Tina Makereti, Once upon a time in Aotearoa, Huia Publishers, 2013.
Tina Makereti came to my attention because she contributed to the Pacific Monsters anthology by Fox Spirit Books, a small press I'm following, and I was keen to read her short stories. This collection contains 13 short stories, and it is a hidden gem that deserves to be read.
Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa contains 13 short stories, two of which aren't fantasy (or magical realism... I'm not getting into the genre discussion!).
For those of you who wouldn't know, Aotearoa is the island known as New Zealand under its colonisers' name. The collection affirms as soon as the title that what you'll read is inspired by the Maori culture and stories.
But don't expect something that'll take you back to a mythical past. It is, on the contrary, an affirmation of the contemporary Maori cultures and reality, and linked to the traditions and myths.
I particularly enjoyed the pace of the short stories. Most of the short stories you'll read nowadays follow a stereotypical plan starting with a hook. Makereti doesn't, most of the time, and it is a breath a fresh air. Like a tale told, you start by meeting the character and their story unfolds, sad, sometimes funny, always telling of a wider truth than just their own experience.
The language and the flow often mixes English with Maori words and interjections, in the same way that Maori and Polynesians will do when talking to white people. But Makereti constructs her sentences beautifully: it not only reflects this playfulness with languages and rhythms in the spoken word, but it also holds an incredible poetry in the narrative sections, unfolding slowly to give the sense of a place or of a feeling.
The themes range from romantic love to family, to life and death, to growing up and getting revenge and the tones can vary from the quietly melancholic to the very cheeky.
Some stories will remain with me for a long time. One is a non fantasy story, "Kaitiaki", which tells of an old woman who finds an abandoned boy. This story resonated with me because it so beautifully described the concept of found family in the Maori cultures. The other was "Shapeshifter", inspired by the legend of Pania of the Reef, and its statue located in the town of Napier, a beautiful tale about passing time, regrets, life and death. And a special mention to "Ahi" which displays the cheekiness and wisdom (1) of many Maori Aunties.
Makereti's writing conjures up Aotearoa and the South Pacific, however far from them you are. She weaves the people, the language, the reality, however grim or happy, and the myths, in beautiful and poetically told tales, that both shock and move.
You may want to read it because you want to discover Maori cultures, expecting some sort of fossilised, "museum-ised" culture to gaze at. But what Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa affirms for everyone to see is how striving Maori cultures are, linked to their past and living in the present on a land that is unique in the world.
Makereti has a novel in the works, and I, for one, can't wait to read it considering this beautiful collection.
(1) I quite hesitated when writing the word "wisdom" which is too often used as a lazy racist stereotype when it comes to indigenous cultures. But when you know some Maori aunties, you know it is the right word. Also, cheekiness. Definitely cheekiness. I am nonetheless happy to delete it if it feels wrong to any Maori.
The writer's website.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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