Black Marks on the White Page, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (Penguin Random House, 2017), 336 pp., $40
You can certainly judge a book by its cover, in this case. On the dust jacket of Black Marks on the White Page, starkly smudged in black and white, James Ormsby has depicted a marvellous indigenous historical panorama, incorporating a Pacific vista wider than the terms ‘Oceania’ or the so-called ‘Australasia’ might denote. I was also impressed by the stories and tales inside, sprawled across the white pages like internecine moko; they are universally compelling reading, both for their content and for the ways in which they are written. Almost all articulate distinctive indigenous Pasifika voices in refreshing refrains. Some are especially brilliant.
Black Marks on the White Page has been asking to be published for quite some time now. 2017 is well past the date whereby Māori and Pasifika authors have somehow been subsumed as a minor-key motley in the bargain bin of literature. This collection completely circumvents such myopia; indeed that is its mission – to forcefully showcase and extend the perceived parameters of Pasifika writing across continent. This is well articulated by its editors when they boldly state about the contributors:
Consciously or unconsciously, their work embodies the disruptive act that Māori, Pasifika and Aboriginal writing constitutes in the worldwide literary landscape – still the page is white, and still the marks we make upon it are radical acts of transgression, of forcing others to see us in all our complexity and wonder.
The pronounced intention of this anthology then, is to not only revolt against the stylistic norms and subject matter of dominant Pākehā writing, but – at the same time – to awaken people of any ethnicity to the fact that the Pacific region consists of a far wider and more wondrous literary spectrum than has hitherto been portrayed.
Everyone involved within it is also inextricably interrelated, a point well emphasised earlier in Alice Te Punga Somerville’s fine Once Were Pacific: Māori connections to Oceania, from 2012, in which Māori are shown not as a stand-alone set of iwi, but as a set of iwi with considerable historical and contemporaneous ties to other Pacific people.
Te Moana Nui a Kiwa is, after all, a massive zone, replete with diverse yet directly interpolated cultures, languages, epistemologies grounded in their own mighty ontological bedrock. As Takirarangi Smith (2000) once wrote as part of his own endeavour to counter Pākehā dominance:
European/Western/Pākehā tools of analysis have meant that pre-colonial notions of reality have become submerged in the face of the English language … But [we need to remember that] there is also another world view which occurs in another spatial and temporal dimension, which is not that of European or Western notions of time and space.
Given this inter-lattice networking in the anthology, there is also a diverse array of fictive machinations on display, a wide range of approaches, all manner of threads stitched throughout the book. There are politico tracts and tales of tino rangatiratanga (as per Alexis Wright’s forceful works) nestling against stark street-life scenarios, as well as several experimental gambits in side-by-side.
And there is a further rationale here – to have on the page more representation of Pasifika writers per se. Novelist Paula Morris recently wrote, with regard to New Zealand literature, ‘I think there simply aren’t enough books being written and published by Māori and Pasifika writers. They represent only 3 per cent of all locally published poetry and fiction.’ Black Marks on the White Page is a wider-scale redressing of this imbalance, as well as a re-emphasis of the fact that there is a longtime legacy of such authors as Albert Wendt, Alexis Wright, Déwé Gorodé, and Patricia Grace – who has here contributed the lovely ‘Matariki All-Stars’. They are harbinger elders, for in Pacific culture’s holistic metaphysic, all generations are one across time, calling back and forth across the va and talking, ever talking.
The contemporary fine writing here represents an input over the last ten years of writers from Aotearoa New Zealand, Samoa, Hawai`i, Australia, Niue, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and Kanaky New Caledonia – among others. Some nineteen of the twenty-nine extracts from wider works and stories had been previously published, but not collected until now. This compilation had to happen, for this is the potency of va – or, as Wendt describes it, ‘the space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All’ (1996).
Nor is it all written word pictures either, for interspersed throughout there is a mix of coloured and monochrome graphics, building up and through the entire collection into a sum greater than its parts; into a taonga, in fact. A taonga, which is also an ongoing talanoa – a never-ending and inseparable three-way conversation, as so well explained by Jione Havea in his cogent ‘The Vanua is Fo`ohake’:
It refers to the (three in one) triad of story, telling and conversation. In the world of talanoa, story dies without telling and conversation; telling becomes an attempt to control when one does not respect the story or give room for conversation; and conversation is empty without story and telling.
As such, this collection is also a constant dialogue with itself, and several pieces reflect back, to and through others – for example, Ihimaera’s articulate commentary, ‘Whakapapa of a Wallpaper’, regarding Lisa Reihana’s vibrant and visceral video still, ‘In Pursuit of Venus [infected]’ (2015–17).
It feels unfair to single out artists and authors, for the collection is of a universally high standard throughout, but to give an indication in this short review I will highlight some. Nic Low is a name previously unknown by me. I will remember it now for sure, because he is represented by two clever stories: ‘Rush’ and ‘Facebook Redux’. Imaginative and humourously sinister both. Mark him down. Victor Rodger’s wonderful comic-book episode, ‘Like Shinderella’ – a gay shoe-in, if you will – cracked me up big time.
