Pacific voices join sweeping conversation

Witi Ihimaera. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
Witi Ihimaera. Photo: Gregor Richardson.

Black Marks on the White Page (various authors) features contributions from Maori and Pacific writers stretching from Witi Ihimaera to Victor Rodger. 

Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (editors)
Random House NZ/Vintage

This anthology of Pacific writing aims to dissolve boundaries, expose collisions and intersections and introduce new ways of seeing and reading from those more rigid hegemonic forms common to western literature. As editors Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti state in their opening words, staid literary forms are often less relevant in Oceanic or Pacific writing.

Here prose and poetry, the concrete and imaginary, and narrative truths and untruths (to name but a few) become less a matter of opposites than a gradual merging to encompass many possible interpretations on the part of the reader. Through time and retelling, meaning can expand and reform.

By accepting the invitation to contribute, the writers here join  in the talanoa, a conversation. This is a broad and abstract concept of a discussion which exists outside of a particular and palpable space and time. As Jione Havea explains in his short story, a talanoa links the listener and storyteller and incorporates spirituality and a culture’s whole world view. Rather than be linear, a talanoa is circular, involving rewriting, transcending, overlapping and transformations. All these elements affect the way a reader responds.

This hard-covered, compact collection  thus incorporates many viewpoints and forms, with contributions both new and previously published from Maori and Pacific writers stretching from Ihimaera and Makereti to Courtney Sina Meredith, Gina Cole, Tusiata Avia, and Victor Rodger, to name but a few. Guest Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright also features, as do Fijian, New Caledonian and Hawaiian writers. Some pieces are complete in themselves, while others are segments from larger works.

While the primary emphasis is on writing, artwork also holds a place, breaking up the density of words (Fiona Pardington and Lisa Reihana were inspirations and fellow collaborators). There are a mixture of forms, as well as more traditional examples of prose, poetry, and script.

Some creations prove more challenging to digest. Whether the pieces are welcoming or alienating though, taken as a whole they provide a new take, from an indigenous oceanic perspective.

The editors have chosen writing ranging from 2007 to  2017, based on how they will help expand our world "aesthetically, politically, linguistically, and culturally". And this they do as  each writer works with his or her own preoccupations, whether they be the dire contemporary state of the world, the role and appearance of art, or a fixation on languages, linguistics and semantics.

Gina Cole’s Black Ice is a satisfying piece of contemporary fiction, a short story of race, irony and fate set in the Fox Glacier region. Anahera Gildea’s likewise has a present-day focus involving a relationship and themes common to all.

Others incorporate legend and storytelling. Patricia Grace mingles Maori legend and real family life in the beautiful Matariki All-Stars. Makereti’s Black Milk is an atmospheric  work about a birdwoman coming into the world anew, and features potent descriptions ("Darkness consumed her, the quivering lip of a dying abalone ... ").  Victor Rodger’s, meanwhile, is straight to the point and pleasingly irreverent.

Some contributions are demanding, being self-referential or experimental in form. One is the monologue of three gods, dramatic and unusual in syntax and structure, almost like a swaying cradle lullaby. Others include legends-meeting-steampunk; a world (almost) post-Facebook; and a ‘‘chimerical fiction’’ which merges the colonising of the past with a voice newly reclaimed.

There will be pieces  more meaningful to a particular reader, depending on their interests and their prior contact with the specific cultures depicted. As a pakeha reader, to a great deal ignorant of these languages  and concepts, the more figurative works proved challenging.

However, this is precisely the point — to invest in new knowledge and ways of seeing. Like the title, these marks here inscribed upon the blank page fill in histories and storytelling from a multiplicity of fresh and uplifting perspectives.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant. 


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Black Marks on the White Page to give away courtesy of Random House NZ. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and "Black Marks" in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, July 18.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, courtesy of Bloomsbury NZ: Kath Rutherford, of Fairfield, Ruth Seeney, of Portobello, Josie Crawley, of Dunedin, Fay McDonald, of Outram, Uschi Heyd, of Dunedin.



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