Author: Patricia Grace
Length: 203 pages
Year Published: 1986
Source: personal collection
Challenges/Resolutions: Personal Collection Resolution; Travel the Globe Resolution/Further Exploration
Potiki is a novel by Maori author Patricia Grace. The story takes place in New Zealand, following the Tamihana family. The time period and location of the story aren’t mentioned precisely. It is, however, mentioned that the location is on the coast–the Tamihanas live on land between a rocky beach and hills (I’m not familiar with the topography of New Zealand, but it seems this could describe many coastal areas.) As for the time period, it seems to me that the story is not very far in the past, and the book was published in 1986. And because of modern conveniences that are mentioned–jet boats, for one–is a clue that it can’t be too “historical” in nature. The characters portray a wide range of people–coming from a family of four children, this really struck me. Tangi, James, Manu, and Toko are all very different from each other and, at the same time, have similarities–this describes my sisters and me to a T. And the larger Tamihana family are portrayed, the aged granny, the mentally handicapped aunt, the strong father and mother, amongst them. Characters are developed and find themselves throughout the story.
For the most part, the story focuses on the Tamihana family and the “power people” who want to buy their family land to turn it into a tourist resort. This is what initially interested me when I began looking for books set in New Zealand. I wanted to read a book that had a large focus on a struggle between the native population of the Maoris and the “intruding” white people. It just happened that this book promised such a struggle in the form of traditional family land being coveted by the enterprising white businessmen. I was particularly interested in the thirteenth chapter, when the “Dollarman” (really a Mr. Dolman) was a representative of the businessmen just wasn’t understanding why the Tamihanas wouldn’t sell their land if their wharenui (meeting house) was moved in it’s perfect state to another location. Here’s a bit of the conversation:
‘Mr Dolman, no amount of money….’
‘Well now, wait a minute. We have, since our previous communication, had another look at the figures. I’d like to….’
‘Mr Dolman, I know we’re hurrying you, but it’s only fair that you should know. There is nothing you can say, no words, no amount of money….’
‘But look. I’m not sure that you have fully understood…Your land here would skyrocket. Your value would go right up….’
‘Everything we want and need is here.’
‘We’re not getting very far with this are we?…I must say I expected you people to be more accommodating….’
‘Not so accommodating as to allow the removal of our wharenui, which is our meeting place, our identity, our security. Not so accommodating as to allow the displacement of the dead and the disruption of a sacred site.’ (p104-106)
The Tamihanas had friends in Te Ope–I’m not sure if that is a city, an area, or even officially anything in New Zealand–possibly just invented for the purposes of the story. But the Maori people of Te Ope had their land taken away from them during war to be used as a landing field. After the war, the Maori did not get their land back. Rather, the land was made into a park while they just stood by and watched, because their homes had been destroyed. As I was trying to find out about Te Ope, whether it was a real place or people, I stumbled upon an article in Wikipedia (yes, possibly not the most reliable article) about the Maori protest movement that occurred during the 1960s-1970s, at the same time of civil rights movements all across the world. I found out about a Raglan Golf Course, in which land was taken from Maori owners during WWII for an airstrip and then the land was leased to and developed by a golf course. (Eventually, in the 1970s, the Maori occupied the land and successfully regained the territory, from what I understand.) Sound similar? I really do wonder if the mention of people from Te Ope was to include a fictional parallel to the real past. And I wish that I knew more about the history of that part of the world (Oceania). In school here, we focus so much on the United States and Europe, I think sometimes we forget that there is more to the Oceania region than being colonized hundreds of years ago. I think I would like to learn a bit more about this area through historical fiction–any suggestions?
Back to the story, the fact that the “power people” actually went to extremes to get the land from the Tamihanas just made my feelings about the issue stronger. I’ve often been upset how the Native Americans were treated in regards to their lands, and the fact that somehow native peoples everywhere tend to be treated in such as way just makes me so mad.
The stories had changed. It was as Toko had said, the stories had changed. And our lives had changed. We were living under the machines, and under a changing landscape, which can change you, shift the insides of you.
Above all we lived under the threat and destructiveness of the power people, and we had only really begun to understand the power.
Before the burning of the house we had known and felt our own strength, which had come from knowing ourselves, and from knowing a direction. But after that time, the time of the fire, we began to really live with fear, and with a question in our minds as to what else could happen, what else could be done in an attempt to destroy us. Was the strength of our own feet enough? Was it enough to have feet on ground? ‘Because it’s not ordinary,’ Reuben warned. ‘Not just a dirty game. They’ve found money won’t shift you and they’ll want to push you off, frighten you, get you off somehow. We mustn’t think it’s just a dirty game that they’ll become tired of sooner or later. They can’t help it, can’t stop. Can’t think, because they have become just like their machines.’
My (Other) Thoughts: As far as the book aside from these points is concerned, I did like the story. It was what I expected, as far as the native vs. alien struggle. And, I often found the language to be very lyrical while reading. But while all of this is true, I was confused. There were many different narrators in the story: Roimata, Hemi, Toko, Mary. But then there was a very roundabout way of telling the story. I don’t know, but perhaps that is a Maori story-telling tradition? It felt as though, while reading it, I knew it was right but I just didn’t feel like I was reading it the right way. (Does that make any sense? 🙂 )
One thing I definitely didn’t like about the book was all of the Maori words that went unexplained. Whether stand-alone words or complete sentence, the foreign language was never defined. Whole sentences or poems/songs were in Maori and never translated–I have no idea what they mean. For this reason, I sort of felt alienated as a reader, like I didn’t belong 😥 I’m accustomed to a foreign language, being explained as it goes along. Like, “……wharenui, meeting house,….” or something. I looked up a few of the Maori words, but most of them I could understand through the context. But the longer bits of Maori I couldn’t understand 😦
I would, however, recommend this book to anyone looking for what I was searching: a portrayal of the life of Maori people juxtaposed with the “power people” and/or in more modern times. If you’d like a fun book about New Zealand, I don’t think this is exactly the way to go.