In Honor of the Grace of Patricia Grace

Wednesday night was a highlight of the season. The Maori writer, Patricia Grace read and spoke to a full auditorium at UH. She read from my favorite novel, Baby No-Eyes and a more recent novel, inspired by her father’s journals of his service in the military in WWII to Italy, Tu. Baby No-Eyes was inspired by an actual event in the community. A Maori woman gave birth to a stillborn child in a New Zealand hospital. She wanted the child’s body to take home and properly bury. The staff couldn’t find it at first, then it was found in the trash. The hospital then decided there must be an autopsy. When they handed the child’s body to the grandmother it had no eyes. When the hospital personnel turned over they eyes, they were in a plastic bag. Before burying the child the eyes were taped to the belly, because there is where seeing comes from. (This is similar to the Mvskoke beliefs.)

Thursday was a panel. Panels tend to run to extremes. They’re either dreadful or great, and I say this because I’ve been both participant and audience on many occasions. This panel, “Indigenizing the Novel in Aotearoa: The Role of Culture and Identity” included several Polynesian writers and scholars included Robert Sullivan, Maori poet, Naomi Loesch, Hawaiian language scholar, Paul Lyons, scholar, Jodi Byrd, Chickasaw scholar, Patricia Grace, Reina Whaitiri, Maori scholar, Caroline Sinavaiana, Samoan writer and scholar, and Albert Wendt, Samoan writer and Citizen’s Chair. This panel was one of the best. Here are some notes:

Grace started writing because she wanted to “write about people who hadn’t been written about before”. She stressed that each writer has to find their own way, their own voice.

“The world is where we are.”

I especially appreciated Grace’s remarks on how a writing project comes together. One of the panelists discussed Grace’s spiral approach to narrative, something arguably distinctly indigenous. She said she “pulls different ideas to the center, close to me”.

(It’s not a linear process, doesn’t follow western story arc notions. This is freeing to me. It is my approach and it is how I work through to find, hear and eventually be the story or song.)

Then she said: “Maybe a spiral is imbedded in our lives.”

She emphasized that there are so many ways to be Maori.

Robert Sullivan, a Maori poet who is now teaching at the University of Hawaii inspired me with these words: “When I use Maori in English texts it carries spirit beyond etymology.”

And Witi Ihimaera, the Maori novelist and scholar was quoted by Albert Wendt: “Novels should be constructed like a house with a heart.”

I especially enjoyed seeing Patricia’s husband Waireki (sp.) again. Shining eyes and soul.

It seems to me it is such an aberration to be a writer in an indigenous community.

And, why not, when writing a novel or collection in mainly English with some indigenous language, write the English in italics, the Mvskoke (for instance) in regular type?

And so I am inspired to continue to create and to believe in our voices despite the prevailing attitudes against us, and I thank Patricia and the community for all this.

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