Oct 24, 2016 · 13 min read

by Miriama Evans

Miriama Evans 2005 photo: Bruce Harding

Reprinted, with kind permission, from Landfall 39:1, March 1985, pp 40–44.

I enclose an article for Landfall entitled, Unuhia ki te ao marama: Draw forward into the world of light! As you will see the emphasis is rather more on politics and Maori literature and less on feminist perspectives. I hope this is in order. The title is derived from an incantation (but is not a direct quote) by Turi, Captain of my ancestral canoe, Aotea.

You will notice my persistence in capitalising both ‘Maori’ and ‘Pakeha’ whether they appear as nouns or adjectives. In this I follow Maori preference. Similarly, the bone people is always given in lower case. At one time this was important to Keri, and that is the way it is printed on the cover and the title page of the book. Perhaps you will pick up, too, my resistance to anglicizing Maori words. I prefer a plural to retain its Maori form without the ‘s’ and sometimes go to some length in trying to minimize awkward (in an English sense) phrases. [NB there were no macrons in Landfall then so I’ve left them out of this reprint– Marian E] Apart from that my blunders occur through ignorance or error.

Nga mihi nui o te tau hou. Greetings for the New Year.

E noho mai ra,

na Miriama

Unuhia ki te ao marama: Draw forward into the world of light!

Since the flurry of the 1970s when the work of Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, and Pat Heretaunga Baker appeared in print and suggested the emergence of a Maori literature in English, there has been little apparent consolidation through the publishing of prose fiction by other Maori writers. Yet there is evidence that a core of such writers exist. Public demonstration of this is confined to an anthology of Maori writing, Into the World of Light, edited by Witi Ihimaera and D.S. Long. Importantly, it is a book that displays a range of literary forms in both English and Maori. However, Maori literature in English remains largely invisible. More recently, J. C. Sturm’s collection of short stories, The House of the Talking Cat, and Keri Hulme’s novel, the bone people, have been published by Spiral, a feminist imprint established in the 70s. Spiral comprises a series of women’s collectives throughout New Zealand which focuses on women’s literary and art publications. A group of two Maori and a Pakeha formed to produce these two works by Maori women writers.

Why is it that so little Maori literature has been published? Is it possible that the endeavours of the 1970s were printed as token gestures of a passing interest in Maori literature in English?

There are more than 250 new literary titles of New Zealand produced texts catalogued each year (1). The New Zealand book industry is booming, but Maori writers’ contribution to this is negligible. Maori literary writing is marginal to a monocultural New Zealand literature.

On the whole, mainstream publishing houses have tended to look for their livelihood from within the boundaries of safe, saleable manuscripts. Publishers and their authors have shown a colonial bias which refers back to an English tradition for comparison of standards. The criteria for acceptance has worked against Maori writers who have sought to incorporate bilingualism and to integrate Maori and English literary traditions. The assumption is that standard English is the appropriate medium for literary expression and that literary form should fall within established genres.

Against this background it is not at all startling that Keri Hulme’s novel was rejected by several publishing houses as simply too unorthodox. literary standards of style and form are not challenged in J. C. Sturm’s stories, some of which were published in the 1950s and 60s. As a collection though, it has been tucked out of sight for 20 years, a testimony to the invisibility of Maori writers.

It is not surprising either, that Patricia Grace was challenged for her ‘experiments of language’ (2) in Waiariki. Although several stories adopt an English style, some use English but follow Maori syntax and vocabulary, while others flow between English and Maori. These deviations were considered of ‘limited esthetic value’ by Norman Simms, who asked, ‘If, in reality, the Maori of today thinks and speaks in a mixture of languages, does the writer have the right to produce that reality without modification?’ (3) Although Simms states it to be a ticklish argument, his analysis is, of course, derived from a conventional, white, middle class position. The importance of language in the social bond as a means of communication and identification cannot be denied. In the Waiariki collection Patricia Grace has experimented, not in language, but by blending distinctive Maori use of language with an English literary category, the short story. The is no doubt this works for Maori readers. Keri Kaa writes:

