Spinner of Maori tradition

By WITI IHIMAERA

When I began to write in the 1970s there were three women I considered my elders: Katerina Mataira, Arapera Blank and Jacquie Sturm. They were like spinners working on a loom and their great triumph, together with that of Hone Tuwhare and Patricia Grace, was to begin spinning the tradition from which all contemporary Maori writers come.

Now, one of those spaces at the loom is empty. The luminous Arapera Blank, the whaia, the mother of the Maori writing tradition as we today practise it in that lowlier language called English, has died. The silence is suddenly devastating.

I first heard of Arapera Blank when I was at Te Karaka District High School. It was 1959. I was 15 and our English teacher told us that a Maori woman had won a special prize in the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award.

I held her achievement close to my heart, excited at the possibility it implied that a career in writing was possible and within reach of a young man who, at that time, was seriously brainless and averaging C-minus passes. That same young man was eventually excluded from the tertiary education he now teaches in.

At the time, I didn't know that this same Arapera Blank (her surname came from her enduring marriage to Swiss husband, Pius) was also a Kaa.

When I found out, I was so excited because I was related to this great shogun East Coast family, and hoped some of their magic might rub off on me.

Even today, the Kaa clan maintains its influential dynastic connections not just throughout Maoridom but also in contemporary New Zealand arts, culture, religion and education.

Arapera became a teacher, a Maori Miss Jean Brodie, much loved at Birkdale and Glenfield Colleges, and later at Auckland Girls Grammar School. One day she told me of her novel (unpublished) and I said she should quit teaching and finish it. She had an obligation, because at the time I was being hailed as the first Maori novelist, a title I realised should be hers by rights.

"Why didn't you publish your novel in your time?" I asked her. She fixed me with a beady eye and said, "Witi, dear, literature was not a priority for Maori; survival was."

Arapera loved her work as a teacher, and there are many young women around who think of themselves as "Ma Blank's girls". Education's gain was literature's loss.

It's a loss that is keenly felt because the bits and pieces of writing that Arapera has left, like her marvellous poems Soul Place or Expressions of an Inward Self with a Linocut and stories like The Visitors and Yielding to the New are of such rare quality that one yearns for those that could have been.

Nevertheless, in a busy life as wife, mother, teacher, advocate of Treaty issues and social justice, Arapera found time to serve Maori writing in other ways via the Maori Writers and Artists Society, a collection of poetry, Nga Kokako Huataratara: The Notched Plumes of the Kokako (Waiata Koa, 1986), and, along with those formidable Auckland matriarchs Georgie Kirby, Ramai Hayward, Trixie Menzies, Toi Maihi, Merimeri Penfold and others, she kept prodding a younger generation of lesser talent to do it.

In her prime she was glamorous, a woman of great wit and opinion. A stroke in her later years slowed her physically, but she was still as unstoppable in her tenacious intellect as ever.

Among Arapera's rare treasures is one priceless taonga, a story she wrote in 1968 called One, Two, Three, Four, Five, a story which is pure perfection in its balance of aesthetics with the political condition of being Maori.

You can find it in Where's Waari? (Reed Publishers, 2000) and it is one of New Zealand's best short stories, a classic in the New Zealand literary canon, a powerful short story of a young Maori boy's first day at school with a postscript that has all the sting of a whiplash.

In it, the boy realises he has developed three legs - a Maori leg, a Pakeha leg and a third leg, fashioned from his education. "All three legs are a curse," he says. "I wish I could have had only one, as I would have had if I had never turned five."

Arapera Blank is survived by her husband, Pius, son Anton, daughter Marino, son-in-law Larry and grandchild Arapera.

In Auckland, the news of her death brought together an "A-list" of Maori and Pakeha - a sir, a dame, politicians, city fathers, captains of industry, a sprinkling of university professors, teachers, broadcasters, artists, writers, actors, friends, young women, men and mokopuna.

They came to say goodbye to a great lady, regal, passionate, funny, looking fabulous to the last in her Patrick Steel creation.

With considerable relief I have realised, while writing this piece, that she has actually woven her strength, skill, patience and encouragement into the work that Maori writers do today and into what we all do with our lives.

So thank you, kui, for being there at the beginning and for knotting our writing tradition so tightly on to the mainframe of our culture. Thank you for giving us the best chance we could have of ensuring the path we strike through the future is true and on course for reaching the stars.

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