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Introducing Witi Ihimaera

November 1, 2015


“The secret to our survival as a country will be in the quality of the korero.”
~ Witi Ihimaera

(p.298 Words Chosen Carefully)

Basic Bio

Of course, the international and critical success of the movie adaptation of his book The Whale Rider is hard to walk past when introducing Witi Ihimaera – as is his involvement in growing recognition of Maori arts and literary culture. (He has been a huge advocate of Maori and Pacific arts and literature for decades and continues to support new authors into the field). However, on a purely literary note, I got tingles when I first read that scene in The Matriarch when “The matriarch, a woman and therefore not tapu, was standing where men only stood” (p.111 Reed). The way reciting her whakapapa gave her spiritual power, which was also political power… the way Witi captured the Pakeha and Maori worlds of witness…. I can’t rephrase it, but those were beautiful words. I loved it! Anyway,

“Witi Ihimaera (Te Whanau-a-kai) was born in Gisborne in 1944. One of Aotearoa New Zealand’s prominent writers, Ihimaera was the first Maori writer to publish both a book of short stories and a novel, and has since grown to become an internationally published author. Among the prestigious honours he’s received are 1974 Wattie Book of the Year Award for his first novel, The MatriarchTangi, (Heinemann NZ, 1973), 1975 Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago, 1995 Montana Book Award for Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies, (Penguin NZ, 1994) and 2009 Arts Foundation Laureate. He’s also a well-respected editor of the extensive, five-volume series, Te Ao Marama, (Raupo NZ) and a librettist. His 1987 novel, The Whale Rider, (Heinemann NZ), was turned into an internationally released, critically acclaimed and Oscar short-listed movie.” (Ref: blurb on p.285 in Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion pp.108-133, Ed. Siobhan Harvey. Cape Catley Ltd: Auckland 2010)

There has been a huge academic interest in Witi’s work and it dates back a very long time. I’ll put together a basic list on a separate blog.

There have been a number of interviews published with him over the years (I’ll list some of them together with the academic criticism). One of the more recent, and extensive ones, is in Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion, quoted above.

In his own words

In his interview with Selina Tusitala Marsh (‘Witi Ihimaera: Interviewed by Selina Tusitala Marsh, pp.284-305 in Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion pp.108-133, Ed. Siobhan Harvey. Cape Catley Ltd: Auckland 2010), Witi states:

“The predominant assumption when I began writing in 1972 was that Maori were assimilated into New Zealand culture to the point that when we would start writing our own work, or painting it, or singing it, it would be in the framework of Pakeha culture, or Western culture. The consequence of all of that was that I wasn’t the only Maori artist working at the time whose work appeared to be in accordance with Western aesthetic and literary practices, processes and methodologies with respect to what we were writing about and how we were writing about it.” (p.287) “There was no escape because publishing practices and editorial practices were Pakeha and there was no Maori audience in New Zealand.” (p.288)

Maori writers had to establish their own template for the Maori Story Written in English and their own context.” (p.288)

“Actually, I regard my public work, like the establishment of the Council for Maori and Pacific Arts, as being more important than my writing.” (p.289)

“I like to think of myself as being centred in my culture but able to spiral out of it and return. You know, te torino haere whakamua, whakamuri. At the same time as the spiral is going out, it’s returning.” (p.293)


  • Burns Fellowship, University of Otago 1975.
  • Writing Fellowship Victoria University 1982.
  • 1986 Queen’s Service Medal: For Services to the Māori Community
  • Arts Council Scholarship in Letters 1991.
  • Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellow 1993.
  • Honourary Doctorate of literature Victoria University. 
  • New Zealand Book Council International Writers’ Programme 2002.
  • New Zealand Book Council International Writers’ Programme 2002.
  • Distinguished Companion Order of Merit NZ 2004.
  • Storylines Notable Books List 2006 Picture Book list for Whale Rider.
  • Arts Foundation Laureate 2009. 
  • 2009 Creative New Zealand Te Waka Toi Awards (Māori Arts Awards)
    Te Tohutiketike a te Waka Toi (Supreme Award)

Whalerider,%20Witi ihimaera

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