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. (4)

Sociological study of literature indicates that there is a patterned connection between society and fiction which provides information about society, its institutions, social structure and technology. In a more subtle way fiction imparts information about values and attitudes. The paucity of published Maori literature is symptomatic of a more general struggle for survival in a world where Maori social structure and institutions have all but given way under the pressure of Pakeha society and where Maori values are constantly under threat. Maori readers have been besieged from early childhood with literature patterned by often unintelligible symbols of another culture. Lack of comprehension leading to disincentive is a major problem which has been largely ignored in a New Zealand community sensitive to less devastating effects of relevance in junior reading texts containing words such as ‘pillar box’ and ‘lorry’. The result of Maori children having been continually bombarded with irrelevant, extraneous, reading material is a population that chooses not to read.

There are overt signs that contradict the popular beliefs that the Maori population won’t read, let alone buy books. Spiral’s distributor has been astounded by orders of the bone people for small Maori settlements way off the beaten book seller’s track. Heartening though this is, a more sustained effort in publishing Maori literature is needed to cater for a whetted appetite.

Maori readers want books that reflect our own experience: we consider Maori editors are the appropriate people to be making literary judgements on our behalf. Our vulnerability in the strong tide of monoculturalism is exemplified by Keri Hulme’s experience in finding a publisher for the bone people. The importance of literary criticism should not be overlooked either. Maori reviewers alert us to the Maori of a book and the mana of its author. (5) For example, reviews in the Listener (12 May 1984) by Joy Cowley and Arapera Blank both extolled the bone people but Arapera keyed in Maori readers: ‘Keri’s novel has the preciousness of a piece of kuru pounamu…’.

It is a matter of political urgency that written Maori literature in both English and Maori should, in accordance with Maori concept, emerge into the world of light. One encouraging sign is the new consciousness which is evident toward Maori literature for young children. Kohanga Reo (Language nests) have stimulated interest for reading material in Maori. Small community publishers such as Maori Publications of Kopeopeo, Whakatane are operating to meet this need. In addition, publishers are finding a market for well told, handsomely illustrated Maori stories in English. The field has been led by Kidsarus 2, a small publishing collective. One aim of the group was ‘to publicise the need for a body of indigenous literature for children which reflects the multicultural nature of New Zealand society’. (6) Through this project, Kidsarus 2 initiated, prepared for publication, and organised funding for four children’s book oaks. Two of these are by Maori writers and have made a major impact on New Zealand children’s literature. The first, Te Kuia me Te Pungawerewere/ The Kuia and the Spider, won, with its English version, The New Zealand Children’s Picture Book of the Year Award for 1982, while both language editions of the second prductuon, Ko Kimi me tana Mereni/ Kimi and the Watermelon, were finalists for the same award in 1984. Aligned to the new interest in a junior Maori readership are some popular children’s stories which now appear in Maori. Included in this category are Where is Spot?/ Kei hea a Spot? and the less attractively produced, rather cramped, bilingual text of The Cat in the Hat.

The thrust of Maori interest though remains in indigenous writing which increasingly is being fostered in Maori circles. In 1984, the Maori Women’s Welfare League ran a competition for children’s literature in English and Maori. On a larger scale, a new annual scholarship, The Nicholas Irwin Hunt Scholarship for Maori Writers, valued at $5000, has been established. Administered by the Maori Education Foundation, the scholarship will be awarded for a different literary genre each year. In its inaugural year (1984) the category was picture books for Kohanga Reo, with the ten best manuscripts winning an equal share of the award. The holders of the first scholarship and the category for this year’s award are yet to be announced.

