sat 08/08/2020

Patricia Grace: Potiki review – a searching examination of human nature | reviews, news & interviews

Patricia Grace: Potiki review – a searching examination of human nature

Patricia Grace: Potiki review – a searching examination of human nature

The re-release of Grace's novel offers a timely insight into contemporary issues

Patricia Grace© Grant Maiden

With the publication of her first work, Waiariki (1975), Patricia Grace became the author of the first ever collection of short stories by a Māori woman. In the four-and-a-half decades since, she has established herself as a canonical figure in postcolonial and Māori literature. Grace’s second novel, Potiki (1986), winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and now re-released after thirty-four years, is an anguished account of a small family living on a remote stretch of New Zealand’s coastline. Set “at the curve that binds land and sea”, it is a searching examination of human nature, and of the ends that a community will pursue to preserve its way of life.

Told from the perspective of a few of its Māori characters, passages heavy-laden with description paint an intimate portrait of an indigenous people and the mythological ties that bind them to their ancestral land. The style is heavily resonant of an oral tradition, its narrators insistently contextualising events in the present within the deeper tradition of the community – and as such, reading it requires work. Neither, thankfully, does Grace suffer to anglicise her language beyond what’s required. But the experience is rewarding, serving for those uneducated in Māori life as a window into another culture, and the collision between its ‘different importances’ and the whim and decision making of external powers.

One salient chapter is constructed entirely in a dialogue between members of the community and the interloping “Dollarman” – the Pākehā tasked with securing the purchase of their land. But ‘dialogue’ is overly generous. Instead, Grace showcases the extent to which the Māori characters are not only misunderstood, but ignored, and their needs and demands, rendered throughout the novel with a poignant simplicity ("There will be good shellfishing again. There will be tuna to hang above the smoke fires.”), silenced behind the Dollarman’s vacuous notions of “progress”. Yet, if this dissonance once defined Potiki’s relevance for the common reader, the reverse is now true. Today, the Māori apprehension of a rapidly modernising world, their weakness at the hands of empowered corporations and sensitivity to the fragility of their environment stands at an irrefutable proximity to the ascendant values of western and contemporary concern.

Such presience is, to an extent, intentional. A core theme throughout the novel, the family’s youngest child – “Toko” – is born with the gift (and burden) of foresight. His visions of the atrocities to come set up an anxious waiting game, and has the effect of rendering certain events inevitable – Grace therein grappling with a more pessimistic assessment of humanity, at once imploring us to consider the trajectories we instigate through our actions. But the novel does not sound the alarm on either capitalism or the climate catastrophy as much as it arrives at these themes accidentally, through an honest articulation of a Māori belief system resembling, in respects, a sympatheia – in which “land does not belong to the people… people belong to the land”, and which situates the history of mankind within the broader and nobler parameters of history of the natural world.

With this, the need to look ahead is substituted for a call to draw on the lessons of a humanity no less progressive, but conscious of its own fundamentals: “…some people aren’t people. They’ve forgotten how.” That such an understanding might be recollected highlights again the importance of storytelling. Grace is making the case for the significance of myths and legends as the artefacts and tools of a cultural consciousness, and for the necessity of sustaining them. In Potiki, that story is a timely arrival, praising the strength and the resilience of the human spirit whilst capturing, in moments of crystallising clarity, the tragic masochism of its pain and sorrow: “so ordinary, that they were close, so close, to being almost joy.”

@danielbaksi

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