Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka – 2019

PurakauAfter reading some works you just see the world differently, maybe for a moment, maybe a few hours or days, maybe permanently. Pūrākau was such a work for me.  Pūrākau is a collection of contemporary writings relating to Māori foundation stories, stories that are ancient and resonate through the generations.

Right from the editors’ introduction we are in the world of myth and legend, and wherever we are from we are ready to recognise multiple layers of reality, the importance of the health of the natural world, young women who must be allowed to disappear before dawn or go back to the sea, the shapeshifters and the tricksters, the warring brothers, the heart-breaking tragedies and the longing for redemption.

Whiti Hereaka’s prologue gently takes us into the dark, into a place where the stories can be told, and what stories they are! Arranged into groups that help the reader navigate, they are a combination of already published and newly commissioned works and are all fresh and engaging – e.g. Hereaka’s Papatūānuku, newly separated from Rangi and worrying about her newly wayward sons: “They were so cramped before, living on top of one another really. It was no place for growing boys.”

The writing styles differ, some biographical, others set in the timeless other-realms, some in the vivid ‘now’, others in the futuristic world of science-fiction and future technology, and many placing traditional elements in a contemporary setting.  One strong theme that emerges through all the re-tellings is that of the power of women: “Wāhine carry the stories, they carry the kawa, they carry the songs” – Renée in Te Pura, Warrior Taniwha of Te Wairoa.

The women are wise, they are measured, they are terrorists and warriors, they often make the best of their tragedies, such as Patricia Grace’s Rona in Moon Story, or Tina Makereti’s Pania in Shapeshifter, who is still a wonderful presence even though imprisoned in bronze.  Waitaiki was confined in Pounamu and her story is told in Nic Low’s Te Ara Poutini.  Not only are they imprisoned, women are deserted, betrayed, beheaded … but they are also vital agents – when Tāne finally manages to create the first woman, Hine, Makereti (in Skin and Bones) has her say “I’m so glad you figured it out. I’ve been waiting for ages.”

Other constant themes that make the stories timeless and relevant, are the pollution of the natural world and the mistreatment of animals.  Hatupatu slaughtering Kurungaituku’s animal friends in Ngāhuia Te Awektotuku’s Kurungaituku, the sad story of Hora-ngā-rangi and Teu-ngā-rangi, the two toroa in Ihimaera’s telling of Pourangahua bringing potatoes to Aotearoa (The Potato).

In The Potatio Ihimaera likens his writing to kūmara “which I could offer to people to enjoy”. In his Niwareka and Mataora, he likens his writing to tā moko “the difference between writing and Māori writing is that without the inspiration of tā moko, the inscriptions of our stories would only be superficial and easily wiped away.”  I could only read Pūrākau from the point of view of a pakeha New Zealander and a lover of foundation stories, I am sure there is much I missed and very possibly things I misinterpreted.  But I found this collection deeply engaging and its effect on me won’t be easily wiped away.

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