Patricia Grace: A writer & a fighter

by Diana Wichtel / 21 May, 2015
Patricia Grace at the Pataka Art + Museum. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

At 77, Patricia Grace has just finished her latest novel and is celebrating winning a land battle.

Wahine Toa. Patricia Grace wrote the text for the 1984 book of that name to accompany artist Robyn Kahukiwa’s vividly reimagined paintings of women from Maori mythology. Grace is something of a warrior woman herself. Apart from her standing as a pioneering, acclaimed Maori woman writer and all-round national treasure, she has stared down, with a steady blue-eyed gaze unclouded by her 77 years, the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA). “Ancestral land escapes bulldozers” went the headlines.

Grace’s great-great-grandfather Wi Parata gifted land to the community of Waikanae, north of Wellington. Grace holds the last parcel of ancestral land. The NZTA had designs on it for the Kapiti Expressway.

No, she wasn’t really shocked. Silly question. In her 1986 novel, Potiki, there’s an epic battle – bulldozers driven into the sea – with developers in a place not unlike Grace’s community, Hongoeka Bay. Protecting the land has been a long struggle. “I just thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to let this happen,’” she says. “I’m just going to keep on saying no.”

It was quite a fight. Writers, academics and assorted big guns rallied. “We had to go through two court cases. I found I could actually get the land made a Maori reservation through the Maori Land Court and that if I was able to do that it would be inalienable, even to the Crown. We were quite fortunate that we came across this notion that we could get it made a reservation and still own it. I didn’t know that before.” Thanks to the case, many people now know it. “Yeah, I hope so. That would be the big spin-off for me if they do.”

Grace then tackled the Environment Court. “That’s where I didn’t really think we would win, but I was most surprised and pleased with the court,” she says, with a touch of lawyerly formality. They listened to oral history. They’d accepted a new definition of wahi tapu. “Which, in a lot of people’s minds, means cemeteries. Wahi tapu can be like an historic place where people have lived their lives.” She won. “NZTA drops appeal for Grace land” went happy headlines last year. Amazing. “It was amazing. So they’ve had to go around my land,” she says dryly, “which they could have done in the first place, actually.”

Grace with Janet Frame. Photo/Patricia Grace Collection

Done and dusted. No wonder she’s taken 10 years to publish her latest novel. She’s been busy. We meet at the lovely Pataka Art + Museum in Porirua after some frantic rescheduling. Grace has been kindly whisked there by a daughter, weaver Kohai Grace, straight from a tangi, her second in a week. “I’m all funeral-ed out.”

The sun suddenly pours into the museum cafe after a morning deluge of biblical proportions. In other portents, we overlook the museum’s Japanese garden. Very apt, Grace agrees. Such a garden improbably sprouts up in post-World War II small-town New Zealand, a symbol of peace, intercultural acceptance and love carefully tended through adversity in Grace’s new novel, Chappy. It’s a story with an other-worldly undertow and itchy feet. It encompasses Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japan and a baby, Moonface, who is stolen, very possibly by fairies.

Daniel – 21, privileged, drifting – is packed off from home in Europe to be sorted out by his Maori grandmother, Oriwia. His mission: to find out about the exotic, enigmatic grandfather he never knew and to find himself. The love of his grandmother Oriwia’s life was a frail Japanese stowaway the seafaring adopted uncle Aki brings home: “… a liddle Chap … From Chapan.” An illegal immigrant, Chappy learns to speak Maori and lie low. When the war comes, loved community members are suddenly enemy aliens. Chappy disappears.

Grace aged 17 or 18 in the uniform of Wellington’s St Mary’s College. Photo/Patricia Grace Collection

It’s a novel about stories waiting to be told. Was this such a story? “Not waiting. Well, maybe it was a little bit. I’d always been fascinated by what my husband told me about a Japanese shopkeeper who lived in Ruatoria. He was very well liked by everybody and he was married to a relative of theirs.” Interned during World War II on Soames Island, he was eventually deported.

Getting inside a Japanese character was tricky. Grace considered jumping ship herself. “Yes! But I wanted to do it, so I thought if it doesn’t work I don’t have to publish it.” She’s not sure what reviewers will make of it. “They might say that Chappy’s character was undeveloped or something like that. I’ve done what I can do.”

