Joanna Wane visits octogenarian novelist Judith Reinken, one of the Hokianga's hidden treasures.
On a kunekune pig farm in the hills above Ōmāpere, where the land rolls down to the ocean, lives the Forrest Gump of the Hokianga.
That's certainly no reflection on Judith Reinken's IQ. With two bachelor's degrees (mathematics and theology), plus a PhD from the University of Chicago, she has both a fierce intellect and a reputation for scientific rigour in her work as an epidemiologist. And at the age of 83, she still whumps people half her age at online Scrabble.
During lockdown last year, she wrote a 296-page historical novel set in the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 700BC, drawing on archaeological records to tell the story of a young girl, Naqia, who rose to become one of the most powerful women of her time. Titled "The Head that Wears the Crown", it's being launched in Auckland at a special event tonight.
So Reinken, who was raised just on the right side of poverty in rural America, is no intellectual slouch. But, like the fictional Gump, her life has intersected with a remarkable number of pivotal events.
As a young civil rights activist, she was part of the famous 1963 rally in Washington DC, a day of peaceful solidarity when Martin Luther King was still able to dream. "I was sitting on the edge of the reflective pool [by the Washington Monument], dipping my feet in the water during that speech," she says. "It was history, you know?"
The year before, she'd almost married Charles Chew, the future Democratic senator who spoke alongside the Reverend that day, after crashing at Chew's apartment when she arrived in Chicago on the night of the Floyd Patterson v Sonny Liston fight and couldn't find anywhere else to stay.
With Reinken as his campaign manager, the charismatic Chew was elected as Chicago's first Black independent alderman, but their friendship outlasted their engagement. "I didn't mind Charlie having two mistresses," she says, barking out a laugh. "But when he wanted to take a third one, we were through!"
Reinken, who moved to New Zealand with her late husband Donald in the early 70s, has made a habit of butting heads with the establishment ever since.
In 1990, her takedown of the Tobacco Institute's spurious stance on the dangers of second-hand smoke helped pave the way for the Labour Government's pioneering smokefree legislation — the paper she wrote for the Department of Health, "Through the Smokescreen", has been described as "a classic in demolishing the credibility of the [tobacco] industry".
Inequity in the health system? After being funded by the Medical Research Council in the early 80s to conduct a survey into the health of Māori women, she was told the information that had been gathered couldn't be analysed because the Department of Statistics had not provided a reliable sample. "Apparently they hadn't felt that was necessary because it was Māori women," she says. "That's called structural racism." She and a colleague eventually found a credible way to interpret the survey and reported on the results anyway.
Bias in the judiciary? A few years later, Reinken did some research into the high rate of Māori in prison. Using national data from the Wanganui Computer, she found systemic inequities in sentencing by all but two District Court judges. That report didn't win her many friends in high places, either. "You know something?" she says. "I wasn't popular in the Department of Justice."
Undeterred, she teamed up with Dean Hapeta from Upper Hutt Posse to spend the next few months personally observing the courts at work. When some of the judges wouldn't allow Hapeta on the reporters' bench, due to his lack of collar and tie, Reinken had him sit outside the courtroom and talk to defendants waiting to appear. She handed over her notebooks when lawyer Moana Jackson took over the programme, which led to the Māori Legal Service being established.
New Zealand's school decile system? Remarkably, that's Reinken's work too. Thirty years ago, she developed the NZ Deprivation Index, a socioeconomic measure still used by the Government today to target school funding to communities most in need. It tells you all you need to know about Reinken that the Hokianga, where she's lived since the late 1980s, is one of this country's most economically deprived regions.
At first, I'm not sure if I have the right address when I pull up next to the two simple dwellings she and Donald built from cedar ply after buying a 4ha block of bare land. She tells me, later, they always lived in separate houses because she couldn't stand his taste in music.
The solar panels and an electric car parked in the driveway are a dead giveaway, though, and the view is a million bucks, sweeping across the Hokianga Harbour to the glowing Ōpononi sand dunes. Inside, the walls are lined with hundreds of well-thumbed books, which double as insulation.
Donald, as much of a maverick as his wife, taught political science at Victoria University when they first arrived in Wellington, in search of a kinder and more sustainable way of life. After Trump was elected as US President, he told Reinken he wanted to send a telegram to Hillary Clinton apologising on behalf of all the Donalds in the world.
Both passionate environmentalists, the pair were foundation members of the Values Party, a political precursor to the Greens, with whom Reinken remains actively involved. Global overpopulation is one of the reasons why they never had children but her adopted whānau includes a young European couple who worked on her farm as WWOOFers before putting down roots in the Hokianga and having two children of their own.
