We have to start this arotake pukapuka (book review) by talking about reo (language) – which means we have to talk about history and power. As a reader of this blog, you are probably not from New Zealand and you probably know our country mainly through The Lord of the Rings movies. It’s a start: at least you’ve seen some of our extraordinary landscapes. But long before they were used to tell this alien tale, this land was covered in native stories that span centuries into the past and continue into the present and the future.
A recent highlight in such storytelling is the new pakimaero (novel) Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka, who comes from the Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes.
Kurangaituku is written primarily in English with a generous sprinkling of Maori words and phrases. Many of our kaituhi Māori (Maori, that is, indigenous writers) write in English. Indeed, part of the violent colonial project to transform Aotearoa into New Zealand was to suppress te reo Māori (the Maori language). Schoolchildren were beaten to use it in class and grew up encouraging their own children to speak English in order to advance in the new world. As a result, many Maori are no longer able to speak or write in their own language.
Hereaka herself learned te reo as an adult (NB: ‘te reo’ literally means ‘the language’ but is used colloquially to refer to the Maori language). At a recent Verb Wellington Literary Festival event celebrating Kurangaituku she said, “I found the space in my mouth where te reo lives”. His use of te reo in this pukapuka is therefore important and hard-earned. I conceal my own use of te reo as we go through this arotake (review), but Hereaka rightly does not in his pukapuka. Instead, you can retrieve the meanings from contextual clues or, if you’re curious, use the free website Te Aka Maori-English Dictionary.
Let’s start with how to pronounce Kurangaituku, the name of the protagonist of our tale. It’s a beautifully long kupu (word) and well worth your time. Ku-echelon-have-tu-ku. You can hear Hereaka say it and read an excerpt from his pukapuka in this video. She begins by saying “This comes from what is physically the middle of the book, technically the end of the book, but where most of us started – the story of Hatupatu and the Birdwoman.” Likewise, in the middle of this pukapuka arotake, we finally found our way to the beginning of the story.
Hatupatu and the Bird-Woman is a famous pūrākau (myth) in te ao Māori (Maori society). In most tales, Kurangaituku is a monster, half-bird, half-woman. She captures Hatupatu but he uses his cunning and daring to escape, stealing all of her treasures as he does. Kurangaituku is Hereaka’s account of the pūrākau (myth) from the perspective of the bird-woman.
This could be tricky as you will need to ship it from Aotearoa New Zealand but if possible I recommend getting your hands on it Kurangaituku in paperback. (It’s also available as an ebook.) That’s because it was created as a physical storytelling experience. There are two covers, both of which bear an image of Kurangaituku. On a cover, on a black background, she is represented with an essentially human face and a hand in the shape of a bird’s claw. In the other, with a white background, she has a more birdlike face (including the beak) and a human hand. You choose a cover and start reading from the middle of the pukapuka (book), then turn it over and read again on the other side. Near the middle, the two directions of the story are woven together, so you read alternate pages while the pages in between are upside down. Kurangaituku is the point of view character throughout. (How it works in ebook publishing is that the reader chooses a bird as their guide – miromiro or ruru – and reads one story direction, then is presented with a link to start the other.)
I started reading from the end of the white background, where the story begins at the beginning of all things in Te Kore, the void that exists before the universe. Te Kore becomes Te Pō, darkness, then Te Whaiao, daylight. “Beginning. Middle. Finishing. Middle. Beginning.” Kurangaituku sometimes addresses the kaipānui (reader) directly: “You too are a curious creature, eager for experiences – I recognize myself in you… I borrowed your voice; I’m dressed in your accent.” We are with Kurangaituku as she wants to be and travels through time, space and realities. As the pukapuka progresses, we encounter not only Hatupatu and his brethren in te ao mārama (the physical realm), but a whole range of atua (supernatural beings) in Rarohenga (the spirit world). At first, Kurangaituku is created by the birds in the form of a giant kōtuku (white heron), but when the Song Makers (i.e. humans) arrive, they use the language to recreate it partly to their own image. Thus, she becomes half-bird, half-woman. The power of language and storytelling to shape reality is a recurring theme.
The narrative structure seems weird but it really works. Physically rotating the pukapuka (book) and starting over reinforces the idea of Kurangaituku like the last tale of an old, old story. At the Verb Wellington event, Hereaka said, “I reject the idea of originality…it’s important for the health of our pūrākau [myths] to keep telling them. Hereaka also demonstrated this kaupapa (guiding principle) when she co-edited with Witi Ihimaera the 2019 anthology Pūrākau: Maori myths told by Maori writers, which I also highly recommend. In their introduction to this anthology, Hereaka and Ihimaera write that the pūrākau “may be fabulous and fantastical, but they are also real…There is also no separation between the ‘fantasy’ stories of our origin, c ie mythology and folklore, and believable or factual stories. … Maori do not make these distinctions. It’s the whole story, fluid, holistic, inclusive – not necessarily linear – and it can be told backwards”.
One of the functions of the interwoven story directions of Kurangaituku, is then to invite the reader to accept that this story is both invented and true. It upsets your ideas of what a pakimaero (novel) is; what is speculative fiction; what magic realism is. At the Verb Wellington event, Hereaka said, “I don’t believe magical realism is a thing, it’s just the native way of looking at things.”
Hereaka also explained how nervous she was about how Māori would receive her new account of the pūrākau. In my readings, as a Pākehā (White New Zealander), I could feel the weight of history and anticipation in her sentences, but they are strong enough to bear it, woven tightly and expertly together to create a true work of art. Kurangaituku is serious in its depth and thoughtfulness but never pompous – in fact, as well as being engaging, it is also very funny at times; a true page-turner in the most literal sense possible. It feels both solid and weird in a very powerful way.
I got chills when, halfway through the pukapuka, Kurangaituku said, “I stopped being the words on this page and became a real being, nesting in your brain.” Building on the mahi (work) of Song Makers before her, Hereaka now uses the power of not one but two languages to reshape Kurangaituku once again. Long may they both go on.
Kurangaituku is published by Huia.
My ancestors come from England
I am here in Aotearoa New Zealand under the Treaty of Waitangi
I was born in Auckland in the traditional tribal area of the Ngāti Whātua tribe
Waitematā Harbor is the body of water that is dear to me
Mount Albert is the mountain that is dear to me
I now live in Wellington in the traditional tribal area of the Te Āti Awa tribe
My name is Elizabeth Heritage