Making the pen mightier than the taiaha

Apr 5, 2015

Kaituhi Gerry Te Kapa Coates gives his thoughts on the state of Ngāi Tahu literary arts, following a recent wānanga for Ngāi Tahu writers.

Ngāi Tahu has great artists – visual, carvers, weavers, kapa haka exponents – but writers don’t seem to feature prominently. In this hierarchy, Keri Hulme carved her own pou when she won the Booker Prize for her novel The Bone People and became part of literary history. But how many authors or writers have reached those heights since?

Six years ago Hikatea Bull, an Ōtautahi Ngāi Tahu lawyer – and writer – suggested to me at a hui-ā-tau at Ōraka Aparima that we start a group for Ngāi Tahu writers. After amassing a database of more than 40 potentially interested writers we started planning a hui combined with a workshop. Finally after several aborted attempts it came together in late January at Waihao, in a hui sponsored by the Ngāi Tahu Fund and facilitated by Janine Karetai.

Although Keri Hulme, one of our members, was unable due to illness to run the workshop as planned, the 10 writers who gathered at Waihao Marae made a commitment to meet at least once each year and to promote our own writers in print.

At our wānanga we all read excerpts from our work and shared our wisdom about where we had arrived at in our writing. For example, we talked about who owns other people’s stories, and whether we can use them in our own writing. Ultimately we agreed that while we should respect their privacy, we must also use our own integrity in the choices we make.

At the heart of the wānanga was the idea that we write because we must, and recognition isn’t the most important thing. Even so it is nice to be published, to be recognised as a writer, an indigenous writer, a Ngāi Tahu writer. Artists have their own group covering painting, sculpture, installation art and photography. Kapa haka practitioners gather for the biennial Te Matatini festival. Playwrights create plays that theatre directors bring life to. Are we now ready for a comprehensive artists’ group that includes writers? The thing is that all of the arts rely on writers to describe their work, to advertise them, and to review them; but ignore the issue that writing itself is an art form in its own right. A work of art may exist without needing any explanation, relying on the interpretation of the viewer; but inevitably it is still described, analysed, praised, and criticised using written words.

Writing covers the gamut from poetry, drama, and creative fiction to the more workaday non-fiction of reports, journalism, and even copywriting. A poem is just a more obviously artistic work than say technical writing, or a policy report. Shakespeare is certainly an artist, but how about a person making a living writing technical articles? It can all be hard work, even for the seasoned writer, but is it art, or even approaching art? Of course when a writer is finally published and becomes an “author” – a cachet also extended to a director of art films as an “auteur” – there is a degree of recognition. Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1960 debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird, when asked about a sequel (finally published when she was 88) said, “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.” Presumably she meant down. Certainly being published can satisfy the ego driving the quest for publication. But even writers who write for their own personal satisfaction can still benefit from exposure to an audience.

Perhaps the difference between writers, artists, playwrights, and composers as opposed to directors, conductors, and choreographers is that between the individual creative and the collective collaborations, with their individual audiences of readers or viewers compared with the larger auditorium of theatre or dance followers. But the essential difference is between artists – including writers – as generators of their own creations and ideas, and those merely manipulating pre-existing material or techniques into a composition. There is a personal myth that everyone thinks they “have a book in them,” until they find it is actually harder than they think to persevere and bring their book to fruition. This is what separates the artists from the wannabes.

There is some overlap between artists and writers, and not all writers are artists, just as not all craftspeople are artists. The line is often subjective, and can be argued. Are bad poets artists? Can a journalist or an exceptionally good technical writer create a work of art? If it’s just about status, then let’s stop the debate right there. But if it’s about writing even one work of art, isn’t that enough to deserve the sobriquet of artist? I believe it does, and that, including Ngāi Tahu writers under this description, will increase the appreciation of what is important in our indigenous art forms of all types.

The visitors

Their ancient eyes gazed upon my mother as she lay there
in her coffin. I wondered if anyone else could see
these old ones who had just arrived.

The whānau drifted in and out all evening, crying and
laughing, telling the stories they had hoped to tell Mum
when she was still alive. The ones who said, ‘No I won’t,
I want to remember her the way she was’, soon changed
their minds, touching Mum’s cold folded hands, kissing her
each time they came to visit, and as they left again.

The youngest of the great granddaughters, Lexi, asked me,
‘How did Granny get in there?’, and as she asked I realised
she too could see the old ones, for she looked past me
smiling at the eldest woman, a regal hākui, who smiled
in return, her moko kauae on her chin glowing greenly.

The old ones began to chant. Their voices sounding like
the wind blowing through the bush, and a wonderful peace
filled the room.

I left Lexi with them and when I returned I could see she had
been given a moko kauae. She knew that I could see it.
She touched her chin then her lips, shssh.
I nodded my collusion.

As the farewell party drinks, songs, and tears continued
to flow, I saw the old ones bend and hongi with Mum
as they began to leave.

Lexi took my hand and whispered,
‘Uncle, I think Granny’s gone with them’.

Teoti Jardine


Ahakoa e kitea
Tōu kanohi e Pōua
Kāore au e kitea
Te moko o Te Koeti Turanga
Nā te aha
Nā tō pāhau mā

Kei te huna, i roto i
Te korowai koho-a-huka
I runga i
Ngā Pakihiwi o Aoraki
Aoraki mā

Kei te huna, i roto i
Ngā ngaru huhuka mā
Anō nei he waka
Kei roto i
Te kauawhi a Tangaroa

Kei te huna, i roto i
Te haerenga hukahuka
O te kōtuku
Kia whakairohia
Te huarahi
Ki a koe anō
E Pōua

Although I can see
your face e Pōua
I cannot see
the moko o Te Koeti Turanga
the reason
because of your white beard

It is hidden, within
the cloak of mist and snow
the shoulders of Aoraki
and his brothers

It is hidden, within
the white sea foam
just as the waka (Aotea Mai Rangi)
sits within
the embrace of Tangaroa

It is hidden, within
the white flurry
of the kōtuku
as it follows
the path
back to you e Pōu’.

Bronwyn Te Koeti-James