Regarded with great affection as a kuia by the local community, Reinken is a familiar sight in her tweed cap and gumboots on daily walks at the beach almost dwarfed by her two dogs, Fred (an elderly huntaway/shar pei cross) and Zeus (a young ridgeback/labrador with a touch of whippet).
Her decision to take on a puppy tells you a lot about her too. "Four paws on the ground!" she growls when Zeus bounds over excitedly, and he drops obediently to the floor. "I'll probably outlive Fred, and I can't be without a dog."
Reinken's parents were socialists and the hymns she was raised on as a child were the old union songs, "Solidarity Forever" and "Which Side Are You On?". She can still sing snatches of them now. They were also Jewish, but it's the Māori Anglican world where she's most at home, serving as a lay preacher in the South Hokianga protectorate. When we sit down for lunch, she says grace in te reo — before cracking open a bottle of wine.
When Donald died three years ago, at the age of 84, a tangihanga was held for him at Whakamaharatanga Marae in Waimamaku and he's buried at the urupa nearby. "Part of me is buried with him but part of him lives in me," she says. "I hear his voice coming out of my mouth all the time."
An outsider in her country of birth, Reinken remembers feeling immediately at home in New Zealand and has "profound gratitude" for the way she's been welcomed into the Hokianga's tight fold.
"All the people who live here, Māori or Pākehā, feel we are blessed, that this is a very special place and that it is spiritually powerful," she says. "That's the way people put it. They talk about the wairua, which is palpable, even to strangers.
"There's a sense in most human communities that there is very little security. Most people here are secure — not necessarily in that they have a place to live or that they have money or are assured of a warm welcome from their family, but secure in the sense that the land is there for them. It's what you get from the ground."
In 2014, Reinken was executive producer (and co-star) of a documentary "Tūmanako/Hope", a kind of love letter to the people of the Hokianga that premiered at the New Zealand Film Festival and has screened on Māori Television. It wasn't the first time she'd been behind the camera. A few summers before, she'd taken a two-week film course at Rawene Polytech and shot a five-minute ad for her kunekune pigs. She called it "Delicious".
The breeding side of the farm wound down while she was caring for Donald, but three piglets from a recent litter are now plumping up in the paddock at the back of her house. "I love them dearly," she says, as we watch them emerge from the bush at a gallop and grunt their way to the fence. "I feed them. They nibble at my toes. And then I eat them."
I've come to talk about her book but Reinken is such entertaining company that a couple of hours have passed before we get on to that. Typically, it comes with an intriguing backstory.
As an honorary research fellow at the University of Auckland's School of Environment, Reinken had access to the university library. Back in the 60s, she'd studied Akkadian cuneiform documents and was interested to hear that the political correspondence of Assyrian's King Esarhaddon had been published. On making inquiries, she was astonished to learn that the library held the entire State Archives of Assyria. "This country is full of things like that," she says. "There are miracles everywhere."
Working her way through the texts, she became fascinated by the life of Naqia (later known as Zaqutu), the wife of King Sennacherib and Esarhaddon's mother. Reinken had based a previous novel on the Israelite prophet Isaiah and decided to create an origin story where Naqia, whose name could possibly be West Semitic in origin, is from that lineage — coming to Assyria as part of the booty when Sennacherib invaded Judah.
"It's not unreasonable to assume that. I've been very careful in the whole book to make sure it's plausible historically," she says. "We know she was a very powerful person, but she wasn't making her way alone in a man's world."
Evocative and richly detailed, "The Head That Wears the Crown" is a fascinating insight into both daily life and the machinations of political power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Reinken suspects the influential role played by women in that era will be a revelation to many readers.
"They were basically running the economy. The bankers, the supervisors, the merchants and the rulers of the storehouse in which you kept wealth, whether grain or gold, were women. They were the 'chatelaines' — the woman who kept the castle. In feudal Europe, for Christ's sake!
"It's also a way of letting people see that the head that wears the crown is Naqia's - and it's uneasy. A lot of feminists believe that if only women were in charge, the world would be fine. But we're all human, right? Naqia isn't perfect, but like the Assyriologists I correspond with now, I'm in love with her. She's wonderful."
Reinken has already started on her next project, a memoir of her adolescence. As part of her research, she's been reading through old love letters (after a purge 30 years ago, she'd kept just one letter from each lover). "They bring back colours and smells and things you've really forgotten. Some of the things you wanted to forget too, but they come back."
The book will look back on the mistakes she made as a young woman until the age of 25 or so, when a new chapter began. "I stopped driving 60 miles per hour while reading a book. I sort of realised life was good and that I wanted to keep living."
The Head that Wears the Crown is available in selected bookstores and through the author's website at judithreinken.com