Friday, October 17, 2008

Patricia Grace wins Neustadt International Prize for Literature

In September 2007 Maori writer Patricia Grace was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, arguably the most prestigious literary prize after the Nobel. The other contestants were Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Saadi Youssef (Iraq), Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka / Canada), Jacques Roubaud (France), Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (Greece), Tsering Woeser (China), Haruki Murakami (Japan), E.L. Doctorow (USA), Yoel Hoffmann (Israel). Patricia Grace received the prize in September 2008 in a ceremony held on the University of Oklahoma campus.

Patricia Grace was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1937. She is of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent, and is affiliated to Ngati Porou by marriage. She has gained wide recognition as a key figure in the emergence of Maori fiction in English since the 1970s. Her work, expressive of Maori consciousness and values, is distinguished also for the variety of Maori people and ways of life it portrays and for its resourceful versatility of style and narrative and descriptive technique.
Her first book, Waiariki (1975) was the first short story collection by a Maori woman writer to be published in the country. Her first novel, Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps (1978), tells the story of the love and marriage of a young Maori woman and Pakeha man, the first time this had been done from the Maori perspective and by a Maori writer. Her second novel, Potiki (1986), won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and amazed Pakeha readers with much untranslated Maori words and phrases.
Baby No-eyes (1998), her most successful novel to date, merges controversial actual events with stories of a heartfelt family history. It is an account of the mysteries that operate at many levels between generations – different voices interweaving family history with contemporary Maori issues. A baby who died becomes a ‘real’ person who interacts with family members. Granny Kura tells her story against a background of land occupation.In her new novel Tu (2004) Grace explores the often terrifying and complex world faced by men of the Maori Battalion in Italy during the Second World War. Three young men from the one family went to war, but only one returned - Tu is the sole survivior. When his young niece and nephew come to him to find out what happened, Tu is brought face to face with the past. What really happened to the three brothers as the Maori Battalion fought in the hills and valleys of Italy is contained in the pages of his war journal, which he decides to give to his niece and nephew.

Joy Hario, who nominated Grace for the Neustadt award, says that she is “an essential and key figure in the emergence of a unique Maori fiction”, describing her work as a “brilliant weave of Maori oral storytelling contained within the more contemporary Western literary forms of the novel and short story”.

Personally, I have read Tu, a marvellous novel about the (sadly) forgotten Maori Battalion that fought in the battle of Montecassino (Italy) during the Second World War. If her novels were easier to find, I’d also read Baby No-Eyes straight away, because Grace is a wonderful writer and also because I think that Maori culture is fascinating and interesting.

Other Maori writers to look out for:

  • Witi Ihimaera (author of the novel The Whale Rider, from which the Oscar-nominated movie was taken);
  • Keri Hulme (writer of Booker Prize winner The Bone People);
  • Alan Duff (author of Once Were Warriors, I'm sure some of you will know the movie);

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