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Once Were Pacific: Maori Connections to Oceania by Alice Te Punga Somerville (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 199-200 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0003

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Alice Te Punga Somerville’s recent study Once Were Pacific: Maori Connections to Oceania invites readers to board her waka, an ocean-going canoe, to journey through waves of time and genres in search of “a kind of regional identification” (xxx) that spans much of the Pacific region. Somerville’s artful use of painting and poetry, fiction and physical spaces, along with contemporary media and music, all enhanced by her insider perspective of Māori material culture, draw lines of connection on the South Pacific chart from Aotearoa to Samoa, from the Cook Islands to Tahiti, extending all the way to Hawai‘i, and then returning to Wellington Harbor in New Zealand. Critical yet imaginative, formalist, and specifically indigenist, the analyses throughout this work are informative, entertaining, and engaging.

Somerville begins this journey in search of regional identity by analyzing a painting by Tupaia, a Ra’iatea Islander voyaging with Captain James Cook during his explorations of the Pacific islands in the 1760s. The image depicts an exchange of goods between a Māori man and an officer of Captain Cook’s vessel, the Endeavour. The English officer offers a piece of tapa, paper or cloth brought from Tahiti, that Somerville recognizes as a rare and valuable part of Māori material culture. This author uses the painting and tapa to explore strands of connection between the Māori of New Zealand, their “presence and position” (5), and the peoples of the expansive Pacific region. Even though the regional connection of tapa in the Tupaia painting underpins this work, Somerville reinforces the lines of cultural connection with analyses of works by several Māori writers.

Throughout her literary choices, Somerville makes regional identity connections with the use of historical, rhetorical, and literary devices employed by Māori writers. She begins with poems by Māori poets Vernice Wineera, Evelyn Patuawa-Nathan, and Robert Sullivan. “All write about and demonstrate journeys in which Māori start at Aotearoa and venture out into the [Pacific] region” (37). After acknowledging other Māori authors in the literary canon, Somerville selects for direct comparison and criticism two works whose authors “turned their attention to the politics of the region” (61): Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novella The Whale Rider and Hinewirangi’s 1990 collection of poetry Kanohi ki te Kanohi. These two authors provide waka journeys to Papua New Guinea and Hawai‘i, respectively, articulating “innovative contributions” (62) of colonial and cultural connection between Māori and other Pacific Islanders. Along those lines of connection, Somerville concludes part 1 of Once Were Pacific with the Tahitian protagonist Tetiare from Jean Anderson’s translation of Chantal Spitz’s L’Ile Des Reves Ecrases (or Island of Shattered Dreams), “the first novel published by an Indigenous writer from Polynesie Francais (French Polynesia)” (81), and voyages to the island where the tapa of the Tupaia painting originated. Throughout this section of the book, Somerville gleans articulations of literary connection between Māori and other Pacific peoples. Moving into the second section of the book changes the scope of this conversation of connection from regional to national and “emphasizes the national context within which Māori articulate a connection with the Pacific” (95).

In part 1 of Once Were Pacific, Somerville focuses on the tapa offered for trade by the English officer, emphasizing the Oceania and Pacific regional lines of connection. In part 2, she changes the focus to national, represented by the koura, or crayfish, offered for trade by the Māori man in the painting. This section concentrates on Māori and Pacific, or “Pasifika,” relationships within the physical boundaries of the nation-state of New Zealand. This section begins with three works from different genres: Apirana Taylor’s short story “Pa Mai” from his multigenre literary collection He Rau Aroha: A Hundred Leaves of Love published in 1986; Patricia Grace’s children’s book Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street (1984); and Briar Grace-Smith’s short story “Te Manawa” from the 2006 collection of six short stories The Six Pack. Other writers discussed are Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Karla Mila. This section also looks at the 1997 play Romeo and Tusi, the...


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