Jul 3, 2016 · 16 min read

by Keri Kaa

From a lecture in the series Images of Women (1982) Women’s Studies Department Victoria University of Wellington, first published in Spiral 5.

And from the two — the land, the woman — these ones have sprung. And by the land and by the woman held and strengthened. Now from knowing this, the old one in turn draws strength as the old light dims, as the time of passing comes. (1)

This paragraph from the ending of Transition sums up for me the essence of Patricia Grace the woman, the Maori, the writer.

Patricia the woman is modest, unassuming and a person of great integrity.

Patricia the Maori is ‘sprung’ from the land of Raukawa, a descendant of an ilustrious line-up of chiefs both male and female.

Patricia the writer is important because she uses her gifts to articulate for many of the silent Maori people, their agonies, hidden feelings, pain, joy and secret dreams. While her stories are rooted in the land of her childhood and her Raukawatanga, they have a universal appeal because they are about ordinary happenings, living, loving, fighting, dying, dreaming.

As I re-read them the words of Carl Sandburg come to mind, when he talks about travelling and seeing —

The wonder of human mind, heart, wit, and instinct. People flung wide and far born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams … You wonder, you weep, you question and then you say: ‘This will be haunting me in a long time with a loveliness I hope to understand better’.

For me Patricia’s stories have a haunting loveliness. My responses to them vary from shrieks of delight, to solemn agreement, to tears, to acceptance because the style of writing is such that I can feel and dream and get into the heads of her characters.

I respond warmly to Rose in A Way of Talking because many Maori women like Rose and me have been sent away from our small villages to be ‘educated’. We eventually go home with our new found city ways, mannerisms, vocabulary and sophistication and we frighten our families because we have a new hard edge to us. We have been educated beyond our village roots and our new ways and our anger causes our families much pain. We struggle to fit into village ways of talking, thinking, dressing and living. Because we are ‘better schooled’ we must make the cultural switch. While there is great pride in our achievements, we carry the burdens for those left at home, who do not have the opportunities to express their hopes and dreams, to others of the majority culture.

Patricia writes about human events and everyday happenings. Going fishing, planting, sewing, gardening, making bread, eeling, placing bets at the TAB. In the story The Dream the family spend ages trying to interpret correctly Raniera’s dream. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat around and listened while my relations have tried to interpret dreams so that they can get their bets right at the TAB. I have myself on occasion phoned dreams through to cousins who have placed bets on the right horses. I was once sent a koha of $12 as my share of a TAB win in exchange for my dream.

It’s this instant recognition of oneself in familiar events that gives her stories, for me, an enchanting quality. As the ‘ordinariness’ of her characters shines through, so does the ‘wairua’ of her Maoritanga.

Most of the stories in Waiariki are told by women, only four are narrated by men.

In At the River, the old lady tells the story of the old man’s last eeling expedition. She talks about her dream, her ‘moemoea’ because she has seen the ‘waitohu’ (omens) indicating the old man’s death.

The old lady has had a dream, a dream of death.

He came to me in the dream, not sadly but smiling with hand on heart and said, ‘I go but do not weep. No weeping, it is my time!’

The morepork visits her.

‘Go,’ I said to the bird. ‘He comes not with you tonight. He is well and strong. His time is not here.’

But it cried, the morepork. Its call went out. Out and out until the tears were on my face. (2)

Our old people are close to death, most of them talk about welcoming death. Patricia explores with great sensitivity a hidden subject, in a clear and direct way. The ‘wairua’ shines through.

Let me illustrate with two stories from my own family. Our mother knew that our father was dead hours before the hospital phoned. She had dreamt that she was sitting in a tub outside the meeting house at home, washing herself, when our father arrived to have a chat. He was wearing purple robes and when he turned away the back of the robes were undone. Wife-like she pointed this out but he simply smiled and walked East. By the time the hospital phoned through with the news that our father had died they were amazed at her calm acceptance and her answer, ‘I know because he came to say goodbye and it’s a peaceful going because he is heading East to new life and new hope’.

Our village is Te Urunga O the Ra, the place of the Rising Sun. To head East in death is symbolic, to face East in life is strength-giving.

The morepork features strongly in my own family as a good or bad omen. Our mother says when the morepork screams, it’s bad news, but when he sings cheerfully everything is fine. Late last year one of my brothers nearly died and was saved by some emergency surgery. He was in hospital for two months recovering. The night he came home the owl sang and sang all night after being silent for two months. One of my guardians, ‘kai tiaki’ is an owl. We don’t find it easy to talk about this hidden part of our lives, we are ever alert to the cynical challenges from our pragmatic thinking friends. We have grown up surrounded by a belief in the supernatural; we have learned to accept the inexplicable, and to bend with the mauri of the world of spirits. I understand perfectly the hidden meaning in the story At the River:

The two have come to bring me sad news of him. But before them the bird came and before the bird the dream[.](3)

Enough of symbolism, now let us look at relationships between young and old people in the story.

