Wasafiri at Large: Name Trails in Aotearoa New Zealand
By Wasafiri Editor on May 27, 2023 in
Te Whanganui-a-tara Wellington is a small wind-blown city, surrounded by bush-clad hills, on the curled-up toe of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island coast. Recently, while running on the trails in these hills near my house, I passed a bright new sign announcing – almost apologising for – a name change: Polhill Reserve had officially become Waimapihi Reserve. It’s just a few letters on a wooden board, on a piece of council-administered land in a country so pipsqueak it regularly gets missed off of world maps. But it is also a short story, of sorts, about a lot more, including what is happening in our literature at the moment.
Baker Polhill was a Scottish colonial immigrant to these islands best known in the 1840s for cutting down trees from the ancient native forest, on the steep hills of what is now the reserve, to sell as firewood. Before it was a reserve, Waimapihi was a tree-bare, gorse-filled dumping ground. Before that, it was university land slated for a sports field and ‘explosives’ research. Before that, a rifle range, and farmland. Before colonisation, before the gorse and the sheep and the weatherboard house that I live in, it was the home of Ngāti Haumia/Taranaki, Ngāti Ruanui and Te Ātiawa iwi, mana whenua (people of authority over the land) of Te Whanganui-a-Tara; food and flax were grown and gathered in these hills for the inhabitants of Te Aro Pā, the area’s fortified village; people fished and bathed in the streams; the bush was lush with birdsong. And before that, before humans, it was red-blooming rata forest dense with tall stands of kahikatea, pukatea, and rimu. For the Polynesians who first settled here, Waimaphi, the new name of the reserve, was the name of the catchment area and the stream at whose mouth the pā was located. Wai means water in te reo Māori, the Māori language. Mapihi was a female chieftain of Ngāi Tara and Ngāti Mamoe descent who, it is said, used to bathe in a pool in the upper reaches of the stream. Hence, the waters of Mapihi.
I go running in the reserve most weekends. I am always listening to something when I run; music, books, a friend’s conversation, and when I take my earbuds out, or there’s a lull in the conversation, the sound of the birds is everywhere — kākā squabbling and shrieking, tūī clicking and warbling, toutouwai and hihi bleeping electrically, the riroriro song rising and falling, pīwakawaka fanning the air. I am also often thinking about writing while I run, and often writing something in my head (like this essay) while concentrating on the roots, the mud, the stones, the gorse, the mountain bikers, the walkers, and their dogs. My running in the reserve is therefore a very hybrid experience, a cacophony of sounds and narratives. This is also true, I think, of our literature. As a small, predominantly English-speaking, colonised island, we swim in outside influence; most obviously the global currents of English literature that surround us; there are so many voices and canons, past and present, that imprint our writing. But onshore, there’s an increasingly distinct canon, one with its own recognisable patterns.
In the written English-language tradition, these patterns largely began as a colonial longing for other shores, for ‘home’ (usually the British Isles). This evolved into a vigorous effort to define New Zealand in opposition to that — to claim this, here, now as ‘home’. And through writers such as Charles Brasch, Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, and Janet Frame, the outline of a ‘New Zealand literature’ emerged and continued to evolve. But there was little or no Māori literature in this tradition; no sign of the pūrākau and histories that had existed here as oral literature for centuries. Witi Ihimaera, author of The Whale Rider, and the first Māori writer to be published in English in New Zealand, talks about reading a collection of ‘New Zealand short stories’ assigned at school in the 1950s. Māori characters appeared in only one story, written by a Pākehā, and they came off badly. He threw the book out the window and was caned for damaging state property—and determined to write himself and Māori into the ‘Whiteness of the page’. By 1985, when Māori writer Keri Hulme won the Booker Prize with The Bone People, ‘New Zealand literature’ had begun to look very different.
Since then, the literary landscape has continued to reestablish its indigenous roots, and otherwise diversify. In 2020, for example, there was a twenty four percent increase over a year in publications in te reo Māori, the Māori language–– a trend that continues. In 2022, Kāwai, an historical novel set in pre-colonial times and detailing pre-colonial tribal life in depth (it is written by an academic historian), was the best-selling book of New Zealand fiction onshore, and was one of four books short-listed for this year’s most prestigious literary prize, the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, at the Ockham New Zealand book awards, while the poetry shortlistees were exclusively women of colour. Last year, the Acorn prize was won by Whiti Hereaka, for Kurangaituku, a retelling of the Māori pūrākau, or myth, of Hatupatu and the birdwoman, written not from the perspective of the hero, but the monster. The book, published by HUIA, has two covers and can be read in either direction. It has no beginning, middle, or end. Time is a continuum, as it is in te ao Māori, the Māori world.
