Author: Patricia Grace
Publisher: Penguin Books
# of Pages: 185
Favorite Line: It was funny how people saw each other. Funny how you came to see yourself in the mould that others put you in, and how you began not to believe in yourself. You began to believe that you should hide away in the old seaweed like a sand flea, and that all you could do when disturbed was hop about and hope you wouldn't get stood on. But of course you did get stood on.
This book qualifies for both the New Zealand Challenge and the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge.
A Maori community on the coast of New Zealand is threatened by a land developer who wants to purchase the community property, move the community meeting hall, and construct many new buildings, including an "underwater zoo." The story is told in several chapters that switch narrators. Sometimes, it is Hemi, a man who was laid off from his job and realizes that this situation affords him the opportunity to reconnect with the land, his culture and his family. Other times, Toko is the narrator. Toko is Hemi's adopted son and is physically handicapped. However, he also has a sixth sense and can see events before they occur. Mostly, though, the story is told by Roimata, Hemi's wife and Toko's adoptive mother. She relates the growing concern the Maori have about developers coming into their land, and their quiet, concerted efforts to rebel. She details their successes and many painful failures in a sparse, simple prose. The book does not really have a true resolution; instead, Patricia Grace outlines the cultural differences that exist in New Zealand, and the uses and abuses of power, and how it can affect a people.
That was a surprisingly difficult summary to write above because I'm not really sure I "got" Potiki. There were several sections written in Maori, with additional words littered throughout the book as well. There's no glossary and there are very few context cues to determine what some of the words are. So I ended the book dissatisfied, feeling that I had missed key plot elements. I think because of my inability to understand some of the words, I also never fully developed a rhythm in my reading and thus didn't engage as well as I should have.
It's unfortunate, really, because the writing is quite lyrical in its simplicity. I think Grace really uses language as a vehicle to reinforce Maori belief systems in the "less is more" mentality. (Though she also reinforces her themes by repeating the same phrases. Over and over.) Hemi often says, "All we need is here," meaning that the people should live off the land and what the land can provide for them. Grace emphasizes a return to the pleasures of farming and building and self-reliance. It's never easy, but it's rewarding. She also tells really magical stories; from the ancestors carving to the family out eel-fishing, to the coming together of a community for the funeral of a loved one. I much preferred these folk tales and stories to the main plotline involving the land developers.
The main plotline just fell flat for me. It only came up about 60 pages into the story; as the story is only 180 pages long, this really made it seem rushed to me. Also, the story was fairly one-sided; the bad guys were really bad and the good guys were really good. There wasn't much middle ground. Additionally, I thought there were a lot of fascinating characters in the story (particularly the grandmother) that we just never got to know well. I think Potiki would benefit from being longer.
I also think, though, that Patricia Grace clearly wrote this book for a specific audience. She seems to have meant for non-Maori people (pakehas) to feel lost and out of place in the reading. That's why she inserted so many phrases that no one else can understand. She also makes it clear that she believes most New Zealanders just can't relate to the Maori thought process, about living simply and as part of the land. She had an agenda writing this book, and it comes across clear.
While I feel very strongly that I was out of my depth in many ways with this book, I did really enjoy the writing. It sets a nice tone and it's really lovely in an almost poetic way; Grace doesn't use any unnecessary words to convey her sentiment, and it was refreshing to see so much shared with the readers, so richly, in so short a book.
Your analysis is interesting. It sounds like it also might have as part of the agenda censuring the non-Maori for their lack of understanding. Did you feel that she was asserting the superiority of the Maori culture, or just the difference, or both?ReplyDelete
I am not sure if she was asserting a superiority, exactly. But, to me, it definitely felt very "us vs. them." I certainly felt that she had a bent saying that Maori culture was superior, but underlying that was the sadness and inevitability of that culture losing out to the capitalism of the "pakehas." It felt a bit defensive to me, which is unfortunate, as I think that colored my perception of the story a bit.ReplyDelete
I haven't read much about New Zealand, but this one sounds interesting. I think beautiful writing can make up for a lot.ReplyDelete
Judging from your review, it sounds like this was an incredibly difficult book to absorb smoothly. I think it's kind of funny that the author seemed to try so hard to alienate the reader, when it seems to me that it would be in her best interest to try to welcome and envelop the reader into understanding the fullness and depth of the story. I understand she clearly did this for a reason, and was trying to make a point, but I find it a little odd. I am glad that you enjoyed the book despite the setbacks though.ReplyDelete
Hey, i am from New Zealand and i assure you maoris and New Zealand Europeans get on just fine :)ReplyDelete
In this story i think grace is just trying to point out the difference between maori and pakha as she calls them. Maori is an oral orientated lanugae,that is they had no written language till the settlers came along, so in her story grace is using tradtional maori methods aka oral narration of many people and pakeha written stories to compare the traditions coming together, just as they are in real life New Zealand, well years and years ago..
if that makes sense?
