"Striding both worlds" Cross-Cultural influence in the work of Witi Ihimaera
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
This thesis engages with aspects of Witi Ihimaera's oeuvre that demonstrate influences from cultures other than Maori. These may be overt in the fiction, such as plot settings in Venice, Vietnam and Canada, or implicit in his writing mode and style, influenced by English romanticism, Pakeha cultural nationalism, Katherine Mansfield's modernist epiphanies, and Italian verismo opera. In revealing Ihimaera's indebtedness to cultural and aesthetic influences commonly seen as irrelevant to contemporary Maori literature, this thesis reveals a depth and richness in Ihimaera's imaginary that is frequently overlooked and undervalued in New Zealand literary interpretation. Illuminating cross-cultural influence in Ihimaera's works calls into question the applicability of biculturalism as a comprehensive manner of accounting for both Maori cultural ambitions of self-determination and the Maori relationship with Pakeha on the national level. Far from an "us-versus-them" dialectic based on a separatist notion of two individually self-sufficient and complete cultures, Ihimaera's fiction shows Maori culture to have been shaped by a long history of interaction and influence with the colonial British and the Pakeha. This is manifest in the way that the Maori sovereignty and renaissance movements, which gathered force in the 1970s, have been inspired by European concepts of modernity, the structures of nation building and, more recently, by Western globalization described in the theories of transculturation and diaspora. Similarly, in New Zealand literature, Maori writing is commonly considered a parallel genre which describes a distinctive Maori worldview and literary style. Contrary to the familiar interpretation of Ihimaera's fiction from this standpoint, this thesis argues that an emphasis on difference tends to lose sight of fiction's capacity to bring into play issues of differentiation, originality and hybridity through its very form and function. In effect, Maori negotiation of its sovereign space in its literature takes place in its forms rather than in its storyline, for example in multiple linguistic significations, in the text's unstable relationship with reality, and the way that imagery escapes concrete, definitive explanation. In this optic, this thesis analyses little-discussed aspects of Ihimaera's fiction, including his love of opera, the extravagance of his baroque lyricism, his exploration of the science-fiction genre, and his increasing interest in taking Maori into the international arena. While reading against the grain of current New Zealand literary practice, this thesis does not intend to contest such reading. Rather, it endeavours to present an additional, complementary analytical framework, based on a conviction that contemporary Maori-Pakeha cultural and literary negotiation and contestation is far from unique, but a local manifestation of other international and historical efforts for recognition and respect.