Bridging a literature gap in Aotearoa, Eleanor Bassett
June 28, 2021
The Pōrangi Boy’s blurb is deceiving. Shilo Kino’s novel, a finalist in this year’s NZ Book Awards, has so many more intricate and nuanced elements than just, ‘is it crazy to believe in taniwha?’ Here, the taniwha in residence is a metaphor for so much more. This book bridges a literature gap in New Zealand young adult novels.
The Pōrangi Boy is somewhere between a traditional European writing of an archetypal ‘journey’, and the abstract ideas, shown through a literal abstract novel structure, that Kino uses to showcase the Māori perspective. This is fundamentally a story of conflict between two belief structures and the inheritance, rights and emotions of each.
Flipping between ‘before’ and ‘after,’ Niko tells the story (in first-person narrative) of the understanding he gains from his Koro on the taniwha, the taniwha’s land, taiaha, and being tohunga – the chosen one (both in the iwi, and in the eyes of Europeans, through money and wills). ‘Before’ and ‘after’ are threaded with anecdotes that are recognisable to the reader as the consistency and predictability of life.
The theme of accessibility is woven into the fabric of this book. The land the prison may be built on is seen as accessible to the Pakeha in charge and is accessible to the local iwi, but presents different accessibility challenges to the main characters and their intertwined relationships.
The links between prison, iwi, and incarceration rates in New Zealand is not mentioned, but at one point a character comments on “the effects of colonisation;” and the response is that they didn’t know, that they are a ‘parrot generation.’ Is this novel telling us something about the perceived awareness of the past in younger generations? Are we so keen to right the wrongs of the past and move on we (Pakeha) are not giving the iwi we have hurt time to process and grieve? Perhaps the metaphor for this is a death that happens in the novel that is foreshadowed in many ways, but is a piercing pain still for readers who can identify with that vein of sorrow.
Similar to the undertone of commentary on colonisation, there is an inference that Niko’s mother is struggling with mental illness. Realistically, tragically, and beautifully, this is never addressed; instead aunties and whānau step up around Niko to look out for him. The realistic and tragic part of this is that as so much of this book strikes personal chords with readers, I’m sure this will too. I’m sure Māori mental health is not considered as much as it should be, and this is also probably through distrust and a lack of understanding of a need for duality between iwi and the Western health system.
Some say to writers: write what you know. Kino is a journalist as well as an author. She has revealed a special talent in this book by putting aside the potential temptation to focus too heavily on, or narrate, on the fictional potential prison land conflict. Kino has found the true issues here, and understood and written on them. They are conflicts though! By putting aside what I’m sure comes very naturally now, Kino has stepped out of the shadows as a New Zealand young adult author to watch.
- Eleanor Bassett is 18 and lives in Upper Hutt. When she isn’t attempting to be Dr Dolittle, or the next Pippa Funnell or Molly Huddle; she pores over and philosophises all forms of writing!