An encounter with Maori writer Patricia Grace

The first Maori woman writer to publish fiction in New Zealand.

Grace’s first collection of short stories, Waiariki And Other Stories, and her first novel, Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps
published in 1978.

I had the honour of meeting Patricia Grace during the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia, last month. She was the first Maori woman writer to publish English language fiction with a short story collection in 1975 and a novel in 1978.

The quietly-spoken Grace said that, though she read widely and had always enjoyed writing, she had not aspired to become a writer until she was teaching in North Auckland, New Zealand, when she was married with children at 25. Wellington-born Grace spoke at a session called “Small Holes in the Silence”.

During the talk, she shared how culture and family influences her writing, and what it means to tell everyday stories that some deem political.

Her sense of humbleness shines through in her writing, contributing to her distinctive style, and even her adult narrators have amusingly childlike qualities.

The 77-year-old mother of seven is known for expressing Maori consciousness and values and portraying their way of life. Her stories revolve mostly around family relationships and community dynamics rather than the outside world. The issues she explores are really everyday matters for her people.

She doesn’t write with an audience in mind, she said, but is pleased that her works have appealed to readers from all over the world.

In an interview, Grace said that while people from her community still practise kinship, ties have started to break down as people move away from their traditional areas.

“While the modern adults might still be able to operate in both worlds, city and village, it is harder for their children to appreciate and carry the values of their ancestors,” she said, with a hint of sadness.

She is happy, though, that there are more Maori writers now than there were in the 1970s.

Grace believes that there are still many untold stories: “Some people don’t realise this. Maori people are different from each other and they come from various backgrounds. So the themes of their stories are diverse.”

She urges young writers, from her own and other ethnic groups, to find their own voice and tell their own stories from within their cultures. “It’s important that you tell it from the perspective of someone who belongs, and not as an observer. Don’t worry about what else is out there,” she advised.

Grace said she has always been interested in characters rather than plots – people are central as they define dialogues, environments and circumstances, and moods. She usually starts with a real person, someone she knows, before moulding that person’s traits into a creative character with different aspects of other people to come up with a whole new character.

“My main satisfaction comes from people telling me that they find their stories in my works, and their own lives are reflected in my stories. It compels me to keep writing and sharing my stories with the world,” she said.

Grace’s first book, Waiariki (1975), won the PEN/Hubert Church Award for Best First Book of Fiction. She has since bagged many national and international awards, including the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for fiction, the Deutz Medal for Fiction, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, widely considered the most prestigious literary prize after the Nobel.

In 2007, she received a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to literature. To date, Grace has written over 20 novels, short story collections and children’s books.

- Rumaizah Abu Bakar, whose book reviews appear in Star2 regularly, has published a collection of short stories, The Female Cell (2011; Silverfish Publications).