Engaging with Alan Duff

A Conversation with My Country by Alan Duff

(Random House, $38.95, 246pp)

New Zealand Books, Volume 29 | Number 3 | Issue 127 | Spring 2019

In 1990, a comet brightened the New Zealand literary scene and society with the publication of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, for it involved both an extraordinary literary style and a powerful story.

It was welcomed in the very first edition of New Zealand Books by the late Bruce Stewart, a playwright, ex-prisoner and founder of the Tapu Te Ranga Marae, important to Wellington down and outs. He opened his review with

At last a Maori writer has managed to hang out all the dirty Maori washing with some kind of dignity and at the same time place the blame where it belongs. No other Maori writer has achieved this to the same degree – small loads of dirty washing yes, but not the front fence covered in rags and holey underwear. Most of the Maori writers have been careful not to hang it out in case the Pakehas would see it and use it against them. In the backyard – amongst themselves, it’s family and it’s okay.

This reader was struck by the novel’s vigorous and innovative writing but it also told a troubling story about New Zealand’s underclass and the horrific lives they can lead. I cannot recall that my focus was particularly on the Maori dimension of the narrative. Yes, that the characters were Maori was an integral part of the story. But I knew that while Maori were more likely to be members of the underclass, there were probably more Pakeha in total.

According to Duff in his A Conversation with My Country, a collection of essays around a common theme, many Maori, unlike Bruce Stewart, objected to the novel, because they thought it would be taken to reflect all Maori. The thought never occurred to me, because I already knew that there were more Maori who were not in the underclass.

One may be surprised at the reaction. The late Rosie Scott’s Glory Days, published two years earlier, is about the Pakeha underclass. One did not assume that it characterised all Pakeha; I even gave a copy to one of its (admittedly literate) members to help her understand her situation. Clearly the Maori middle class were much more sensitive.

Having been battered by his critics, Duff goes on to argue that Maori have done a lot better since the book’s publication, claiming that Maori are the ‘most well-adjusted, self-asserted indigenous race in human history.’ He says that he would not write Once Were Warriors again, because Maori culture has progressed far beyond Jake ‘The Muss’,

I would be more cautious. I plead no-contest to claims about being in the front of human history; they are difficult to define and defend, and usually extravagant. But the dysfunctional underclass is still with us although they are more involved with drugs than liquor  today. Moreover, to present Maori as if Jake was typical in 1990 ignores the majority at the time. Certainly most were at the lower end of the social scale but membership of the underclass was not predominant.

Duff is right that there is some movement up the scale over the years, but it is more incremental than he presents, partly by making the past worse than it was. As an example – there are many – Duff writes that All Black selection was once racist. But ‘in the last 30 years more enlightened attitudes have opened the door for more Maori’. In fact, the All Black team which finally beat the Springboks 63 years ago had five Maori, more than double their population weight. (Its captain, Bob Duff (no relation), was preceded by a Maori, Pat Vincent.) The protests which objected to excluding Maori from the tour to South Africa, beginning in 1949, reflected a recognition that Maori were being normally selected and should have gone.

The problem we all face understanding late twentieth-century Maori history is that the vast majority of Maori in the early twentieth century lived in rural localities. After the War they first trickled and then streamed into the cities. They were poorly prepared for the challenges of urban living. Some like Jake, sank, others flourished, most adapted. Duff is right that we should celebrate this adaptation and the success that has gone with it, but not uncritically, for the Jakes and Beths are still there.

The book discusses two ways of evolving the adaptation. Duff is proud of his books-in-homes program. Allow me a caution. His evidence for the program’s success is the number of distributed books, but there seems to be no systematic assessment of whether, or how much, they have changed lives. I have been in a middle-class Pakeha home with an entire wall of a filled bookcase, the occupier saying he had not read any of them. My mother, a high-school librarian, suggests a different solution. They named the school library after when she retired, not just for the way she had built up its resources but because she helped so many of the school’s students to get into the habit of reading. Duff tells a similar story of his father; it was not so much that his home had books but that he had a lifelong conversation with Gowan. The mentoring by parents, teachers, librarians, even neighbours is probably more important than the artefacts themselves (although, of course, they are needed).

