The Dim-Post

February 10, 2015

Notes on Potiki by Patricia Grace

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 11:26 am
  • I went into Man Alone with the preconceived notion that it was a celebration of stoic kiwi masculinity, and it turned out to be the exact opposite. I knew that Grace’s Potiki was about a marae locked into conflict with a property developer, so I went in expecting a postcolonial version of a ‘Little Battler’ story. Then I read the prologue which is a very brief, beautiful story about the life of a wood carver and I thought that Grace was going to thwart my expectations.
  • She did and she didn’t. The plot of Potiki is painfully cliched. A materially poor but spiritually rich family living on a coastal marae fight off the predations of an evil, murderous drug-dealing super-capitalist property-developer who wants to knock down their meeting house and dig up their graveyard to build a road to his new aquarium. But the plot is just there as a means for Grace to make her statements about the past, present and future of Maori culture and Maori society. As an insight into Maori attitudes towards the land and its appropriation it is pretty much canonical. No one will ever put it as eloquently as Grace does here.
  • Plenty of writers write books they want to read. Before she wrote Potiki Patricia Grace was a teacher in both primary and secondary schools around New Zealand, and I suspect that she wrote a book that she wanted to teach. I also suspect she mostly had Maori teachers in mind, teaching Potiki to Maori students but the book is now a standard text in New Zealand secondary schools.
  • Maybe I’m wrong about the authors intention, but reading Potiki feels like homework. It’s beautifully written and very, very worthy, but I always felt like I’d eventually have to answer questions about it in an exam. Describe in your own words, using examples from the text, why Uncle Stan refused to sell the warenui to Dollarman. 
  • It’s not much fun, partly because of the homework vibe. But there’s a deeper problem. One of the basic components of story-telling is that things are not as they seem. Heroes turn out to be flawed. Villains have secret plans. But in Potiki everything is exactly as it seems. The heroes are unambiguously good. The property-developer is utterly evil. Stuff happens, but not in an interesting way.
  • You could say that this stark good vs evil depiction simply reflects the lived experience of Patricia Grace and the wider Maori perspective. That there was no moral ambiguity about property confiscation and the Maori struggle to win back or keep their land. And that’d be true, but truth doesn’t necessarily make for good literary fiction. You could also say that Grace isn’t writing literary fiction in the western sense: instead she’s writing a myth using the forms of her own tradition but in a modern, political context. That’s fine too, but ‘modern political myth’ is really just a euphemism for propaganda. I’m not criticizing Grace for writing her book the way she did – it was a vital counterbalance – just explaining why I didn’t enjoy reading it.
  • It is an interesting insight into how a Maori intellectual and artist saw the future of her people in the time before the Waitangi Tribunal became a force for meaningful change, and the growth of (some) iwi as major forces in the New Zealand economy. Grace’s vision for Maori was one of communal subsistence farming. She’s very scathing about the idea of Maori being involved in the tourist economy.
  • It was an unusual reading experience for me because Patricia Grace lives in Plimmerton, and the book is clearly set in the reserve in Hongoeka Bay (my copy of the book shows the bay on its front cover), and I grew up in Plimmerton during the period in which the book is set. So it feels a bit like my childhood friends and I are always hanging out at the periphery of the story. Some of the characters go to school, and I wondered if they sat at the desk beside mine. But I think it says something about the segregated nature of New Zealand back in the 1980s and 90s that I didn’t know, and don’t recall anyone ever mentioning that a major New Zealand novel had been published that was set in our tiny seaside community.
  • I might be wrong, but I don’t think anyone ever tried to build an aquarium and five-star hotel in Hongoeka Bay. As I recall – and my memory is vague – the marae’s dispute was with the quarry adjacent to it. The quarry wanted to expand, widen the road and so on, but it turned out they didn’t have a resource consent to operate there and when it became obvious to the owners that obtaining consent would be difficult, and very expensive they closed down. I walked around the coast from Pukerua Bay to Plimmerton over the summer, and most of the traces of the quarry – the stagnant pools, piles of rubble, deep gouges out of the cliffs – have been covered with new growth of native bush. And gorse.
  • Most of the early analysis of Potiki talks about Grace’s use of untranslated te reo at key points in the text and the absence of a glossary. It was a daring, provocative thing to do at the time, and back then it had the effect of dis-empowering pakeha readers who couldn’t understand it. Now someone as oblivious to tikanga-Maori as I am can read and understand Potiki with little trouble.

22 Comments »

  1. Your last sentence makes it all worthwhile

    Comment by rayinnz — February 10, 2015 @ 11:39 am

  2. Patricia Grace has written a lot of good fiction, and although I agree with some of your comments, I think it is worth mentioning that “Cousins” has wonderfully developed characters, even if it is doctrinaire. Yes she has an axe to grind, but that’s about justice deferred

    Comment by Rick Bryant — February 10, 2015 @ 11:46 am

  3. Obviously, if there hadn’t been all that red tape, then the marae would have been demolished. The road would have been built and the quarry would have supplied cheap and plentiful materials to the people of New Zealand and everyone would be able to afford their first investment property.