Chappy doesn’t have a lot to say but his gentle, eloquent otherness becomes a powerful presence. “The unfathomable core, the unknown of him, was what made my heart beat,” says Oriwia. “I don’t think I ever really tried to get into the head of the Japanese person as a Japanese person,” says Grace. “Probably into his heart a little bit. I felt, well, he’s a human being and I know about human beings.”

Chappy had to wait to finally be told. Grace’s husband, a teacher, writer and leader, died two years ago. Kerehi Waiariki Grace, Ngati Porou: his wife carefully writes his name down for me, looking bereft. “I had this nearly finished,” she says, indicating the manuscript. “My mother was sick before him and I was involved with her care before she lost her independence. Then she passed away and my husband’s health was a big concern. So I never got around to finishing it off until late last year, I suppose it was.” That must have been a terrible time. They were such a partnership. “Yes,” she says. “Yes. Do you like the cover?”

Warm, a little reticent, inspiring, Grace in person has a stillness; a spare, judicious use of words. It’s no good trying to wait out a silence. She’ll leave you gabbling into the void. She’s formidably modest. We talk about the slow intersecting of Aotearoa’s official languages. When she published Potiki, people complained there was no glossary. That doesn’t happen now. “There has been a change. The woman who first got into trouble for saying ‘kia ora’ – was she on the tolls? People are saying it all the time.” Some of that change is down to her. “Yes, well, it was probably in the air, you know.”

Grace and writer Witi Ihimaera. Photo/Patricia Grace Collection

Later, she emails. “There were real pioneers such as Hone Tuwhare, JC Sturm, Arapera Blanc, Rowley Habib, Meihana Durie who had poetry and short stories published in anthologies and magazines … When first Witi [Ihimaera], then I, put out our first collections of short stories, I believe the time was right, or coming right, for us.” It was probably in the air.

She was certainly unaware of any Maori Renaissance when she started. “I was living in a small community up north, teaching at two-teacher schools. I wasn’t aware that there were very few women writers, let alone Maori. I just went into writing fairly naively. I really didn’t see myself then as not mainstream,” she says, laughing. “It didn’t occur to me there were barriers.” Her first short story collection, Waiariki, was published in 1975.

Teaching and seven children: how on earth did she do it? “Well, family. I think that’s the key because it included a husband who was very involved with the family. If I had to do everything on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but we worked together in our teaching jobs, in looking after the kids. He was studying and I was starting to write. So we were doing that at night time when the children were in bed.” She must be ferociously disciplined. “I’ve had to be.”

Her models: writers like Frank Sargeson. “When I read his work, that was the time when I realised what writing was.” Grace also cites Amelia Bastistich, of an immigrant Dalmatian family. Katherine Mansfield? “She was removed from me in time and culture and social class, I suppose, but I was seeing the New Zealand scenery. I enjoyed her voice as well. I would say she was an influence.”

Grace has been Booker Prize longlisted and has received too many awards to mention, most recently the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She doesn’t like the personal attention much, as evidenced by the crashing and banging on my recording device – “Oh, sorry!” – from when she unconsciously fiddles with it. She appreciates recognition of the work. “As you know, writing is quite an alone occupation. You’re never sure how your work’s going to be received. When there’s something that acknowledges it, well, it’s always good. It’s always an encouraging thing.”

What I wanted was a dozen beer for our celebration at home,” says Aki, ashore in Wellington with his stowaway, “but since the native man was not allowed in hotels this needed a plan.” Moments in Chappy that bring you up with a start. Oriwia and her sister set off on an exuberant outing to the movies. “Gallery only,” says the ticket seller at the segregated cinema. “There was fury going on inside of me,” says Oriwia. They go home.

New Zealand, so recently. Grace had those experiences. “Yes we did, in a town where we were teaching in South Auckland. Of not having cheques accepted, things like that. Of having someone’s head shake as you come in the door.” She demonstrates a curt, blank dismissal. “Like that.”

Grace aged eight on holiday with relatives in Nelson. Photo/Patricia Grace Collection

She doesn’t dwell on these things. “You just have to be positive all the time.” Grace, you imagine, picks her fights. When she does, you imagine, watch out.

