The Pōrangi Boy - it's a title that, in the past, may not have even made it to a shelf at any book store, let alone being a finalist in two categories at the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. A harsh truth, but one that debut author Shilo Kino acknowledges and embraces.
"This book wouldn't have been a success at all if it came out 10 years ago," she says. "If you look at the cover, there's a picture of a Māori boy and a Māori word in the title. Back in the day, this would've put the audience off, and it wouldn't have sold at all."
A finalist for the Best First Book and Young Adult Fiction awards, 31-year-old Kino from Whangārei humbly attributes the success of her novel not to the strength of her writing but rather to New Zealand's gradual acceptance of Māori narratives and "hunger" for more indigenous stories.
"I've had a lot of Pākehā grandmothers writing to me saying that they love it,'' she says. "And that's cool, but to be honest - I didn't write it for pākehā or adults or anyone like that. I wrote it for Māori and Māori kids because we don't have enough stories that represent us. I want kids to see themselves in this book - to look at the cover, and say, 'oh that's me'."
Protagonist Niko finds himself navigating his way through bullying, racism, and questions of identity. The plot revolves around the Government's plan to build a prison in Ngawha, a true event that took place in 2005. However, The Pōrangi Boy, published by Huia, is not about what happened in Ngawha. "It's the universal idea of indigenous people fighting for land and their sovereignty."
In many ways, The Pōrangi Boy is a reflection of Kino's own upbringing, from childhood memories to the actual characters within the plot. "Koro in the story is based on my dad and then the aunty is based on an aunty I know too."
Having grown up in the small Northland town of Waipu, Kino says she was disconnected from her culture. Being one of just four Māori families in her town, she says her family rarely acknowledged their Māoritanga, the language wasn't spoken, and marae visits were solemn. She admits that for the most part, the majority of what she learned about her people was that shown in the media "and it was pretty much always in a negative way."
In 2018 Kino was contacted by Toi Maihi, a lead protester to the Government's plan to build the Ngawha prison 13 years prior. "She showed me two stories, one from the media and one from the people of the actual area this was happening in - and there was a massive contrast between the two." That's what fuelled her desire to write stories that maintain the integrity of manawhenua and are not diluted by the agenda of mainstream media. "When we tell our stories, there are layers to our storytelling. We know it because we've lived it."
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Although this is her first novel, Kino, a journalist, is no stranger to writing having been published in the Guardian, the Spinoff, North & South and Canvas magazine - all while making a plethora of viral short documentary-style stories as a reporter for the New Zealand Herald and Māori current affairs show Marae.
The Pōrangi Boy was published in July 2020, and since then, Kino has taken a step back from journalism, in order to embark on her te reo journey, studying full time at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa, which she says has influenced her desire to write more stories about cultural identity and belonging. "I feel like identity is always changing. Even learning te reo Māori this year, my identity is changing now and I've become more confident with who I am."
Although Kino has dabbled in various forms of storytelling, there is no ambiguity regarding her preferred method of spreading to the world, the things that matter to her the most.
"I just want to be a full-time writer. Just write books for a living," she says.
Mare Haimona-Riki (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāpuhi) is an Auckland journalist. The winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults will be announced on August 11.