“Jen has a knack of choosing destination-appropriate books,” Phil joked at a dinner they were hosting for us, after recounting their last holiday and the pile of books that made their way into their home. “Inda is a bookworm!” S exclaimed, unwittingly establishing a clear line of supply and demand. That night we went home with a big serving of feijoa and walnut cake, and a thoughtful batch of books written by New Zealanders.
That was how I came to read the first Maori novel ever to published: Tangi, by Witi Ihimaera. The story is the emotional narrative of young Tama Mahana, who travels back to his hometown to take part in the funeral of his father, who had died unexpectedly. In the Maori culture, the dead is mourned for 3 days and nights before he is buried. This long funeral is called a Tangi. I admired Ihimaera’s choice for his first book, for I have never felt at ease writing about heartache, even in my own quiet space. My journal would be left empty for days in the wake of a difficult event, so as not to begin on a topic that contained sadness. To write something was to keep it forever; and I feared the lingering of dark emotions that I thought I had best let slip away. This book was all about those nasty feelings, so much a part of us that to deny them the way I would normally try to, was a mistake. To embrace the funeral as the way by which Maori literature would be so iconically represented was a brave and heartfelt effort.
The depiction of Tama’s grief was raw and consuming. It was not an ache you could put your finger on, to ease with a balm, nor a gash to patch up with poultice, not a sprain that you could splint with a bandage. It was waves and waves of pain and misery, mixed with denial and regret. Then suddenly as if the sun would break through, and you would gain understanding. But only for a moment, before the next nauseating wave comes again.
Through all of this, Tama’s mind roves back through memories of a colorful family life. These were the passages I lived for. Tama’s deceased father, Rongo, had taken up many jobs in his lifetime. As a sheep shearer, farm hand, and labourer, he took his family around the country, working hard to make a living. We saw the world through little boy eyes, how his days were divided between back breaking chores at the behest of his bustling mother, Huia, and games played with his closest sister Ripeka. Throughout all of this, Rongo was like a mountain. A comforting constant in their uncertain lives. Father in all seasons and moods. So completely the sculptor of my life.
As Tama made his way back home, the community had already amassed to prepare the tangi. In the cloud of grief that had descended upon the village, people started to find small purposes to keep themselves going. A tent for the ceremony had to be erected, and stoves were lit to feed the throng of mourners. A group went to collect hay for people to rest on during those 3 days and nights, while another brought supplies of kai. Haere mai ko o tatou mate e, an elder mourner would lead, come to our dead. Grief had a method and a channel here, and aid to a family whose lives had crumbled around them like a landslide.
Despite the sadness, the book is a fantastic introduction to the Maori culture, and it definitely made me want to learn more about these gregarious people. Their legends went back as far as the beginning of light and dark.
My mother was the Earth, My father was the Sky, They were Ranitane and Papatuanuku, the first parents, who clasped each other so tightly that there was no day. Their children were born into darkness…
These twin islands we now call New Zealand still hold on to their Maori name, Aotearoa. It was first uttered by Chief Kupe, when he came from Hawaiiki. “He ao,” he said, as his canoe brought him closer, “He aotea … he aotearoa.” It is a cloud, a white cloud … it is a long white cloud. Then came the first men, who sailed the Great Fleet in treacherous seas. “Takitimu, Kurahaupo, Tainui, Te Arawa … Remember the names, Tama? Remember?
Imagine a people with hearts so strong that their every beat could make enemies tremble, and so deep that they clasped their loved ones close enough to press their noses together to show aroha. Imagine the sharp and swirling patterns that adorn their backs, limbs, and even women’s chins. Every stroke of ink, every twill of straw, every tremor of muscle which stood before you was there to warn you that you were dealing with a warrior race, and this warning was put to song in haka.
I watched the wild chants and gestures mesmerized, and tried to intimidate S with my own haka stare. I stood in horse-riding stance, palm out, fingers waving in anticipation of a strike, threw my head back so that I could look at him murderously with my wide eyes, the pupils carefully set in the horizon of my lower lids. For good measure, I stuck my tongue out as far as I could. A flesh-eating lizard demon. S told me later that I reminded him of a squirrel in the cold, and was immediately overcome by a resolve to cuddle me.
Halfway through the book, I finally realised a launguage link that had been staring me right in my face. Tangi, the name for the mourning ceremony, had a more literal meaning in Maori : to cry. Tangisan is crying in Malay, as menangis is the act of crying. I started paying attention more hungrily to the Maori words, and was rewarded by random shrapnel of Malay. The Maori mate matches the Malay mati, to die. Pai in Maori is baik in Malay, good. Whakarao for fikiran, thoughts. Ika / ikan, fish. Rima / lima, five. Taringa / telinga, ear. Ate / hati, liver in the strictest sense, yet both the Maori and the Malays use this word to figuratively mean the ‘heart’, or the seat of emotion. It’s random, but it’s beautiful. We’re stitched together in surprising places.
To manawa, e taku manawa.
* Tangi cover photograph: ‘Pathway to Reinga,’ by Wallace Brittain, depicts pallbearers carrying the casket of King Koroki to Taupiri Mountain. It won the Baird Award for the best photograph of 1957.
** Participants at the Te Matatini national festival 2012.