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Using Te Whare Tapa Wha to analyse Grace’s Dogside Story

January 15, 2012

I always find Ann Pistacchi’s analyses of fiction thought-provoking. Her readings continually open my eyes. In her article, ‘Te Whare Tapa Wha: The Four Cornerstones of Maori Health and Patricia Grace’s Dogside story‘, she draws on the Whare Tapa Wha model to consider representations of illness and wellness in Dogside Story.

According to Durie, “the whare tapa wha model compared health to the four walls of a house, all four being necessary to ensure strength and symmetry, though each representing a different dimension: taha wairua (the spiritual side), taha hinengaro (thoughts and feelings), taha tinana (the physical side), taha whanau (family).” (Durie, M. (1994). Whaiora, Maori health development (pp.67-81). Auckland: Oxford University Press, p.70)

Pistacchi writes: “Patricia Grace has … said, ‘…Some people say that all [my] stories are political in one way or another, because they are about difference. But they are not different to me.’ Grace carries this ambivalence towards the idea of ‘difference’ into her discussion about the depiction of disability and (un)wellness in her fiction, saying ‘Everyone’s different – in what way we are all different from each other doesn’t really matter.’ 

Certainly the mere presence of the disabled protagonist Te Rua in the author’s Kiriyama Prize winning novel, Dogside Story (2001), does not alone signify any particular theoretical perspective or political position on Grace’s part. As any quick [-p137] survey of literary and popular fiction will show, from Gustave Flaubert’s nineteenth century depiction of Hippolyte’s club foot (Madame Bovary, 1857), to James Leo Herlihy’s limping Ratso Rizzo (Midnight Cowboy, 1965), to Andrew Stanton’s twenty-first century depiction of a clown-fish with a stunted fin (Finding Nemo, 2003), it is a rare piece of fiction that does not incorporate some character(s) with disabilities in a least a minor role. Because these disabled characters tend to function symbolically or metaphorically in a similar manner to various racial, religious and sexual figures of ‘otherness’ that support the hegemonic norm in any Western society, their perspectives often act as focal points for a novel’s moral drama, or as an index of morality by offering normative characters ‘opportunities to demonstrate whatsoever they might do to the least of their brothers‘ [Pistacchi is quoting Michael Berube].

This trope does not hold true, however, in postcolonial fictions in general, and in Patricia Grace’s fiction in particular, where disabled characters act not as freakish symbols or monstrous metaphors, but as complex and realistic entities in the narratives. [Pistacchi refers her reader to Stephen D. Fox and Sanjeev Kumor Uprety here] For Grace, who incorporates physically or intellectually disabled characters into nearly all of her texts (Toko and Mary in Potiki; Mata in Cousins; Baby in Baby No-Eyes; Rua in Dogside Story; Father in Tu; numerous characters in the Sky-People stories, etc.), such figures never symbolize the ‘monstrous other’ because ‘in Maori society the disabled person and/or the intellectually handicapped person are very, very special people who must have special love, special care and special treatment. They are put on a pedestal almost – they are unique’ [Pistacchi is quoting Patricia Grace, ‘Lecture: Influences on Writing and Potiki‘, Auckland University (26 June 1990)].” (Pistacchi, 136-137)

Pistacchi’s analysis considers a range of ways in which health is represented and shown to change in Dogside Story, including:Grace’s evocation of emotional discomfiture through specific stylistic and linguistic shifts. She considers the play on ‘staring’ within the novel; the way in which the reader is aligned uncomfortably with characters breaking the unspoken rule of ‘not staring’ at people with disabilities, while also allowing them to participate in the contrasting desire to do exactly that. She studies the experience of trauma in this narrative (at an individual and a familial level). She looks at the figure of Maina and her role in the narrative with regards to healing. Pistacchi also looks at Grace’s treatment of diabetes and the way in which “[d]isease, lifestyle and environment are linked under the ecological assumption which takes all life to be part of a system that sustains it and which constitutes it.” (146).

Pistacchi’s analysis of the figure of Rua, his role in the community and growth in the story (and its connection with his name “Literally meaning ‘fish'” (147)) is particularly interesting; she demonstrates how “as Rua reaffirms his active and important role in the whanau as the community’s fisherman, he also accepts the role of kaitiaki of his natural environment.” (147) “As he ages and become ‘a fish among other fish’ ([Grace] p.52), however, he starts to equate his survival, and eventually the survival of his whanau, with the health of the sea and its resources. He moves from child of the sea to caretaker of it, and he models this for his daughter.” (148)

I’d love to quote more of Pistacchi’s analysis, but I don’t want to disrespect her copyright… in any case, reading the article as a whole will give you a truer sense of how she applies her whare tapa wha analysis to make sense of the various elements of healing incorporated into this story by Grace.

I wonder if Rose Perry’s Te Wheke model of Maori health might also offer an interesting lens through which to view fiction in NZ? (Ref: Pere, R. R. (1997). Te Wheke: A celebration of infinite wisdom (2nd ed.) Gisbourne: Ao Ako Global Learning New Zealand

Ref: (any emphases in bold, green, mine) Ann Pistacchi (2008) ‘Te Whare Tapa Wha: The Four Cornerstones of Maori Health and Patricia Grace’s Dogside storyJournal of New Zealand Literature 26: 136-152

Other references mentioned by Pistacchi in this article which look interesting include:

Ato Quayson, ‘Looking Awry: Tropes of Disability in Post-Colonial Writing’ in An Introduction to Contemporary Fictions, ed. by Rod Mengham (Oxford: Polity Press, 1999), p.58

Richard Kerridge, ‘Maps for Tourists: Hardy, Narrative, Ecology’, in The Green Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 267-274

David T. Mitchell, ‘Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor’ in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Bruggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002), pp. 15-30

Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, ‘The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography’, in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, pp. 56-75

Stephen D. Fox, ‘Barbara Kingsolver and Keri Hulme: Disability, Family and Culture’, Critique, 45:4 (2004), 405-420

Sanjeev Kumor Uprety, ‘Disability and Postcoloniality in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Third-World Novels’ in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. by Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge), pp. 366-381

Michael Berube, ‘Disability and Narrative’, PMLA 120:2 (2005), 568-576

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