The book awards are, of course, only a small part of what makes up ‘New Zealand literature’–a concept that is constantly changing and being redefined and which is as varied as the writers that make it. But for the pūrākau to have surfaced on the ‘White page’ – to borrow Ihimaera’s term – in English, in print, at those awards, and to also be redefining what that very page looks like, is a game-changer.
Like the renaming of Polhill, though, this is not a simple narrative of triumphant reclamation – beginning, middle, end – but one with far messier human complexities. I am wary of essentialising here (or anywhere), so bear with me as I take an alternative route through this question of what our literature looks like at the moment.
The establishment of the reserve, and its renaming, is a long, multi-threading yarn. In brief, here is its short story.
Less than thirty years ago, the reserve was largely a tree-less, bird-less, gorse-infested dumping ground. Volunteers cared for a small section (the original ‘Waimapihi’ area) and undertook plantings, but it was a group of mountain-bikers carving trails through the land who triggered a wider change, carving out a series of ‘illegal’ tracks which attracted recreational use and a (literally) grass-roots community conservation project. Several years later, in 2009, the city council approached the mountain bikers/trail builders to create the reserve’s first official trail, which was named Transient– and the reserve was legitimised. The trail builders’ vision was to build a network that created better access to wild places for city-dwellers. With better access, it was also easier to plant more trees to accompany those now flourishing. As the trees grew up – the invasive gorse protecting them from the wind and providing a rich soil bed – native birds from the nearby Zealandia sanctuary began to return, along with others like blackbirds, thrush, and sparrows. Traplines were laid through the regenerating bush in an effort to eradicate the invasive stoats, weasels, possums, and rats which prey on the native birds who – having lived for millennia without predators – nest habitually low to the ground. The trails connected several suburbs to the city, and increasing numbers of bikers, walkers, runners, and commuters used them. Out of this group, more volunteers started to contribute, increasing the richness of the habitat, and the number of users. And so the story, and the regeneration, and the community, continues, part of a wider urban regeneration project now so successful that there is a plan to release kiwi here as part of the Capital Kiwi project. Only a small number of New Zealanders in the past century have ever seen or heard their namesake in the wild, but soon the bird may be part of my weekly running circuit.
There’s not a parallel with New Zealand literature here exactly, but sometimes when I think about the story of Waimapihi, I’m cognisant of some synapses – the move to restore native flora and fauna, not so as to wind back the clock and erase the recent past, or to return to a purer more ancient past, but to allow what can only flourish here, what would otherwise not exist, to define the environment. (Although there is in fact a group who want to return the habitat to exactly how it was ‘pre-1840’, including native species that didn’t grow here at that time). I’m also conscious of how brief of a moment the present is, and how much of the multi-faceted past, and future, is in it – the story is always drawing from somewhere else.
This is, of course, by and large a Pākehā story of the reserve’s recent history.
The stories of tangata whenua, people of the land, are here too — not for me to tell, but you catch their echoes everywhere. Tāne Mahuta holds the place. Tāwhirimatea gusts through it. Mapihi bathes in the stream. The pīwakawaka tells over and over how his laugh gave Māui away in the demigod’s bid to defeat mortality by crawling into the vulva of Hine-nui-te-pō and was instead crushed to death between her thighs.
And other stories–– of how the original inhabitants of these islands and their descendants have been disenfranchised of land and language, how the fabric of the land and the stories that hold it together have been torn apart by the violences of colonisalism.
The name change from Polhill to Waimapihi is a tiny attempt at a stitch in all this – to acknowledge loss, and more importantly, presence – but the enthusiasm for it is loud. When the vote to change the name from Polhill to Waimapihi was put to the city council, the result was unanimous.
