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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Māori writer Witi Ihimaera reflects on his large body of work

BY Joshua Janke Sep 26, 2023

A kind-looking man with a soft smile enters the McCord Stewart Museum’s theatre August 11 and bows to the crowd. He takes a moment to acknowledge everyone. 

“I come from a village with a name that translates to, ‘where the eagles fly overhead’,” he says. “And now, when I look up at the eagles, I see that they are angry. They are screaming, screaming at us!” 

He pauses, smiling again. 

“The eagles are calling us to all unite, unite in the brotherhood, motherhood and sisterhood of humankind. Unite the sky with the earth, unite the inside with the outside, unite upward with the downward, unite all our genealogy and bring them forward from the dark, bring them forward from the very beginning of existence. Bring us all through to today, to this evening, and to this place, Montreal, where my ancestors will be laughing their heads off that Witi is here with you tonight.”

Witi Ihimaera is Māori from New Zealand, but this message of metaphysical unity was specifically directed towards his friends in the Northern Hemisphere.  

“I go around the world repeating this all the time: you are lucky that Indigenous peoples are taking up the novel because this concept is foreign to us,” he stated, noting how performing arts, theatre and cinema favour the oral and performance traditions of Indigenous people. 

Through the many readings, songs, jokes and dances he performed, Ihimaera’s skills beyond literature was clear, but his message to the next generation was a call for them to take up their own pens and write their own stories. He says that writing is a power that we all have, because we all have lived a life and memorized its story.  

In 1972, Ihimaera became the first Māori writer to be published, releasing Pounamu Pounamu, a collection of short stories. Now 79, he is the author of 24 works. But it wasn’t easy. The choices he had to make still bring tears to his eyes. 

Ihimaera told the Nation that as a young boy, he “was always running away from something.” This led to a focus on the intersection between memory, metaphysics and selfhood in his works, as he looked for ways to create an “altered reality in which I could rediscover and establish myself in.” 

By combining personal descriptions that flourish with emotional honesty, Ihimaera’s writing is enhanced with an absorbing tinge of magical realism. Often breaking into solo lyrical performance and never far from a laugh or a joke, Ihimaera gave a unique live performance, including dramatic readings from his texts and even a haka dance with a New Zealander from the crowd who Ihimaera welcomed onto the stage.

“I was raised to believe that inside my belly, both the physical and metaphysical existed. This made me believe that I was living in the Garden of Eden… a garden tainted by colonialism albeit,” he finished with a wry laugh. 

“We have to grow beyond our parents when we grow up. This means we endure the terrible trauma of leaving the belly of the family, the all-encompassing Garden of Eden, and deciding to live your own life.”

He says that writing and “doing work outside of the belly” was “emotional compensation for running away from home.”

“My grandmothers always taught me that when I left, I would be entering a world that didn’t make sense, a world that had values that were not like ours. This inspired me to become a Māori author who always wanted to create an alternative fiction to the primary fiction that I was being taught in school and outside the belly of my family.”

“I have many, many grandmothers,” Ihimaera assured the audience with a laugh. “I come from a very small town in Waituhi. It was the grandmothers who looked after us when all the men went to go shearing, or into the city to work. They always said, ‘Witi! Go faster than we did, go further than we ever could. You can do more for the Indigenous people then we could ever do, so make sure you do it.’”

Ihimaera explained how colonialism has created a dilemma by blurring and trying to erase Indigenous ancestry of his people.

“Our homeland ancestry is French, but our land was colonized by English-speakers. This created a huge divide between our contemporary understanding of our culture and where are culture comes from within French Polynesia.

“Being Indigenous, I have this long line of ancestors stretching to the beginning of time with who I am accountable to, and with whom I have an explicit obligation to witnessing the Māori story with as much authority and authenticity as I can. Who are you accountable to?” he asked the audience.

So how does one begin writing? Ihimaera defined memory and forgiveness as the foundations of his work. “My books are a medical scan of my heart,” he explained, and this task “takes time and honesty” with oneself. 

“The book I am writing already exists in the future, I simply have to connect the dots,” he stated, when asked about his upcoming memoir. 

Māori Boy (2014), Native Son (2019) and Indigenous Envoy are the titles of his three memoirs, with the third still in production. The books represent the transitions the writer has taken in his life. “In a way, I am retelling the same story three times…. Because I am in a slow but steady state of change.” 

He says that as he grows older and continues to write, he learns new things that make the design and substance of his memoir contrast in a teaching way. He says that Native Son is “a letter of forgiveness to my 12-year-old self.” He hopes to pursue this path of self-forgiveness with his upcoming work, setting an example for others.  

“When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung, come to lavish all their riches and spells. I have been extremely privileged with all the riches and spells that I was given, allowing me to make my work provocative, invigorating, and captivating.”

Now he wants to pass on stories and skills to the next generation, as, he said, “an Indigenous envoy.”

Being an envoy means to be on a mission, to assume the position of messenger and representative of the people. “It’s the reason I am here tonight,” Ihimaera remarked. 

Ihimaera emphasized that despite the geographical distance between the New Zealand Māori and the Cree in Canada, “we are all fighting the same battle on the same team. We are fighting for a better future for all Indigenous people.”

“We in the Southern Hemisphere will take care of our side, the North must do their part as well. We must begin to think exponentially and ask ourselves, ‘who will look after the future if we do not?’”

Ihimaera noted how over-representation in prisons, higher rates of infant mortality, or even the quality of river water are effects of colonialism which marginalize Indigenous people in both Canada and New Zealand. 

“The Māori have always been concerned about the future and well-being of children,” he continued. “This is why we are looking very seriously and with concern at the stories coming to us from Canada about the discoveries [of the remains] of young people who went through residential schools.

“What happens in your country is of crucial importance to us, because we do not want to go in the same direction regarding the secrets that governments keep to themselves and their lack of understanding on the equality of people.”

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.