Her only complaint during our chat is on behalf of her stock in trade: words. “The thing I find slightly irritating is when news broadcasters especially – words are the thing that they need to do – don’t pronounce Maori words correctly. They should be accurate. Out of respect.”

Grace is Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa on her father’s side. Her mother was Pakeha, of Irish decent. People forever ask why she doesn’t draw more on her Pakeha side. “I do identify very strongly with my mother’s side as well. It probably hasn’t come out in my writing.” It’s there, she says. “Some of the stories I can think of, they’re not based in Maori culture at all, really.” She has said the Maori side claimed her. “Yes, that is right.” So did the outside world. “At school, being seen as the Maori child. My mother used to say, ‘Well yes, that’s right. That’s good.’ So I suppose that reinforced it within me: I’m a Maori child.”

Grace was brought up Catholic. She doesn’t practise. “But there’s some things about myself that I know come from my Catholic upbringing.” Chappy presents another spiritual world, with ghosts alongside the living and where curses and communal trauma manifest as disease. “Is that what I believe? What I can say is I don’t discount those things at all,” says Grace. “Everything, everything is a search for light,” says Aki in Chappy. “Not everything in the world has to be understood,” says Daniel.

Some – Alan Duff springs to mind – have claimed writers like Grace and Ihimaera didn’t engage with the grittier realties of contemporary Maori life. “I did hear that at the time. When I first read Once Were Warriors, I thought, ‘This is what we need. This is another experience of being Maori and we need that in our literature so that a more full picture can be painted’,” she says. “There are all sorts of ways of being Maori. It’s just as diverse as any other culture. I can do certain things; Alan Duff can do certain things. So I wasn’t too happy about what he was saying. I don’t think it was romanticising. I was writing about the people that I knew. I was writing out of my own experience.”

In Chappy, Oriwia asserts the rights of the storyteller to her own truth. “The bits I’ve added about the war in China I made up from Chappy’s night terrors … what I’ve seen in movies and read in books and papers,” says Oriwia. “You should be allowed to do that when you’re the owner of the script.”

After her latest land wars, no one could say Grace lacks true grit. “It’s all supposed to be for the greater good, having a big road … If I thought what my grandkids needed was a big road, I could have given them the land without them even paying for it, you know?” People ask if there’s a book in that saga. “I say I’ve done it,” she says, laughing. “Been done.” No bulldozers driven into the sea this time? “No,” she says. “No.”

Grace on a hikoi with grandson Kimihia in 2004. Photo/Patricia Grace Collection

Potiki was nearly 30 years ago, but then in Grace’s work, the past has a way of coexisting with the present and even the future. Her “spiral temporality”, one academic called it. “There’s a different sort of a mindset in Maori thinking, and I’m not saying that’s entirely my thinking, but I do realise it and understand it. It’s in the language. The past is ahead of you. The ancestors have gone ahead of you. They’re ahead of you on the road they’ve gone.”

Chappy is dedicated to Kerehi Waiariki Grace. “Though you have gone, our love for you does not diminish,” it reads in English. Now she’s working on his story. “I’m putting together my husband’s interviews he did before he passed away; his memoirs, in a way, about his childhood.” Grace did some of the interviews herself. “He also did some with the occupational therapists from the hospice when he was sick and he’d also done other bits and pieces.” It must be a bittersweet task. “Yeah, I put it aside for a long time. I couldn’t really face it. And now that I’m doing it, I’m enjoying it. I’m ready to do it.”

Her children all live nearby. There are grandchildren – “30, I think”. Is she happy with the world they’ve inherited? “Ahhh …,” she says. On the whole? I gabble foolishly into the silence. “On the whole,” she says carefully. “You know, you’d love to change the world. I’m not saying just in regard to Maori-Pakeha ­relations but just the whole thing of what we seem to be doing to the Earth really, the environment.”

At least she’s safeguarded her corner of it. “It wasn’t so much because I thought I would win,” she says. “It was because – and my family all agreed with me – we wanted the grandchildren to know that we tried. That was what was important to me. That we tried. So we did.”

It’s a great story, told by a master storyteller and absolute owner of the script she’s been writing most of her life. “I took it one book at a time, one project at a time,” she says, of her writing life. “I knew once I had Waiariki published, it was something that I was going to keep on doing forever.”

CHAPPY, by Patricia Grace (Penguin, $38).

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