Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2019

The Uncle’s Story (2000), by Witi Ihimaera

The Uncle’s Story (2000) is a mid-career novel from Witi Ihimaera, New Zealand’s best-known Māori author because of the popularity of The Whale Rider (1987) which was made into a film. (See my review of the novella). He has sixteen novels to his credit, including Bulibasha (1994) which I reviewed here.  As the NZ Book Council’s website explains, although his intentions have changed over time, he is an author who writes about ‘the emotional landscape of the Māori people’, and their political and social reality.

The Uncle’s Story confronts the awkward truth of Māori hostility to same-sex relationships.  Ihimaera came out explicitly in 1996 with Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which (I gather from Goodreads reviews) is set in New Zealand and is a raunchy novel about reconciling sexuality with family. The Uncle’s Story traces the same issues, but it explores the story of Sam Mahana, whose existence has been excised from the family because he came out as gay.  Decades later his nephew Michael finds out about Sam when he too refuses to conceal his sexual identity and comes out to his family — and is also exiled from his community because of it.

Obviously things have changed in New Zealand because they legislated for same-sex marriage in 2013, well before Australia did.  But this novel tells a story of the not-so-recent past, when Sam was tied to a fence and flogged by his own father, and was refused burial in the marae (One thing readers need to note is that Ihimaera makes no concessions with Māori terminology or language.  Either you read it with Google Translate at hand* or you just press on without knowing what is meant in some parts.) The marae is a the communal meeting place used for sacred and social purposes in Māori communities (and elsewhere throughout Polynesia).  Entry is by invitation, and there are traditional rituals to usher visitors and family members into it. Sam’s father Arapeta is the hyper-masculine patriarch, his word on all matters is law, and he enforces it with brutal violence.  When he says that there are no gay Māoris, no one dares argue until his grandson Michael forces the family to confront the issue.

Michael tells his story in the present, in first person narrative.  Sam’s story is told through the journal that Auntie Pat has kept hidden for decades.  It reveals the story of his relationship with an American helicopter pilot called Cliff Harper, and the scenes of jungle warfare in Vietnam are every bit as confronting as you might expect.  In Vietnam in 2007 I saw the Cu Chi tunnels and the Vietnamese booby traps designed to main but not to kill, and Ihimaera does not spare the reader the horror of this grotesque war. It’s obvious from various scenes that his intention is to force an inclusive redefinition of masculinity.  Cliff and Sam are every bit as brave and heroic as any other man.

Michael’s courage is of a different order.  Emerging from a disastrous relationship with Jason, and dismissed from his family entirely, he embarks on a more political role through his consultancy work with the Arts Council.  In the wake of the AIDS epidemic, he sees it as crucial that Māoris recognise the existence of gays among them instead of denying their existence.  And he recognises that this cruel silence is common to other First Nations as well. In America at a First Nations conference, he tackles the denial, but he also gets the opportunity to seek out Cliff Harper so that he can explain the true story about the end of his relationship with Sam… however, #NoSpoilers things don’t go as he expects.

Most modern societies now enable same-sex couples to have children through assisted reproduction, but The Uncle’s Story doesn’t offer that resolution.  Instead, what is proposed is a bi-sexual alliance with Michael’s longstanding friend Roimata, a strong and decisive character who can enable him to continue his all-important whakapapa (genealogical line) because she will marry him and bear his children while accepting his sexuality. Perhaps to some that’s an acceptable solution during a transitional period of attitudinal change, but it still denies same-sex couples the right to the companionship and security of living together and making a family with the one you really love.

Whatever about that, what the novel clearly shows is the loneliness of people who are excluded from their own communities by rigid traditions.  Most of us need the love and support of our family and friends when an important relationship fails.  None of the gay characters have this support, and Auntie Pat lives with a huge burden of guilt all her life because of a childhood impulse based on something she didn’t understand but could never confess.  The Uncle’s Story is a powerful novel that I won’t forget.

Highly recommended.

Witi Ihimaera is descended from Te Aitanga A Mahaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngati Porou tribes, with close affiliations with other Maori tribes.

* Even with Google Translate, one can get risible results.  These are the last lines of the book, and they follow Michael’s solemn promise to Sam that he will always tell his story:

… I will tell your story to everyone I meet, whether they want to hear it or not. I will tell them how you loved a man and how wonderful that love was. With that love I will bind the outer framework of the world with the inner framework.

