Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa) this week won Aotearoa's richest literary prize at the 2022 Ockham Awards. David Herkt has a kōrero with the audacious author.
Aotearoa's largest literary prize has been awarded to one of the most unconventional novels in its history – and received in spectacular style.
Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa) accepted the $60,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2022 Ockham Awards in Auckland this week. She was dressed audaciously as her book's protagonist, Kurangaituku, a half-woman/half-bird spiritual being, from Māori mythology.
Her costume involved more than 600 white feathers on the bodice, a leather mask and beak, a white chiffon top with great flounced sleeves as wings, a boned waist-clincher, and a black chiffon dress whose long tails resembled plumage. She had designed and created the ensemble herself. It was, as they say, a coup de theatre.
Hereaka's book, Kurangaituku, is a love story, a tragedy, a beautifully designed artefact where form and content reflect or refract each other, and a profound exploration of Māori myth and meaning. It is suspenseful and erotic. Kuranigaituku also carries its reader deep into the historic narrative consciousness of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is a story about stories.
The novel clearly indicates that myths and legends are not just the preserve of children's literature. They have far more value and importance than that. The experience starts from the moment a reader picks up Hereaka's book.
Kurangaituku is an endless loop. It can be started from either of its differently designed covers – with a duplicated section in the middle. The reader chooses which side of the volume to begin their reading, but then the book must be rotated to begin the other. The novel never really starts and it certainly doesn't finish. Each reading is the same but totally different. It is a classy performance.
"I guess I struggled with the shape because it was new to me," Hereaka explains. "Part of me was worried that I was doing it for a gimmick. In the process of doing it, I think I tried to write it what you'd call 'normally' – with quotation marks – and it didn't work as a story. For me the structure is integral to the story. That put my mind at ease. I wasn't just doing it in that way to be cool.
"What I really wanted the reader to do and feel was to turn the page and have the same experience as Kurangaituku. So the point where you flip the book is the point where her life is turned upside-down, in both ways. I wanted the reader to go with her as everything was flipped and turned upside-down in her world – and so it should in the reader's world too.
"I really loved the middle part where the two stories meet," she adds. "When we looked at that in the design phase, I got really excited because it reminded me of the weaving pattern that Kurangaituku talks about, awarua, where two stories, the light and the dark, are coming together and inhabiting the same space."
The story of Kurangaituku is frequently a part of Kiwi childhood. When travelling on State Highway 1 at Ātiamuri, just out of Taupō, many families will stop at Te kōhatu o Hatupatu. It is a large, hollowed-out rock beside the road and some visitors still leave small offerings of twigs and bracken at its base. It is an essential landmark in the story of the young Te Arawa chieftain, Hatupatu, who had been captured by Kurangaituku, a terrifying tipua or spiritual being, half-bird and half-woman.
Kurangaituku kept Hatupatu prisoner in a cave for many months before he escaped with an armful of valuable cloaks that he had stolen from her. She chased him as he made his way home to Lake Rotorua's Mokoia Island, but he hid in a rock crevice, which miraculously sealed closed behind him to give him concealment and shelter. Once she had gone, it released him, leaving behind the mysterious human-sized hollow still visible today.
"I grew up in Taupō," Hereaka explains, "and I grew up with the story. We would go to McDonald's in Rotorua and eat food under the carving of Hatupatu and Kurangaituku. So, it has always been bubbling away. I say the book took 10 years, because that is the lie that I can live with. It has been a lot longer than that.
"I also didn't think I had the skills as a writer to write the story that I wanted to write back then."
Hereaka did not settle for a retelling of the myth. She turned it on its head. She relates it from the point of view of Kurangaituku, a voice for a new era and from a new perspective. It reverses everything we might have thought about a tale that was part of many of our young lives.
Kurangaituku bears no relationship to the superficial storytelling to which the New Zealand reading public can sometimes be accustomed – those novels and films that feel designed to gain funding from government organisations or internet 'likes" with this year's fashionable tick-list of concerns. Instead, Kurangaituku is the real deal. It might be centred on a mythic story, but it isn't confined or reduced by that fact. Hereaka's decisions have given her a powerful freedom.
"If you are thinking about an oral tradition and you have oral storytellers, as part of a performance you will meld your storytelling to the audience. So yes, pūrākau and myths in general have lessons for young people to learn and ways to live life and I don't think we ever grow out of that. I hope we don't.
