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Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti gather stories of colonial resistance

A collection of stories tells how colonialism is being resisted.

This book is many different things at once: hardback, artwork, storytelling, anthology. It is a beautiful object and a challenge.

Black Marks on the White Page, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti, is a collection of art and writing from Maori, Pasifika and Aboriginal Australian creators. In their introduction, the editors explain that this prose, poetry and visual art together is a talanoa, a conversation.

In The Vanua is Fo‘ohake, Jione Havea writes: “A talanoa must be shared … A talanoa can also pierce and transform, stretch and transcend … A talanoa is difficult to complete, or contain. It lives on, beyond each of its tellings.”

The nature of storytelling is a theme throughout the book. In her poem Pouliuli: A Story of Darkness in 13 Lines, Selina Tusitala Marsh takes a black marker pen to a copy of the novel Pouliuli by Maualaivao Albert Wendt, leaving just a few words uncrossed-out. Although the poem is formed by obscuring words, it is a call for more words to be written: “Wake up/Samoa and bring/a/New Zealand/storyteller/a pen.” In Famished Eels by Mary Rokonadravu, the protagonist’s illiterate father urges them to “Keep writing … As long as someone remembers, we live … My story is not mine alone. It is the story of multitudes and it will become a thread in the stories of multitudes to come.”

Tina Makereti. Photo/Lisa Gardiner

The creators here also comment on their use of the English language. In her extract from Freelove, Sia Figiel includes a Samoan-English vocabulary list. The protagonist, Inosia Alofafua Afatasi, says “[English] was a moody language. At times void of meaning. Empty. … It wasn’t like my geneaology could be traced through it. Or that the veins in my blood were to be found in its alphabet, the way it is found on my mother’s tattooed thighs.”

Black Marks on the White Page comprises, as the editors say, “the disruptive act that Maori, 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 …”.

Many of its works are concerned explicitly with resisting colonialism. In Whale Bone City, Alexis Wright writes: “See if you can find Aboriginal Sovereignty’s killer … You like the lightness of being an individual like white people, to be in a personal space where you can no longer feel the totality of culture, or feel any of its depth of connectedness, or of being reminded how you are related to the total country …”

Witi Ihimaera. Photo/Massey University

In his satirical short story Rush, Nic Low inverts the power dynamic by making Aboriginal Australians the owners of the mining company and older white people the protesters.

Black Marks on the White Page showcases a multiplicity of voices and genres. It is, by turns, startling, beautiful, funny, challenging, forceful and delicate – a talanoa well worth joining.

BLACK MARKS ON THE WHITE PAGE, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (Penguin, $40)

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.