Monday, December 14, 2009

The new book goes fishing...

I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order about The Troweena Sea. You see, I even resent writing the title as I feel this only adds publicity to a best-selling book. Yet I’m equally unwilling to use Witi Ihimaera’s name, as this appears to ‘make it personal’. My urge to make sense of the situation comes from the fact this book, which was going to be withdrawn, when the plagiarism allegations first came out has not been withdrawn at all. It is now the best selling fiction book by a New Zealander, within New Zealand.

My question is: what does this say about us? First of all, there is the cynicism of the publishing company. Penguin have obviously decided it is better to make money rather than adhere to its announced principles that it would seek to withdraw the book. Similarly the author himself made a great deal of the fact he himself would be personally paying for the stock of the book which remained in the warehouse. One could ask now: has this actually happened? Or did the author collude with the publisher in cynically allowing more books out into the shops?

Or is this incorrect thinking? Perhaps the publisher just decided to leave those books already out in stock, in bookshops., to remain there. Perhaps booksellers pleaded with the publishers to allow the book to remain in stock.

Ihimaera has long been one of New Zealand’s best selling literary authors. The fuss apparently has not stopped people buying the book. Indeed there is every evidence that the fuss has aided the sale of the book.

These thoughts were partly prompted by two friends who had bought the book.

One is an archivist, the other an arts administrator. Both are women. And both reported that the book was not a plagiarised text but a fantastic read. This  appalled me. I have heard of people buying the book on the belief that it will become a collector’s item. (Unfortunately already too many have been sold.) But I would have expected people who were knowledgeable about the arts would have understood the issues.

What are the issues? I believe they are complicated by contemporary art’s use of sampling, of copyng, of ‘appropriating’. This is widespread through the visual arts (‘quotation’) and through the musical arts (‘sampling’.) Why should the literary arts be any different? Or does the difference go to the heart of the way in which writing differs from other art forms. Writing can use quotes, but in books of any quality, these quotations are sourced. It is a way of honouring the work other people have done before you. Not to do so is to appropriate someone else’s work. Cultural appropriation, by pakeha people, of Maori subject matters is a very hot area.

What do we have then when a Maori kaumatua, for Ihimaera is such, is found out appropriating by and large pakeha sources without any acknowledgement? We have the strange kind of muffled crisis we have experienced. Maori have been singularly silent on the situation. They are used to seeing their own people constantly attacked. It does not do to attack your own kind. But pakeha writers, with some notable exceptions, have also been discretely silent. The problem is partly personal. Most writers know Witi Ihimaera. He is capable of great charm. But I would not be the first person to say he is also capable of considerable malice. He’s a rounded character, after all - not the demi-plaster saint he was in risk of becoming after the popular success of the film ‘The Whale Rider’.

Witi Ihimaera’s role of cultural ambassador is something worth looking at in more detail. Ever since his first, stunningly simple and eloquent stories emerged he has had what can only be called a very good ride. He became a diplomat, that most carefully judged of silver tongued careers. Latterly, when the hard work of gay liberation had been done, he came out as gay. He also became more vocal about Maori rights once the hard work of Maori radicalism had been done. In one way New Zealand has needed a man like Ihimaera - charming, personable, bicultural. Adaptable. He has been heaped with richnesses. A man who has not got a particularly illustrious academic record is a professor at a leading university where he himself teaches writing. Only this year he was given a laureateship - perhaps the final poisoned gift to a man heaped with honours, aroha and mana.

Has this crisis changed anything? Not according to the people who have rushed out to buy the book. I have heard one author say that the book was unreadable, lurching from style to style awkwardly. But Ihimaera’s writing style is not the point. People buy his books to hear from a bicultural ambassador, a charming man who knows ‘how to tell a good story’. And pakeha people like hearing Maori stories. And after all, telling stories is what authors do. Or rather writing them. This is where we get into difficulties. Unacknowledged appropriating is really just theft. It appears to have been a careless, unthought out act, by someone who presumably assumed he was untouchable in New Zealand culture. There was a huge demand for another book. He gave in. It’s not the end of the world, but it tends to dent the charisma, the mana of the man. It’s not a good look. Every book he produces from now on will be tainted by suspicions of intellectual theft.

