Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2018

Ora Nui 3, Māori Literary Journal: Going Global, Edited by Anton Blank

I don’t often read literary journals, not because they’re not worthwhile but because I have so often subscribed to them in the past and then not found time to read most of the issues.  But I was interested when New Zealand publisher sent for review a copy of Ora Nui 3, Maori Literary Journal: Going Global because the Introduction intrigued me…

In traditional journals, indigenous writers enter the collection from stage left as exotic other.  In terms of the New Zealand canon, Māori writing locates everyone – Pakeha, migrant, the indigene – in Aotearoa. The tyranny of democracy means, however, that the Māori experience mostly appears as moments in a broader discussion dominated by white writers.  Life imitates art.  Ora Nui shifts this power balance and places Māori at the centre of an international dialogue.

Differences and similarities emerge but every writer in this collection is concerned with the same issues: identity and belonging.  The works are very relational.  Writers investigate who they are in response to other populations, and their environs.  They reimagine themselves in new contexts.  Art and photography make the writing pop.  The collection is a glorious celebration of diversity and change.

As we march into a future of diversity, Māori have  a central role in the emerging cultural discussion.  (p.1)

This perspective interests me because even though I haven’t visited New Zealand yet, I know from the media that they, like everywhere else around the western world, are experiencing change because of an influx of refugees from around the world.  Monocultural societies, and bicultural societies are on the way out.  All of us are learning that diversity is the norm, but that raises special challenges for societies with an existing First Nation population that may or may not have been treated with the respect it deserves and may still have issues arising from colonisation.  It’s poets, writers and artists in this collection of experimental prose, poetry, art, and photography who tackle these issues with heart and soul…

Sometimes, however, outsiders may not get it right. Marino Blank’s poem ‘I haven’t seen as Australian Aboriginal yet’ consists of five verses set in Sydney, the last line of which ends with ‘I haven’t seen an aboriginal yet.’ [Sic, ‘aboriginal’ is not capitalised, and it uses an adjective instead of a noun).  This poem, well-meaning as it is, panders to the idea that Australia’s indigenous people should conform to a recognisable skin colour and physiognomy – and as Anita Heiss argues so cogently in Am I Black Enough For You? (2013) they don’t.  Likewise, Kim Scott says in his novel True Country his people can be:

Well, not black.  Or dark brown, or purple-black, or coffee coloured, or black-brown.  Maybe tan.  But what is this?  We are all different.  I am not the same. (True Country by Kim Scott, Fremantle Press, 1993, p.191)

So while the point of the poem is to note the absence of Australia’s indigenous people from its fancy tourist destinations and national celebrations, it is based on a false assumption. Because a casual observer can’t tell by looking whether a person is indigenous or not, so it’s not possible to say whether they are absent or not.  Can we just stop classifying people and making judgements about them by racial characteristics, eh?

Paula Morris, OTOH, in her essay ‘Of All Places: a Polemic on ‘International’ Book Prizes’ gets it exactly right IMHO.  She writes about how

For those of us from the southern hemisphere – or from vast continents like, say, Africa – the attention afforded to apparently ‘international’ prizes is also a constant reminder that we’re on the outside, looking in.  (p.96)

Yes, we in Australia know this too.  The big conversations, and the big book promotions by booksellers, are about the Nobel, the Man Booker International, and the Booker, these last two being about US and UK books, and the former dominated by European authors as well.  The Commonwealth Writers Prize, which used to bring attention to a diverse range of writers, is now just for short stories.  I’m sorry, I think it’s lame now, and nobody takes much notice of it.  The one truly global prize if the Dublin IMPAC… So the question is:

Why do we continue to permit British literary prizes to claim the title of most prestigious or influential or important in the English-speaking world? Why do we place that power in the hands of British publishers and British judges? Why are we still in thrall to the Mother Country? Why do we want its approval? (p.102)

Why indeed?  I like Morris’s ideas for new prizes:

Imagine an English language prize in which every country with an English-language national book award – like the Miles Franklin in Australia, the Giller Prize in Canada – submits that year’s winner. Imagine a new Asia-Pacific prize that reorients us within our own region.  Imagine a Southern hemisphere prize that sees us communicating directly with our neighbours rather than waiting for the old publishing centres far to the north to determine the books we and the rest of the world read. (p.103

There’s also an interesting essay by Rafaël Newman on nationalism called ‘Nations Anonymous’,  a very powerful poem called ‘Our Auschwitz (for Reza Barati)’ by Australian poet Jean Riki, and a long poem in three parts called ‘Tricks of a Treaty’ by Māori poet Kani te Manukura.

one good trick, that one
played by empire
on our tupuna
how could they have known
by making their mark
on that paper
we, the descendants of chiefs
would become palimpsest
upon the pages of this land…

These are just a few of the items that called for my immediate attention in this journal.  At the very least Australian universities should subscribe!

Editor: Anton Blank
Title: Ora Nui 3, Maori Literary Journal: Going Global
Publisher: Anton Blank Ltd, 2017
ISSN: 2253 1599 ISBN: 799439049307

Source: Review copy courtesy of Anton Blank

Availability: Visit the website of Anton Blank Ltd. 


Responses

  1. I’m not big on literary prizes though certainly as an Australian I’m more interested in the Miles Franklin than the Booker or the Pulitzer. A grand final of regional winners would only serve to reduce diversity IMO. Still, I agree with the journal’s overall thesis, that Indigenous writing is not just an add-on to mainstream (white) writing.

    • I don’t know about that, at least the shortlist would offer titles from all over, not just the US and UK:)


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