Paula Morris contributes a mōteatea-like tale about Robert Johnson, titled ‘Great Long Story’. With its consistent refrain of ‘Nobody knows exactly where Robert Johnson died’, the work takes one well beyond the blues and into a whole palette of hues. ‘Everything in this story is true, apart from the things that are wrong, and the things that are lies, and the things that are misremembered’ is extremely apposite. And equally droll. Whiti Ihimaera also contributes the story ‘my father dream new zealand’, which is plangent and pungent and very well written. There are several experimental exegesis, such as David Geary’s insightful and dystopian ‘#WATCHLIST’ as something spewing unbridled from the Dark Web. Selina Tusitala Marsh’s blackened reworking of Wendt’s Pouliuli from 1977 becomes an array of miserly lacunae revealing a completely discordant call to arms.
Then there’s Courtney Sina Meredith’s weirdly wrought set of synapses, ‘The Coconut King’. And Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada’s steampunk train of a tale, ‘Ka Kāhea: The Calling’, which tracks quite marvellously across the pages.
None of the above at any stage takes away from more ‘traditionally’ wrought stories as fine social sagas, such as Kelly Joseph’s ‘White Elephant’ and Kelly Ana Morey’s ‘Poor Man’s Orange’; and at the same time artists like Shane Hansen, Rosanna Raymond, Cerisse Palalagi and Robert Jahnke colour the pages with their special visions, reminding us all how visual Pasifika perceptions are, whereby the oral and the written are just one way to waft and weft the spectrum.
I have to note here that I have not specifically mentioned the extracts from novels and articles, as here included. For me such extracts do not work as well as the stand-alone stories, given that they do of course form an integral part of the talanoa. Most, however, do impel one to read more of the work in question – such as Tusiata Avia’s ambient and rather sad ‘I Dream of Mike Tyson’. And I must include reference to the outstanding imagery bursting out of the selections of Mary Rokonadravu, as from her extract ‘Sepia’:
My words have yet to arrive. Sometimes I have imagined them to be foreign little people with foreign little hats, waiting at the door of my mouth, begging to be spoken. I need words the crisp of pears, the cold of raspberry ices, to speak my forgetting.
This is simply superb.
I have only two very slightly less positive points to put forward. I wonder why other Pasifika writers were not represented, rather than having a few replicated towards the end of this collection? Not only fine storytellers such as James George as represented in the Ora Nui trilogy, but also writers from other Pacific zones, who – indubitably – share cultural and definitely linguistic affinities.
Yes, I am thinking of Filipino authors, resting on the western shores of the Pacific, who are everywhere beyond their own seminal islands and ever increasingly in Aotearoa New Zealand. Yes, I am biased, as my own whānau is Filipino, but reality is reinforced, I feel, in the following personal anecdote.
During 2017 I went on a Writers in Schools road trip to several South Island schools. It was great to present a workshop in te reo Māori and Tagalog to a combined class of Māori and Filipino students in one school. Indeed, the teacher noted that the latter often shared this marae-room, given that the tamariki Māori were just a bit envious of the anak Filipino because they knew their own tongue. Ka nui te pai tēnei, nē rā.
Which leads to a final point. It would have been excellent to sight a bit less English language permeating this collection, given that several authors are deliberately writing against this pervasive and invasive tongue. Including Cassandra Barnett, who set her sights high in Pitter Patter Papatūānuku and must be credited with merit for so attempting to counter English language hegemony. She writes extensively in her Notes:
To voice such Māori atua tapu in English smacked of neo colonialism. Seeking some form of restriction to shift the power relations in the text, I have adopted a literary constraint of using only the (approximate) consonant sounds of te reo Māori.
And I reflect that Hirini Melbourne declared several years ago:
So long as Māori can only assert the values and attitudes of their culture in English, they necessarily remain victims of the colonial legacy. Only when Māori writers can rely upon there being a sizeable body of readers in the Māori language will Māori culture truly be able to assert its independence (1991).
I would dearly like to see more indigenous tongues employed in such hard copy talanoa in the future. Which of course there will be, inevitably. Why? Because Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Pacific require far more grainy paw prints tracking back and forth across what, for far too long, have been the white sheets, so as to obliterate the margins; to blot out the strict straight lines of the regnant episteme. Black Marks on the White Page is the significant beginning to embody and embolden wider Pacific literature as sui generis and at the same time to self-nurture it into far-reaching verdure. For, as Aimé Césaire once stressed: ‘It is no use painting the foot of the white tree, the strength of the bark cries out from beneath the paint.’ (1967)
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA is currently based in the Waikato where he works as an educator. His poetry collection Atonement was nominated for a National Book Award in the Philippines in 2016. He also won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize in 2016. He has a PhD in existential philosophy from Auckland University.