I'm actually not sure I do understand. I can see that she used the Maori language, but I'm not sure why she doesn't give anyone who doesn't understand it even a hint of what it means. I think this is a book that would be really good in class discussion because even I feel pretty conflicted about it. I understand about cultures wanting to keep themselves whole, and that doing that probably requires people to feel different to others, but I just wish I could have understood all the words in the book! It made me feel like I was missing out on a big chunk of the story.ReplyDelete
Patricia Grace wasnt trying to make people feel secluded in the book, if anything, she was trying to help people to understand the Maori culture and their way of life and to make us pakehas understand their lives and how the sense of community is so important. Some events in the book are actually based on true events that occured in New Zealand like Bastion Point and the land wars where many Maori were killed by the Pakehas and the pakehas stole land off the maori which is why the bad guys seem really bad. they were. The book was written in the time where it was a serious struggle for the Maoris to be treated fairly and for the Pakehas to realise that they cannot just take land. The book is much easier to understand if you are a New Zealander or have some knowledge of New Zealand. When she writes in Maori, it isnt to be exclusive, it is because the book is written as if someone is speaking, like an oral story like Maori traditionally passed on their history. The Maori parts of the book are also there because the people she is writing as are actually Maori people... Hopefully this all helpsReplyDelete
See, the whole "This book is much easier to understand if you are a New Zealander" makes me feel like she *was* being exclusive. I lived in New Zealand for a season and did a lot of research beforehand on its history and culture, and so I don't think I was really going into the reading blind, but still felt as though I was not at all part of the intended audience. Just because I'm not FROM New Zealand shouldn't mean that I can't fully understand the book and its levels.ReplyDelete
Actually, if you are not from a time and place, you almost certainly will not understood a book at all of its levels, any more than a tourist understands a new place. Part of the pleasure of books, and part of the reason why we can learn something from them if we try to engage them on their own term, is that they take us somewhere unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, and teach us about other ways of seeing and being in the world. Grace actually makes a theme out of the fact that, at the time of the book, Maori were largely excluded from (or distorted within) Pakeha literature. At the same time, in a key line in the book she writes that "blame is a worthless exercise," and throughout there are examples of pakeha who support Maori claims for justice, one ingredient of which is the right to tell their own stories their own way. To be offered the chance to overhear such stories might be considered an invitation and a privilege, rather than an exclusion.ReplyDelete
I think that's a ridiculous statement, that you will not understand a book on all its levels if you are not from the same time and place in which it was written. It implies that no one will ever understand anyone else if they don't come from the exact same background, which is probably what started the whole mess in the first place.Delete
I just finished reading Potiki and I'm interested in the comments from other readers who feel "excluded" by the language. Maybe this is a deliberate tactic from the author, but maybe not. About a month ago I stayed on a marae with my 7 year old daughter as part of junior (nohinohi) school education. All the adults that went to the marae had a 2-3 hour session with an experienced tutor before the stay where the basic tikanga (protocols) were explained and the names of many of the parts of the marae and the urupa (cemetary) next door. We also had our homework - to learn a very basic pepeha (genealogy)which we would say when we stayed in the wharenui. The kids had a session every week for about 2 months before the trip. When we stayed on the marae pretty much all the language used in Potiki was known to us. Our kids were so at home, it made me proud and also honoured. So I just wanted to comment that only about 4 hours education stands between you, and feeling very comfortable with this novel. It's junior primary school te reo in New Zealand these days. If you are one of "a different race" and feel alienated by it, a really small effort would see you feel so much more at home, and maybe this is a small gift your could consider giving to yourself and the other people we live on this island with?ReplyDelete
Anne Williams (not anonymous but don't have a profile to link to)
So, to give some context - I am not a native New Zealander. I am American and therefore don't have access to learning the Maori language, even for 4 hours. I have been to NZ and spent time in a marae, but not to the extent that I know enough about the culture to have understood this book. I do not feel alienated by the book because I am a "a different race," as you say, but because I did not understand the language. If there had been a glossary, that would have helped tremendously.Delete
There are a number of international websites that will translate Te Reo (Maori language) into English. Possibly Grace used her native tongue so that readers of other languages would broaden their understanding of NZ history and seek to understand our culture in its authentic expression. Another reason there are not translations is because Te Reo is a fairly figurative language that consists of words and sayings that have multiple interpretations and mean more than one thing at once. For instance 'mana' means a number of things; it is about a persons spirit, their power, their honour. It can refer to respect, ego, value, culture, identity and many more definitions. This text is exploring the nature of translation and the detrimental effect it can have on generations of lives. A little research on NZ history would highlight that when the 'power people' who colonized NZ signed a treaty with Maori chiefs, incorret translation / interpretation of the Maori language caused multiple discrepancies in the given agreement. This has caused a claim to and ownership of land still contested by both parities today. To define Te Reo into English often limits layered meaning to a single translation and Grace is possibly seeking to present an accurate representation of the Te Reo content untainted by incorrect or limited translation. I believe it is more of a invitation to understand than an isolation technique.ReplyDelete
I get the impression that every NZer loves this book or reads it in school and therefore comes to it with a knowledge and context that I probably did not. I read Pakeha almost 4 years ago now and no longer remember much about it. I can only go by what I wrote here. I think you may be right in that she meant it as an invitation to understand, but regardless, it left me feeling isolated. Maybe I'll give it another go later as all of you seem so passionate about the book.Delete