As well as the new enthusiasm for young children’s literature, The Pegasus Prize for Literature which was avail.abke to Maori writers only in 1984, has aroused interest. Sponsored by Mobil Oil New Zealand to coincide with Te Maori Exhibition, part of the prize is publication of the selected work in America. It is not without irony that at a time when so little Maori literature is reaching the New Zealand public that the concept of the Pegasus Prize is to ‘introduce American readers to distinguished works for countries whose literature too rarely achieves international recognition’. (7) Of the four finalists, Keri Hulme’s winning entry and Patricia Grace’s Waiariki were published works while Apirana Taylor’s He Rau Aroha has attracted attention from publishing houses, and an autobiography in Maori by Hemi Potatau, Ko Nga Maumaharatanga o Te Rev. Hemi Potatau is being prepared for publication.

Although the impact of the prestigious Pegasus Prize may be judged by the two new titles discovered for publication, it is ironic that while Maori writers have been encouraged and acknowledged with a variety of publishing grants, their work has not been supported by trade publishing houses. For example, Rowley Habib is the current holder of The Katherine Mansfield Memorial Scholarship, Bub Bridger received a Literary Fund grant to attend the First International Feminist Book Fair, Bruce Stewart, as a representative of New Zeakand at the 5th triennial A.C.L.A.L.S. Conference in Fiji was given grants by The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Te Aniwa Bisch, who writes in both Maori and English was awarded a Literary Fund grant in 1977. These are just a few writers whose works are largely unpublished.

Although the commercial and cultural bias in major publishing houses has failed to bring forth written Maori literature, there is another tension between Maori writers and publishers. Invisibility is a problem that must be addressed by the writers themselves. Most Maori writers have worked within a closed environment. With an increasing demand for written Maori literature for our children and a growing awareness of the meagre number of published titles for adults, the time is ripe for writers to come out of the shadows. This means adopting a vigorous and more aggressive campaign (hard though it seems) in submitting more manuscripts to publishers;while publishers in their turn should consider recruiting editors to create pathways that cut through the old barriers.

In a small way, the bone people collective of Spiral has operated on a political and literary level. The venture has been a voluntary one, organised on a non profit basis. A shoe string budget and limited re sources posed problems that needed handling with determination and perseverance. but like Kidsarus 2, Spiral has proved a point. Where the primary interests of these two collectives coincided with Maori literature, the books produced have been swooped on by Maori readers but have also given pleasure to others in New Zealand and overseas. It now remains to be seen if established houses are prepared to play a more active role in presenting Maori literature or whether the challenge will be taken up by new, more adventurous, commercial enterprises. Whatever the outcome, Maori aspirations for a modern Maori literature are clear: Unuhia ki te ao marama! Draw forward into the world of light!

(1) The 1984 figures given by the Bibliographic Unit of The National Library of N.Z. are: 128 new literary titles for texts over 50 pages, 136 new titles for texts under 50 pages.

(2) Norman Simms, 1978:224.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Keri Kaa, 1982:3

(5) ‘Mauri’ is a complex concept often translated simply as ‘life principle’. In this case it means the hidden principle which protects the vitality and mana of people and the Maori world. ‘Mana’ means authority, prestige and power.

(6) Kidsarus 2 advertisement in Spiral 4.

(7) Conditions and Entry Form for the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature.


Blank, Arapera: Book review–the bone people, Listener, May 12 1984.
Cowley, Joy: We are the bone people, Listener, May 12 1984.
Grace, Patricia: Waiariki, Longman Paul, 1975. The Kuia and the Spider and Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere, illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa, translated by Syd Melbourne and Keri Kaa, Picture Puffins in association with Kidsarus 2, 1981.
Hill, Eric: Where is Spot? & Kei Hea a Spot? Heinemann, 1980.
Ihimaera, Witi, & Long, D.S.: (eds) Into the World of Light, Heinemann, 1982.
Kaa, Keri: Patricia Grace: aspects of her stories in Waiariki and The Dream Sleepers, Spiral 5, 1982.
Maori Publications: Catalogue of books written in Maori for children, Maoti Pubs., Box 2061, Kopeopeo, Whakatane.
Seuss, Dr.,: The Cat in the Hat: Te Poti mau Potae, translated by Hiring Melbourne, Collins, 1983.
Simms, Norman: Maori Literature in English: An Introduction, World Literature Today, 52, 1978.
Smith, Miriam: Kimi and the Watermelon, and Ko Kimi me tana Mereni, illustrated by David Armitage, translated by S. Huia Wilson, Brick Row in association with Kidsarus 2.

