Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Narrative in Robyn Kahukiwa's Matatuhi: Culture and Narrative

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Narrative in Robyn Kahukiwa's Matatuhi: Culture and Narrative

Article excerpt

The question of a dominating Western metanarrative in postcolonial societies has particular significance when people write for children in a bi-cultural situation. In a recent study the Maori scholar Jon Battista shows that fictional texts written in English by Maori in a Maori context are structured to project Maori cultural understandings and argues that these cultural beliefs shape the narrative of individual texts (Battista, 2004). I apply her thesis to Matatuhi, a picture book by Robyn Kahukiwa, in order to discuss the narrative operation and significance of Maori cultural beliefs and practices identified by Battista.

Children's literature scholarship involving issues of ethnicity and identity has focused on cultural colonisation, on the concept of social context shaping the retelling of stories and on ways of representation and imaging narratives. Clare Bradford, in excavating educational and other texts, encourages the careful reader to develop slipping frames of observation and to pay attention to text from many viewpoints; this latter includes grasping the knowledge which underpins writing from a culture not one's own (Bradford 2001, Bradford 2003). In an entirely different but relevant strand of scholarship John Stephens and Robin McCallum in their work on reversions of folk tale and other literature for children emphasize the extent to which 'social values and attitudes prevailing in the time and place of the retelling' affect the story and it is this emphasis on the current cultural context which underpins my study of a single picture book (Stephens and McCallum 1998, p.7). Stephens' more recent explorations into the nature of narrative in pictorial texts are a third strand of scholarship germane to this reading of Kahukiwa's book in part because he is considering ideas arising from Japanese aesthetics. There is no suggestion that Japanese and Maori aesthetics are (or are not) analogous, but the cultural difference in visual representation between Japanese and 'the West' resonates with Kahukiwa's choices about representing Maori and Maori cultural concepts in a picture book. In his analysis of the competing aesthetics of kinesis and stasis Stephens draws attention to some distinctively Japanese illustrative practices and stresses differences between stasis and kinesis in narrative (Stephens 2000; 2004). As Sirke Happonen notes, 'pictures, because of their facility in expressing intangible feelings and ideas,' may be more effective than the more 'concrete and dry' verbal component of children's texts (Happonen 2005 p.82). Kahukiwa's latest picture book written across cultures is an example of visual meanings asserting dominance over verbal to the extent that the visual holds the narrative significance.

These three strands of scholarship inform a reading of the socio/cultural context framing narratives. It is within this broad framework that Jon Battista delivers a close reading of Maori writer Patricia Grace's fiction. She describes Grace (among other writers) as: 'privileging the stories of her own culture above the texts and pedagogies of other cultures ... [and in doing so averting] the "malignant forces" of ongoing colonial practice' (Battista 2004, p. 158). Battista showed that in Patricia Grace's novel, Potiki, 'The conceptualization of a culture in transition and a written artefact which claims all stories by privileging a Maori point of view is realised not only in theme but also in terms of Potiki's narrative structure' (Battista 2004, Vol 1.p.2). She asserts Grace highlights cultural themes such as a 'thematic preoccupation with the capacity of the past to influence and inform the present future', a 'rhetorical commitment to' ... 'figurative expression', (p.60-2) as deliberate Maori ways of story telling, in order to foreground cultural beliefs. Grace's use of Maori language and imagery as integral parts of the text, the emphasis on whakapapa (knowledge of one's forebears central to Maori culture), the binding of past present and future with spirituality, the importance of identity and names in history all affect the narrative structure. …

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