Getting to Know Witi Ihimaera

5th February 2021

Witi Ihimaera began his writing career in the 1970s with Pounamu Pounamu and Tangi - the first short stories and novel to be published by a Māori writer. His most famous work, The Whale Rider was recently published in te reo and his latest non-fiction work Navigating the Stars brings Māori creation myths to a modern audience and has already been reprinted. Witi is appearing at this month's Verb Wellington Garden Party with Taki Rua Productions bringing Navigating The Stars off the page, in a special Garden Party performance reading with live music. Witi talks to us about his writing process, his favourite pūrākau and what he's most looking forward to at The Garden Party on February 20th. 

What is your day job?

Māori writer.

What is your connection to Vic Books?

Our Whakapapa is Writer-Publisher-Bookseller-Reader, and our particular Kaupapa is New Zealand literature.

What are you working on at the moment?

Nothing right now, just thinking a few mahi into existence. I have been so totally engrossed in the American political coverage on television that it might be time to resuscitate my American novel, Prisoner of the Glittering Tower. Or else I might start climbing that other steep maunga, Indigenous Envoy, the third memoir. Or I might start work on something entirely different.

What's your latest project?

Navigating the Stars: Māori Creation Myths hit the bookstores last year. It was a big book of some 432 pages. Between then and now I relaxed by writing a very short children’s book with illustrations which I think we (the publisher and I) will call The Astromancer.

Navigating the Stars has already reprinted and has flown off the shelves since its publication in November. How have you gone about bringing Māori myths and legends to a contemporary audience? What is your favourite?

My work arises mainly out of spontaneous combustion. And Navigating the Stars arose out of an absolute conviction that New Zealand’s own pūrākau were as great as the Greek heroic stories. I had only just completed Native Son (published September 2019) and wanted to take a break but, as it happened, I started Navigating the Stars almost immediately. I wrote it in the moment, what Maori call inaianei; there would never be time to do the mahi unless I made it myself. The kaupapa had always been there: to create a history of the Māori through our creation myths. So, too, the intention: to look at the pūrākau from an international but more importantly a mātauranga Māori perspective. To decolonise them entirely if I could and shift them out of the previous kōrero where they had been onto a 21st century atamira. I think the support of my tīpuna and my wide reading helped me make the many difficult decisions that came in the writing of what I hoped would be a transformational text; I also had the wisdom and guidance of my publisher Harriet Allan, she knows stuff! The spontaneity of the creative impulse every day of the writing process, driven by passion and sense of purpose (and joy and fun that comes from the stories themselves) also enabled the heavy lifting. And then I just did the mahi, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, world-building.

By the way, since the book was published, I have written an hour-long dramatic presentation for a family audience for Claire Mabey’s The Garden Party festival at 10 am on Sunday 21st February. Favourite pūrakau? I’ll pick the story of Tumu-Ra’i-Fenua, the Mother Octopus who battled Kupe on his pursuit of her to Aotearoa, good on you Mum.

Te Kaieke Tohorā, the new te reo edition of The Whale Rider, was published in time for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori last year. Do you feel like there's more pukapuka in translation being published for both education and entertainment in Aotearoa in recent years?

Aē ra, the reo has certainly achieved its tino rangatiratanga within the New Zealand publishing ecosystem. Building on the work of Huia and other publishers, I have become the Patron of Te Rau Pukapuka Trust, whose aim is to publish 100 books from around the world in te reo. We released our first four titles just before Christmas, only another 96 to go.

Your breadth of writing is vast - memoir, non-fiction and novels. Can you tell us how your writing processes differ for each and what you enjoy about each genre?

Your question requires a longer kōrero than we have time for. I think I could start by saying that, in fact, even with one genre - fiction, for instance - each individual book requires a different writing process and has a different set of exciting problematics to solve relating to structures, textualities, character evolutions and modal registrations you might deploy. In my case, therefore, I don’t find switching genres and engaging with their codes at all difficult. On the contrary, I love to engage in other processes, especially where they involve collaborations: editing anthologies, for instance, or creating theatre pieces, theatre people are the best to party with. Only one genre fills me with gloom and it is writing for film or television. The process is too punitive and goes on for much too long. Which is why I am not looking forward to this year as there are some screenplays that I might have to get involved with, beam me up Scotty.

What are you most looking forward to about appearing at The Garden Party?

The performance by Taki Rua of Navigating the Stars. If it’s successful it may tour.

Who are you most excited to see at The Garden Party?

The children who come dressed as their Superhero or heroine.

Some quick fire book recommendations please!

Stephen Fry’s three books Myths, Heroes and Troy; Jokha al-Harthi’s Celestial Bodies; because this year is the anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick; and one I have yet to read, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race (maybe Vicbooks will have it when I am in Welly next).

(We do!) What are you reading at the moment?

Carl Nixon’s new novel The Tally Stick.

What do you like about it?

Some novels require you to suspend belief, others to suspend your disbelief. Carl Nixon’s book balances between both, it’s gritty and works on so many different levels of exposition. It reminded me, in some ways, of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which I’m now rereading.

Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?

The Tramp, created by Charlie Chaplin. No matter what happens to him he shrugs his shoulders and walks bow legged down the dusty road. The song Smile is my favorite Chaplin anthem.

Hardback or paperback?

Both!

Favourite coffee?

As my daughter Olivia is HR Manager, Coffee Supreme (but it’s also great).