Tuesday, November 17, 2009

All at sea and feeling nauseous...

I found myself sending an email to the NZ Arts Foundation which undoubtedly means I will never be chosen as a ‘laureate’. This is the email below.

I am writing to say how disappointed I was to read that the Arts Foundation had given an award to Witi Ihimaera at this moment in his career.

You have made the Art Foundation look tarnished by giving an award to someone mired in a very real issue - plagiarism.

We look for a lead from people such as yourselves - not a feeble brushing under the carpet of something key to the production of art - authenticity.

It is not a good look.

It is a serious mistake.

You should have had the courage to withdraw the award before it became public.

Alternatively, it is shameful of Witi Ihimaera to have accepted the award, knowing it would bring the entire award into disrepute.

All round - muddied reputations, compromises and an issue of the greatest importance to the production of art ignored.

Peter Wells MNZM.

I also feel a sense of deep embarassment that the University I attended - the University of Auckland - has gladhanded the issue, exonerating Witi of any wrong-doing. This attacks the very basis of the integrity of a university education. In the end it boils down to a very cynical embrace: a university needs a much lauded and popular/populist Maori writer more than it needs integrity. 

The University could at least have issued a statement saying they were taking the issue seriously and were looking at Witi’s novel in more detail. 

Witi is a friend but in this case I feel there is a horrible shabbiness which speaks very loudly about the state of our culture - and our cultural relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The kindest thing one can say is that Witi made a mistake. But then to accept an award - with significant money attached - seems to indicate that Witi has lost - or shall we say misplaced - his moral compass.



  1. This morning CK Stead was on the radio saying he felt Witi had damaged his credibility, which is no small thing for an author. The news that Witi and Penguin are withdrawing/buying back stock was number two on the national radio this morning. And on Nine to Noon, the highly popular National Radio morning show, one of the interviews today is Elizabeth Knox saying she 'cried for three days' after seeing Niki Caro's film version of her novel, 'The Vintner's Luck'.
    Oddly enough I find these public kerfuffles quite heartening. Literature is so often almost invisible in New Zealand. The national book awards get less attention than the best beer competition, as Nigel Cox once ironically said. Books and literature are seen as prim, faded, marginal and as important as a drink coaster left behind in a closed down tavern. So I feel oddly happy that 'art has hit the headlines' and that for once books and book people can be as shocking, tacky, mendacious and self serving as everyone else in the contemporary media. A little public weeping and venting is good.

  2. "Oddly enough I find these public kerfuffles quite heartening. Literature is so often almost invisible in New Zealand."

    Well said, Peter! I hadn't looked at it like that, but it's unfortunately true. Hmmm, so we just need to start inventing some scandals every couple of months to keep things alive and well.

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