Ihimaera in October 2012
|Born||Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler|
7 February 1944
near Gisborne, New Zealand
Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler (born 7 February 1944), generally known as Witi Ihimaera , is a New Zealand author. He was the first published M?ori novelist.
Ihimaera was born near Gisborne, a town in the east of New Zealand's North Island and is of M?ori descent (Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki) and Anglo-Saxon descent through his father, Tom. He attended Church College of New Zealand in Temple View, Hamilton, New Zealand.
He began to work as a diplomat at the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1973, and served at various diplomatic posts in Canberra, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Ihimaera remained at the Ministry until 1989, although his time there was broken by several fellowships at the University of Otago in 1975 and Victoria University of Wellington in 1982 (where he graduated with a BA). In 1990, he took up a position at the University of Auckland, where he became Professor, and Distinguished Creative Fellow in M?ori Literature, and remained until 2010.
Most of Ihimaera's work consists of short stories or novels. He has written a considerable number of stories, with the most notable being works such as Yellow Brick Road, Tangi, Pounamu, Pounamu, and The Whale Rider, which became a film of the same name. His stories generally portray M?ori culture in modern New Zealand. His work often focuses on problems within contemporary M?ori society.
In 1995, Ihimaera published Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a semi-autobiographical work about a married father of two daughters coming out. The main character in the book was P?keh? (European), Ihimaera's way of keeping his personal experiences somewhat concealed. He had come out to himself in 1984 and began the work, but out of sensitivity to his daughters, did not finish or publish it then.Nights in the Gardens of Spain was filmed in 2010 (Director; Katie Wolfe - run time 76-mins featuring Calvin Tuteao in the central role of 'Kawa') with changes to the book, making the central character M?ori rather than P?keh?, to more closely reflect Ihimaera's life. In an article in The Sunday Star Times Ihimaera was quoted as saying the change "was quite a shock to me because I had always tried to hide, to say this is a book that could be about 'everyman', this is not a specific story. So it (the film) is actually nearer to the truth than I would like to admit."
Ihimaera is also an occasional poet. His poem "O numi tutelar" was recited on an occasion of particular note, namely, the dawn opening of the British Museum's long-awaited 'Maori' Exhibition. Ihimaera alludes to this in the poem's italicised epigraph: "At the British Museum, London, 25 June 1998". While the poem addresses the complicity of the British Museum within the colonial sphere of Albion's empire project, Ihimaera ultimately proclaims the virtues of the Museum as a medium for cultural exchange and revitalisation: "We are Magi, bearing gifts / and our dawn is coming". The poem's subtext hints at the narrator's struggle in coming to terms with his homosexuality. The residue of colonialism is implicated in this, with "Britannia" reconfigured as "Victoria Imperatrix", implying a legacy of imperial domination. This dexterous use of language, evidenced throughout the poem, is also apparent in the title. 'O numi tutelar' riffs on 'O nume tutelar', an aria from Spontini's opera La vestale. 'Nume' means '(a) god' in Italian, with 'numi' the word's plural form. Hence the invocation late in the poem "Take heed, oh Gods of all other worlds, numi tutelar". 'Numi' is also a M?ori word, translating as 'bend' or 'fold'. Here the Italian and M?ori come together, with Ihimaera implementing the plurality of language, bending it to his purpose. The final word of the poem's title, Tutelar, from the Latin tutelaris, refers to a guardian or protector. The poem goes on to demonstrate that language, properly employed, can be indispensable in a tutelary role.
Literary scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago Alistair Fox in The Ship of Dreams: Masculinity in Contemporary New Zealand Fiction (2008) devotes four out of the eleven chapters in the book to the writings of Ihimaera indicating his importance within the context of New Zealand literature. Fox describes his epic novel The Matriarch as "one of the major and most telling 'monuments' of New Zealand's cultural history in the late twentieth century as far as the situation of M?ori in this postcolonial society is concerned," noting that Ihimaera "has remained at the forefront of M?ori arts and letters to an unprecedented degree, with an impressive output across a range of genres."
In 2009 book reviewer Jolisa Gracewood detected short passages from other writers, especially from historical sources, used without acknowledgement in Ihimaera's historical novel The Trowenna Sea, a work on the early history of Tasmania. Confronted by The Listener magazine with this evidence, Ihimaera apologized for not acknowledging the passages, claiming this was inadvertent and negligent and pointing to many pages of other sources that he had acknowledged. The University of Auckland investigated the incident and ruled that Ihimaera's actions did not constitute misconduct in research, as the actions did not appear to be deliberate and Ihimaera had apologised. Ihimaera removed the book from public sale, purchasing the remaining stock himself. A revised edition, with fuller acknowledgements, originally planned for 2010, has since been cancelled.
In the 1986 Queen's Birthday Honours, Ihimaera was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for public services. In the 2004 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to literature. In 2009, following the restoration of titular honours by the New Zealand government, he declined redesignation as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.