Saturday, August 30, 2014

Controversy, a media storm and a meeting.

Below is a chapter from 'Journey to a Hanging' that I decided to edit out. I'm putting it on the blog as I believe it raises some interesting questions about political correctness/political interference in Creative New Zealand grants and the nature of intellectual freedom in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Originally this chapter was in the first third of the Volkner part of the book. 

The conclusion of Wittgenstein's Tracatus: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'

I had underestimated how controversial anything to do with Kereopa Te Rau was. I found this out when I had my first media interview about this book.  
This is what happened. 
I was doing a telephone interview with a stringer for the Dom. Post. He was struggling to understand what was the area of my subject. (I hadn’t managed the sound bite then.) I suddenly had what seemed like a bright idea. I thought I could animate the ‘deadness’ of a past historical issue by paralleling the search for Kereopa Te Rau and his being brought to Napier with the-then recent feelings of Americans when they captured and killed Osama Bin Laden. (Fresh in my mind were television images of Americans who had spontaneously gathered outside the White House at night to – bizarrely, it seemed to me – celebrate eliminating a terrorist. It looked eery as Halloween or those hangings in the Deep South.) 

When I opened the following morning’s paper in a café, I saw – to my horror - the headline ‘Writer on trail of historic Maori ‘Osama Bin Laden’. There was my photo alongside the only known existing photograph of Kereopa Te Rau – a particularly plaintive image. I let out a small gasp of shock, closed the page quickly, as if trying to slam shut a Pandora box. I went on and read the rest of the newspaper quietly, in an attempt to calm down (surely I didn’t see that?) 
I returned to the page.
Yes, there it was, for all time.

I thought I could hear doors slamming all over the country. Doors into Maoridom. It was a disaster.

That evening I become caught up in a small media storm. Maori radio and television were ringing me for ‘clarification’ and I was deeply aware of the tenuousness of my situation. I was introduced on National Radio as ‘the biographer of Kereopa Te Rau.’ It didn’t matter that I said I wasn’t his biographer at all. I decided I needed to do something so the following morning I composed a letter to the Dom.Post –-

Dear Sir, 
I would like to make it clear that I wish to disassociate myself from the headline - as I am sure any reader who persevered and read the article in its entirety would understand. I am not looking for an historic Maori 'Osama Bin Laden.’ I am on the trail of empathy, understanding and insight.’

The letter wasn’t printed.  The fact was the situation was so fraught I had only been given the Michael King Fellowship to write the book on signing a Treaty-inflected document which asked for ‘an outline on your approach to working with local iwi or hapu on the project’. I went back and checked my application again and decided to answer in this way. 

‘Naturally I am very interested in the oral history of people close to Kereopa Te Rau (Ngati Rangiwewehi of Te Arawa) as oral histories held within hapu and iwi are often the repository of fascinating insights. But I do think the panel needs to acknowledge the project is what is today called creative nonfiction. Ie it is not an attempt to create a kind of eloquent Dame Judith Binney-type history in which I attempt to right historical wrongs. To quote from my application notes ‘I do not want to write about Kereopa Te Rau, the justice or injustice of his hanging or the political events which led to his trial. What I want to write about is virtually everything apart from that (accepting at the same time that everything is inflected with its proximity to this key highly politicised  event.)  I propose a voyage round the subject, looking at all sorts of ways to contextualise, to place in parallel, to open surprising windows into the past and hence understanding.’

 ‘The heart of the project is actually an essay about the nature of intellectual freedom which Colenso wrote called Fiat Justitia. Colenso’s essay, in which he looked at Kereopa Te Rau’s capture and imprisonment, was written within the tight confines of a society which had its own form of political correctness, its own attempts to curtain intellectual freedom by insisting on a portrayal of only ‘acceptable’ sides of truth. 
   The project is actually about the slipperyness of truth and the way two Pakeha people, Sister Aubert and William Colenso, went against the current orthodoxies to present their own entirely human - and humane - response to a situation which contrasted with the accepted ideas of their time.’

