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  • Published: 2 July 2019
  • ISBN: 9780143773269
  • Imprint: Random House NZ
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • RRP: $38.00

A Conversation with my Country


According to Adam Rogers, writing on www.wired.com, humans are fated to see the same world differently:

There is a world that exists . . . [then] there is the world that we perceive — a hallucination generated by a pound and a half of electrified meat encased by our skulls. Connecting the two, or conveying accurately our own personal hallucination to someone else, is the central problem of being human.

He was discussing the internet meme about an audio experiment that played a single word to test subjects. Each person heard that same word as one of two quite distinct sounds: Yanny or Laurel. This is why we divide into camps, such as the blue-and-blacks and the white-and-golds seen in another, earlier meme about a dress.

Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney’s school of psychology says that, like earlier optical illusions such as the Necker cube, whose front could be either the lower-left or upper-right side, or the image that could be a face or a vase, these new memes are further examples of a ‘perceptually ambiguous stimulus’ that can be seen in two ways.

This happens because the brain can’t decide on a definitive interpretation . . . All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.

Rogers writes that ‘Yanny and Laurel’ offers a bleak reminder of humanity’s fundamental loneliness; however, he concludes: ‘Maybe we’re all alone in our heads. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work on being alone together.’

Writing is all about connecting those lonely heads. Often, though, it has shown just how alone I am.

My books have polarised people. But I continue to explore ideas, to provoke discussion, to posit solutions, for the alter­native is to do nothing and let loneliness, chaos and anarchy or physical might and oppression rule. Even if a social issue leaves you hearing Yanny while I hear Laurel, the important thing is the important thing is that we are engaging, interacting, conversing, connecting, trying to make the world a better place. that we are engaging, interacting, conversing, connecting, trying to make the world a better place.

It occurred to me recently that for about 30 years I’ve been having a conversation with this country. For some time, I worked on my first novel, Once Were Warriors, which finally hit the shops in November 1990. Since then I’ve had many other forms of conversation: a syndicated weekly newspaper column which lasted 10 years; a nationwide book programme; 10 more novels; a non-fiction book on Maori issues; several television documen­taries; two movies of my works; various television interviews and debate appearances; a book of Maori heroes; and, as I write, there’s possibly a television series in the offing. More than that, since that first publication countless doors have opened, enabling me to meet interesting and sometimes fascinating people, making me realise how broad and diverse society is.

I’ve had another conversation with a sector of our society that is frequently overlooked, with whom a typical reader of this publication does not engage or know anything about: a low socio-economic group, the majority Maori and Pacific Islanders. Most of you, dear readers, may well have the impression that this sector is responsible for most of the crime and social dysfunction in our country. This impression is true and not true. Only a small proportion of this sector is responsible for a disproportionately large amount of the crime, but, yes, statistics confirm most are Maori, with a smaller Pasifika percentage.

What statistics rarely mention is that — putting aside that small, problematical proportion — the vast majority of these two ethnic groups have no criminal convictions, are employed (albeit many in less skilled work), and a percentage own their own businesses. The real culprits who fuel the negative perceptions, For about 30 years I’ve been having a conversation with this country the ones my first novel focused on, the hard-core welfare class, live in their own sub-world, funded by government and tacit permission — or silence — from the general public. For three decades now, it has been seemingly acceptable not only to be welfare-dependent but also to feel entitled to government support for as long as you choose. If you are Maori, or half-Maori, as I am, it is definitely not OK watching a portion of your people going down the gurgler like this.

The good news is, it’s fixable.

Here’s my very short autobiography prior to writing Once Were Warriors. I had moved to Waipukurau in Central Hawke’s Bay following my wife’s appointment to head a hospital centre for the disabled, with her son, and with our baby due in seven months; I had just quit smoking, set up a Chinese takeaway shop, played social-grade rugby and was determined to write and get my first novel published, about which I never breathed a word to my rugby team-mates. (Incidentally, giving up smoking brought a whole lot of other gains beyond just better health. Out went the lazy thinking, the self-justifying excuses about continuing to smoke, the self-pitying excuses for why I hadn’t completed that promised novel. Seeing 60 people in wheelchairs at my wife’s work also fast-tracked personal growth and dealt a quick death to the ‘me-I’ outlook.)

In 1989 there was an advertisement on television that depicted two boys aged about 10, a Maori and Pakeha, walking along an idyllic beach holding hands and laughing. I forget what message it was supposed to convey — racial harmony, I think. I knew the advert in no way reflected racial reality in New Zealand. I’d not seen much inter-racial mixing other than on sports fields; socially, Maori and Pakeha lived on different planets. I had, though, seen 17 the countless Maori kids who had never seen the sea but knew every pub car park from endless hours sitting out there in the family rust-heap while their old man or both parents got drunk in the public bar. If lucky, they got money to buy fish’n’chips. Otherwise they went hungry or shoplifted from dairies.

