Writers & Company

Witi Ihimaera and Ali Cobby Eckermann on the power of Indigenous storytelling

The Maori author of The Whale Rider and the Australian Aboriginal poet behind Ruby Moonlight discuss historical wrongs that stories help us face.
Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera and Australian Aboriginal poet Ali Cobby Eckermann at CBC Vancouver in 2017. (Eleanor Wachtel)

Recently, Eleanor brought together two award-winning Indigenous writers from "down under" to talk about their lives and work.  

Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera is best known for his magical novel The Whale Rider, which was made into a hit movie. Last year, he won New Zealand's $60,000 ($53,392.60 Cdn) Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement. Born in 1944 in Gisborne, New Zealand, Ihimaera grew up in a traditional Maori household, and has been a leading figure in the renaissance of Maori culture since the early 1970s, when his first fiction was published. His work captures the "emotional landscape" of his people, while engaging with the political and social realities of Maori life.

Ali Cobby Eckermann was born in Adelaide, Australia, in 1963 and grew up in an adoptive family, unaware of her true heritage as part of the country's "stolen generations" of Aboriginal children. At 34, she found her birth mother and was able to reconnect with her roots — a journey that has fuelled her poetry. In 2017, Eckermann won the $165,000 US ($204,710 Cdn) Windham-Campbell Prize for literary achievement. At the time, she was unemployed and living in a caravan.  

In their recent memoirs, both writers explore what it has meant for them to navigate between two cultures. Witi Ihimaera's memoir is called Maori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood. Ali Cobby Eckermann's is Too Afraid to Cry

Witi Ihimaera and Ali Cobby Eckermann spoke with Eleanor Wachtel last fall during the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Challenging storytelling conventions

Witi says: "Most of us today who are Indigenous have had to do a lot of shifting. To get to the point where I could write something like The Whale Rider meant that I had to go out into the world and discover world literature. It meant that I had to discover resistance literature of Black Africa and also Black America before I could really make any decision about how to do it for New Zealand. There was no resistance literature there in English. The Whale Rider, funnily enough, was written in New York over a six-week period. There was a whale that came up the Hudson River. That reminded me of the myth of Paikea, the original whale rider. It seemed like an opportunity to put Maori mythology first, to create an Indigenous heroine and to be able to tell a New Zealand public, 'This is the kind of mythology that you don't know about.' I don't write for the world — I write for New Zealand."

Ali says: "My poetry was taught to me by my traditional people. In my first contact out in the bush, when I was sitting with the women and they were learning my family tree, they recognized that I had brought a mountain of baggage with me. They were so happy that I'd made it back into their bosom. And so we began this journey of healing in a language I could not understand. I learned to listen with my eyes and I learned to listen with my heart. In that journey came the poetry, the healing and the knowledge that I might have lost my language, but I never lost my voice. My DNA memory of Yankunytjatjara culture has been unbroken since creation. That was the missing part that allowed my life to blossom. People may say that I'm angry or there is too much sadness in my work, but I write every poem as the gift I received from those old people."

The stories we lose when the past is ignored

Ali says: "Ruby Moonlight sits in the landscape of Australia. As a young poet, I was given the task to manage a young Indigenous writers project across Australia. The horror was learning the many different ways invented to massacre Aboriginal people. Every place had a massacre story. Most days when I got home, I would jot some poems down. They became Ruby Moonlight. I'm blessed so much truth came out of the land. Australia seems so fearful to acknowledge its past and, until those massacres are acknowledged and honoured, it's one of the things that stops the nation from moving forward."

Witi says: "By putting particular battles and encounters that happened in front of people in New Zealand, you are able to reach some sort of reconciliation. Sleep Standing is about a particular battle where 300 Maori men, women and children fought the imperial British Army for three days in 1864. No nobody has written about that particular battle in fiction before. And each time there has been surprise in New Zealand that these these things happened. Our work is an attempt to try to get people to see the history, to accept the history, to apologise for the history and then for us to go on together." 

Witi Ihimaera and Ali Cobby Eckermann's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "Djarimirri" composed and performed by Gurrumul.