- This Magnificent Accident:An Interview with Witi Ihimaera
The writings of Māori novelist Witi Ihimaera, whose flamboyance matches his fame, and who, in public interviews and personal letters, frequently dubs his involvement with literature "a magnificent accident," can indeed be considered, if not magnificent, then at least magical. Born in 1944 into the Te Aitanga A Mahaki, Rongowhakaata, and Ngati Porou tribes, Ihimaera is a controversial thinker, who, despite constantly comparing "profane" English with "sacred" Māori, nevertheless wins the hearts of readers with stories written in that very same "profane" English. While some of Ihimaera's achievements owe themselves to twists of fate (for example, as we found out from our interview with him, his first collection of short stories being noticed by a prime minister), his enormous productivity can be credited mostly to hard work. Indeed, Ihimaera has tried his hand at novels, poems, plays, librettos, and children's books.
It seems perfectly natural that Ihimaera, who has identified magic realism as one of the cornerstones of his writing quests, attributes his success not to himself personally but to "an accident." Perhaps by somehow overshadowing his own will in becoming a writer, he appears to tap indirectly into the cosmic, supernatural powers responsible for the prosperity of Māori arts. It is not by chance that Ihimaera sometimes refers to Māori historical hero Te Kooti and his prophecy about the future triumph of the Māori . Te Kooti is a founder of the Ringatu religion to which Ihimaera's family belongs, and Ihimaera, who encourages Māori writers to take a cooperative rather than a competitive approach to their task, sees himself as a vessel assuring this future triumph.
Metaphorically, the texts of Ihimaera can be seen as a grandmother's keepsake box filled with myths, amulets, prophecies, and legends rooted in Māori tradition. The American poet Stanley Kunitz once proclaimed that [End Page 358] in his poetry he makes his life into a legend. Ihimaera does not need to create any legends; he was born into them. For instance, once he quoted his relatives as saying that an ancestor came to Aotearoa (New Zealand's native name) on the back of a whale. This episode later evolved into the story about a little girl, the heroine of the novel The Whale Rider, who proved her leadership as the would-be chief of her tribe by rescuing and riding a whale (Ihimaera has a special talent for depicting strong and driven females).
Even though Ihimaera—who refers to himself as an author struggling "with the dilemma of being Māori in a postmodern world"—knows that writing is a power in itself, he takes an active part in New Zealand's cultural and political life. To say that he is only a writer is not enough; he is much more. As a member of the Te Haa Māori writing committee, he makes sure that no young talent is being overlooked; as an editor, he checks that all Māori writing is being collected in representative anthologies; as a professor at Auckland University, he instills in his students pride for belonging to the Māori tradition and assures that this tradition is being continued and passed on to the next generations. He is a true modern Māori man.
Fascinated by his writing, we were inspired to interview Ihimaera, who currently is being flooded by interview requests from the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, and other countries where the movie Whale Rideris being shown. The release of the movie, which has won several awards, has once again confirmed Ihimaera as a leading Māori novelist and has motivated publishers to reissue the novel on which the movie is based.
This interview, conducted by e-mail in August 2002, provides a glimpse into the cultural and political context of Ihimaera's writing, covering such topics as Māori culture and language, the role of women in Māori society, Māori acceptance of gays, Māori literature, immigration, and western values.
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