I knew a lot of Maori parents didn’t do things with their chil­dren, as I knew well that being read to as a child is not a Maori thing, so they start school already behind non-Maori kids who have been read to, and from then on it is the despondent realisa­tion that you’re never going to catch up. So why bother trying? The word ‘hiding’ for such kids did not mean concealing yourself in a fun game. It meant being beaten up. ‘The bash’ in the other, real Maori world is horrific to receive, even just witness. ‘Smack’ is not a slap on the hand. It’s someone being ‘smacked over’. And I thought, if Maori are so big on whanau, then how come the majority of child runaways and penal-institution incarcerates are Maori? I know: I was one of them.

This does not mean all Maori, by any stretch. I cannot empha­sise enough that the majority go to work like their non-Maori counterparts, play Saturday sport, raise good children. Every Maori parent who goes to their daughter’s netball game, son’s rugby or league game, every decent Maori doing their best does not for a second figure in this publication except as a positive. But that 1989 television portrayal of the two boys hand in hand was a lie, a false construct thought up by an advertising firm. Whoever the main players were behind the scenes, they had to have an ideological agenda.

I started to form the idea of a novel, the title born of my pondering about a race that were once warriors now living in a society not their own that punishes what they used to gain all their meaning and precious mana from. I do not use the word precious sarcastically. For Maori, mana starts before everything, especially in pre-European times and in a warrior culture. Our men went from gaining status and mana for every enemy they killed in battle to being jailed just for assaulting someone. They once were warriors, all right. And there’s something poignant about that, a race of men having to reject all that they’ve known for 800 to 1000 years and adapt to another race’s laws and behav­ioural code; to become a nation, no longer a proud member of a tribe. I am in no doubt that this enforced cultural change left a gaping hole in the Maori male psyche.

My initial, brief and fitful attempts at writing were a timid, direct aping of conventional literary style. I had read the books of every leading New Zealand writer and thought, this must be how to be a published writer. This copycatting of mine quickly ran out of steam because the voices I wrote weren’t authentic — they were forced and imitative. I knew it needed a more direct voice, and sometimes a disjointed choir of them if, say, it happened to be a pub scene full of drunk Maori.

Settling on the right style was as critical as the story to be told. Had I not read Hubert Selby Jr’s two classic books, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, and not been steered and cajoled by my agent, Chris Else, then there would have been no first novel from Duff, or else something insipid and derivative.

To make sure I wasn’t going to disrespect my Maori people, in 1989 I sought the advice of a highly respected Maori elder based in Wellington, Dr Huirangi Waikerepuru, a renowned orator and ardent advocate of the Maori language. I told Huirangi that the book would be hard-hitting, and finished by saying that if he thought the story would hurt Maori then I wouldn’t write it. 

‘Write what your heart says,’ he told me. ‘And nothing else.’ I did. Twelve drafts of it, ultimately. In the middle of writing I was told in no uncertain terms by Chris Else to keep my authorial voice out of it, my political opinions to myself, to write in the immediate and just cut loose.

The novel centred around an all-too-typical Maori family, the Hekes, ruled by the iron fists of a drunken father, Jake ‘The Muss’. Jake had voluntarily tossed in his job and gone on welfare because he figured he got only $17 a week less than he did in employment and thought that plain stupid, as in a stupid government to have a system that rewards someone for not working (though Jake Heke is hardly alone on that score).

He was a man who attracted his own drunken, violent ilk, brawled in pubs, beat his wife, traumatised his children, chose the pub and parties ahead of his family. A man, it has to be said, only too typical of too many Maori adult males. And, on that count, I can attest to virtually no dissenting voice among Maori. How do I know? From massive feedback generated by the movie adaptation of the book. Being stopped in the street by gang members, by women, Maori parents and grandparents, saying thanks for exposing it.

At heart, though, Jake is just another abused, traumatised child with no idea how to come to terms with his own brutal upbring­ing. The story looked at the damage Jake’s kind of unthinking, heavy-drinking, violent sub-culture does to the children, who suffer along with their mothers, while the culpable mostly get off scot-free. I was also hinting that Jake ‘The Muss’ Heke was not entirely guilty, more a man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. If any of us had had his upbringing, what else would we have turned into other than someone like him, or way worse? 20 with hardly a mention of the style or the sensitivity required to paint these pictures. Yes, some critical praise did come and was much appreciated, along with second prize in the national Book Awards and a generous cheque. Any first-time writer will tell you how much a positive reaction means to his/her confidence. But adverse reaction also poured forth. A line-up of critics, mainly from the left, publicly declared me an enemy of the Maori people, with no mention of any literary merit. In trying to open the coun­try’s eyes to this social malaise of state-house neighbourhoods, out of sight and definitely out of mind, I was hit by a collective backlash of outrage on a surprising scale.

And another monster I was not really aware of also raised its head: the force dubbed the Thought Police. Through invoking political correctness, the moral high ground and supposedly ‘showing respect for others’, certain members of our populace try to control the language we can use, our behaviour and our outlook. Ironically, they show no respect for others by trying to curtail what is acceptable in our society. And, as I discov­ered, writing about the world of Once Were Warriors was not acceptable.

