’s choice of seating, thinks she is Māori and is very put out when she realises she’s not and that she’s been wasting her cultural tolerance!

There are some unexpected heart-stopping moments in the novel.  A small child goes missing in the fracking area when he goes in search of a missing cat, and an adult gets lost in hypothermic conditions during the search.  But it’s when the police arrive in riot gear after an act of sabotage that the tension really rises, and the Māori are pitted against the justice system in a contest that is fundamentally unequal.

Just last week Bob Brown, former leader of the Greens and an iconic figure in the battles to protect the Tasmanian wilderness, won an appeal against a Tasmanian law that the High Court ruled that the laws were at odds with the implied right, in the Australian constitution, to the freedom of political communication.   In Aukati (a Māori word which means a boundary, a border, a roadblock) Arathimos has created a compelling novel which tackles this very issue while also demonstrating the complexities of political protest and the chilling power of governments to frustrate it.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

Update (the next day): There’s an interview with the author here.

Author: Michalia Arathimos
Title: Aukati
Publisher: Mākaro Press, New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780994137852
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $29.38 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Aukati


Responses

  1. Sounds like an important book. I jumped up out of my seat when Bob Brown won his case. He is a remarkable man. I run into him at various book launches and always make a point of saying hello. Fracking is truly an abomination.

    • Yes, it is an important book, I think. But not just because of the fracking issue and the way she covers the dynamics of a protest movement and how governments are using increasingly scary laws to outlaw protest, but also because of the way she explores identity issues: both her main characters are ‘hybrids’ trying to negotiate their lives in a world that wants to pigeonhole them. Isaiah isn’t ‘properly’ Maori, Alexis isn’t ‘properly’ Greek but both of them find that others try to badge them as representing the culture that forms part – but only part – of their identity.

  2. Yes, fracking is an abomination! Great maybe even ‘brave’ idea for a novel to discuss how patronising white, educated protestors can be to Indigenous (and working class) people.


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