People say, of course, Shakespeare borrowed. Recently Ian McEwan, a writer of real talent and originality, has been accused of plagiarism at least twice. But I don’t think in either case we are talking of actually taking literal chunks out of someone else’s research and writing, then plastering them over into the main body of the work. Or have we, as Ihimaera himself suggested, just arrived at a postmodern moment when intellectual theft is a chic form of experimentation? Would Maori think the same thing if, for example, I simply took something oral and ancestral, then put it into the main text of my work, as if I had originated it? I don’t think so.

Is it a case of double standards - the cultural double standards that bedevil New Zealand life. (Hone Harawira, loathing white people, but needing to go to the centre of white culture, Paris....) 

In the end this cultural event says alot about contemporary New Zealand: Ihimaera’s outing as a plagiarist by someone who lives overseas (who within New Zealand would have dared dent the mana of the plaster saint?) Ihimaera’s misjudging of the severity of the crisis by appearing in public receiving a large sum of money even after the plagiarism was public knowledge: surely the diplomat within him would have dictated a discrete professorial holiday at some welcoming overseas university (Hawaii comes to mind)...a public statement that he would not accept the laureateship this year...a little modesty in the situation would have been a sign of atonement.  The university which so desperately needed a bicultural ambassador - what was once called a friendly Maori - that they would accept plagiarism as something intellectually acceptable and even negligible - surely a nadir in the annals of universities becoming thinly disguised moneyshops. The book still stays in the bookshops. People are buying it probably at this very moment for a Christmas present. Some people believe, like money in Hanover Finance, it will be a good investment. Other people just like a good story. Shame that significant parts of it were written by other people - who remain unacknowledged. But that’s not a problem, is it? 

Is it?

Of course Witi Ihimaera will be reborn. The phoenix which has lived through such staggering social political racial and sexual change, always morphing at an appropriate moment, will, I am sure, re-emerge in an emotion-drenched scene some time in the future. He is one of the characters of twentieth-century New Zealand. When a friend of mine, who had a history of heroin addiction in his twenties, but then went on to become one of the leading ad men in New Zealand - before being found with heroin again - said blithely: it only adds to the story. The adman knew something. Witi’s story is not finished. We can perhaps expect a few tears on Mark Sainsbury, or whoever is around at prime time when Witi, like Coco Chanel, makes his inevitably dramatic tear-wrenching re-entrance. The crowd will weep. Then, barely stopping to mop up their tears, this largely pakeha audience will feel that twitch in their being which indicates: it is all over.  Their fingers will be blindly feeling for their eftpost and credit cards before they line up obediently to buy the new book.

The new book goes fishing....again.


  1. A pithy and interesting take on it all Peter. I think the crisis has changed one thing: his mana has been been considerably lessened by all this, and I somehow doubt that even a tearful Sainsbury appearance (though John Campbell's fawning manner seems more suitable) will entirely restore it.

    The real shame is that his undeniable talent as a writer has been tarnished by sloppiness and evasion in this case, and it was all so easy to avoid.

  2. Michael, thanks for this comment. I have been approached privately by people saying they think the blog is on message...but there still seems an unwillingness for people to make public comment. As I said in the blog, it is actually unthinkable - perhaps literally psychologically impossible - for someone who lives in New Zealand to have written the 'j'accuse' article in the LIstener. It had to be written by someone outside the tightly self-controlling world of New Zealand - a country which, ironically, prides itself on its casualness and relative openness.
    In other words only someone living in the intellectual freedom of New York or some similar city could raise their voice, not even cough apologetically and say, 'hello everybody, the emperor has no clothes.'

  3. If anyone wants to follow the whole unfolding of Witigate, then go

    It is a pretty astonishing trajectory.

    Strangely Witi's face came to me last evening and I remembered a kind and eloquent side to his nature. It only makes it sadder.

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