Thw two grandchildren in the story are so normal. They won’t listen to the old man’s advice and wisdom. They are disrespectful. Not all Patricia’s characters are perfect. Let me illustrate my point with yet another story from my own childhood.

As children we had to help with kumara planting. After a year at boarding school my brother and I decided that the Biology teacher knew more about kumara planting than our parents. So, instead of laying the roots of the plants to the East in the traditional way, we planted our ‘tipu’ every which way. When they grew they all choked each other and died. Our father said sadly to us, ‘where is the science now?’ The whole point of laying the tubers East is because they thrust in one direction only, the process is highly scientific. The lesson has never been forgotten because the money made from sale of kumara paid for our travel to and from school. That year there was no money for extras. I really felt for those cheeky grandchildren. Growing up is painful, but having a granny who comforts you eases the pain.

And now we weep together, this old lady and these two young ones by her. No weeping he said. But we will weep a little while for him and for ourselves.(4)

I wept too.

Patricia’s style of writing is often described as lyrical. When she writes about the seasons of the year in the Valley section of the Waiariki collection she paints a canvas of words. Talking of colour, sharp line, warmth, light, heat shimmering sun-filled skies. One can see, smell, feel and hear the sights and sounds nof summer.

In Valley she describes the teacher’s first meeting with her class.

We find a place for everyone at the tables and a locker for each one’s belongings, but although they talk in whispers and nudge one another they do not offer me any words. And when I speak to them they nod or shake their heads. Their eyes take the floor.(5)

If you’ve read Joan Metge and Patricia Kinloch’s book called Talking Past Each Other this paragraph will make sense.

Non-verbal communication is a newly discovered area in our schoolrooms. Many of our children have difficulties in their early years in school because this silent language is not understood or recognised by teachers. It’s not easy to write about such characteristics without sounding preachy but Patricia skillfully weaves these hidden things into her stories.

Autumn is for me another canvas of colour unfolding. My response is to see if I can paint the picture of Autumn which she so vividly describes.

Autumn bends the lights of summer and spreads evening skies with reds and golds. These colours are taken up by falling leaves which jiggle at the fingertips of small-handed winds.

Trees give off crowds of starlings which shoot the valley with scarcely a wing beat, flocking together to replace warmth stolen by a diminishing sun.

Each day we have been visiting the trees — the silver poplar, the liquid amber, and the plum, peach, and apple. And, on looking up through the branches, each day a greater patch of sky is visible. Yet despite this preoccupation with leaves and colours and change, the greater part of what we see has not changed at all. The gum tree as ever leaves its shed bark, shed twigs, shed branches untidily on its floor, and the pohutukawa remains dull and lifeless after its December spree and has nothing new for this season.

About us are the same green paddocks where cows undulate, rosetting the grass with soft pancake plops; and further on in the valley, the variegated greens of the bush begin, the give way to the black-green of distant hills. (6)

Winter is a moving little story about the death of a teacher in a country school. It has a starkness and desolation about it. The introduction tells all.

It rains
The skies weep
As do we.

Another example of her close attention to detail and the feeling I have that she is not only ‘sprung’ from the land but has a highly personalised relationship with the landscape–

The trees we have visited daily are bare now, clawing grey fingered at cold winds. Birds have left the trees and gone elsewhere to find shelter, and the insects that in other seasons walk the trunks and branches and hurry about root formations have tucked themselves into split bark and wood holes to winter over. (8)

When writing about deep emotions it is easy to become sentimental but in the story the narrator becomes the bridge between sorrow and laughter. She remembers the laughs shared with the teacher who’d died.

She had laughed about my washing too that morning. My classroom with the naps strung across it steaming in the fire’s heat. I’m coming in for a sauna this afternoon. And a feed. I’m coming in for a feed too. (9)

I remember taking my nephew to school with me because his mother was ill. I remember stringing up nappies across the room during lunch hours and steaming up the classroom. And being too scared to open the doors unless the Principal came in.

The gentle description of the teacher’s tangi ends with a message of hope.

It is right that it should rain today, that earth and sky should meet and touch, mingle. That the soil pouring into the opened ground should be newly blessed by sky, and that our tears should mingle with those of sky and then with earth that receives her.