I have realised, Uncle Sam, that the telling of our stories will bring a location and a history to the world that we build.  We who are gay and lesbian must fix the stories with firmness and solder their knots with purpose so that they become part of the narratives — the foundations, walls and roof — all people tell about each other.  We must speak our stories, we must enact them, we must sing our songs throughout this hostile universe. We must bring a new promise to life and a new music to the impulse of history. (p. 371)

Tuia i runga, tuia i raro
Tuia i roto, tuia i waho
Tuia i te here tangata ka rongo te Ao
Ka rongo te Po
Tuia. Tuia

Click on it, click it down
Dig in, print out
Put on the human love that the world hears
Night will hear
Tuia. Tuia

I’d love to know how this lament should be properly translated.

Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: The Uncle’s Story
Publisher: Penguin, 2000, 373 pages
ISBN: 9780143018988
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Uncle’s Story



  1. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  2. Greetings,

    I’ve learned about Witi Ihimaera and his impact on Maori literature in New Zealand through reading the article, “Maori Literature in English: An Introduction” by Norman Simms. What I’ve gleaned from the article and brief online research (video and audio interviews with the author) is that much of his fiction centers on the Maori family units and traditional communities. I haven’t read Ihimaera’s writings yet. What I appreciate about the author is his commitment to depicting real life experiences of Maori people who endure challenges in aligning to traditional values and customs, facing assimilation in urban city communities, and affirming one’s identity within the white-dominant society as first nations people. Language is an important literary technique in Maori storytelling. I respect Ihimaera’s narrative choice in not providing a glossary of translated Maori words, terms in English. However, I do think that for readers who have limited knowledge of Maori history and culture, it would be helpful for Ihimaera or the publisher to include footnotes or brief notes to provide a context for understanding the significance of Maori words and terms.

    Last year, I had the good fortune of watching the films The Whale Rider and Mahana, based on Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies. What is clear in the dramatic films is that there is reverence for elders in the home and community, value for nature- land and animals. Mahana’s narrative, cinematography, characterization, traditional culture, and sacred spaces amongst family members, women, and community members was very compelling.

    Based on your review Lisa, I get a sense that the author wants to put readers to task in discovering storytelling as personal and communal empowerment, ancestral legacy, and cultural unifier.

    Great review Lisa.


    Note: I watched a NAIDOC video clip of the David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu AM’s daughters receiving his award for lifetime achievement. I’m sorry to hear that Gulpilil AM has terminal lung cancer. One of his daughters stated that he will enter Dreamtime. He has made significant contributions to Aboriginal storytelling through cinema medium. The film Charlie’s Country was interesting because it not only focuses on Gulpili AM as the central character, but it conveys a sense of hope, love, and resilience.


    • Thanks, Sonia, and thanks for sharing the info about the film Mahana. I’ve read Bulibasha but I didn’t know there was a film about it. So that’s another one I need to hunt for.
      Next on my To Do list is his trilogy. I’ve got Book 2 but not Book 1 so I need to find a copy of that to start with:)
      Gulpilil will be a loss. If you can source it, Ten Canoes is the best Indigenous film I’ve ever seen.


  3. That’s good that the author “makes no concessions” about language. Plenty of authors do the same of course with French and Latin, though not so much these days. After all, we learn by hearing/seeing new words in context all the time and I’m happy when Indigenous authors expect us to learn their words that way too.


    • I agree, Bill, and I’ve read lots of books which use extra languages, but they’re written so that with a bit of guesswork, you can work out what the meaning is, as you say, from the context. Not so with this, that’s what I mean by ‘no concessions’.


  4. From a training document (available online), which identifies this piece (although Witi’s lines are in slightly different order and the final line doesn’t exist) as Tangi a te Matui/ Call of the Matui

    Tuia i runga, tuia i raro
    Tuia i roto, tuia i waho
    Tuia i te here tangata ka rongo te Ao
    Ka rongo te Po
    Tuia. Tuia

    That it be woven above, that it be enmeshed below
    That it be embraced within, that it be entwined without
    Interlaced as with the threads of humanity
    Let it be sensed in the day
    Let it be sensed in the night
    Tuia Tuia


  5. And, of course, straightaway I found this translation:

    Tuia, tuia, tuituia
    Bind us all together


  6. Thank you Sandra, that’s a lovely poem! I bet it sounds beautiful when it’s read aloud, too.


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