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Young and old in Margaret Mahy’s work

In a recently republished (?) essay, Elizabeth Knox describes various encounters she had with Margaret Mahy and the thoughts that spun out of them… some of her comments are the sort that provoke further writing: for example,

“…I think how good Margaret was at writing about these things – the things that young people just don’t see, with their sharp senses and vigour and appetite. She could write for the young – and gently and coaxingly against them too. Her books love their young heroes’ capacity, but almost all of those young heroes are, at some point in the story, innocently hardhearted towards their elders.” (Pp.210-211)

“She was widely and deeply read, and curious. But that only describes her habits of acquiring the world, not how her mind worked. Her mind was astonishing (a word she loved). People have remarked on her feeling for myth. But what she had a feeling for was significance. She saw possibilities for meaning, for story, in the way ideas fitted together, not mechanically, but as if this thought and that would suddenly seem subject to the same gravity, as if the way things fell together revealed the star they belonged to – the shining star, or the obscure one, whose only energy is gravity. This meaning-seeing and making was simultaneously playful and serious. It seems to me that her thinking and her work never sought to find a balance between fun and seriousness, fancy and portent. The opposing qualities just partnered up, and wobbled, and danced.” (P.211)

(Italics in original) Elizabeth Knox ‘Margaret Mahy, Hero’ pp.207-214 Eds Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (2014) Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015. Auckland University Press Auckland


Introducing Witi Ihimaera


“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

‘Time & the Art of Maori Storytelling’ – Joan Metge

Discussing her early encounters with apparent ‘inconsistencies’ in the timing of Maori accounts of ancestors, Joan Metge wrote a really interesting piece challenging reader’s/listener’s assumptions. She explained: “Kupe, for example, gives sailing directions in the first person to Turi, who is many generations removed from him on the whakapapa. Where most scholars of the time interpreted these ‘inconsistencies’ as evidence that the Maori had no sense of history and the passage of time, Te Rangi Hiroa explained them as examples of a literary style which used the first person or oratio recta, even when ancestors belonged to different periods. The aim, he suggested, was to ensure the effective communication of information from generation to generation.” (p.3)

She observes that “Because the New Zealand islands underwent early separation and long isolation from other lands, their flora and fauna are botanically and zoologically distinctive, different from those of other Polynesian islands. The stories of the Children of Heaven and Earth, Maui and Tawhaki are supposedly set in Hawaiki before the migrations, yet all the trees, birds and fishes mentioned therein are most of the plants are identifiable, by their Maori name and characteristics, as species distinctive to new Zealand. [she lists various examples from Maui’s tales and discusses how this might work in storytelling]” (p.4)

“Myths never become out-of-date. Instead, they continue to provide a charter for existing social institutions, even in social change, and attempt to bring [-p.9] about a mediation of contemporary as well as ancient problems. Myths move with the times, because myths are for telling. If this is true for the myths, it is also true for other stories about the ‘doings of the ancestors’, including those presented before the Waitangi Tribunal. Western-trained historians understandably have problems handing such material. Some take the extreme position that it falls outside the realm of history, into that of myth. Others are willing to recognise that Maori have their own scholarly approach to history, including their own ways of testing reliability and validity. While the Maori approach differs from the Western one in significant ways, knowledge of its conventions would open up access to information at present locked away in code as it were. I hope that this study of ‘time and the art of Maori storytelling’ will help historians to recognise and allow for the processes of updating and localisation at work in oral evidence.” (pp.8-9)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Joan Metge (1998) Time & the art of Maori’ storytelling. New Zealand Studies 8(1), pp.3-9

…to be Maori outside of New Zealand

I was just listening to an interesting podcast in which Alice te Punga Somerville talks about indigenous Commonwealth writing and the place of unpublished/unrecognised writing in our national literature. She makes some incredibly interesting points.   (Books that Built New Zealand – She is the fourth interviewee, towards the end of the podcast)

In this interview, Alice te Punga Somerville talks about some of Once Were Pacificthe gaps and quirks in how we think of literature in New Zealand (and how we claim books and authors as being ‘of New Zealand’). In studying New Zealand literature, we should certainly be asking the questions and considering the oddities that she points out.

