Returned from living in France, A Conversation with my Country looks at New Zealand with fresh eyes.
In the following extract, Duff - who followed up his bestselling novel with What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? - shares his difficult childhood, while examining today's issues with parenting.
s I write this, a judge has recently declared domestic violence in this country "unchanged in 20 years". The judge should have had the courage to say the majority of the domestic abuse is still by the same old cast of usual suspects: Māori men.
Another judge in the Waikato has recently said, with over 200 cases of domestic violence a week, the courts cannot cope. Again, he did not say the perpetrators are mostly Māori. But I will. And I will remind you that, for many, Māori domestic violence has never been an
issue and, for many more it has decreased, but for that sector of Māori in much need of enlightenment, it has conversely increased.
The home and family should be places of security and nurture, but in this country about 5000 children a year have to go into state care. This is generally a position of last resort, so many more are still in dysfunctional homes, and many others are in the care of family members or permanent caregivers rather than their parents. And what do the statistics tell us? The most recent I could find are from 2015. Of those in state care, their primary
New Zealand Pākehā 29%
Other/multiple ethnicity 3%
The perpetrators of domestic abuse being predominantly Māori does not make the Māori race inherently more evil than others; the perpetrators are the same sub-human type found anywhere. They can be white or black. And if I weren't half-Māori, exposed
to violence in my childhood and growing up to inflict it on innocents until I woke up to myself, I might have just let it pass as an unfortunate statistical happenstance that, in New Zealand, Māori utterly dominate the child murder records, dominate the
domestic abuse charges, assault and murder statistics.
But my own experience has led me to believe it's a symptom of some deeper social malaise, and maybe even a people with eyes, ears and minds closed to seeking solutions because they feel there aren't any.
All my adult life I've asked the question, "Why? Why us? Why are my mother's people so violent? Why do so many Māori parents hate our own children?"
How could I fight a damage unknown?
When childhood's murderous seed was sown.
I wrote these couple of lines aged 21. While considerably basic, they tell a story in nutshell form: the damaged seed was planted. See what stunted form it takes when grown. It's what I felt about myself, though not in terms I could articulate at the time the damage was done. I just felt damaged and had a vague awareness that the worst was yet to come.
But . . . I had a bit of luck on my side. I hope I shall never be so far removed from my periods of despair, self-hatred and low self-esteem that I can't feel empathy with others in the same situation. I know from experience that discouragement can sink a child's dreams into the mud.
Childhood violence and discouragement traumatised me and many others I knew, and took down more than a few.
y parents met at a dance hall in Rotorua, the town my father's forestry BSc degree brought him to. Nearby Kaingaroa was the country's largest pine forest, and the Forest Research Institute had been established near the thermally active popular tourist spot of Whakarewarewa, where my mother lived.
Mum. She was a woman whose reasonable intelligence got cannibalised by her own volatility, who could explode in an instant, and of minimal education, in keeping with the times she grew up in.
She already had two children when she met my father, before her 20th birthday.
Dad had been invalided home from World War II in a prisoner-of-war exchange due to severe illness, moved to Rotorua for job reasons, then met and fell in love with this hedonistic, violent, bad drunk.
She showed early signs of being a self-centred narcissist, rendering Dad's decision to nonetheless marry her unfathomable to this day. Indeed, it has to be said, he made a
very poor call of judging her character, and I wouldn't say so if she hadn't taken down most of her children, stunted and traumatised them emotionally and, indirectly, put one of them, our eldest brother, in an early grave at the age of 25.
Like any kid, this 1950-born half-Māori had no idea about race till I started school. Here's where the process began, as every child had to fill out a form stating how much Māori blood they had, measured in sixteenths.
Looking back at it, I still can't figure what the Government, or education ministry, were out to achieve. We were in the seven-sixteenths category (don't ask me where the one-eighth European of my mother came from). I later figured that even a sixteenth tainted you, or more likely one of my two older brothers told me that. By about age 7, maybe
8, I made my own translation of what that tainting was: our mother.
She happened to be Māori, but wasn't tainted because of that, but because of her outrageous, disgraceful behaviour in the public of our little cul-de-sac street. Her combat opponents were also Māori, more often than not one of her sisters. I know it malformed part of my emotional development.
I had two brothers, two and four years older respectively, whose perceptions would have been a little different to mine, of both the institutionalised racism reflected in this official form and by a tiny minority of teachers, as well our mother's carry-on.
Actually, if it had only been carry-on behaviour then she'd get hardly a mention here. There are no perfect human beings in this publication. But she crossed virtually every social standard line, including sleeping with a number of men while married to our
father. I deliberately left out mentioning moral lines, as morality in this context is attached to cheating, but that was what you do at one of my mother's card games, not in a marriage.
Unfaithful is probably the more accurate word. Some people called her the "town bike" and other worse names.
I have the most vivid memories of coming home from school to see a mass brawl on our front lawn. In the middle of it was our mother. I have no idea how many times this happened: could be only half a dozen, maybe a lot more; just one incident's enough to
sear forever into my brain the sight, sound and smell of brawling, shrieking, panting, struggling, writhing, prideless women; to this day, 60 years later, I still see it. And I can see the patch of blood on her undies when she was on the grass fighting furiously with
one of her sisters — more often than not a favourite aunty of ours permanently on Mum's hit list — and thinking: she's been kicked in the t***. It was obvious from the stench of excited, aroused Māori male and female adults they had been drinking.
Some of the onlookers cheering the fighters had bottles of beer in hand. All that our school had been teaching our young brains about behavioural codes had no relevance here whatsoever. At school, fighting was severely punished — by violence, ironically, using a leather strap, followed by a period of after-school detention. It was drilled into young heads: Do Not Fight. Fighting is Bad.
