Saturday 5 March 2011

The Whale Rider

Like many people, I knew of this story because of the 2002 film Whale Rider. I saw the film at the time, with the rest of the world, but haven't seen it since. I was excited to include Witi Ihimaera's 1987 book The Whale Rider into our February reading schedule for my 1001 Children's Books You Must Read quest. It was timed to coincide with New Zealand's national day Waitangi Day on February 6, it's just taken me a while to get to blogging about it. 

The Whale Rider tells the story of Kahu, a young girl growing up with her extended Maori family in coastal, small-town New Zealand in the 1980s. We know it's the 1980s because of references to the protests at the controversial Springbok Rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981, and the French nuclear testing at Muroroa Atoll in the Pacific. Whiti Ihimaera creates quite a broad political backdrop for his local story.

The story begins with the birth of a child. Kahu is the first child born into her generation.  Since the time of the mythic ancestor, Kahutia Te Rangi, a high chief who travelled east from Hawaiki on the back of a whale, the first child born has always been a male. The leadership of the tribe is passed down this unbroken male line. Kahu's grandfather Koro Apirana, is the current leader, and is devastated at the birth of a girl.

I really enjoyed the story, but found the book got in the way of the story. I'm lucky enough to be a frequent visitor to New Zealand, and have been for the last 15 years. So I know a smattering of Maori words. But the sheer volume of Maori vocabulary made it very difficult for an average Pakeha reader to follow.  There was a four page glossary in the back of my library edition. But sadly even this was inadequate. Some words just weren't there, sometimes important words like korero (meeting/discussion), and phrases were not included at all. Some Maori langauage usage is obviously vital, such as when Koro Apirana starts up a regular session to instruct the young men of the village in the ways of the tribe. 

Just the men, he added, because men were tapu. Of course the instruction wouldn't be like in the old days, not as strict, but the purpose would be the same: to keep the reo going, and the mana of the iwi. 

This lead to constant flicking back and forth to the glossary. I really think that it could have been handled better for non-Maori readers (footnotes for instance, or even just brackets of translation, and it's very hard to piece together meanings of phrases from individual words, naturally they usually have implied meanings beyond the actual words).  Particularly frustrating as most chapters ended with the same sentence. Haumi e, hui e, taiki e.

It's all very well now in 2011 with our Google world to work out what this phrase means. This would have been impossible for me when the book was released in 1987, and I think would have severely curtailed the reading pleasure to be found within its pages. Luckily for us there was an exhibition in Christchurch in 2001 at the Christchurch Arts Centre (now sadly closed until further notice after the devastating earthquake last week) called Haumi e, hui e, taiki e. And they give a lovely explanation of it:

HAUMI E! HUI E! TAIKI E! is an exclamation, a cry often heard at the end of tauparapara (the classic chant to start a speech), waiata tawhito (ancient waiata) and whaikorero (ceremonial speechmaking), and a call for the things that are known in te ao wairua (the world of the spirit), to be given life in the living world. 

The back cover blurb of my library copy talks of "capturing readers with universal themes of conflict between generations and genders, respect for nature, family love and personal courage." I think the book certainly does that and more. It also tells us of the importance of cultural heritage. Rawiri has to leave NZ (to "cross the ditch" as the Kiwis always say) to live in Australia and New Guinea to reawaken his sense of belonging to his Maori culture. I know that I too appreciated Australia much more after I had lived 2 years in Canada (not that Canada isn't a great place, it's just that your eyes can see your home more clearly when they've seen other places too). I really liked the term "aggressively expatriate" referring to the white population in New Guinea. I think that's wonderfully expressive. 

I broadened my Whale Rider experience with revisiting the 2002 movie. It's an enjoyable movie, but there are some major deviations from the book. Several characters are renamed-  Kahu becomes Paikea, which has also become the name of the whale riding ancestor. Paikea here is one of twins- but her twin brother dies at birth in the opening scenes of the movie. The narrator switches from uncle Rawiri to that of Kahu/Paikea herself. And some other characters are changed considerably- Paikea's father life is quite different in the movie compared to the book. Still the movie has a gentle feel to it, and was an enjoyable way to spend a quiet Monday evening. 

I was intrigued to find that my library also had a picture book version of The Whale Rider. The picture book version was published in 2005, coming after both the original book and the movie. As such it is a bit of a mix of both. Kahu is still called Kahu here, although the ancestor Kahutia Te Rangi becomes Paikea again. Each version has a somewhat different version of Kahu's mother's death. Not sure why. The picture book focuses on the major events of the book- Koro Apirana's school for the boys to pick the next leader, the school concert, and the whale stranding. The story is a bit more obvious and circular in picture book format- Kahutia Te Rangi has one magic spear that refuses to leave his hands as he arrives at Aotearoa, and so he sends it into the future. "Go, fly forward, into the future and flower where you are needed most." Of course it is needed most in Kahu's time. The book is beautifully illustrated with lush, evocative oil paintings by Bruce Potter

This post is the first that I'm completing as part of the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up Reading Challenge 2011. Which is fantastic, because it's the books I'm reading anyway. 


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I'm off to check out the 1001 Challenge (though, I suppose, I've undertaken that challenge in my own way). Thank you for sharing it with us.

Louise said...

You certainly are doing your own challenge. The blog challenge adds an extra layer of interest though doesn't it?

Unknown said...

Great in-depth review! I also find it frustrating when translations are not provided within the text of a novel. It would be interesting to know the writer's motivation for not including them - it can alienate the reader and interrupt the flow. Perhaps the author never expected the book to be so broadly read!

Louise said...

Thanks Fiona. I wondered about the expected readership, and if it wasn't expected to be widely read outside New Zealand. I'm sure some non-Maori Kiwi readers would struggle with some of it, certainly you tend to pick up quite a bit, but mainly odd words. But surely editors publishing a book in other countries would attempt to make it more than partly comprehensible? It's one thing having huge tracts of untranslated French or Spanish in books, and we've all come across that at times. It's quite another to have a particular local language make up a large part of a book, ostensibly published in English.

Karen said...

Hi there, I read your review of Witi Ihimaera’s ‘The Whale Rider’ and wondered whether you might be interested in asking Witi Ihimaera a question about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything - doesn't have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Witi Ihimaera himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
Best wishes,
BBC World Book Club

Unknown said...

Am happy to read your blog here. i am teaching this book for the first time to our secondary school English students. i would love to have a glossary of the Maori words used in the book. if you have them will you be kind enough to share with me for the sake of my students.