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An Interview with
Apirana Taylor (Ngati Porou)
Maori writer of impressive versatility
Dorothy - 24/05/02

Apirana Taylor
Apirana Taylor
Photo source Apirana Taylor
The desire to write "in the blood"
In answer to the question, "Where did the desire to write come from?" Apirana said, "There are a lot of writers in my family. My father and his brother were both journalists. There were storytellers on both the Maori and the pakeha sides of my family. I remember when I was a little boy before I went to school I wanted to be a writer like Dad. My older sister, Riwia Brown, wrote the film script for Once were warriors and has written several plays, and so has my younger sister. I think it's in the blood."

Whereas other children loved art lessons but groaned at the prospect of having to write a story, he would be elated when it was story-writing time. He found it a real release to use his imagination and write.

Enrolment at University
Although he did not enjoy school he chose subjects in which his skill at writing and presenting a viewpoint could give him a reasonable result, so after he passed his University Entrance he was encouraged to go to University. He went there with little knowledge of what was expected and no clear motivation. He was enrolled to major in English and Maori, but he found that it was not the place for him.

Influence of Alistair Campbell
One day during that first year at University Apirana watched a television programme on which Alistair Campbell read some of his poetry. He recalls it vividly. "I just loved listening to his poetry. I thought 'He's brown like me. If he can do that I can do that.' The minute I thought that I grabbed my pencil and paper and started writing and spent a month or so writing my first poem carpeting the floor ankle deep with screwed up pieces of paper. I was going to write a five hundred page epic poem which people would study for several generations. I enjoyed the stories of Robin Hood but decided I would write about a theme set in this country - the life of Te Kooti."

He could not put his pen down, but about a month or so later after whittling and sculpting his drafts he emerged from his room at the University hostel with a poem about ten or twelve lines long.

Searching for truth
He left Massey University and went out in search of truth. With his pack and his notebook to record his writings he walked to Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island where the Maori spirits depart. He thought that poets were supposed to be down-and-out, so he came back and experienced the life of a homeless down-and-out in Wellington. He found that sort of life miserable in the cold of winter.

He enrolled in a journalism course, but when there were assignments to be done he felt he had to give preference to his poetry writing, and left the course. Since then he has done any sort of job to support himself while writing.

First work published
Apirana's poem about Te Kooti and others were accepted and published by Landfall. This was most encouraging and made his friends view him more as a serious writer.

He wanted to find out more about the world. He worked on a carpentry gang building a marae in Wellington, because he thought that learning about carpentry would improve his writing. He felt that if he could learn to make strong joints as a carpenter he would think better as a writer. It was a tough life because the gang worked very hard physically and at night he stayed up late writing and then was not relaxed enough to sleep well.

"If you really have a calling to write you have to do it, but life can be very hard," he says. "Everyone has some form of talent and if you use it there is a force of positive energy, but if you don't use it then it becomes negative energy."

Involvement with theatre
As a young child Apirana had been in the cast of The King and I and Porgy and Bess - a production in which Inia te Wiata played Porgy. That had been a culture shock for a little boy brought up with the standards of the Salvation Army. He was horrified by the smoking, the alcohol consumed and the Brylcreem and the winklepicker shoes they wore. They rehearsed from 8.30 in the morning till 8.30 at night, which was exhausting for a small boy, but he fell in love with the magic of the theatre. He recalls the warmth and kindness shown him by Inia Te Wiata. The American producer of the show, Ella Gerber, was amazed at the way singing Maori action songs would relax and enliven the mainly Maori cast when the tension was building during rehearsal. "She wanted us to take that talent and produce it in theatre, a form most of us were unfamiliar with," Apirana explained.

His brother, Rangimoana, was one of the first Maori to attend the New Zealand Drama School. He worked in theatre in Auckland but returned to Wellington as he wanted to bring his skills in theatre to Maori people. An Arts Centre was opened in Wellington and a Maori theatre cooperative called Te Ohu Whakaari. They developed drama based on Maori history looking at people like Princess Te Puea and Apirana Ngata, and toured around the country for some fifteen years. Apirana gave up his carpentry to join the theatre team.

"I really wanted to write plays, because in my stories none of the characters talked to each other. They were all these Ernest Hemingway muncho type characters who sat there like heroes never saying anything. Every time I tried to get them to talk they wouldn't. One day I had two characters sitting in a doctor's waiting room. I finally got one of the characters to say to the other, 'Psst, what's the time?' The other character turned round and said 'Shut up or I'll knock your head off.' That was it. I thought, 'I've got to learn to write dialogue.' "

Involvement in the theatre co-op seemed to provide the answer to the problem. He offered to be a stage manager and design sets, but found himself cast in an acting role - a frightening experience for a man brought up to be a rugby player. He had to loosen up. They spent two years on the road presenting what was then ground-breaking theatre.

On one occasion when he was billeted with a Maori family he witnessed friction between the young mother who wanted to send her daughter to Kohanga and the grandmother who spoke fluent Maori but wanted her grandchild brought up only with the English language. This situation led Apirana to write his first play, Kohanga - probably the first full-length Maori production, written by a Maori, directed by a Maori and with a Maori cast. Only the producer was a Pakeha.