"I hope we are challenged throughout our lives to look at our lives, and look at other people's lives, and see if we have grown. Are we being more empathetic people? We shouldn't be stuck in ruts about how we live life. I think it is important for both adults and children to have these lessons – and to have them retold in other ways."
In her own social media, Hereaka mentions some of the books that have influenced her retelling of the story: Neil Gaiman's bestselling American Gods, Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, an erotic revision of the Greek Herakles story, as well as Tales from 1001 Nights and Margaret Orbell's Māori Myth and Legend. An attentive reader will find traces of them all.
"I am not thinking that this novel will be the 'Ur-Legend of Kurangaituku'. I don't think it will be the end of the conversation. This is a strand ... There is room there for multiple interpretations. There is room there for audiences. Having said that, I don't think my book is particularly suitable for younger readers. But once they have grown up, maybe they will come to it – it will be within their understanding of the myth they grew up with, hopefully."
Hereaka's version of the story is undoubtably erotic. There are many sexual permutations in the novel between humans, and between humans and supernatural beings. The novel is explicit and vivid. Oral sex features in one incident as Kurangaituku and Hine-tītama, who will become Hine-nui-te-pō, the Goddess of Death, couple sensually in the steamy waters of a hot pool in the underworld. Hereaka does not shy away from the heated carnal forces behind the story.
"It comes from Kurangaituku. She is very curious and open about every human experience – and I think sex is very important to human experience. It is important enough not to limit ourselves to one thing or the other.
"In te ao Māori, in pūrākau, sex wasn't something we shied away from, historically. Since colonisation, yes, it has gotten a bit weird. I found it a little strange when reading anthropologists' versions of our stories, that they chucked the world of sex out – but when you look at carvings and waiata, we are not shy about it at all.
"It was part of the idea that I really wanted this story rooted in te ao Māori, in these ideas about sexuality. Kurangaituku had to be true to her physical being. Sex is part of experiencing a body, a part of living."
Hereaka has previously written plays and scripts. Her young adult fiction is multi-awarded. She co-edited the anthology Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers with Witi Ihimaera. However, Kurangaituku is different. At times it can resemble a multiplayer computer game between gods and mortals. At other times, it uses scholarly research to base a textured response to Māori culture and mythology, revealing old stories anew. It is a novel for a fresh era and a story that can be felt.
Hereaka has picked up many resonant features of lore and learning. She seizes upon details, like the omnipresence of plant roots in Māori mythology, finds their essence, and uses them to full effect. It is hard to forget Hereaka's plant roots dangling from cave ceilings.
"Part of my aim for writing Kurangaituku was to emulate traditional Māori storytelling, an oral storytelling tradition, in a physical novel form. And I spent a lot of time researching oriori and waiata to try and get the rhythm into English – which is a challenge. I am a very baby speaker of te reo Māori so I had lots of support from te reo Māori editors.
"Then I wanted to capture the idea of pūrākau in the Western form of the novel. My understanding of pūrākau is that they are endless stories. They are cycles of stories rather than the discrete packages of stories that we might be used to in a Western mindset. The stories are ongoing – as in that idea of time in te ao Māori that past, present, and future are all simultaneously here. We have this feeling the story will continue on with us and without us and that it is a living thing – so much so that it feels odd to me to put a hard ending to something that will continue on."
Rob Kidd, convenor of judges for the Ockham Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize, said Kurangaituku was "poetic, intense, clever and richly imagined".
Another of the fiction judges, Māori novelist Kelly Ana Morey, noted that Kurangaituku "is one of those novels that I wanted to consume in the great, greedy mouthfuls you take when the writing is spectacularly good. Instead, after each section, I found myself putting it down and unpacking what I had just read. It is layered, nuanced and," she adds, "sexy as hell too."
The awards ceremony at Auckland's Q Theatre was a mix of cultures, featured a twist of genres, and was backed with guitar musical interludes.
Hereaka's costume was spectacular under the lights. Her bleached blonde hair caught the illumination. She was careful and measured in her thanks. When asked to read from her novel, she began appropriately, "A story does not begin until it is told.
"I want to be heard," she continued, voicing Kurangaituku, "I want to exist again, at least in your mind."
Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka (Huia Publishers, $35)