    That’s how this all works, right?

    Comment by George — February 10, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

  4. “But in Potiki everything is exactly as it seems.”

    How can we know that? perhaps it is just that, even when you get to the end of the book, everything seems to be exactly as it seems. But then it would, wouldn’t it?

    Comment by Can of Worms, Opened — February 10, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

  5. Potiki is Patricia Grace barely out of first gear. For me, Dogside Story and Tu have far more substance than either of the local Booker winners.

    Comment by Joe W — February 10, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

  6. Also Grace can be really funny, in an authentically NZ way that’s instantly recognisable but few have managed to pull off. She definitely doesn’t do po-faced sanctimony.

    Comment by Joe W — February 10, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

  7. The developer is called “Dollarman”? Subtle.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — February 10, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

  8. I enjoyed Patricia Grace’s short stories but agree about Potiki.

    Comment by Maureen — February 10, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

  9. I don’t know that we are more or less segregated now than we were then. Maori are unevenly distributed throughout the country so there are communities in which the cultural, social and political impact of Maori is naturally greater then elsewhere. The Waikato, larger Bay of Plenty and Poverty Bay/East Coast are the heart of the modern Maori world and communities there reflect that reality. One thing that has most definitely changed is that there is now a common or shared national culture of which Maori are a part and to which they make a significant contribution – hence your familiarity with Maori words – and has been slowly building in the post world war two era.

    Comment by Tinakori — February 10, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

  10. Its amazing how quickly the environment recovers from open cast mining, isn’t it? Makes you wonder why we don’t exploit more of our natural resources in this country…

    Comment by kyotolaw — February 10, 2015 @ 7:55 pm

  11. Quarrying for stone is not the same an open cast mining, but you knew that.

    Care to wager how long it’ll take Waihi to “recover”

    Comment by Rob — February 10, 2015 @ 8:59 pm

  12. “…The developer is called “Dollarman”? Subtle…”

    Hmmmm. I’ll have to revise my novel. I’ve called the banker Mr. Nartzi.

    Comment by Sanctuary — February 10, 2015 @ 9:46 pm

  13. That’s OK, Sanc, I’m sure all the nameless people who regularly email you to tell you how great your rants are will love it as it is.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — February 10, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

  14. Dogside Story is very well written. She has an economy of style.

    Comment by NeilM — February 10, 2015 @ 10:24 pm

  15. testing

    Comment by swordfish — February 10, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

  16. “But I think it says something about the segregated nature of New Zealand back in the 1980s and 90s…..”

    I think it says more about your Upper-Middle Class background in a suburb conspicuously divided into poorer (Ngati Toa) Hongoeka Bay and affluent, overwhelmingly-white Plimmerton Township.

    Meanwhile, this Working/Lower-Middle Class Pakeha lad growing up in nearby blue-collar Titahi Bay a decade or so earlier had Maori first cousins, Maori neighbours and plenty of Maori classmates all the way through school.

    As liberal and Left as I will always be, I do tire of well-meaning affluent Pakeha liberal luvvies re-writing history to dovetail with their highly-romanticised (not to mention, paternalistic) conception of Maoridom and their understanding of New Zealand history as a Good vs Evil morality tale. As someone who studied history through to post-graduate level, I have to say they’re doing enormous violence to the complexities of historical fact. Always with more than a hint of the enduring 18/19 C ‘Noble Savage’ sentimentalism.

    All of which, in turn, of course, echoes Grace’s “painfully clichéd” morality tale.

    Comment by swordfish — February 11, 2015 @ 12:04 am

  17. “…That’s OK, Sanc, I’m sure all the nameless people who regularly email you to tell you how great your rants are will love it as it is…”

    But how do I know if they are not just saying that and they genuinely love it?

    Comment by Sanctuary — February 11, 2015 @ 7:11 am

  18. I do tire of well-meaning affluent Pakeha liberal luvvies . . .

    I went to Aotea College. [Drops mic].

    Comment by danylmc — February 12, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

  19. Fair enough, Danyl. I may have become just a little carried away in the midst of my rant. You were the wrong target.

    Comment by swordfish — February 12, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  20. @ swordfish

    Please don’t be so rude about the Waitangi Tribunal.

    Comment by insider — February 13, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

  21. Does your life and experiences get expressed in your books?

    Comment by Lucy — February 16, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

  22. Kia ora – I often reflect how what seems cliched to me now did not even exist at the time those books came out. It’s only cliche because the story is now so familiar – it has been told many times since in many different ways, but this was groundbreaking if not shocking at the time. Patricia was writing from the inside, and people reading from the outside come up with all sorts of hypotheses about what she was trying to achieve. She has consistently stated that she was just telling the story of ordinary people in her experience, an experience she didn’t see reflected elsewhere. I’m confused about the quarry vs aquarium/hotel question – it’s still fiction and development is development! But I do think the complexity you are looking for is present in Baby No-Eyes, where individuals are complicit in their own colonisation. I think of Baby No-Eyes as a more complex sequel to Pōtiki (though I don’t think that’s the intention).

    Comment by Tina — October 30, 2016 @ 5:09 pm


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