Native Son may be Witi Ihimaera’s latest book, but if you want to be introduced to his work through his memoirs, then start with his prize-winning Māori Boy. To explain his formative years – the formative years of a Māori boy – Witi demonstrates that you need to understand his ancestry, his whānau and his myths, just as much as the details of his individual life. Circling these rich, multiple layers, he also gives a vivid, moving and shocking account of his early experiences. One event in particular overshadows his life and, as you can go on to discover in the pages of Native Son, it would continue to do so. Native Son follows Witi from the age of fifteen until he left New Zealand in his late twenties with the first of his publications being released.
Pounamu, Pounamu was his first publication. A collection of short stories, it drew inspiration from the valley of Waituhi and the lively array of people who were part of his upbringing. Witi’s stories offer a tremendous variety, though all are distinguished by his trademark humour, humanity and political edge. If you want more short stories – and they are as entertaining as they are informative – then seek out His Best Stories or his most recent collection The Thrill of Falling. The latter presents an array of different narratives – literally different ways into story. You might also like the hybrid book Sleeps Standing, a novella based on the Battle of Ōrākau, together with a Māori translation, photographs and eyewitness reports.
Some of Witi’s stories later expanded into novels, such as The Whale Rider and Bulibasha.
A young girl, a whale, a village under threat and an ancient myth all combine into a compelling story for adults and children alike (and there’s a te reo Māori version being re-released soon to give you a completely different way into Witi’s work). Yes, there is also the film to watch, but this is not a long novel, so if you want a quick read, this is the perfect place to start.
With echoes of Shakespeare’s rival families in Romeo and Juliet, this is a Māori Western set amid shearing gangs. A grandson takes on his dominant grandfather and discovers a dark secret that concerns his beloved grandmother. This novel was made into the film Mahana.
As mentioned, both the above novels have been made into films, as has White Lies. This publication shows that films and the books they come from can offer very different ways into the same ideas. This volume has the original short story, alongside the novella it inspired and also the screenplay for the film by Dana Rotberg. If you are interested in film-making, this book is for you, but there’s also a whole lot more, including insights into Māori medicine, moral dilemmas, the position of women and the colour of skin.
This has also been made into a film. It is a novel about coming out, a brave move for it was also a public coming out for the author. As the blurb says, the novel takes us along the precarious divide between sexuality and social mores, exploring dilemmas of contemporary gay culture with anger, laughter, sensitivity and honesty.
This is another novel about sexuality and masculinity, homing in on Māori attitudes. Set in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam and in present-day New Zealand and North America, it is also a moving love story.
Māori mythology is never far from Witi’s work. This novel is a great example of that, being based on the Māori legend of the battle between the land birds and sea birds. Although longer, like The Whale Rider, it is a good way into Witi’s work for younger readers, while being equally appealing for adults.
Witi has always been interested in Māori history, and here the fate of the pacifist Parihaka protestors forms the backbone to this novel. Witi has also long been interested in opera, and this fascinating story takes on an increasingly operatic flavour as it progresses. It’s an unexpected and inventive love story.
Also showing the influence of opera, these two novels are particularly experimental, so a bit more of a challenge. Give these a go once you have some of Witi’s other works under your belt. The Dream Swimmer is the sequel to the prize-winning The Matriarch, following the journey of Tama Mahana, as he tries to understand the Matriarch, the ruthless beauty who fought for her land.