Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki) on being "tricked" into English in a new book on Māori in diverse fields in academia.
I lose faith in my discipline quite often. English has broken my own heart several times, and it has been used for generations to make our community feel small. It's awkward. "English" is the name of my discipline but it's also the name of a language (and, let's be clear: a language that has been shoved into our collective mouths in order to extinguish the language that has been ripped out of them) and the name of a nation (and, let's be clear: a colonising nation, which has wrought incredible violence of all kinds all around the world).
I was tricked into English. I'd done okay in the subject at school but didn't like it enough to want to take it at uni. I was going to study law – you know, something helpful and practical that would get me a job – but alongside the LLB I did want to do a BA in History (because that seemed useful too), so in my first year of study I just needed to find some other papers to make up some points before getting into the Real Stuff.
I knew I wanted to start the journey of te reo Māori so enrolled into a couple of language-acquisition papers but I needed two more. My sister had started uni two years ahead of me and I wasn't exactly rolling in money, so I decided – reluctantly – to do English, because at least then I could use some of the books that she had bought when she had taken those papers. My first lecture at university, back in 1994, was New Zealand literature. I sat up the back of the lecture theatre under the Auckland Uni library with a group of others I'd met at the Māori student orientation the week before, and Witi Ihimaera stepped out and started to chant. Wow. English. This was a place I could be Māori.
This trick was played on me consistently while I was an undergrad student, mostly by the people teaching me: Ihimaera, but also Ngāti Kahungunu professor Terry Sturm, Kāi Tahu scholar Reina Whaitiri and Samoan writer and scholar Albert Wendt. (Wendt was a professor and head of the English department when I was an undergrad – years before I realised the significance of being able to take for granted that a Pacific person could hold such positions.)
When these people are your teachers, you can't help but think (erroneously, as it turned out) that English in New Zealand is a really dynamic, political, culturally grounded, Indigenous-centred space. This was also a trick the texts kept playing on me too: I loved reading them and talking about them in the way we talk about texts in English; and I loved being challenged and nurtured and devastated by them. That first NZ lit paper had a Māori-only tutorial and this became a cherished weekly space for laughing and crying and learning flat out about everything – not just about English but about being Māori and (because it turned out that all the students in the tute were wāhine Māori) about being a Māori woman. (I realise that this part of my experience can feel at odds with many Māori conversations about learning or practising mātauranga at home and then experiencing the academy in terms of alienation and whiteness. While I do not look to the university to teach me how to be who I am in relation to iwi and hapū and have all the same critiques to make in terms of its ongoing coloniality, I cannot bring myself to disavow the profound contribution that some university spaces have made to my understanding of Te Ao Māori and, indeed, to mātauranga Māori.)
Several times that semester Witi was pretty direct: we have plenty of lawyers but need more literary scholars. He didn't exactly plead but he talked about the study pathways we might have taken for granted and the benefit of asking questions about whether this was what we really wanted to do. I pulled out of law. My BA was in English and History. My MA was in English. By the time I started to see how English really worked – disciplinarily, and institutionally – I had already fallen for this generous, lovely, life-expanding trick.
Sometimes I feel guilty: I am swallowing up resources that could be used to save lives. But then I look at my students who are doing incredible things – in classrooms, on social media, in research projects – with texts written by Māori (and Pacific and Indigenous) people. I listen to the way they revolutionarily frame and reframe their world in response to what they are reading and writing.
I read the ways they are drawing on the depths and breadths of mātauranga Māori as they think about the nature of our collective literary legacy. I think about Mowhee writing his memoir in London, and [Vernice] Wineera writing her poems in Hawai'i, and [Tina] Makereti writing her lecture about pou tokomanawa, [Patricia] Grace clearing the kitchen table to write her early fiction; and [Evelyn] Patuawa-Nathan's students reaching among comments for names. I look at the incredibly diverse texts written by our own people: the texts and their writers standing in front of me, on my bookshelves, all around me.
Something happens when we as Māori engage English – the language, the nation, the discipline – on our own terms. It's a trick, yes. And I am committed to doing what I can to play this trick on students, readers, thinkers and writers yet to come.
Essay extracted from Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface, edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora. (Otago University Press, $60). In bookstores mid-February.