NB (See for a little more detail about this author, whom te Punga Somerville discusses)

Interviews with Alice te Punga Somerville appear a couple of times in the Radio New Zealand Archives and she makes some really important points in each of them: about, for example: What it means to be Maori outside of New Zealand and What it means to be a Pacific Islander; an indigenous person of the Pacific, etc.

Alice Te Punga Somerville and the Māori diaspora

In this interview, Alice Te Punga Somerville uses Whalerider as an example of how we can look at what it is to be Maori from a different angle than has been used in the past. It was fascinating how she reframed this text (or ‘these texts’ – book and film).

She places Whalerider in the context of Maori diaspora, pointing out that “The book has this whole completely different angle [from the film] on what it is to be Maori. …There’s this thing that happens in Whalerider [the book] that we certainly don’t get from the film. The film is a story about Maoris and maybe a few Pakehas… The book is a story about Maori who are part of the Pacific… not always in comfortable ways… so the Nanny in the book is kind of like “Eh, don’t people in New Guinea, like eat people?” and “make sure you’re not put in a cooking pot!” …so there’s a kind of acknowledgment of these colonial views we’ve had of the region, but ultimately, for me anyway, the Whalerider makes this really important contribution to our understanding of who we are as Maori and that is within the region, within the Pacific region, a ‘cuz’ is a ‘cuz’.” [cuz as in cousin]

PREVIEW 2015 Alice Te Punga Somerville_ Once were Pacific

A Visit to the Beachside Library

by Bill Nagelkerke

I’d rather be lost
in a sea of words
than in an ocean of water.

Ref: p.14 Ed. Paula Green (2014) A Treasury of NZ poems for children. Illustrated by Jenny Cooper. Random House: Auckland

Elderly characters in Mahy’s fiction

Joan Gibbons makes the following points about Margaret Mahy’s elderly characters (in which I am always interested):

“Mahy deals with a complete range of age groups, and people of any age can belong to a family or be alone.” (p.16)

“New friendships can be formed at any age as can new families. This is more common with the young, although, with Mahy, no one is too old to form a new relationship. Middle aged or elderly people may marry and form a new family as easily as do the young.” (p.16)

“Most people in Mahy’s stories continue to grow, to meet and cope with further stages and challenges in life. Mahy shows that even the elderly may have the capacity to grow in understanding of themselves and of others.” (p.17)

Ref: Joan Gibbons ‘Family Relationships in the Stories of Margaret Mahy’ Papers 5:1, 1994, pp.11-27

A conversation with Ted Dawes

This coming Wednesday, the central library is hosting a talk with Ted Dawes about all the controversy over Into The River.

Acts of looking in Mahy’s The Changeover

While I disagree somewhat with her version of Magical Realism, I like what Lucy Norton had to say about ‘looking’ in Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover:

“Portraying adolescent experience as a threshold where boundaries of “time, space, and identity” change, Mahy examines how the activity of looking informs adolescent perception, a theme that she often explores in this novel through the depiction of art. For Mahy, the act of looking involves fragmentation of the looking self, recognition of “the other” as separate but integral to self, and, finally, integration of “the other” back into the looker.
In discussing The Changeover, critics focus primarily on its liminal nature and on its use of myth and archetype. Nevertheless, in The Changeover, characters of all ages are constantly looking at themselves and others in mirrors, advertisements, and television; in photographs, posters, and paintings; and in their mind’s eye. Sometimes looking is portrayed as an interaction or exchange; sometimes it is depicted as intrusive as characters [-p.30] attempt to look at other people – and sometimes even at themselves – covertly.” (pp.29-30)

Norton discusses several important instances of looking and (I think) highlights an important facet of how this text works. “In The Changeover,” Norton writes, “looking determines the kind of connection that adolescent characters form with “the other”; it also figures prominently in whether or not a character can recognize and successfully integrate disparate and sometimes difficult aspects of “the other” back into the self. Sorensen’s propensity for establishing one-way connections – looking at people (and things) who are unaware of being looked at – not only restricts his interactions with others, but also endows him with a false sense of invulnerability.” (p.31) “By contrast, Laura meets herself face-to-face. She not only recognizes that which is covert, but also realizes that growth entails exchange, a blurring of borders.” (p.32)

She also notes that “Throughout the novel, Mahy also portrays uneasy borders between to public and private realms, a relationship in which looking is again crucial.” (p.31)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Lucy Norton (1998) ‘Seeing is believing: Magical Realism and Visual narrative in Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover.’ Bookbird, Summer 36(2), pp29-32

The Bakehouse, Joy Cowley

the bakehouse

I don’t know how Joy Cowley churns them out at such a rate and keeps the quality of her writing so high, but there you go;  We have another great read from Joy Cowley: The Bakehouse (2015).

