Keri Kaa & ‘Taka Ki Ro Wai’

Keri at Rangitukia 2010 (photo: Maramena Roderick and Ngahuia Wade)

Keri Kaa’s Te Whaea Whakaata Taonga, presented at the Women In Film & Television (WIFT) awards in 2010, acknowledged ‘an exceptional woman whose meritorious contribution to the arts, culture, and heritage over the last 50 years has had an immeasurable behind the scenes impact on film and television’. Keri’s worked tirelessly with funders and policy makers to forge the pathway for Maori filmmakers to tell their stories.

Keri with Dame Patsy Reddy, chair of the New Zealand Film Commission and Governor-General designate, at a WIFT event (photo: Andi Crown Photography)

But that’s just one aspect of her extraordinary life and work. Keri has been a teacher and mentor to, and staunch advocate for, many dancers, writers, filmmakers, visual artists, actors and musicians around Aotearoa New Zealand. She continues this work from afar while also working in Ngati Porou tertiary education with Te Ururangi o Te Matauranga. She has also held many positions on boards and committees, including that of a UNESCO Commissioner.

She’s been the subject of an episode of e tu kahikatea, a series about Maoridom’s strongest contributors (an interview about this here, with one of the directors, Ngahuia Wade). She is a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for her services to Māori and the arts.

Keri at Rangitukia 2010 (photo: Maramena Roderick and Ngahuia Wade)

Keri — Hohi Ngapera Te Moana Keri Kaa — is from Ngati Porou, Ngati Hokopu, Te Whanau a Hunaara, Rongomaiwahine, Rakai-Paaka, Kahungungu. She lives in Rangitukia on land belonging to the Kaa family, as keeper of the home fires — ahi kaa — and her home reflects a life-time of creativity in a family raised with poetry, books, challenging and stimulating conversation held in two languages. Her brothers include the notable actor the late Wi Kuki Kaa and the late Archdeacon Dr Hone Kaa. Keri’s sister, Arapera Blank, was an award-winning writer and poet, and a New Zealand representative at the Commonwealth Literature Conference in Laufen, 1986.

When I met Keri, more than thirty years ago, she was a Wellington Teachers College lecturer and a writer, associated with the artists and writers in the Herstory diary, Haeata, and Waiata Koa collectives.

As a pakeha, I met Keri as the translator — with Syd Melbourne — of Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa’s classic children’s picture book The Kuia & the Spider/ Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere, and I loved the poems and a review she contributed to Spiral 5.

Keri also mistress-minded very special book launches, starting with one for The Kuia/Te Kuia and including one for Keri Hulme’s the bone people. She often worked in beautiful ways with the late Tungia Baker, at all kinds of events, often as kaikaranga.

Keri Kaa speaks at the WIFT Awards. On her left, Ella Henry and then Katie Wolfe (photo: Peata Melbourne)

I always listen very closely to Keri. And I’d do pretty much anything for her, because I love how she makes things happen, in a way that enhances everyone’s experience, with her special tough-and-tender generosity and a lot of laughter.

Keri writes poetry, children’s stories in both English and Maori, and is working on a book on kapa haka competitions. In 2011, she won a prestigious AMP National Scholarship, to make her children’s picture book Taka Ki Ro Wai into a speaking book ‘so that the language and its sounds are there for all to hear….My ability to speak particularly the Ngati Porou strand of Te Reo Maori, and to comprehend the many nuances, urges me to pass it on to tamariki.’ This is a previously unpublished interview from 2012.

(Marian Evans)

Q: Where did the story for Taka Ki Ro Wai come from?

Keri: Taka Ki Ro Wai is the story of a foal born during a wild and stormy night and accidentally dropped in the flood waters on the morning of my birthday. Without giving too much of the story away a lot of events happened involving a little pig, various family members coming to help with the rescue and the arrival of a flock of black backed sea gulls.

Q: You have so many stories. Why is this story so important?

My brother Wi Kuki rang from Wellington to say happy birthday and asked if anything special had happened. When I told him about the horse, the pig, the sea gulls and the three people he said: ‘That’s a great story for children. You must write it all up into a book. In Maori’. So I set out to do it but it took longer than I’d planned because I wanted to self-publish which took me up and down paths I had not anticipated.

Q: You set up a publishing house to publish Taka Ki Ro Wai. What’s the story behind this?

