Sunday, October 21, 2012

Middle Earth, Taniwha and Language

In 2011 I was part of a creative writing paper at the University of Canterbury, where lecturer and author Patrick Evans likened Katherine Mansfield's (1888-1923) fame with her use of New Zealand words. Like other New Zealand writers, such as Margaret Mahy, Mansfield could have cloaked her characters in alternative realities, the leaves and languages of the Northern parts of the globe. But she didn't. Patrick asked our class what was it that really stood out about Mansfield's story "At the Bay". Though the story actually bored me to bloody tears, as does the majority of Mansfield's work I am afraid, the answer was obvious. I raised my hand up, and replied, "Toi toi." 

Toi toi is a grass that grows on New Zealand coasts, on the beaches and dunes. It's name is Maori in origin, and more often is referred to as "cutty grass" by Europeans. It's sharp, you see. It cuts you if you grab it too tightly. Mansfield mentions it in the first page of the story "At the Bay." She could have just have called it "grass" -- but she didn't. The name toi toi cements in a place, in a culture, to a culture. Katherine Mansfield spent the better part of her life attempting to escape New Zealand, but in the end it was a seed inside her heart that took root in her stories. 

OK, I thought to myself, that was Mansfield, and it makes her respected among New Zealand writers and scholars. But it's become such a gimmick among the rest of us. To find New Zealand, to capture New Zealand, in our words and our art. As if it is a cloud we can't reach, when its the breathing land under our feet. We eat New Zealand, in the form of milk and cheese and honey, every single day. What do we need to spend our artistic lives hunting it down for? We are New Zealand. Let's concentrate on real characters, original plots, beautiful and innovative uses of language, and forgot about whether it happens in New Zealand -- or Uruguay, for that matter. 

So imagine my surprise when strange-sounding, exotic, Maori words begin to show up in my poems, and my stories. Everywhere. 

Two months ago my poem "Tutukaka" was published in the Spring edition of Takahē Magazine. To give you some clue as to what occurred in this poem, here is a snippet: 

They smelled ghosts
in my blood;
not like their ghosts, 
and in the forest
alone I grew. 
Past the mamaku
and the manuka trees
I grew and grew
and grew flowers
unlike other flowers
and grew leaves
larger than native leaves...

There is no denying it -- there is something very New Zealand-ish about this poem, more so than anything else I had ever written. Which is good, I suppose. Living in Kiwi-land, it is hard to get published if your content isn't centered almost solely around New Zealand or Kiwi culture. But still. I had so wanted to not contrive my work to fit that. Poetry, stories, songs, they would not fit a market, but be left to grown as they would grow, to choose wings or ears or eyes to watch the stars, I would not carve limbs into their round bellies or nostrils into their toes. They would be themselves. 

Maybe it was a fluke, a one-off? 

No. I am afraid not. New Zealand and its ferns have koru-spiraled their ways once again into my words. Several very recent poems, barely edited in full, feature local gods, native plants, places I myself have walked, and modern yet strange characters walking the path of the taniwha. 

Instead of dragons we have taniwha -- shape-changing, mercurial spirits of air and water, sometimes spiritual guardians, other times monsters that would devour whole villages of people. One folk tale describes the taniwha as lizards with bat-like wings, other stories state the taniwha were giant whales. Most of the time, taniwha lived in the rivers and underground springs. So many stories of these mythic creatures are similar to stories of dragons, but the difference, the essence and energy of them, is strikingly alluring. 

At night I find myself reading "Traditional Maori Stories: Taniwha, Giants and Supernatural Creatures" by A.W. Reed and Ross Calman -- and adoring it. New Zealand folklore has all the beauty, drama, and enchantment of the great Greek myths. Witches, monsters, dragons, warriors, wizards - they are all here, right here, in my home. The Maori just have a different name for them. 

So what on earth makes me so nervous about using the language of the land that I have lived in most of my life? I was born in Canada, in a hospital in Edmonton city. But Canada may as well be an imaginary land, equipped with magical towers and unicorns and white buffalo, for I have never seen it. But all the same, to use the Maori words and names for things makes me nervous. Am I too pakeha -- too white -- to have any right to the words? 

Maybe. Yes, maybe. But like so many languages, the words are taking root, just because they want to. 

First, I learned English. I want breakfast, I want a hug, I want to watch television.
Second, I learned Hate. Damn you, shit, crap, I hate you, I'm tired, I'm over it.
Third, I learned Plants. For heart pain: 20g of Crataegus oxycantha, 30g of Cystisus scoparius, 25g of Codonopsis pilosula.
Fourth, I learned Poetry. "In the Desert a fountain is springing / In the wide waste there still is a tree..."
Fifth, I learned Forgiveness. I'm ok. 

If I am living in New Zealand, breathing New Zealand, eating New Zealand, drinking New Zealand, and maybe, once in a while, going to the river's edge and paying homage to a local taniwha guardian, maybe I am New Zealand, too. Perhaps this language, this Te Reo, is my language, and maybe Aotearoa is the name of my own heart and blood. 

Maybe Te Reo -- the Maori language --will be the sixth language? A language of the land, of music, of the manuka trees and toi toi, of the great taniwha sleeping beneath the earth in their underground lakes, of middle earth and all the other names it once wore long ago. 


  1. Joel,
    I understand completely. As a white Australian (even as one whose ancestors have been here 200 years and more), I feel extremely uncomfortable about using ANY Aboriginal stories, words, language, because there has been so much exploitation and appropriation, and because indigenous Australians are so very wary about anyone who is not indigenous using them. And yet, what else can I use? This is my home, my birthplace, the place of my family, my ancestors. The stories my remote ancestors brought from Europe are part of me, for sure...but they don't fit here. And I find this Catch 22 situation stymies me every time I try to write about this land and my place in it.

  2. It's something a lot of writers and artists deal with, I think. Margaret Mahy struggled for years to come to terms with being a New Zealander, with the majority of her stories set, if anywhere, overseas. Charles de Lint I know was heavily criticized for some of his books (like "Mulengro") for using stories, language and ideas from other cultures in his writing. The most important thing, I think, is to just treat other cultures with respect. No one ever intends to cause offence, or harm. I have just decided to go with it, really. Embedded in the stories, art and language of a culture is the energy of that place, the hills, the plants, the animals. Just as we cloak energies in material, earthy garbs of paint and ink, the energy of a place can be found represented in the stories and folktales and indigenous art. I know I am not trying to "use" anyone's culture for my own gain. I am trying to express something that I have experienced, using whatever tools feel intuitively best for that purpose. While I don't want to be disrespectful, I also have to respect the voice of the inner artist. Perhaps, if I am wishing to explore ideas of traditional Maori beliefs and stories, there is a good reason that I am being guided to do so.



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