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From the Listener archive: Features

November 14-20 2009 Vol 221 No 3627

Cover Story

Keeping it real

by Jolisa Gracewood

The Trowenna Sea carries its research in a bulky suitcase.

Epic in both length and scope, The Trowenna Sea by Witi Ihimaera is based on the true story of Hohepa Te Umuroa and four other Maori from Whanganui who were transported to Tasmania in 1846 after being convicted of rebellion. This heartfelt novel illuminates a little-known moment in Antipodean history, while aspiring to be a jolly good read.

Although unabashedly modern in its politics and sensibilities, it’s also deeply old-fashioned: a throwback to the 18th-century novel of sentiment. Characters confide in us via diaries, letters and reluctant confessions.

There’s even a promise of wild colonial nooky, but out of deference to the real historical figures Ihimaera stops well short of ripping any actual bodices. And there’s a tragic yet uplifting fate for our hero.

If The Trowenna Sea wears its heart on its sleeve, it also carries its research in a bulky suitcase. Obviously, the dictum “write what you know” (advice that rightly earned Ihimaera his reputation) is unhelpful when it comes to historical fiction. To write the book, you must hit the books and Ihimaera lists most, though not all, of his sources.

But art happens when material is transubstantiated into story. Unfortunately, Ihimaera’s results are uneven. As backdrop to his feisty heroine Ismay, who along with her husband will eventually cross paths with Te Umuroa in Tasmania, he presents an encyclopaedic tour of England’s dark places and Victoria’s greatest hits. Characters speak in faux-period diction and often sound exactly like textbooks, as when a grubby moppet coolly delivers a disquisition on child labour while her father lies mortally injured in a coal mine.

Nobody is harmed, goes one argument, as long as the material is out of copyright and adds historical colour. But I was bored by the familiar tropes and jolted by moments of risible over-explanation or suddenly fluent archaisms. Primary sources don’t just demand rewriting: we expect the author to run them through his own intellectual and aesthetic filter. “Equipages rolling on like a stream too wide for its channel”? No disrespect to the late Mr Lamb, but that’s an atrocious simile, one that bugged me even before I discovered it was secondhand.

How much borrowing of other people’s work is all right in the service of art? A primary schooler will give you an unequivocal answer, and certainly other novelists have been chided for less. On the other hand, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell suggests we not fall prey to “fundamentalism” on the subject: for him, using “old words in the service of new ideas” is the very definition of creativity.

But the medium and the message are not so easily separated: new words generate new ideas. “All truth is fiction really, for the teller tells it as he sees it, and it might be different from some other teller,” wrote Ihimaera in The Matriarch. Even more so, fiction is fiction, and we fully expect it to be different depending on the teller. If the teller doesn’t trust his own voice, how can we?

Ihimaera fancifully sends Te Umuroa along to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, but then describes that scene in William Colenso’s words instead of working to imagine Te Umuroa’s thoughts, leaving readers robbed of the pleasure and challenge of considering history from a fresh perspective.

When Ihimaera ventriloquises lines from Hoana Akapita’s diary about repatriating Te Umuroa’s remains, we may consider the narrative enhanced by the increased proximity to real events. But intertwining those diary entries with the words of an American anthropologist does what, exactly, for the authenticity of his Whanganui narrator?

The same goes for Ihimaera’s appropriation of passages from Peter Godwin’s award-winning memoir Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa. In Ihimaera’s hands, Godwin’s personal experience of the brutal decolonisation of Rhodesia is appropriated for anachronistic ends. This temporal flattening undermines the novel’s most interesting proposition: that there is something commensurate, though not identical, about the plight of all who suffer under imperial rule.

The annoying thing is, there are legitimate ways to perform such “sampling” – epigraphs, quotation, collage. Ihimaera knows the protocol: he conscientiously incorporates primary sources throughout the book, except when he doesn’t. If this were an explicit satire on literary sovereignty – a postcolonial polyphonic spree, as it were – readers and critics would gladly play along. Instead, we’re in the dark about who’s speaking.

Once the smoke clears, what original fire remains? A literary first, in the affecting encounter between Te Umuroa and Trucanini, the so-called “last Tasmanian aborigine”. Plenty of diverting plot, a fresh perspective on the years after Wai-tangi and some vintage Ihimaera prose about the numinous natural world. And Te Umuroa himself comes off well: honourable, handsome, a rare physical specimen.

But we can still query the selective obsession with “keeping it real”. Ihimaera fictionalises the main Pakeha characters out of respect for their families, but has freely “imagined a life” for Te Umuroa, complete with invented Maori wife and child and made-up (or borrowed) thoughts and travels. Why not fictionalise him completely and let the plot lead somewhere surprising? In terms of pure narrative satisfaction, perhaps Ihimaera has played fast and loose with the wrong bits altogether.

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