I dared to say Maori should be fixing Maori problems. And, boy, did some people not like hearing that, not least white liber­als, along with some Maori with faces in the government trough. Stir people up the book well might. But have them lashing out and being irrational, telling lies about what I had written? I expected more tears than anger, but received comments like: ‘Duff down on his own Maori people’; ‘What a disgrace, to hang out dirty Maori washing’; ‘Totally disrespected Maori culture’. I started to realise the criticism was not coming from Maori everywhere, just a sector of Maori academics and cultural figures who considered themselves Maori spokespeople. From people in positions of power and/or influence, and certainly of social standing within their own peer group, of the same complexion as those they defended but living entirely different, prosperous lives.

A prominent Maori academic took every opportunity to express his loathing of my views to all and sundry. We appeared on television together — not in a debate, just a snarl and insult contest. Even getting our make-up removed after the show, he spat venom at me — in the dressing-room mirror! I had definitely rocked his boat, a man who left school, went to university, stayed there and pursued a successful academic career, as well as enjoyed numerous paid government consultancy roles over the years — an entire life paid for by taxpayers. To my mind, a professional Maori paid to keep spitting at his government employer and white people.

Other academics of both races also fired pot shots. I started to discover there were social agencies on nice government con­tracts. Consultants would write reports and do studies on the perennial Maori social problems, which always concluded with blame heaped on colonialism, white racism and the system, and soon another government contract followed. They weren’t happy with this half-Maori coming out of nowhere daring to say differently, not echoing their ‘we’re-victims-of-colonialism, we-were-oppressed’ rhetoric. I was saying Maori males were oppressing our females, that our wives and daughters were the victims — of untaught Maori men. To think I went even further and said, since the problems are Maori, then Maori should fix them. Sacrilege! How dare I? The Duff upstart threatened to turn their boat over.

Which wasn’t quite my original intent. Like any aspiring writer, I just wanted to be published. Yes, it did become clear early on that my book would stir debate, and I even dared to hope it might even inspire action — as in our Maori men taking a long, hard look in the mirror. I’ve been there and done it. I even suggested that Maori women could lead us out of the wilderness. This was heresy.

One of the very few writers festivals I have been invited to took place in 1991, in Wellington, where I waited backstage to be called out to face a large audience — and no one came for me. Finally, a Maori woman informed me that, against her better wishes, she would introduce me as she was obliged to show respect to a fellow Maori. I told her I could introduce myself. Her contempt is etched in my mind as she told the audience I’d done Maori a grave disservice.

Our perceptions of the Maori world not only didn’t line up, they clashed like tectonic plates. I had to quickly learn to prepare for this clash wherever I was invited to speak. People shrilly announced group walkouts in the middle of my presentations, yelling insults as they left; they shed dramatic tears, sobbingly telling everyone how my awful views had got to their very core and rendered them ‘sleepless’; and, of course, what an insult I was to Maoridom.

No denying I felt hurt and confused. But I was learning fast about human nature. A prominent Maori artist urged that my books be removed from every bookstore and library and burnt — the kind of utterance you expect from the Taliban. Ever since the written word came into existence, people have felt threatened and wanted the clay tablets broken, papyrus scripts and books burned, the writer killed or exiled. An artist, though, should know better. Had I known of this George Orwell quote at the time, I would have seized on it: ‘The further a society moves from the truth, the more they hate those who speak it.’

My introductory photograph on the front cover of the New Zealand Listener was yours truly with a tool belt round my waist, t-shirt, shorts and rumpy running shoes with socks that didn’t match. I was finishing a contract to insulate and clad a pipeline at the Napier fertiliser works and did not want to lose time with a photographer. If they’d read the book, how could they say I had denigrated my Maori people, ridden roughshod over Maori culture? I’d have been denigrating myself. The Yanny and Laurel phenomenon was being proven to me at every turn.

Meanwhile, my Maori chief character, Te Tupaia, was a model of exemplary traditional Maori, steeped in his culture. Through him, I expressed my love and gratitude to that part of my own upbringing, the traditions, the singing, the humorous, lateral way of thinking. I based this character on a man called Irirangi Tiakiawa, whose formal farewell of my oldest brother in our Tuhourangi wharenui in Rotorua is an unforgettable memory of Maori culture at its finest.

I did not write anything negative about Maori culture. I painted a portrait of urban Maori, a sub-culture, how a typical family on the unemployment benefit in a state house lived; a canvas broadened, in collective form, caught in a cycle of wretched drunkenness, violence, wife and child abuse. Not a pretty picture, indeed at times quite hideous. But just ask any Maori how close to the truth it is.

Like most self-respecting, egalitarian Kiwis, I was not going to be bullied, cowed from expressing my ideas, my views of the world as I — and many others — saw it. I don’t need what con­stitutes racism prescribed to me. I know when I see it.



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