28 Jan 2024

Witi Ihimaera on the massive rise to come of Māori culture in 2024

From Culture 101, 12:10 pm on 28 January 2024

Author Witi Ihimaera.

Author Witi Ihimaera. Photo: Supplied

In 1972, a young Witi Ihimaera (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) became the first Māori writer to publish a collection of short stories. 

Pounamu Pounamu is based on his experiences as a young boy “from a small nobody ever heard of called Waituhi” on the East Coast. There, at the age of nine, Ihimaera wrote his first story while at primary school. 

Pounamu Pounamu went on to become a classic, much read and studied by young people in schools, an inspiration to many Aotearoa writers.

Now, 52 years later, RNZ's Culture 101 is proud to host Ihimaera reading these stories as a radio series. It follows Pounamu Pounamu’s reissue by Penguin Random House in 2022 with a new introduction by the author.  Click here to listen.

Pounamu Pounamu

Photo: supplied

Speaking with Culture 101’s Mark Amery, Ihimaera recalls fondly Radio New Zealand first bringing the stories to life in 1969, read by George Henare.   

"This actually should be a celebration for Radio New Zealand as well because these stories were first read and recorded here in 1969."

He said there were three sessions of six stories each.

"That was the beginning of my career, so I actually have to thank Radio New Zealand for beginning my career because seven of those stories became the stories in Pounamu Pounamu."

Ihimaera said it was great to revisit the stories.

"It was so invigorating and you know I found myself recapturing that enthusiasm that I've always had for writing and always for telling the Māori story."

It as amazing how the stories had stayed "at the forefront of New Zealand literary history" as they were still taught in schools, as well as being taught in other places such as Africa and the United States.

Ihimaera has written many award-winning fiction, short stories, scripts, essays, memoirs and librettos since, including The Whale Rider and The Matriarch

His recent accolades include the New Zealand Society of Authors President of Honour, a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement and a 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for his memoir.

Ihimaera has also been a great supporter of other Māori writers. Late last year he was the editor of a collection of recent non-fiction by Māori, speaking to the issues that concern them of this time. Ngā Kupu Wero is out now. 

Witi's Wahine by Nancy Brunning

Witi's Wahine by Nancy Brunning Photo: supplied

Meanwhile Nancy Brunning’s celebrated play Witi's Wāhine, dedicated to the wāhine toa of the East Coast in Ihimaera's stories gets new production -  29 February to 2 March at the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington. 

Witi Ihimaera joined Mark on Culture 101 to play ‘Fast Favourites’ - sharing some of his favourite current Aotearoa artists and cultural moments now.  

“We’re international now. It’s fantastic when you think about it - we had three New Zealand  films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival… and Māori music in te reo has massively risen in the charts here. It’s poised to go global this year I reckon.”