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Geoffrey Miles on Maori Gothic

January 5, 2012

Geoffrey Miles’s chapter on the concept of ‘Maori Gothic’ (the new genre that has been used to label David Hair’s Bone Tiki trilogy and Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead), is absolutely worth reading! The final chapter in A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult fiction, it is an excellent conclusion to the book as a whole.

Firstly, he finally clarified for me where the term ‘Maori Gothic’ actually came into existence. Apparently it was coined by the publisher HarperCollins;

“Announcing The Taniwha’s Tear, the second volume in David Hair’s Bone Tiki trilogy, in March 2010, the publisher HarperCollins declared that ‘David Hair’s stunning first book established a new genre we have chosen to call Maori Gothic – weaving together elements of fantasy, horror and Maori and Celtic mythology for young readers who enjoy the imaginative leaps and thrils of speculative fiction’. Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead, published in the same year, has been assigned the same label.” p194

Maori Gothic isn’t, however, a term he finds to be useful as a description of the literature published thus far.  It is worth noting that, with regards to David Hair’s Bone Tiki trilogy, Miles concludes that “Despite the publisher’s blurb, there is little that is particularly ‘Gothic’ about these books; the publisher’s alternative reference to ‘the imaginative leaps and thrills of speculative fiction’ seems a more accurate description. They are fast-moving supernatural thrillers, closer in spirit to the Indiana Jones movies or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings… than to the Gothic novel. And Mat Douglas… is too unreflective a central consciousness to be sensitive to Gothic mystery and dread.” (208-209)

“The central novelty of the ‘new genre’,” he writes, is perhaps “that here for the first time the Maori supernatural, simply for its own exciting sake, is central to the books’ appeal.” (207)

Miles brings some entirely valid theory to bear on the term, resulting in a particularly interesting discussion of the topic.He writes: “The term ‘gothic’ requires much circumspection when applied to a Maori context. Whereas the ghost ought not to be there within a western rationalist perspective, spiritual presences are expected and socially acknowledged in the Maori lived-world, through the intertwining of past, present and future in every moment’. To read Maori texts as ‘Gothic’, Lawn suggests, is to impose a European set of assumptions on a culture, which views the supernatural quite differently.” (194-195) 

His analysis of Patricia Grace’s Mutuwhenua through this lens of ‘Maori Gothic’ was excellent! And one of the tightest (of many wonderful) criticisms throughout the book in terms of analysing with ‘bicultural’ concerns in mind. He writes: “Patricia Grace’s Mutuwhenua (1978) – a novel whose subtle treatment of racial issues has already been explored by Kathryn Walls in chapter one… – takes us closer to something that might be called ‘Maori Gothic’. The novel’s climactic episode deals with a quintessentially Gothic situation: a young heroine trapped in a haunted house and menaced by a ghost which is driving her to madness and suicide.” (197) “At the same time, Grace subverts the Gothic situation. The haunted house is not the traditional crumbling mansion but a modern suburban bungalow described by Ripeka in language of ostentatious dullness: ‘The house. Sits on a hillside, is painted a dull blue, and has two bedrooms. It is small and tidy and quite comfortable’ (117). It is only when Ripeka moves into this Pakeha world – a blandly familiar world to most of Grace’s readers – that the Maori supernatural becomes threatening to her, because there the traditional means of dealing with it are no longer available to her.” (my emphasis in bold blue, 198)

Miles explains that: “Maori traditional values and practices, if properly observed, are strong enough to contain threatening supernatural manifestations and keep the ‘Gothic’ in check. How different, then, is the treatment of Maori supernatural motifs in junior fiction by Pakeha writers – or at least, by New Zealand writers who do not publicly identify as Maori? Looking at novels by Joanna Orwin, Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy, we find that the supernatural elements are more part of the machinery of the text than its actual subject. A fantasy plot, often focused on a quasi-magical Maori artefact which spans the centuries, is used as a way of exploring the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and drawing the young protagonists towards an awareness of their identity as citizens of a bicultural notion.” (my emphasis in bold blue, 200)

Ref: Geoffrey Miles (2011) ‘Maori Gothic’ in Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction – Anna Jackson, Geoffrey Miles, Harry Ricketts, Tatjana Schaefer, Kathryn Walls (Victoria University Press: Wellington)

NOTE: I am incorrectly citing the book when I write ‘Maori’ and ‘Pakeha’ because I cannot put the macron on top of the ‘a’s here as the authors have done… sorry!

I thoroughly recommend reading it!

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