And it is right too that threading through our final song we should hear the sound of children’s voices, laughter, a bright guitar strumming. (10)

In the Maori story of the Creation, Sky-father and Earth-mother are forcibly separated by Tane, God of the Forest. Their grief is terrible and Rangi’s tears cause a great flood on the Earth-mother’s body. These tears are the rain which falls. Rain for us is symbolic. It’s a sign of Rangi’s blessing. We have a proverb: ‘It only rains when all the chiefs are gathered together’. If it doesn’t rain when you have a wedding, hui or tangi, you are indeed a ‘nobody’.


The children know about spring.
Grass grows.
Flowers come up.
Lambs drop out.
Cows have big bags swinging.
And fat tits.
And new calves.
Trees have blossoms.
And boy calves go away to the works on the trucks and get their heads chopped off.

Here is the life-cycle as seen through children’s eyes. I can remember hiding ‘bobby calves’ from our father so he wouldn’t send them away to the works to get their heads chopped off. Even the promise of a beautiful calf-skin rug didn’t help.

One area I haven’t touched on is the language Patricia’s characters use. She certainly doesn’t make the mistake so many other writers make when their Maori characters talk — they write in broken English what I call a ‘Hey Boy’ style. Patricia’s characters speak in Maori English — a valid language all on its own.

Wii the fox.
Us, we don’t like the fox.
That’s why, the fox is too tough.
Cunning that fox.

When I go home and sit and chat in the kitchen at the Marae I don’t use the sort of English I use when I’m in the city because it sets me apart from my cousins. They call it talking posh, being whakahihi, so I use Maori-English so I belong again.

The explanatory notes on the back cover of The Dream Sleepers state that these stories are–

Stories of tension, transition and change; of the contrasts between young and old, city and country, modern and traditional; of what it means to be Maori in a society whose predominant values are alien, above all, elegant, evocative stories displayiong the depth and range of Patricia Grace’s talent.

The beginning of The Dream Sleepers is delightful.

The houses sit on their handkerchiefs and early in the morning begin to sneeze. They do not sneeze in unison but one at a time, or sometimes in pairs or threes, sometimes in tens or dozens.(13)

I read this out to a friend who was visiting; she responded by saying they don’t just sneeze they hoik up like people coughing to get rid of the phlegm.

I recognise many people in this story.

I have family who are three o’clockers, they clean Government buildings till 6 o’clock, go home, wake up families, get them off to work and school and then go to other jobs during the day. My two Aunts who look after the Women’s Toilets at the Wellington Railway Station are five o’clockers. At seven I’m one of the dream sleepers who staggers off in grim silence to catch a bus to work. I get to my office at eight o’clock and don’t really come alive until ten o’clock. My early morning classes suffer until then.

Between Earth and Sky is a lovely story about the birth of a baby. I like the paragraph when the mother chats to her new-born babe.

You are at the end of the table, wet and grey. Blood stains your pulsing head. Your arms flail in these new dimensions and your mouth is a circle that opens and close as you scream for air.(14)

There’s a rawness and a strange kind of beauty in this story.

Mirrors is about a pair of slippers which get called various names: grinners, gaspers, trippers, flappers. The narrator’s feet are called ‘limp fillets of cod’.

The story floats about and dives deep into hidden places, then it ends with the slippers being destroyed in the incinerator because they trod in (tutae-kuri) dog-bog. Lovely stuff!

So far I’ve not talked about humour. There’s a lot of laughter in Patricia’s stories. Recently I heard her read It Used to be Green Once to a predominantly Maori audience. They roared with appreciation throughout the reading, identifying with great gusto, themselves, their childhood, their poverty and the great warmth and passion of belonging to a whanau.

Beans is a gem.

Letters from Whetu is full of tension. I recognise the boredom and frustration of Whetu plodding on at school and wondering if all this education is worthwhile. At boarding school we wrote letters to each other on our blotters and passed them back and forth. They were often written in a kind of code. Poor Whetu sitting at school waiting to realise her potential and dreaming about flying about like a seagull. She describes her frustration

E hoa I want to walk all over the world but how do I develop the skills for it sitting in a plastic bag fastened with a wire-threaded paper twist to keep the contents airtight.

Many of us who have made it in terms of the education system, the so-called ‘brown middle class’ have experienced the same sensations. It’s like being hemmed in by a great square of canvas with no scissors available to snip your way out. And knowing of course that if you break free you wreck not only your future but you let down a generation of elders and close up beginnings for the next generation.

Burdens indeed, but that is what it means to be Maori, especially a Maori in the Eighties. We are ‘in the midst of great social upheaval and confusion’. Our women in particular carry the weight of that burden. I believe we hold the key to that change as witnessed by the development of a small but powerful Black Feminist Movement whose methods cause our elders much sorrow and pain. We as women need each others’ support. We will survive because traditionally we have always been the bearers of cultural burdens. Some of us know who we are, some of us are still searching for ourselves and some of us wish we had never found ourselves as Maori.