The group performed the work of most of the major Maori writers of that time. Well over a hundred Maori people were encouraged by the work of Te Ohu Whakaari which continued for fifteen years. Over that period many people including Maori writers, actors and producers worked hard, often without any wages - a situation that could not continue, so finally it closed down, but by then it had opened the previously closed doors of New Zealand theatre to Maori theatre.

Maori plays performed
Apirana's first play was Kohanga which was produced in the mid-eighties. It was a huge success. It ran in Wellington for three weeks. His sister, Riwia Brown, wrote plays called Roimata (Tears), and Te Hokina (The Return). His younger sister Haina wrote Iwi Taea about cot death. Hone Tuwhare's On Ilkly Moor Bar Tat, Rena Owen's Daddy's girl and Bruce Stewart's Broken Arse about Tu the War God in prison. (It appealed to Apirana's wry sense of humour that by day he was cleaning toilets at McDonald's to earn a living and at night playing the role of Tu, the Maori God of War.)

Involvement in teaching
Since his involvement in the Maori theatre cooperative he has acted in television films, tutored at the New Zealand Drama School, and taught drama and creative writing at Whitireia Polytechnic. He has also travelled throughout New Zealand schools and libraries, story telling and reading his poetry.

Publication of poems
In 1979 he published a book of poetry, a slim volume, including some of the strongest poems he has ever written. It was a tremendous thrill - his first book. It was launched with a big opening and a spread in the Evening Post. At that time Maori writers were at last breaking through to gain recognition.

Maori writers used to meet at the marae where Apirana was working - Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Keri Hulme, Bub Bridger, Bruce Stewart and Rowley Habib - the apex of the known Maori writers of the time. They would sit and read their work to each other and discuss it.

"I was the baby of the group and they were so supportive and encouraging towards me, especially Patricia Grace and Rowley Habib," said Apirana. "Instead of treating me as an enfant terrible they nurtured me along. Rowley, one of the first Maori writers to be published, continues to write beautiful stories, but I don't know why he does not try to get them published."

It is an enriching experience to read the work of a Maori writer who is passionate about his people's needs. Sad Joke on a Marae expresses the frustration of a Maori who is unable to cope in the pakeha world and is in jail. Uncle Hakaraia gives poignant voice to the distress and disorientation of Maori who were forbidden to speak their own language. Parihaka focuses on the suffering of the people of Parihaka and the muzzling of their story until recent times.

Apirana has travelled nationally and internationally presenting his poetry and telling stories. Twice he has been invited to India to present his work, and in 2000 he was invited to Europe to share his poetry and stories with others. He met Lance Henson, a Cheyenne Indian, and wrote Survival dedicated to him. This poem is an arresting comment on the similar experiences of oppression suffered by Maori and by American Indians.

This is poetry of today's world and Apirana writes of the violence in which "we pirouette in a dance of death" and of the need for peace, and of The Twin Towers. In No Matter he speaks of the devastation of the world by greedy multinationals, and in A Question of Value of the increasing materialism in New Zealand.

In contrasted mood he writes Swiss Mountains where he compares the snow on the mountains with the grey hairs on his head. He plays with words in his Time poems, and in lyrical mood writes of the seasons and of the moon.

As an experienced actor Apirana presents his poetry with dynamic colour. I was gripped by the poetry when I read it, but it really came alive when I listened to the CD on which he reads some of his favourite poems. To appreciate this poet I needed both experiences, the silent reading and the listening.

Collections of short stories
The manuscript of his first stories was rejected by a number of publishers as being too meagre. Then Apirana entered it in the competition called the Pegasus Book Awards and it came second to Keri Hulme's The Bone People. After this success the same publishers who had rejected his book wrote back and said how interested they would be in publishing it. Penguin published this first collection of stories under the title He Ro Aroha - A Hundred Leaves of Love.

The next collection Ki Te Ao contains some of Apirana's favourite stories. Mana is about a boy's longing for his grandfather to teach him to use the taiaha, written to give a positive view of Maori culture, and Swept Off the Street a largely autobiographical story about a Maori teacher of Maoritanga (culture) and drama battling with The Department of Maori Affairs for support of an extended teaching scheme. Other stories show the range of his subjects - from the wry comic touch in The Undy Monster to Te Tohunga Makutu, the story of a man-eating monster, and Carving Up the Cross highlighting cultural differences.

His collected stories have been published in a large volume called Iti Te Kopara, which is drawn from a Maori proverb meaning "Little things can accomplish much".

2002 in Christchurch
This year Apirana is the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury - his second such appointment. The first was at Massey University in 1996.

Meeting this writer and reading his work has been a stimulating experience. Such is his versatility as a writer that I have been moved to deep thought, to emotions ranging from sorrow to anger and to laughter.

For more details about Apirana's career, email Apirana Taylor at:
haka@paradise.net.nz






 
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