I did not add something I believe in, a quote from the remarkable nonfiction writer Janet Malcolm,  ‘The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses.’p176
 I knew this was asking for trouble.

Then out of the blue I received what felt like a reprieve. This was a phone call from a young man who identified himself as Benedict Taylor from the Office of Treaty Settlements. He was an historian, he introduced himself, and he talked about the ‘unfortunate’ publicity for my new project. I burst out laughing. ‘You could say that.’ He kindly said if I found myself in Wellington on such and such a date it could be good timing. Ngati Rangiwewehi, Kereopa’s iwi, were signing off a Treaty document and they would be in a receptive mood.
Gratefully I accepted the olive branch. 

The meeting was timed for 2pm. And here I reproduce a letter I sent immediately afterwards to an Australian friend much interested, if bemused, by the contradicitons and vociferousness of New Zealand’s racial politics.
‘I entered a vast building - every floor identical and hence confusing. A name tag. Then into a conference room.
Eventually the small deputation arrived, four men and two women, all of middle to late middle age. All in black, dignified and happy (some had been to the pub.) The men hongi-ed me (I was relaxed, somehow channeling Colenso and my brother who had been solicitor for the Maori Affairs Department in the 1980s and an able speaker of te reo.) I in my naivety went to hongi the women, who ducked around and presented a cheek to kiss. (Oh dear…ok, got that…)
Then the Treaty people entered, fresh as newly minted dollar bills, two in their late twenties, one of Asian origin. They asked to 'minute' the meeting. 
A formal opening speech by a younger man, large, humorous, human. Of course I understand one word in every thousand but gathered it wasn't abusive or horrid.
I somehow summoned the ghosts of my Napier grandparents to stand behind me, and then my brother who had been so active early in Treaty politics before it became a gold plated chariot…
I stood up to reply, but they ushered me downwards. 
So I talked about how Colenso had led me to the project (how he did a brilliant defence of Kereopa)…and then I read out my letter to the Dom Post. This seemed to move them.
I felt them listening.
Then the discussion broadened with the elder woman speaking, Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois. I heard things I had never heard before: the Kereopa name was shrouded in so much shame – whakama - that there was an unusual degree of mayhem and suicide among the young men descendants. It was a surname that was rarely used these days.
They also said that the cannibalism was contextual to the times. (Well, of course…but then again…)
They said if I wanted to take it further I would need to come to the marae and consult the elders but as far as they were concerned they would like me to go further with the story.
I immediately said it would be wonderful if Benedict could accompany me (to his visible surprise.) They liked that idea. He is obviously a favourite son (and can speak Maori.) 
Anyway at the last moment a glam model appeared, female, a sequinned bag and I thought 'here's trouble'. It turned out to Donna Hall, one of the highest paid legal minds in the country. Anyway she was sweet and gave me her number and said to come to dinner.
So….all terribly surprising, my dear.
I know from ‘X’  they lull you in and then freak you out.
But it ended with them virtually thinking they had commissioned me to tell their story.
This made me a little uncomfortable as I cannot do that. I can certainly tell their side of the story - but as I said to them I want to tell 'all the stories'.
So, Ian, I found myself, this semi-elderly Pakeha mandarin, knocking fists and exchanging bro handshakes with the men, and kissing the women on the cheeks. One of the men (an ex teacher…) said I had performed 11 out of ten. 
One thing I noted in the midst of the glitter though. My nametag came off and fell on the floor. I was stooping down to retrieve it but it had glued itself to the sole of young Asian woman's foot and she walked off. I prayed it wasn't a presentiment….
It was left that I was to contact Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois in the near future and ‘present myself.’
We went down in the lift together…then separated at the bottom and went out diametrically opposed doors.

(I will follow this up with what happened eventually.....)


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  3. Peter, this is a fascinating and moving story, and underlines the nightmare of wanting publicity but not bad publicity, and of the complexity of interaction with the Maori world. Your marvellous "Journey to a Hanging" is so rich without this chapter, but please do contin ue the story!

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