Miriama Evans is of Ngāti Mutungā/ Kai Tahu descent. She is a member of the Spiral collective which published the bone people and The House of the Talking Cat and worked in the Haeata Collective which produced the N.Z. Herstory Diary 1985. She is currently working on an M.A. in Maori Studies at Victoria University.


by Marian Evans

After she graduated in 1985, Miriama became the first head of Te Ohu Whakatupu/Maori Secretariat of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, established in 1986; and went on to hold many senior roles in the public service as well as iwi governance roles, including over twenty years at Te Runanga o Ngāti Mutungā. Most recently she has been a member of the Waitangi Tribunal, a member of Te Aka Matua Māori Advisory for Victoria University of Wellington and the national advisor to St John on Māori Health.

While at Te Ohu Whakatupu, Miriama wrote Māori Women in the Economy: A Preliminary Review of the Economic Position of Māori Women in New Zealand (1988), with Anne Horsfield . She was also a co-editor of The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, Ngā Kupu Tïtohu o Aotearoa (1989), author of The Art of Māori Weaving: The Eternal Thread/Te Aho Mutunga Kore (2005), with Ranui Ngarimu and co-author of He Rito, He Ranga: Kiekie, Our Taonga Plant (2009) with Ranui Ngarimu and researcher Patricia Wallace.

Miriama has also authored many shorter works, including a survey of contemporary Māori women’s writing, for Wahine Kaituhi: Women Writers of Aotearoa (1985), which the Spiral group took to the second International Feminist Book Fair, in Oslo in 1986.

This year, women have brought me all kinds of documents and files and art works from the past — warm thanks to you all. Among them, were Miriama’s Spiral files, from when she took responsibility for the business affairs of the bone people: contracts, accounts, shopping for the bone people launch. She dropped them off one day because she was ill. The files were, of course, immaculate. Miriama is one of the most meticulous and hard-working people I know. Her laughter always warms my heart. And she’s my go-to person for advice whenever I’m truly stuck, because her advice is always considered, clear, simple, pragmatic, kind. [2018, following Miriama’s death: at her tangi I learned that Miriama had also been a trusted advisor to four Prime Ministers; and appreciated how blessed I’d been to have access to her wisdom.]

Another woman who delivered her files was Lynne Ciochetto, a long-time Spiral Collective stalwart, who will I hope have her very own post here in due course. She too brought me her ‘Spiral’ file. In it were lots of clippings about the bone people, which she worked on with Anna Keir.

I especially love this Guardian article about Miriama and Irihapeti and its beautiful photograph. And the Agenda article and its image of all of us.

Also in Lynne’s ‘Spiral’ file, copies of the Kidsarus 2 poster and leaflet (1978, for some reason the whole poster won’t scan), designed by Lynne. I think I first met Miriama after Keri Kaa suggested she’d be interested in the Kidsarus 2 project.

illustration: Bill MacKay

Spiral Collectives

Celebrating 40 years of the Spiral Collectives of Aotearoa New Zealand, their founder Heather McPherson, & associated women & organisations. An open research project for an eBook; & exhibition at Mokopōpaki 2018. 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

Celebrating 40 years of the Spiral Collectives of Aotearoa New Zealand, their founder Heather McPherson, & associated women & organisations. An open research project for an eBook; & exhibition at Mokopōpaki 2018. Welcome! Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/1304706129559197/

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