Creating a publishing house allows me to have control of my work, and what happens to it. A lot of our material is used by others for commercial gain without our consent or knowledge. For example the works of composer Tuini Ngawai have been treated with disrespect, in many cases rearranged musically. During the WAI 262 Treaty Claim I was asked by a family member, a lawyer, to join her group of claimants by giving evidence on behalf of Maori art and artists about copyright and intellectual property ownership and their effects on us as a people. It was an exhausting six weeks work on the WAI 262 claim. But it was very worthwhile in terms of making clear to me why I’d spent all those years on boards concerned with arts and theatre, and with film and drama schools, making known to others our views and attitudes about taonga-music, carving, painting and other images, composition.

Q: You’re well known as a translator, and Taka Ki Ro Wai will have an English edition. What are the joys and challenges of translation for you?

Taka Ki Ro Wai was intended to be a Maori language edition only. It is written in the manner in which we speak in our valley. It’s our dialect. It’s idiomatic. My dilemma has been to write the English version of the story or an actual translation of the original dialect. I am much cheered by the talk from friends and family about leaving the story untouched in the English version. When I was first seeking funding, supporters who didn’t speak my dialect were puzzled by some of the aspects of the story. Cultural difference can cause puzzlement for people who hold different values especially spiritual beliefs.

The AMP Scholarship will help me make a digital talking book of the story, two versions, in Maori and English.

Keri receives her AMP award from the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae.

I will be working with local readers and actors because there are people who struggle with pronunciation. It’s much more helpful if they can pop a CD into the car and listen as they are on a trip somewhere and practise their language, or use an electronic reader. Our local radio station has offered studio recording facilities and family members will help with musical interludes and appropriate songs.

Part of the story includes a brief introduction to our location and a little bit of the local history. This idea came from the design team and meant adding on two small lots of writing and illustrations. My design team are Marty Page and Tania Short. She’s a Ngati Porou woman who founded Tairawhiti Arts Page (no longer online). He’s Pakeha and a designer, who has presented me with the idea that there is more than one way to illustrate a book for children. There are photographs of the three whanau members involved in the story, small drawings and other bits and pieces. In fact the mock up of the book caused great excitement. April, the woman who features in the book, was inspired to suggest that the design team should have an exhibition of the art work at the book launch.

Q: Would you like to have a German edition?

Keri: I would be honoured to have a German edition one day.

Q: You’re well known for the special launches you organized, for Patricia Grace’s classic The Kuia And The Spider/ Te Kuia Me Te Pungwerewere (which you also translated into Te Reo, with Hirini Melbourne) and for Keri Hulme’s the bone people. What do you plan for the Taka Ki Ro Wai launch?

The plan is to launch the book in the garden next to the field where the foal was born. There’ll be some speeches, readings and lots of singing by family and friends.

Q: When can we get copies of Taka Ki Ro Wai?

We’re in a queue for printers in Hong Kong tentatively booked for March. They charge $5000 for the print run. New Zealand printers start at $12,000 so it’s no contest really going to Hong Kong. I think New Zealand printers have to pay lots of g.s.t. so it’s a hard life for them. Copies will be available here after the launch. The electronic version will follow a little later.

Q: You — like the late Dame Katerina Mataira — have spent a lifetime supporting writers and artists who want to provide books in Maori, for children especially. Can you say a little bit about publishing in Te Reo?

Publishing in Te Reo has become stronger and more diverse. The challenge today is the level of language spoken by the children coming out of the Maori-language initiatives like Te Kohanga Reo, the pre-school language nests which are family directed. We have stage two called Puna Reo which is teacher directed, and Kura Kaupapa and Whare Kura which are primary and secondary school level of learning. They have done wonders for the revival of the language. But there are pitfalls.

Maori language presented by Broadcasting on Maori Television is a different register of language. It’s a whole new level of vocabulary that distances its speakers from those born in rural areas still speaking in their dialects. We are as a people in the midst of a major debate about how to retain and maintain our language. It’s a simple idea. Speak Maori in your home all the time if you’re fluent. Try not to use another language (English) as a bridge. English is everywhere so you’re waging a battle against unseen forces. In my valley our isolation from urban pressures has kept our language intact in my generation of 60 plus. But the generation aged 30 to 50 are the victims of language loss. However, the new Maori language schools and their programmes have encouraged the revival. Once upon a time we were punished at school for speaking the only language some of us knew. Now it’s become fashionable, non-speakers sometimes feel left out of conversations. That’s why I wanted to write a book for children. What started as a little seed has turned into a flourishing plant. We need more stories in our dialects.