I also caution about Duff’s second enthusiasm – education. Undoubtedly the discipline of schooling – attendance, classroom cooperation, literacy and numeracy and the like – is usually important for later success in life. But it could be argued that in a key respect the New Zealand education system is failing us. The poor quality of public discussion, and the uncritical popularity of some commentators, suggests that our students leave school unable to handle a complicated debate. Do they have any sense of the treachery of ‘truthiness’, that if something conforms to one’s views it must be true. We bemoan the phenomenon overseas, especially as it gives Donald Trump, and others, their popular base. The difference here is only one of degree.

To give a slightly complicated example which Duff addresses. He argues that blaming ‘colonisation’ and ‘racism’ for the problems of Maori is a major roadblock to further progress, Such political correctness prevents proper discussion; in order to move forward it is necessary to ditch  labels that make Maori victims and non-Maori oppressors.

I agree. Too often terms like ‘colonisation’ and ‘racism‘ – there are others – are a signal that the speaker has stopped thinking and does not understand the issues he or she is talking about. Labels become a block to progress not a pathway.

Duff has dislikes. We need to be more subtle than his views of gangs. Undoubtedly some, and some parts of others, are involved in crime and drugs and behaviour as heinous as Jake’s community. But are they all like that? Rather than starting off condemning them, we first need to know more. My hypothesis is that they are a social form arising from adapting to urbanisation, that we see only the prominent failures and not the quiet successes. We rely on truthiness.

Duff’s remarks on the welfare system are even more troubling. There are two broad views. Duff’s is that it encourages social delinquency and that the welfare recipients should get off their bums and look after themselves rather than relying on the state. The other is that a market economy inevitably fails to provide an adequate standard of living for all, especially for those doing valuable social activities outside the market, such as child-rearing, or those who lack the capabilities to earn adequate market incomes – the sick, invalids and the retired. The welfare system is a way of modifying market outcomes to address this failure.

Both accounts are, to some extent, correct, but applying the first diagnosis to those suffering the second condition is futile and corruptive (although it is terribly popular with the political right). What is needed is to address the second group, get that right and then address the residual; there are probably fewer bludgers than the right thinks.

While writing this review, but after the book went to press, the (latest) row in regard to Oranga Tamariki blew up. I know little about the facts of the originating case which involves a disputed uplifting of a newly born child from a Maori mother. There has been public outrage and some Maori are organising against the ministry, including objecting to its Maori name.

Recall its original English name was ‘Ministry for Vulnerable Children’, the adjective indicating that the agency was fundamentally dysfunctional in conception. The name was changed to ‘Ministry for Children’ although, as far as one can judge, nothing else has been done to address the underlying dysfunction. The ministry’s Maori name, ‘Oranga Tamariki’, was not changed, and has no overtone of vulnerability. It means ‘wellbeing of children’, an even better title than ‘Ministry of Children’,

It is true that the majority of children in state care are categorised as Maori – looks like the prison population, does it not? – but that was not true at the previous peak in 2008. What has happened belongs to another public discussion, which the Maori protest may be triggering.

My point is a simpler one. Once more we have given primacy to the Maori dimension of a phenomenon involving widespread failure and dysfunction. I would regret losing the name, ‘Oranga Tamariki’, for a functioning Ministry of Children although one appreciates the Maori frustration with the equating of this perfectly appropriate term with ‘vulnerability’.

I doubt that I would have written the last few paragraphs without the stimulation of Duff’s A Conversation with New Zealand. Many readers may dismiss the book because of its errors, its misunderstandings and its political conservatism – their truthiness against his. Instead they should take up his invitation to engage with a viewpoint which may have its limitations but is offering a conversation about one of the acutest issues facing Aotearoa/New Zealand.