As he has been publishing now for 50 years, we emailed some questions about writing to Witi, who answered them on a plane journey.
Witi: Kia ora koutou.
Q: Where do you most like to write?
Witi: On a plane!
Q: When writing about what you were focusing on when judging the Sunday Star-Times Short Story competition, you wrote ‘I could say I’ll be looking for a story that has credible characters, conjures up a consistent world with a narrative that is well balanced, but these days short stories can be anything the writer wants them to be.’ Do you follow those initial criteria when you write or do you just write ‘anything’ you want?
Witi: My own stories come to me in many ways. Sometimes they’ve been in my head for years except I haven’t been able to figure out how to get them onto the page. Others come in a moment of inspiration like, right now, I am on a plane and the woman next to me has asked her husband, ‘Are you all right?’ But once the story has decided, Pick me, pick me, then, yes, it is a matter of evolving the characters so that they are credible, that the world they interact with and inhabit has its own logic and that it unfolds according to the balancing act the story’s inner compulsion seems to require.
When I say ‘these days short stories can be anything the writer wants them to be,’ today there are a whole lot of options for the writer. And if the story wants to be written without a structure or backwards or without an illuminating individual or in amazing figurative or literary language, you should do it. Create your own genetic ID. For instance, one of the best stories I’ve ever written is mainly in English but also employs the language of science and mathematics.
Q: You also added: ‘What all judges hope for is something that works by its own rules, comes out of left field and bowls you over.’ In what ways have you gone about that in your own writing?
Witi: When I started writing, the literary world was a universe. Today it has exploded into multiverses. There are some amazing new writers out there, you might be one of them. And you’ve grown up with the Internet, PlayStation, gaming, kapa haka, all these various influences that create different kinds of text. It’s not so easy for me, I have to research those worlds and try to keep up. But the novel I am currently working on, Metura’a, works according to the dictates of contemporary fantasy-scientific fiction. I think that for something that comes out of left field, first the idea itself has to come from there. And then you have to follow through with left-field literary process. Though some people already are working at the interface of transformational textuality, so they don’t have to think about it, they just do it.
Q: Where do you get your ideas from? How much do you draw on your own life? How much do you draw on Māori pūrākau?
Witi: So now the man beside me has started coughing. And I’ve put my mask on. And the woman has said to me, “Why are you doing that? We haven’t got COVID.” Uh oh! This is an entirely unexpected development. So, my ideas come out of the air, some I might develop but most are discarded. But I do have a default position to find inspiration and, yes, it is from my own life. Very early on, I realised that being Māori and writing about Māori in the world was my best offer. After all, there weren’t that many of us doing that 50 years ago. I was the first Māori novelist, for instance, and my first question to myself was: how do I validate this world I am writing about. The answer of course was to write from my own experience: that would keep it true.
So, yes, when my work has a Māori compulsion. I use pūrākau to anchor it or stabilise it. The ancient stories are the template for the current stories. For instance, one of my latest stories is called ‘Tāwhaki’ and it is about a boy who is a weathercaster on a satellite revolving above the earth during the oncoming years of the climate crisis. But the story is anchored and structured by the pūrākau of the original Tawhaki, who climbed into the upper heavens to obtain the baskets of knowledge.
Of course, I draw on many other sources of inspiration. For instance, some readers will know of my deep regard for the work of Katherine Mansfield and that I have always thought of my Mahana whanau as being the Maori equivalent of Mansfield’s Burnell and Sheridan families. My respect for her continues and in this, the 100th anniversary year since Mansfield died, I have paid a special homage to her in my new edition of Tangi by referencing her story ‘The Garden Party’ and Laura, the main character from the story. It’s a literary intersection at which two literatures meet in the continuing evolution of the New Zealand story.
Q: Is being Māori the first point of call in your writing? You wrote the following comments about Māori writing raising certain expectations in the reader, do you use these as a starting place?: ‘What is [a work’s] kaupapa or purpose? In terms of whakapapa, where does it (will it) and its writer fit in the history of the Māori text? While I read, I’ll be thinking of its hinengaro, the idea that motivates the story. The tikanga, the Māori rather than Pākehā code of practice the writer has applied to the story. The pūtake, the root that firmly connects it to our traditions.’
Witi: We’re landing soon and the couple next to me have decided to have an argument with me, bring it on. Yes, being Māori is definitely the first port of call in my writing. I think every writer has to have a calling card. What’s yours going to be? Over the years, my calling card has expanded somewhat, and I now have become known as an indigenous writer and a humanitarian with kaitiaki expectations of myself. So, the thing is, you might start off at one place and as one kind of writer, but that doesn’t mean you will end up there. A writing career is a journey. But whether the subject is Māori or not, I therefore still apply the same principles of kaupapa, whakapapa, hinengaro, tikanga and pūtake. They’re my guideline to maintaining the highest expectations from my work. What will yours be?
Q: What would you advise a new writer to do before embarking on a novel?
Witi: We’re just about ready to land. I have decided to ignore the fuckwits beside me. When the plane lands they can go into their alternate reality, and I will carry on in mine. Okay, so where are we! Advice to a would-be novelist: work within your current skill set in the knowledge that the practice of writing your first book will assist your second; few are perfect the first time around, though some are; if you can, join one of the University creative writing courses and get a degree at the same time as you write your novel; always assume your book will be published, otherwise, why waste your time writing it; first, second, third, fourth drafts are par for the course, I have had to suck it up, grrr.
Q: Your work often has wero, offering a challenge to the Pākehā (and even Māori world) – is this important to you? Is it important to all literature?
Witi: Definitely. I’ve now given spare masks to the couple next to me. Will they wear them? They appear offended at my offer. Just as people are offended that Māori keep on challenging Pākēha. What people (like my row companions) don’t know is that in my next book I might just put them in it as villains.
To the question: as far as my career is concerned what I say is: I’m Māori, you wouldn’t expect me to write like a Pakeha do you? Of course not.
It’s not just the work that is the wero. I am the wero! What that means is that what you see is actually what you get in the mahi. One of my latest wero is a piece I did for Radio New Zealand about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but tying it to the war in the Ukraine. Another is my work as patron of Kotahi Rau Pukapuka, we are publishing 100 books in te reo whether people like it or not. And yes, it’s important to have wero in all literature, especially indigenous and LGBTIQ+ literature and anything combating climate change. The world has got to get better.
Q: You have written: ‘I’ve always said that the main requirement to become a writer is the stamina to sustain a career over the long haul.’ Has this been the biggest wero for you?
Witi: Yes, walking the walk, talking the talk. And keeping on doing both no matter what.
Q: You have called on opera, used waiata and haka, avoided speech marks in Tangi, used the first person present narrative voice when it wasn’t common – do you see traditional form and content as something to push against? Or is it something to enrich?
Witi: Plane has landed. Couple disembarking, probably given everybody else Covid. They should take more responsibility.
I see my whole unfolding process as a process of enrichment. But, honestly, it’s more a quest for perfection, whatever that is. All I know is that I started this career as somebody who had an idea of himself, and from there I must develop. And every work takes me back to that beginning. It says: Try harder.
Off and out now to rejoin my world, tuia i runga, tuia i raro, tuia, tuia, tuia.
Nā reira rātou, koutou, tatou,
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