Q: What have been the high spots for you in writing and performance by and about Maori since the 1970s?

There have been so many advances in Maori contemporary arts. It’s been an exciting time in the last four decades. We’re braver about breaking out of our traditional roles, views, beliefs and practices. We’ve given ourselves permission to move on and out of our frameworks. Leading tribal elders like our Uncle Pine Taiapa, a master carver, witnessed the first ventures by a new generation of carvers in the 60s and expressed his dismay. He didn’t like their new ideas and told them so. But the revolution has taken hold and the arts are thriving still. There are new directions. We are bolder about exhibiting in mainstream events. We are making important connections and taking our work to other countries. We are learning to cope with different viewpoints. When it comes to learning how to value our artworks and performances, we are discovering where we fit into the arts of a world tapestry.

We are also learning to accept than when visitors come to our country we are not just a corner or a remnant of England. In our arts and performance we are the point of difference and the arts world has discovered us.

I used to hear my beloved friend Tungia Baker, a weaver of traditional baskets and containers, introduce herself to people at forums. She makes an eloquent and powerful point.

First and foremost I am a person.The fact that I am Maori is the expression of it.

Q: Have you got more publishing plans?

I have ten diaries written by my father from 1954 to 1965. They are currently being transcribed by my PA so that they can be edited by my friend Juliet Raven.

The contents of the diaries are the small but important details of family life. My father went to a church boarding school in Parnell, Auckland in 1914. He studied Latin as well as English and the usual core subjects. He told me once that you had to conjugate your verbs before breakfast or there was no breakfast. His diaries are written in a small neat hand which never varies from year to year. He used a fountain pen and good quality ink. What would he think about iPads?

The diaries are a revelation. I had no idea just how busy his life was. He started life as a dairy-farmer, was appointed a Justice of the Peace and was a Licensed Interpreter in the Maori Land Court. In the last decade of his life he was ordained as a Priest and ran a very busy parish. Looking at his life makes me understand why I do the things I’m involved in. If you have skills you should use them to benefit others. Serve the people.

Q: You’ve always written, and have had to fit writing round your support of others. But on your Tairawhiti Arts page (which supplied most of the information in the introduction and is no longer available) I read that you are ‘known to leave town for some quiet time at an undisclosed location where you take the time out to write’. Has your own writing become more of a priority now?

Keri: Yes, I do occasionally leave the country and head to my secret writing destination. Some days I achieve a lot and other days I manage only a start. Have been writing a few poems about oil exploration and fracking and land matters. Yes, writing is more of a priority, especially about political issues. Someone has to be a voice for the voiceless. Writing is therapeutic and non-violent.

Three people told me I could write. My dear sister Arapera Blank who was a writer, Aunt Charlotte Solomon whom I met at the Women’s Gallery in Wellington, and Tungia Baker who used to type up my work so others could read it too.

As one of twelve children who were allowed to express their views about the world around us my life has been a long creative spiral of activity. Thus far.


The world goes on.

PS Have to hold off the writing for a bit while I take up MA studies for a Master in Matauranga Maori. A thesis in Maori knowledge. Written entirely in Maori. A great way to prevent boredom in old age!

In the beginning was the word!



Keri writes (February 2016)–

I am ankle-deep in the English version of Taka Ki Ro Wai/ Fall in the Water. Would you believe that the Pakeha version is making me hōhā! However it’s creative & so far there are lots of ideas flying about.

Taka Ki Ro Wai was launched in 2013. It won the inaugural Maori Language Award for the 2014 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards and was a finalist for Te Kura Pounamu: Te Reo Maori, and for the Russell Clark Illustration Award at LIANZA Children’s Book Awards 2014. It was one of only two New Zealand books selected for the prestigious 2015 White Ravens catalogue, among 200 titles in 36 languages from 55 countries.

You can buy the book here.

Here’s a beautiful Marae piece about the book, with Keri.

Taka Ki Ro Wai on Facebook

And here’s a Radio New Zealand interview with Keri, from 2014.

More about Keri, & an interview with Ngahuia Wade, here, on Wellywood Woman (2010).