Witi Ihimaera cuts an unassuming figure on stage. He sits next to equally calm British author Caryl Phillips while a gregarious James George brings down the house with his boisterous introduction to the ‘Nature of Blood’, part of the Auckland Writers and Readers festival, delivered to an almost-packed audience at the Hilton hotel.
"I don’t know who this fellow is," the chair declares, giving Ihimaera a fond look, "he just sneaked up here while I wasn’t looking."
The commercial success of Whale Rider both in New Zealand and overseas has brought Ihimaera to the forefront of his game. One would almost expect him to exude a certain air of arrogance, but he refuses to succumb to being a tall poppy.
He remains as unpretentious as ever, making self-deprecating jokes about a disastrous interview with the BBC which will form the basis of the epilogue in his new novel, ‘The Rope of Man’.
"It is about the life of a Maori boy, Tamihana, from his birth to his mid fifties and in the process, it’s also about the making of a New Zealander." The novel is large, about 400 pages and written mostly on planes "so it’s not very good."
Witi is unashamed to admit that his writing definitely has hints of the autobiographical. Tamihana is an international journalist working as a war correspondent.
Ihimaera worked briefly as a cadet reporter for the Gisborne Herald and did a stint as a writer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he spent four years working in New York and Washington.
Tamihana is in his fifties, so is Witi. Then there’s the interview scene, where Tamihana appears on CNN giving the snappy comebacks that Ihimaera himself wished he had come up with during his BBC ordeal.
"You are really only as good as your last show,"he points out. He wants to encourage New Zealand writers to keep writing, to persist in putting their work ‘out there’. Witi admits he was fortunate that ‘a very, very good movie was made out of the book (Whale Rider)’. He knows many talented authors such as A.S Byatt, who has written wonderful novels that were ‘made into lousy movies’.
Ihimaera's first positive experience has now led to talks of future movies being made from his other novels. ‘Bulibasha’, the story of two patriarchs fighting to find the greatest shearing gang in New Zealand, has been tentatively slated to start production next year if all goes well.
"The kind of work that New Zealand writers write is not as accesible as we think it is," therefore good marketing is essential to creating a South Pacific genre of literature that will ensure the future of Kiwi novelists on the international scene.
It is important that the uniqueness of New Zealand literature is preserved, "so that when people come to read a New Zealand book, they know that they will not get the same reading material as they do by reading elsewhere in the world."
‘Nature of Blood’, examining issues of race and colonisation in the fiction of Ihimaera and Phillips, has drawn a diverse audience, but obviously not diverse enough for some. A middle-aged man challenges Ihimaera during the discussion session with the question: "You say you are writing for a Maori audience but if you look around you…there’s maybe two Maoris here. Who are you writing for?"
Ihimaera takes this with aplomb. "That is a fantastic question and I honestly don’t know how to address that, especially here in Auckland which is supposed to be the most multicultural Polynesian city in New Zealand."
His answer is that he writes for everyone and although there is less Maori representation at the event, perhaps there will now be room for ‘more inclusive policies’ in the future.
"We all have our own personal journeys", he says. He writes from a male, Maori perspective because he is male and Maori and this lends ‘authenticity’ to his work.
‘The Rope of Man’ is due to be released at the end of the year.