You can read the first chapter online at Booknotes Unbound:

The Bakehouse has received some good reviews:

These reviews pick out many of the themes I would highlight – life in New Zealand during (WWII) wartime; how this conflict was experienced at home (rations, fear of invasion, accusations of cowardice, loss of loved ones far from home, changes in social behaviour, the presence of foreign troups etc); issues of morality; the role of women at that time; the experience of family during wartime.

Elderly characters in children’s fiction

I think another point worth noting is how the book invites us to consider New Zealand’s ‘elderly’ (and their relationship with adolescents/adolescence). This is largely done by the frame of the story (an elderly man is asked to recall his life as a child during WWII). Interestingly, to me at least, while an elderly man is critical to the telling of this tale of war on the homefront, his presence is kept at a distance; he is recalling his youth (a youth bare of other elderly). It seems to me that this reflects the relationship between elderly and adolescents in modern NZ – they are kept largely separate. That said, our relationship with the two world wars of the twentieth century is mediated through story and our elderly have a privileged place in the telling of war stories because they are able to ‘bear witness’. In this way, with regards to WWI and WWII, in recent years, the ‘elderly’ have become important protagonists of a story that we use to elucidate national identitybut it is often their youth that we discuss, more than their current age. What of the elderly as people in their own right, with current life experiences and current interests? Where are those characters in modern children’s and YA fiction? I could understand them being secondary characters, given the expectation that protagonists of YA fiction be youths… nevertheless. Also… it is common to talk about how war changed the lives of women and the shapes of families, but how did it change relationships between the ages? How did WWI and WWII affect our impression of what it is to be elderly – then and now?
Anyway, some points to read over in this regard; Consider the first page, in which the elderly Bert observes “A tall skinny boy” “snooping around the grounds of the retirement village. …One of that gang, he thought, louts with spray cans thinking the elderly are an easy target. Need a good boot up the backside, the lot of them.” (p.9)
“everything happens in a war, but children don’t understand what’s going on. War is the adult world and kids just have to accept it.” (p.17)
“Viewed from a distance of seventy-plus years, 1943 was history soup, everything mixed up, and it was difficult to separate reality from what he had read or been told. One event, though, was crystal clear and refused to be forgotten. He’d never talked about it to the others, not Meg and certainly not Betty, but he didn’t want to be buried with the truth. Someone should know what happened that winter day.” (pp.19-20)


Ethical questions are raised throughout the text.

How important is it to do what is forbidden to you as a child? How do children mature in the face of restrictions (ethical, physical and otherwise)? Consider: “there didn’t seem much point in going back inside the bakery, but they did. Many times. Why? Because it was forbidden, because it was their secret….” (p.26)

A ‘deserter’ from the army is key to this story, but we are not invited to think of him as a coward, in keeping with the attitudes of the times; “he wasn’t really a deserter, not someone deliberately betraying his country. He’d got scared, that was all. He’d made a mistake and now there was no going back.” (p.57) I’m not sure how anachronistic it is to have a child think like this during World War II… I don’t know how many people truly thought like this in the face of public sentiment?!

Theft is an ongoing feature, but theft of what, from whom, for whom, by whom etc – this is problematic. Consider Bert’s father reacting to theft and placing it in the ethical context of ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ (pp.62-63)


This text also serves as an expose on gender experiences of the time. At times, this felt less a part of the story and more a determination to provide context, but it is still really interesting.

NB for example: “There were no men teachers at the school. They were all away, fighting to win the war.” (p.29) Bert’s mother’s anti-war stance did feel a bit contrived to me, but it is a gendered stance as well (see also pp.36-37)

Bert’s father’s presence at home is explained, but it does tug on his sense of masculinity (p.63).

Or consider the aunt’s behaviour and Burt’s father’s reaction to it.