Yet here a bunch of adults was doing it on our front lawn. And one of them, probably the cause of it, my mother, along with her family members. I was deeply, inconsolably embarrassed and ashamed for both myself and our poor father married to this
monster. I could have killed her.
The problem is not Māori, per se. It is class and culture. While violence in homes persists throughout our society, it just so happens that Māori in this country dominate the negative statistical story. Adjusting to going from dominant to indigenous minority stripped almost entirely of their traditional way of life presents a massive challenge to any people.
However, after all I've said that might sound relentlessly critical, I'm now saying further that such has been the rapid progress of the majority of Māori in the last 30 years, I believe Māori have already met most of this challenge. In the case of the all-pervading
violence by Māori that I grew up with, it eased off a good deal with the next generation and eased again in the next. My grandsons' generation is far less violent than my mother's. But when does the process of colonisation and adapting to it cease being a
reason and become an excuse? And surely nothing is an excuse for damaging a child. We need to change our thinking and stop blaming. And we change our thinking because some cases compel us to change, such as the situation of Shahlaya.
Poor Shahlaya wasn't 11 when I first saw her — she was 111. She was discreetly pointed out to me at a low socio-economic primary school many years ago. She came from a place like Pine Block, my fictional suburb in Once Were Warriors.
The school principal whispered, "See that girl . . . the sad-looking one? The one not smiling? We know she's on a house-to-house circuit, suffering sexual abuse. A tragedy, and too many like her."
The sub-society she was born into stole and violated her right to childhood. Men took turns at possessing her body, subjecting it — not her, the innocent child — to indecencies. Too weak to resist, she was an "it", a body solely to give pleasure to sick-minded adult males. And you can bet they figured out that should she go to the police or to the school authorities, her allegations would not be believed. It probably did occur to her abusers that what they did was wrong, but wrong only if they were held to
account. As to evil, it has to be assumed that abusers like this lack
a self-reflective, moral mechanism.
They may as well have put her brain into an electric mixer. She had little intelligence to save herself and even if she did, it would not be enough. Not to overcome what she suffered, the child who had no adult mentors, no guardian angel, no relation she might have taken some small comfort from. No nothing. Just men waiting their turn with her, and a mother with too many similar experiences to have any hope of caring. Neither genes nor any good person had poor Shahlaya's back. She couldn't be repaired. Though she couldn't yet be written off, her chances looked slim indeed.
But we can't go on about it. The clock can't be turned back. If there are 100,000 damaged persons like her in this country alone, breeding several hundred thousand children who both the parents and inevitable male hangers-on will likely damage, you would have to think there is no hope. Employ all the case managers you wish, send in the best social workers, the smartest do-gooders, it won't make any difference. The numbers are too overwhelming. Those who gain employment from engaging with — in official form — studying, treating, writing about these people, might not want to fix what pays them. Their own lives are quite normal — they get to advance in the world, some to
gain high status and salaries to match, all due to one sub-class. A sub-class whose walls are the thickest to bust through. And well-guarded is that fortress, too.
I asked at Shahlaya's school why someone hadn't called the police. A sardonic laugh came, and the following story. At the end of a day working with these oft-difficult children, a teacher leaves the car park in her vehicle and 200m later, just around
the bend, a police officer pounces.
"'Why aren't you wearing your seat belt?"
"Why, officer? Oh, no excuse. One of my troubled boys, the son of a Mongrel Mob member, threw a massive wobbly in class and hurled objects everywhere and punched me, a woman, repeatedly in the face. See the bruises? I didn't dare call you or the boy's father would get me. He's been to the school twice already, threatening me and another teacher for reprimanding his boy.
"I'm sure one girl in my class had yet another rough night being raped by adult men on her way round the sordid circuit. Her sad presence casts a pall on the entire classroom. No day goes by without some upset kid wanting a cuddle, even though they never explain why. We're not allowed to cuddle the kids, though I know cuddles are not forthcoming at too many of the homes. Hidings are. How could I have neglected such an important thing as buckling my seat belt, officer? The fine is a day's salary, as a 'thank you' gesture from a fellow civil servant for doing your difficult job. Not the police talking to the teachers to find out which kid is suffering sexual abuse then knocking on the alleged offender(s)' door and giving a stern warning that they'll get him, threaten DNA tests, vow there'll be a name-and-shame campaign in the neighbourhood very soon.
"The culprits, I bet, won't dare kick up about police harassment. The cops should visit the Mongrel Mob dad and warn him to stop making threats against teachers, and if his son's disruptive, violent behaviour continues, he'll be expelled from school, in which case the police will come knocking, looking for any excuse to remove the child from his custody."
This is a Yanny and Laurel situation — two camps perceiving the same world differently. One is too distracted by what has passed during the day to bother with belting up. The other obeys his HQ heads. It might be added, "and ne'er the twain shall meet". But they have to meet. Or kids will continue to suffer, and more stress is unnecessarily piled on to teachers.
The Yanny and Laurel concept does not apply to the Shahlayas. Her world is not something the same just differently heard. She was thrown off the cliff. Fast forward 13 years, and where is Shahlaya? Her progress since I first encountered her will be recorded in these pages, though to protect her identity I have fictionalised some elements of her life.
These days she lives in another town in another state-housing area; has five children to five different fathers, her firstborn when she was 14. At age 24 she is still at heart a child but raising five children of her own — alone, without any taught life skills, let alone parenting knowledge.
A Conversation with my Country
By Alan Duff
Published by Penguin Random House
Out July 2