They say (you know how ‘they’ are always saying things) that the joy of travel is in the finding of difference-the alien and the exotic. If you keep away from resorts and star hotels, that is. And I would, in the most, agree. There seems little point in going halfway round to world to find one self at home. There must, however, be something wrong with that thought, for it completely fails to to explain why Witi Ihimaera’s stories have been so engrossing when they feel like a homecoming!
Ihimaera’s stories revolve around Waituhi village, with occasional excursions into Wellington. The lines are fairly clear- Waituhi is Maori and Wellington is European, and many of the stories speak of the tension between he two cultures. While there is a sorrow at at a dying way of life, there is also a recognition that the new ways are very attractive. Ihimaera’s stated claim, in the early stories, was to acquaint ‘Urban’ Maori with the old way of life and its values, and to help them understand their roots. This gradually moved to a more political stance, and sharper criticism of the effects of European colonisation and the struggles of Maori in the present.
What I found striking, though, is the constant feeling that these stories could so easily have been set in the North East India (an artificial unity I stubbornly cling to) that I grew up in. The experiences of the characters could as easily have been mine, from being a tribal in a world that didn’t think much of tribals, to the struggle to succeed in a system one did not quite understand, even the easy laughter, sense of belonging and claustrophobia in a ‘close-knit community’. It is strangely comforting to recognise characters in the book, from the dominating figure of the Matriarch to the kid torn between the old world and the new.
The setting and style of the stories beg comparison with R.K Narayan’s Malgudi, though Ihimaera’s writing is much more politically loaded, and much more accommodating of what has variously been called mystical, magical or superstition. They are however as pleasantly easy to read as Narayan, with none of the twisted complexity that afflicts a lot of literary writing today. One of the books has also been turned into a rather engrossing film. Very strongly recommended!