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  • "It all depends on what story you hear":Historiographic Metafiction and Colin Johnson's Dr. Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World and Witi Ihimaera's The Matriarch
  • Joanne Tompkins (bio)

In "Parade," one of the stories collected in Waiariki and Other Stories, Patricia Grace maintains that Maoris will no longer allow themselves to be put on show, like "Animals in cages to be stared at . . . [or] museum pieces, curios, antiques, shells under glass" (86). The narrator, refusing to be a "relic" of a dying culture any longer, calls on the strength and determination of her people, which, when combined with the sea, land, and air, creates a formidable force:

I took in a big breath, filling my lungs with sea and air and land and people. And with past and present and future, and felt a new strength course through me. I lifted my voice to sing and heard and felt the others join with me. Singing loudly into the darkest of nights. Calling on the strength of the people. Calling them to paddle the canoes and to paddle on and on. To haul the canoes down and paddle. On and on—

(Grace 89) [End Page 483]

This call to action and to life is followed by an invocation to the gods of the seven sacred canoes, a passage not translated from the Maori. Current Maori and Aboriginal literatures in English recognize the need to restore lost links to the past to understand the present and contemplate the future. Literature by writers of Maori and Aboriginal descent, such as Grace, Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Colin Johnson,1 Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), and Jack Davis, differs significantly from white literature (Shoemaker 176) in its use of traditional indigenous forms and its political concerns. As illustrated in the excerpt from Grace's story, foremost among the accomplishments of this literature are the affirmation of Maori and Aboriginal identity and the reclamation of what has been denied by two centuries of white domination. Interestingly, in addressing indigenous issues, much of the literature of these Maori and Aboriginal writers employs the same methods as white Western writers of the postmodern tradition. Both include a variety of literary forms and an implicit preoccupation with language. Most important in the context of these writers is their interest in history. To indigenous postcolonial literature, history becomes a central political concern because history denies colonized peoples both a past and a viable present. It becomes apparent, in comparing indigenous postcolonial works which exhibit postmodern characteristics, that postmodernism is as political in nature as postcolonial literature: both contest the authority traditionally vested in univocal white history.

Reclaiming the histories of Maori and Aboriginal peoples is central to recent indigenous literature. Keri Hulme's short story, "Headnote to a Maui Tale," transliterates the oral tradition of myth. This story also calls into question the veracity of that myth, an indication of postmodern mistrust of both history and any form of the "past." The narrator/story teller relates a short variant of the Maui story but queries the legend's numerous versions. Some details are disputed, whereas others are accepted as beyond question. The tale ends with a cautionary note that also serves as a guide for all history: "It all depends / on what story / you hear" (The Windeater / Te Kaihau 234). This metafictive tale challenges the authority of one version over another, a highly significant action when one considers the importance of myth, legend, and the entire oral tradition to Maori and Aboriginal cultures. Indigenous precolonial "history"2 is totally predicated on myths that explain the creation of the world and its inhabitants, prefiguring the course of their present and future. Paradoxically, [End Page 484] myth also parallels the present and the future. Thus Grace's narrator invokes the gods of the seven sacred canoes for assistance now. White literature has often exploited this indigenous form of "history" for humor. Other writers, such as Patrick White in Voss, do not satirize indigenous mythology but do not foreground it. Instead, white "history" prevails in Australia and New Zealand literatures, at the expense of the experience of the indigenous peoples.

Colin Johnson's Dr. Wooreddy's Prescription for...


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pp. 483-498
Launched on MUSE
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