Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka – 2021

Kurangaituku graces us with the story of Hatupatu and the bird-woman from the female perspective. It tells of the coming into being, and fading from existence, of the universe, the natural world, and the individual. It asks why we learn about the death of Maui and not the violation of Hinenuitepō; why we are taught history from the male point of view. It demonstrates the power and destruction of language and shows how ‘love and creation’ are just ‘revenge and destruction’ seen from another perspective. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

Kurangaituku emerges from the void of Te Kore into the dark of Te Pō. With the cleaving of the sky from the earth, there is light, and she exists among the birds of Aotearoa, the birds whose consciousness sang her into existence. With the Taupō eruption, she is entombed. She emerges after millennia to find another type of creature has arrived in the forest – the Song Makers – the Māori. “I had admired the birds who had adapted to their niche in nature, but the Song Makers could adapt the world to suit their needs.”

Lurking near the edges of human society, Kurangaituku learns to weave and to carve, not recognising the rules of male and female. She experiences language, and although “… it is an act of love to learn a language, an act of becoming”, she is re-formed by those from whom she learns her language. As the birds sang Kurangaituku into existence, so too the language of humans starts to agonisingly transform her into the pain-wracked female form. Her transformation is both physical and literary – her claws that are ideal for weaving are told as claws for attacking; she is portrayed as a warning.

The Song Makers don’t grasp “that all creatures that dwell in the forest do not just live there, but they make up the forest”. Kurangaituku’s eating of the brains of birds to understand their experiences is seen as monstrous, whereas hunting and eating birds for food is seen as necessary. The collective existence of the forest is riven into those with power and those without, those with standing and those without, the concept of Mōkai, slavery, emerges. The relationship between Kurangaituku and Hatupatu is complex, loving, abusive … “He named me Kurangaituku. And I was undone.”

Kurangaituku proceeds as in a love story, but she is an innocent, unused to lying and deceit: “How could anyone treat a person that way, with so little regard? If I had been a person that would have made him monstrous.” She recognises Hatupatu as a thief and a murderer, he inflicts on her the most horrific death – but she struggles with desertion. “If only our relationship has been hunter and mōkai.” She exists in the love of their meeting in the forest – “But that is an illusion, a game we all play – the idea that any of us can truly understand what it is like to be another … Just as this story was never really mine. It can only ever exist in the space between us.”

There are many times in the telling of her story when a sphere, a rock, an eye, expands to encompass everything and then contracts to be an individual. The geography of the land is a part of Kurangaituku, as it is with the patupaiarehe, those beings akin to the corporeal and ambiguous Sidhe of Scotland and Ireland and not to ethereal butterfly-like creatures called fairies. There are many types of creatures, all part of a whole. But as Kurangaituku is entombed, so too is Hatupatu, there are many times in the telling where there is a searching for cracks in rocks, many times a searching for entrances to new realms. And in those realms we discover new creatures, and experience the loss of others.

“Perhaps if I wasn’t so inquisitive, if I didn’t have a need to accumulate knowledge” – in another wave of exploration Kurangaituku forges into the afterlife to seek an explanation for her experiences from Hatupatu. In this ouroboros of a novel this is both before and after her time in the forest. We travel through the geography of Māori cosmology, and through the geography of the female body. Kurangaituku is a stranger in a strange land – there are none like her to welcome her to the underworld – but there is beautiful Hinenuitepō, who re-shapes her in human form, and with whom she sits in the waters of the womb.

When Kurangaituku reverses her journey time has passed again, colonisers have arrived in Aotearoa. They have made a monster of Hinenuiotepō, and her children no longer go to her after death: “I could have wept for her then. Not because she had lost her power, but because she believed she had, that she no longer had any control of her narrative.” This novel is all about the real power of words, how they create, how they destroy. We talk ourselves into being through our stories. The author addresses the reader as a lover – a creature feeding on the stories the author has presented.

“Would Te Kore have evolved into Te Pō without the potential for more?” There is the urge to keep moving, but within the swirling events there are moments of quieter research and reflection. There is the examination of the woven panels and the carvings of the whare, the consideration of creation stories and the placing of characters. But the story can’t not be told, “… life doesn’t seem to respect dramatic pauses.” In passing there are the cries: “If only, if only, if only.”

The physical book Kurangaituku is beautiful. It is printed tête-bêche, and the central tellings of Hatupatu and the bird-woman interweave as they pass each other from opposite directions. In whichever order you read the book the story works, and whichever way you read the events the story changes. The proof of Hereaka’s words is in the readers’ hands: words are power, Gods are immortal until men stop telling their stories.

As Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell, Hereaka has given the opportunity for redemption to a usually reviled character. Like Ursula Le Guin with her The wife’s story, Hereaka has shown us the depths of our preconceptions. But Kurangaituku is so much more than objective observation. As I read, I was reminded of the whakatauki: E koekoe te tūī, e ketekete te kākā, e kūkū te kererū. There are many voices, many points of view. And the tragedy at the heart of the novel is the silencing of the voices of the birds, of the women, of the colonised: “It is a privilege to be heard – and not one many are allowed.”

“I had come all this way following Hatupatu, hoping for a chance to balance our story. To avenge my own death by his hands, to satisfy utu. And now I was left here on my knees with a mouth full of dirt.” I don’t have the words to express how good this book is – read it!

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