t. 94, Helen Margaret Waaka, Waitapu

by Helen Margaret Waaka.
Wellington: Escalator Press (2015, repr 2016).
RRP $30. Pb, 206pp.
ISBN: 9780994118615.
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.

Waitapu is the first book by Whitireia Creative Writing graduate Helen Margaret Waaka. This well-designed volume is one of the first twelve books published by Whitieria’s small publishing arm, Escalator Press, and was a finalist in the Massey University Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards in 2016. Waaka won a Pikihuia Award (formerly Huia Short Story award) for Māori Writers, with one of the stories in this volume, ‘Hineraumati’ (2011), and has recently been awarded a Michael King residency as an emerging Māori writer.

Waitapu is a collection of eighteen short stories, interlinked through a combination of subject matter and temporal organization. Some stories are in third person subjective voice and others in first person, but each presents the perspective of a character who is linked in some way to the small fictional small town of Waitapu. While focal characters vary – a disturbed little boy, angsty teens, nurses, a worried son, two elderly dementia patients – the emotional centre of the book is recurring character Rowena Stevens. The book begins with Rowena’s attempt as a young girl to run away from both her family and Waitapu, and through the wider narrative arc of the stories we glimpse her finding her feet as a hospital cleaner and then as a social worker, struggling with alcoholism and solo parenting, the hospitalization of her formerly abusive father, and her reconciliation first with her wider Māori family and then with her estranged sister Ruby. Most of the other characters are connected directly or indirectly to Rowena, so that she forms the centre of the koru spiral of connection, family, and community that makes up Waitapu.

Many of the stories are associated in some way with the hospital and retirement home which comprise Rowena’s working milieu in the township. Helen Margaret Waaka (Ngāti Whātua, Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Torehina) is a mature woman and a trained nurse, and her depiction of these environments and of the ways in which people fit (or do not fit) into wider societal systems of ‘care’ feel nuanced and authentic. Her writing style is lucid and highly competent, and the expositional elements are well-integrated into the text:

Some mornings when Ngaire woke, for a second she’d forget she was a student nurse, but then it would hit her and she’d laugh out loud. Laughing was something Ngaire did a lot. She laughed when she was happy, but she laughed when she was nervous too and because of that most people thought she was a happy-go-lucky sort of person. If only they knew. Most of the time she was scared stiff (p 133).

The effect of this is that the writing feels honest and unpretentious, and the stories allow the reader to discover connections between characters from disparate stories in a way that seldom feels contrived. While the use of both first and third person voices conveys individual character viewpoints, Waaka has achieved a pleasing narrative consistency across the collection, as seen in a comparison between the above quote and the following from ‘Hineraumati’, which takes the form of diary entries:

Aunty Lena told me about karanga. ‘You have to earn the right to do it,’ she said. ‘You have to prove you’re ready. Don’t know why he’s getting you young ones to learn,’ she said.

I hope those others turn up because I don’t want to do it. Nah. Aunty Lena took me down to the park in town anyway – over by the river so no-one could hear us. She said a karakia then she did the karanga we’ve been learning. We walked along the river. (p 151).

Strong motifs of redemption through a sense of connection and belonging, whether cultural or familial, are interwoven through Waitapu, ameliorating the loss, alienation, loneliness, and precarity which it also addresses. Individual stories often contain redemptive arcs, for example in ‘The Pool’ (p 94) a city boy becomes grounded by a rural eeling expedition with his grandfather, ‘Hineraumati’ (p 153) details a young woman’s growing sense of self-worth through an immersive tikanga class, while ‘Tāne’ (p 118) presents the cycle of death and rebirth as a nurse attends a death and helps deliver a new baby. Throughout the collection as a whole, there is a wider story arc for Rowena and her daughter in which intergenerational trauma and alienation are healed.  This is seen most explicitly in ‘A Place to Stand’ (p 168) in which the duo return to the ahi kā of Rowena’s rural marae for a tangi. The nurturing whānau of her mother and grandmother offer an alternative to the harsh, negative force of her father, who had been hostile towards Māori tikanga and lifeways (p167).

If this collection has a flaw, I think it would be that its efforts to provide a multi-faceted view of its subject matter occasionally go beyond the author’s power to illuminate with insight, in those stories which centre on the brittle, superficial feelings of the least emotionally/spiritually connected characters. This issue is most notable in ‘Autumn’ (p 155), a short piece on Rowena’s physically (and probably sexually) abusive British immigrant father, now an obtuse elderly amnesiac in a nursing home. Despite the subjective third person point of view, I get a sense that this man is still being described very much from the outside, and he remains unknowable to me as a reader. On the other hand, Waaka is writing from a place that is firmly rooted in Te Ao Māori, and I feel that to more deeply inhabit the worldview of such an alien character would not have enhanced this book

With its competent, naturalistic style and emphasis on cultural, personal, and spiritual regeneration, often through an emerging sense of belonging enhanced by Māori cultural values, Waitapu sits comfortably within the tradition of Māori literature that has given us such writers as Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, while still offering its author’s unique focus and perspective. Waaka’s voice is honest and often insightful, and I look forward with interest to her future work.

Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in various publications including Poetry NZ, Landfall, Brief and takahē. She also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film, Television, and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.