Aotearoa New Zealand, 17 September 2020
Tania Roxborogh: He patai nui! I have grown up being told that we whakapapa to Ngāti Porou. We were given the name Flavel as the father who had a liaison with my “grandmother” though I have always known her as my aunt. She had a child out of wedlock at 16; my mother is 16 years younger than her ‘sister’; my grandfather was on a boat returning from the war when conception occurred so… Engari, kāore rātou e kī ana! Such was the time. The other more recent and exciting discovery is the origin of the other story we were told: my mother’s great grandmother was a full-blooded Māori (as it was coined back in the 60s and 70s). This tīpuna, a product of rape when a Taranaki iwi came to Great Barrier Island, was adopted into a German family because her mother, taken away from her whānau, perhaps felt she could not raise the child herself. My sister and I have spent many hours trying to find the original names of these women and their hapū, but, once a child is adopted, birth parents identities vanish.
It is a great sadness for me that I cannot stand up and confidently pronounce my Māori whakapapa in the same way I can for my Irish and Scottish tīpuna.
TR: I have lived a nomadic life though not by choice – especially when I was younger. I went to many schools as a child and had a lot of unhappiness and trauma growing up. I finished school as a foster kid and that was fantastic because I got to see how good healthy families worked and, though I was pretty tough with my two sets of foster parents, I am incredibly grateful for their sacrifice to allow me to gain the qualification I needed to attend university. When I finished 6th form, I travelled the country a bit, doing seasonal work to save up enough money to attend university – Massey in Palmerston North. It was there that I began writing (bad) poetry and reading (amazing) New Zealand literature.
I have been teaching secondary English since 1989 and some of that time as a drama teacher. I love my job so much and have had the privilege of teaching in a few schools in Auckland, one in Dunedin and now I teach at Lincoln High School. I also write novels, plays, English and Shakespearean text books for high schools. I’ve won some awards and had some novels published in the UK and US, and I love making stories – but it’s teaching that I keep coming back to.
I am married with two adult daughters: the eldest is a vet, currently doing more training (and some teaching) at Murdoch University in Perth. Our pōtiki is doing a BSc in Psychology from Massey (distance). She pretends she’s left home.
TR: I love stories. I love language; I love te reo Māori and am proud to be a New Zealander. I am also passionate about writing, reading and teaching. Te reo Māori is an official language of Aotearoa/New Zealand but through 200 years of colonisation, it has been silenced for a long time. The limitations of my language are the limitations of my world, said German philosopher Ludwig Wittegenstein. To me, this is exactly the problem and solution presented in my job as English teacher and writer of books. It is through words that our world can be explained to others. It is through words that you can ‘climb inside another’s skin and walk around in it’ (Atticus Finch). It is through language that we make sense of each other, understand another culture and, hopefully, grow and learn and thrive.
I am still such a baby with te reo Māori learning (I started in 2011) and am slow to get the hang of things. I think that, as writers and teachers working and living in Aotearoa, we must encourage dual language learning. Māori should be woven throughout our communications: whether is it kupu or kaupapa Māori or both. For me personally, I love the whakanikoniko and whakataukī used in Māori in the same way Shakespeare does: the layers of meaning and the understanding of the human condition – the wisdom and wit. I love all the language play. I didn’t get read to as a child and we didn’t have books, so reading came later to me and I have had this constant nag that I’m trying to catch up. Once I started learning te reo Māori, the feeling intensified.
TR: Words hold power: we need more New Zealand writers (whether or not they whakapapa Māori) to use the better word and often, in the NZ context, the Māori word is the better word. I was inspired by Step Matuku’s article in E-Tangata magazine when she asked: “’What is a Māori writer/story?’ If I put a pōwhiri and a bit of reo in my book, does that automatically make it a Māori story? Or does that just make it a story with token cultural elements?”
I say, forget the labels. Just write the stories of New Zealand that show all of our society and, perhaps for a time, we need to re-dress the balance of the ‘silenced’ Māori world view by writing more stories with Māori as the lead characters, kicking butt and saving the world.
Our identity IS Aotearoa/NZ which means we are less if we don’t know.
There should be more te reo Māori words in NZ literature taught in schools and English teachers should teach – with the same passion they do William Shakespeare, The Black Civil Rights Movement and Dystopian Fiction – their students about te ao Māori. Not enough NZ texts currently taught in high school have a NZ flavour, particularly Māori (there are notable exceptions but it should be a woven part of our corpus not a tick box of ‘doing Māori texts’).
And, more teachers need to commit to learning te reo Māori for themselves, for their students and for NZ. I get it: English teachers teach what they know and many secondary English teachers do include Māori writers but then there is the problem that NZ writers write in English. Some ‘put in Māori words’ without necessarily understanding the context – they get their friend’s grandfather to ‘check if it is correct’ but they should know the words themselves.
The cries of ‘but I don’t know Māori’ or ‘I’m an English teacher’ should become a wero. As an educator you LEARN words all the time: you unpack language all the time so that you can help your students understand better. If you don’t know something, you find out about it. It matters that te reo Māori is easily visible in the New Zealand classroom.
TR: I tell my students (especially my Y12 Writing English class) that a poem or an article often comes from a moment – something small but significant that can begin to be a metaphor for truth about the world.
I have been on many noho marae/wanaga and often felt on the outer because I did not know enough or couldn’t do the actions to the songs, or didn’t know the songs, or would break tikinga. One of these weekend wananga, a group of women were weaving and I joined them with my knitting. I was feeling pretty shit about my inadequacies and had had some tough stuff to deal with. I was feeling vulnerable and like I used to feel as a kid – the outsider. The women I was with were kind and funny and inclusive. And, just as the poem says, one of them got me started on weaving a putiputi. I had been having a bit of a cry about feeling lost and there was just so much aroha and manaaki and generosity oozing about these wāhine, that I was able to dry my tears and face the world again – both te ao Māori AND te ao Pākehā.
This interview was previously published at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction.
Tania Roxborogh’s te reo Māori / English story, called ‘Rapurapu / Searching’, is included in the forthcoming anthology, Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand (Otago University Press), which will launch at WORD Christchurch Spring Festival on Friday, 30 October 2020. The book includes prose, poetry and visual art that explores, investigates or interrogates life in contemporary New Zealand. A celebration, but also an examination of who we are, with young voices new to publication and well-known poets, storytellers and essayists. More about the book here.
Nō Ōtautahi ahau, engari, i tipu ake au i wīwā, i wāwā. Ko Māori me Airihi me Kōtarina ngā iwi o ōku tīpuna. Tania Roxborogh is a veteran educator and an award-winning writer of over thirty published works. She has been a head of two English departments, drama teacher, actor, director, musician, English curriculum developer, short story judge and writing mentor. Her most recent publications are Bastion Point: 507 Days on Takaparawha, which won the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, and two secondary English text books. Her happy places are her classroom, Lincoln High School, and wherever she can snatch time to read – most often books recommended by her students.
Vaughan Rapatahana is a Contributing Editor for Love in the Time of COVID: A Chonicle of a Pandemic.