Patricia Grace on telling the stories of New Zealand's Indigenous people

In this conversation from 2003, Eleanor talks to Patricia Grace — one of New Zealand’s most celebrated Maori writers.
Patricia Grace's latest novel, Chappy, was published by Penguin Books New Zealand in 2015. (Grant Maiden/Penguin Books New Zealand)
Listen to the full episode52:20

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, 80 years ago, Patricia Grace is one of the country's most important writers. Her stories are inspired by her experiences growing up as the daughter of a European mother and a father who was Maori — the Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Grace has lived on her father's ancestral land, known as the marae, since 1975. It was on this land that she wrote her debut short story collection, Waiariki. The first collection published by a Maori woman, it won the PEN/Hubert Church Award for best first book of fiction. Since then Grace has earned wide recognition for her subtle, moving work, including numerous novels and short stories as well as books for children. She's won the international Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for her novel Dogside Story, the Deutz Medal for Fiction, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (often regarded as "the American Nobel"). Her latest book, the novel Chappy, was released in 2015.

In 2003, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Grace on her ancestral land.

Coming to terms with her Maori heritage and identity

In a lot of ways I was in denial about it. I didn't want to be different. I just wanted to be the same as everybody else. I don't mean that I wanted to look the same as everybody else, I just wanted to fit in with everybody else. I used to hear comments sometimes — not always directed at me — about Maori and they always silenced me. I always felt terribly bad and I'd get a headache. I wouldn't be able to express anything. I used to feel my head starting to ache just through very racist and prejudiced comments about Maori people. I always knew I was one of those people. I didn't know why I always knew this, but I think I do now. It's because people told me that I was [Maori]. Some people told me this in a negative way and that I was this bad thing. But I was also told this was something positive.

Discovering New Zealand literature

I never read work by New Zealand writers and I don't think I ever read anything by a living writer. They were all dead and from other countries. It was probably by the time I was 17 that I read the short stories of Katherine Mansfield at school. And for the very first time I was noticing a familiar landscape — a New Zealand landscape. Katherine Mansfield was still quite removed from me in culture, time and social class — her world wasn't a familiar world — but the actual settings of her stories, with the sandy-footed dogs running along the beaches and the different scenes of Wellington, were very familiar. And this surprised me. Then, when I went to teacher's college, the work of Frank Sargeson, another very well known New Zealand short story writer, was put in front of me. For the very first time, I started hearing the New Zealand dialect produced in literature through his use of terminology and slang. That's when the penny dropped. I realized this is real writing. I started seeking out work by New Zealand writers. I still hadn't read work by Maori writers. These things started to add up and I realized I had my own voice and my own things to write about. 

Honouring the Maori language in her fiction

You could say that I haven't provided glossaries because I think that's what you do for foreign languages and I don't want Maori to be treated like a foreign language in its own country. I suppose it's a political act, in a way. I don't do it to disempower people. When I read books from other countries where there are bits of language I don't understand — I never used to understand what "Piccadilly Circus" meant, for example. Nobody puts those words in the glossary. I just think of glossaries and little bits of disguised text explaining words to be encumbrances in your writing. I feel that writers belonging to smaller communities, like the Maori community, have just as much right as writers from America, Britain or larger communities to write the way they want and in the way that they think is best for the story they are telling, without having to encumber their work.

Patricia Grace's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Kapokapowai" by Hirini Melbourne from the album Te Wao Nui A Tane.