Potiki, by Patricia Grace.
Potiki, by Patricia Grace.
Auckland, N.Z ; New York, N.Y., U.S.A : Penguin Books, 1986.
A graceful, moving novel about Maori people, their way of life, and their struggle to keep their land and traditions.
Patricia Grace is a Maori from New Zealand. In Potiki she shares her people’s stories and gives outsiders like myself a taste of their values and practices. Her language and what she chooses to tell echo her heritage. Her prose is solemn, ritualistic, and sometimes repetitive. Her descriptions of how stories are created in wood and in words reverberate with myths form an alternative way of interacting with the world.
Stories are central to Maori life, as Grace makes clear. They are not simply interesting myths to entertain, but contain the people’s core understanding of reality; old and new, traditional and always changing. New events are understood as their stories are told and retold. Several characters explain role of the stories in their lives.
Then next there was our own land with our own carved house built by the people of long ago, and carved by a man who had given life and breath. This house of his, of ours, carried forward the stories of the people of long ago, but told about our lives today as well. There were crayfish, eels, moki and codfish all made into patterns in our house. There were karaka trees, pohutukawa, ngaio and kakaho, and patterns made from sea waves, rocks and hills, and sun, rain and stars. There were patterns made out of crying and knowledge and love and quarreling. There was a pattern, or a person, for every part of our lives.
Education also consisted of storytelling.
I became instead [of the teacher she was trained to be] a teller of stories, listener to stories, a writer and a reader of stories, an enactor, a collector and a maker of stories. But I only shared in this. What really happened was that we all became all these things—tellers, listeners, readers, writers, teachers and learners together.
Grace’s book has several narrators, each contributing to the readers’ understanding of events. Through them, we see had the separate stories build and unite shared the family and community especially in times of trouble.
The main stories in Potiki involve with the birth and adoption of the child, Toko, into a Maori family and village. He was a child whom most would consider “handicapped” but not these people who love him and value the special knowledge that is his. The second half of the book records the attempt of greedy outsiders to buy the Maori’s land or to force them from it by any means; legal and ethical or not. Tragedy insures, but so does awareness of community sharing and love. For me the plot was secondary to the language and overall awareness this book fostered.
I happened to read this book when I was generally down and in need something positive. This book gave me exactly that, a sustaining hope not sugary fluff.
I heartily recommend Potiki to all others, especially those interested in Indigenous peoples of the South Pacific. Or those seeking new, hopeful ways of understanding. Or those who simply love a beautiful book.