Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Witi Ihimaera and the Dread Goddess

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Witi Ihimaera and the Dread Goddess

Article excerpt

The popular conception of Hine-nui-te-Po is that she is the destroyer who ensnares mankind in the snare of death; the higher teachings are that she is the defender of the endangered soul of man, the saviour of the multitude of spirits in the underworld.

Elsdon Best1

As a man / Grows older he does not want beer, bread, or the prancing flesh, / But the arms of the eater of life, Hine-nui-te-po, / With teeth of obsidian and hair like kelp / Flashing and glimmering at the edge of the horizon.

James K. Baxter2

Witi Ihimaera has now spent more than a decade, and not a little time and effort, on '[a] personal commitment to rewrite all of my first five books'.3 He first revised and republished Pounamu Pounamu (1972/2002); Whanau (1974) appeared as Whanau II in 2004 in a 'totally reversioned edition',4 and a revision of Tangi (1973) forms the first part of The Rope of Man (2005). This suite of titles, comprising what the publisher calls the 'Ihimaera 30th Anniversary Collection',5 also contains a revised international edition of The Whale Rider (1987/2003), and Ihimaera: His Best Stories (2003), a selection of revised stories. He has since revised The Matriarch (1986/2009), describing the result as 'The Matriarch Redux'.6 Of his first five books, therefore, only The New Net Goes Fishing (1977) awaits. Most recently, Ihimaera revised his 2007 novella 'Medicine Woman' as White Lies (2013) for a movie tie-in edition. In short, he has developed-and maintained-a poetics of revision.

Given his long career and prodigious output, some might wonder why in recent years Ihimaera has revised so many earlier works. Some might consider these efforts retrogressive or even mercenary. Nevertheless, no-one wishing to understand Ihimaera's writing can afford to ignore the phenomenon. 7 In this article, I focus on one aspect of the rewriting project, namely revising myth: in particular, I examine Ihimaera's treatment of one mythical figure, the Mother Goddess, in her guises maleficent and maternal.8

In an essay from White Lies titled 'Writing the Novellas', Ihimaera defends this 'habit of rewriting'. In particular, he invokes intertextuality and Rezeptionsästhetik (though not by name):

Well, I have always believed that a fictional piece of work exists in a continuum. It is not static. Stories rarely leave you alone, they sit like backseat drivers in the recesses of your mind, nagging to come back into the driving seat again. [...] And so in most cases I have added historical context or political inflections or sub-textual resonances. [...] I like to think that the reader and viewer of Dana's film [White Lies, dir. Dana Rotberg] now have the opportunity to choose which ending they prefer. For fledgling writers and filmmakers, the three endings show the different direction ideas can be taken by different artists, filmmakers, publishers and editors working in different media. They show that the capacity of the artistic imagination is limitless.9

The limitless artistic imagination is large enough to contain multitudes of stories, told and retold. More to the point, retelling our own stories allows us not only to change something for change's sake, but also to improve, retract and self-correct, in cumulative iterations if we so desire. The Trowenna Sea (2009) offers a salutary example. After a New Zealand Listener reviewer revealed evidence of plagiarism in the now-infamous novel, Ihimaera recalled it from sale and purchased the remaining stock. The publisher at first promised to publish a revised version but then decided not to do so. In the end, Ihimaera himself undertook to republish-and, one presumes, revise-The Trowenna Sea 'late next year [2014]'; if this does not happen through traditional publishing channels, 'I'm damn well going to publish it myself, in velvet covers'.10

Revising The Trowenna Sea offers self-correction, perhaps redemption. Yet the initial error itself resulted from a kind of revision-that is, rewriting and incorporating source texts into the novel, but without proper attribution. …

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