Consider also that the aunt’s friend gets pregnant out of wedlock and has to deal with this according to the expectations of the time (e.g. p.88, p.97). This connects with Bert’s concerns for his sister and her interest in the deserter (p.84, for example). It also sets the scene for Burt revealing Donald’s presence to army men (p.131) – what might be seen as an act of betrayal is also an act of protection. What ethics are at play here?! [SPOILER] It isn’t a decision with a neat ending either – his sister does marry Donald and he doesn’t live long as a result of being interred (chapter nineteen). The ethics of Bert’s decision are not neat or clearcut.


“The war was always there, like a big hungry ghost that poured itself out of the radio to haunt the house.” (p.113)

The war is always there, changing things and shaping events, but in what ways is the war more than social backdrop in this novel? In what ways is war actually shaping the story?

And what purpose is served by having Bert and Erueti discuss war at the end of the novel, as an elderly man? (“Bert wanted to say, “Who says it’s brutal?” and “You think war isn’t atrocity?” But the boy had a sweet face, and there was something about him that made Bert feel he was looking into an old mirror. …Now he was feeling very, very tired. Some words rose out of nowhere and tumbled out of his mouth. “It doesn’t matter what side you are on, lad, everyone killed in a war is someone’s child.”” (p.137))

Why close the parenthetic narrative like this?! What does the ending say about the meaning/ the experience of war? (and what does it say about connections between the experiences of elderly and youth?)

Teaching Notes

Gecko Press provide some interesting teaching notes:

Romance and Mahy

Just some thoughts from Anna Lawrence-Pietroni on romance and genre in Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover and The Tricksters… She wrote (20 years ago):

“…the subtitle of The Changeover parodies its own apparent categorization, as the text proceeds to undermine the very genre to which it claims to belong. The subtitle “A Supernatural Romance” illustrates the problem of categorizing this book: it turns on the cultural ambiguity of the “romance” tag, signifying both the literary genre of which the Arthurian quest, with its connotations of nobility and tradition is only a part, and the less-esteemed genre of the sentimental love story, seen more as a formula than as an art form. The qualifying “supernatural” suggests yet another location for the novel.” (pp.34-35)

Lawrence-Pietroni also points out that Laura also ‘denounces’ Sorry’s taste in literature (i.e. Romance) and “fails to recognize the place and function of the text in a wider social context (the book itself is only part of the reading experience). Sorry’s reading becomes an analogue for their relationship, as Laura lacks knowledge of the practices of sentimental romance both in and outside the book.” (p.35)

“While in The Tricksters the relationship between two of the main characters is mediated in the protagonist’s mind by fairy tales, which draw attention to the status of this relationship as an event in a book, love and sex are seen to be drained of meaning in The Changeover. Kate explains that “when people make love they get a rest from being themselves. Just for a few moments they can become nothing and it’s a great relief” (119). What might be seen as the supreme act of union, the most meaningful act possible, is in fact an attempt to reach a state of non-signification. Of course, that Kate speaks these words at all indicates that, while the act itself might not hold any fixed and intrinsic meaning, it has a wider, socially imposed significance, which prompts her need to excuse herself to Laura. The sexual act holds no value or meaning itself.” (p.36) [Lawrence-Pietroni doesn’t emphasise the undermining of Romance as a genre here, but I find that point interesting!]

Similarly, describing Laura’s kiss with Sorry (quoting Mahy at first): “It reminded Laura of the soft but heavy kisses Jacko used to give when he was just learning to kiss, and she found it very disturbing, for it seemed as if he kissed her for Jacko in the past, himself in the present and for another unknown child somewhere in the future” (155). Sorry runs into Jacko, and time dissolves into the moment, while Laura is mother, sister, and lover in the giving and receiving of one kiss.” (p.36) Again, this is an interesting undermining of certain generic expectations of romance.

But then again, is it? We are talking about adolescent fiction here, so can adolescent romance better acknowledge imperfect romantic experiences? …approach them differently? hmmm

Does sex or love move the plot forward in these books? does it do so differently in romances that might be more ‘typical’ of the genre?

Lawrence-Pietroni also discusses sex and romance in The Tricksters… it might be an old article, but I’d say it’s worth thinking about more (and placing the points in comparison with other adolescent fiction).

Ref: Anna Lawrence-Pietroni ‘The Tricksters, The Changeover, and the Fluidity of Adolescent Literature’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 21(1)1996, pp.34-39