Renaming has been a constant in Aotearoa over the past decades – of government departments, roads, buildings, schools, publications, radio stations, the country itself – and it hasn’t been universally accepted. But by and large, New Zealanders seem to welcome it, and adapt, even if a few complain about the ‘Māorification’ of New Zealand – which is a baffling concept. One name-change worth mentioning here was at my place of work – a university press which, over the past three decades, under the keen eye and ear of Fergus Barrowman, has significantly shaped New Zealand literature and how we think about it. The press is probably best known internationally for publishing Booker-prize-winner Eleanor Catton’s work, along with that of several other critically acclaimed writers including Barbara Summers, Elizabeth Knox, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, Catherine Chidgey, Ashleigh Young, Hera Lindsay Bird, and Tayi Tibble, to name a few. In 2022, just before I started working as an editor there, the press, formerly Victoria University Press (VUP), became Te Herenga Waka University Press (THWUP). Te Herenga Waka means ‘the mooring place of canoes’ (the Pacific Ocean-going sea vessels, rather than the North American ones) and was originally given by Māori teacher and leader Wiremu Parker to the marae (meeting place) which was opened on campus in the 1980s. (It is worth noting here that names are not simply ‘changed’ into te reo Māori, or at least they shouldn’t be. The process is long, involving a lot of kōrerō with the relevant elders and local iwi; a name has to be gifted). Te Herenga Waka became a prominent part of the university branding around 2020, and the press name change followed. Like the renaming of Waimapihi, it was a change with little fanfare or controversy – people were generally very positive.
So – another renaming, another stitch.
But does a tarata bloom by any other name smell as sweet?
While changes of name are about more than language, I think they are also all about language. It may seem a small thing, a slip of the tongue, but the pronunciation changes more than the way we say things; it changes how we think things. These changes to the names we speak, the signposts we read, the stories we tell, the pukapuka we publish, and the presses that publish them, are part of an effort to shape narratives of belonging, differently — to turn them from the rigid beams of an inherited colonial linearity into something more supple and organic. To do better at being. Here. But it’s a constant shifting ground, a constant rewriting, never steady, and it’s anything but simple. We reach for something we don’t know the shape of yet. The moment we are in is one of renaming, returning, recovering, restoration —all of these. But more than anything else, it’s perhaps an interrogation, of who ‘we’ are and who we are becoming, and of who we want to become.
A big part of this interrogation is writing about the past – or writing over the past, or writing out of the past – and while this is perhaps something all literature necessarily does, it is a dominant concern in Aotearoa New Zealand literature at the moment, from fiction through poetry through academic writing through non-fiction.
But while many authors write about the past to interrogate (or escape) the present, there is occasionally a writer whose work manages to do this in the here and now. Poet Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Auanui/Ngāti Porou), whose first collection was named one of the New Yorker’s best books in 2022, is such a writer (she is also the publicist at THWUP; Awe’re a very small country), one whose language and thinking is so immediately woven to the moment, and all the past and future caught up in it – personal, political, national, and actual mythologies all colliding – that every phrase is sinewed with meaning. Her work is immersive, rather than reflective, and intensely subjective, so much so that it tells a bigger story than her own. She’s a writer capable of creating her own mythology, one both deeply personal, and recognisably national.
Visionary like my ancestors I / saw a sky of whales / a pale people / like my
ancestors I / inhaled the bible / swallowed the rifle / like an 8-inch cock /
she writes in the opening poem of her second collection, Rangikura. The poem is called ‘Tohunga’ which means ‘chosen expert/priest/healer’.
And in a poem called ‘Mahuika’ (goddess of fire), she writes:
. . . I’m
The kind of girl who knows
that the real vandalism
happens in the ripeness of daylight, tagged in
white man’s law
and wāhine blood.
So I shrugged fuck it
and learnt to love the dark
where you can either
shine or disappear.
Wear a tacky plastic tiara
4 a heru in my hair.
i. Goddess of Death
Today the bush in Waimapihi has grown tall and dense, full of native flora and birds, indigenous and otherwise. Kōrua (indigenous freshwater crayfish) scratch in the streambeds, while tūna (eels) bury their bellies in the muddy bottoms. It is a true haven and I’m grateful, every time I run, or even look out the window, for everything, human and otherwise, that has helped to create it. It’s a place with a long, long story – cut down, grazed on, dumped on, illegally built on, fought over, argued for, cared for. It’s not a wild space though. It’s a human space. The flora and fauna thrive and die alongside the bikers, runners and walkers, tree-planters, trappers, and bird-lovers who protect and destroy it, under the tall towers and staves of strings of the power lines and pylons that also pass through. And it’s work to keep it flourishing. The possums find their way back to the trees. The rats evade the traps. The invasive species keep returning, pushing up the broken glass from the earth. Pull the tradescantia back, you might find an abandoned fridge, a car tyre, the ghost of a farmer, a rifle-shooter, a wahine bathing in the water.
Anna Knox is an editor at Te Herenga Waka University Press and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived and worked in Finland, Saudi Arabia, the UK and US, and now, Aotearoa New Zealand, where she was born.
Title photo by Anna Knox.
You may also enjoy Editor at Large William Tham’s reflection, Reinventing the Book in Malaysia.