I would like to end with a look at the story Journey, from The Dream Sleepers–

He was an old man going on a journey. But not really so old, only they made him old buttoning up his coat for him and giving him money. Seventy-one that’s all. Not a journey, not what you would really call a journey — he had to go in and see those people about his land. Again. But he liked the word Journey even though you didn’t quite say it. It wasn’t a word for saying only for saving up in your head, and that way you could enjoy it. Even an old man like him, but not what you would call properly old.

The coat was good and warm. It was second-hand from the jumble and it was good and warm. Could have ghosts in it but who cares, warm that’s the main thing. If some old pakeha died in it that’s too bad because he wasn’t scared of pakeha kehuas anyway. The pakeha kehuas they couldn’t do anything, it was only like having a sheet over your head and going woo-oo at someone in the lavatory…

He better go to the lavatory because he didn’t trust town lavatories, people spewed there and wrote rude words. Last time he got something stuck on his shoe. Funny people those town people.

The old man is 71: he is getting affairs tidied up. He is, to quote my Raukawa father, ‘coming down the rainbow’ and wants to sort out his land. The old man catches the train to town and on the way reflects and philosophises about change and the effects of subdivision on the land he knew as a child –

And between the tunnels they were slicing the hills away with big machines. Great-looking hills too and not an easy job cutting them away, it took pakeha determination to do that. Funny people these pakehas, had to chop up everything. Couldn’t talk to a hill or a tree these people. Couldn’t give the trees or the hills a name and make them special and leave them. Couldn’t go round, only through. Couldn’t give life, only death. But people had to have houses, and ways from getting from one place to another. And anyway who was right up there helping the pakeha to get rid of things — the Maori of course, riding those big machines. Swooping round and back, up and down all over the place. Great tools the Maori man had for his carving these days, tools for his new whakairo, but there you are, a man had to eat. People had to have houses, had to eat, had to get from here to there — anyone knew that. He wished the two kids would stop crackling, their mothers dressed them in rubbish clothes that’s why they had colds.

Then the rain’ll come and the cuts will bleed for miles and the valleys will drown in blood, but the pakeha will find a way of mopping it all up no trouble. Could find a few bones amongst that lot too. That’s what you get when you dig up the ground, bones. (17)

The old man seeks advice concerning his land and is confronted with words like: subdivision, development areas, surveying, kerbing, channelling, adequate access, right of ways, initial outlays. He goes home depressed, upset and angry.

Like many of our old people he is bewildered by change and worried about where his bones will lie.

The story ends with the family anxious to know what happened and the old man exploding.

When I go you’re not to put me in the ground do you hear. Burn me up I tell you, it’s not safe in the ground, you’ll know all about it if you put me in the ground. When I go, burn me up, no-one’s going to mess about with me when I’m gone. (18)

That is where I leave you today because that is where we are as a people. In a dilemma — imposed on us from the majority culture and from within ourselves by our own uncertainty.

The magic of Patricia’s writing has helped me as a woman and a Maori to know where I belong in the wider New Zealand landscape. I hope some of the magic rubs off onto you.

Patricia — thank you — kia ora tatou.


(1) Patricia Grace, Waiariki (Longman Paul 1975) p18.
(2) Waiariki, p11.
(3) ibid., p14.
(4) ibid., p15.
(5) ibid., pp 53–54.
(6) ibid., p58.
(7) ibid., p65.
(8) ibid., p66.
(9) ibid., p67.
(10) ibid., p69.
(12) ibid., p71.
(13) Patricia Grace, The Dream Sleepers(Longman Paul 1980) p[3].
(14) The Dream Sleepers, p14.
(15) ibid., p41.
(16) ibid., p50.
(17) ibid., p55.
(18) ibid., p56.

References used, in order–

from Waiariki: Transition; A Way of Talking; The Dream; At the River; Seasons

from The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories: The Dream Sleepers; Between Earth and Sky; Mirrors; Beans; Letters from Whetu; It Used to be Green Once; Journey

Spiral Collectives

Open research project on Spiral Collectives of Aotearoa New Zealand, their founder Heather McPherson, & associated women & organisations. For, & then following, Mokopōpaki’s 2018 exhibition. Welcome! Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/1304706129559197/


Written by


Marian Evans. Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Spiral Collectives

Open research project on Spiral Collectives of Aotearoa New Zealand, their founder Heather McPherson, & associated women & organisations. For, & then following, Mokopōpaki’s 2018 exhibition. Welcome! Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/1304706129559197/

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