Down the Back of the Chair: Books No One Can Read

Māori language academic Vini Olsen-Reeder wants Māori-speaking kids and adults to be able to read books – lots of them – in te reo Māori.

Since I started learning te reo Māori in 2008, I think I’ve been subconsciously preparing for the day I have kids. The coolest book I remember having as a kid was a giant pop-up edition of The Wonderful World of Richard Scarry. It was so big it lived in this big old trunk under the bed. So, I want to replicate my childhood as much as I can for my own children. I want to expose them to a rich, colourful world of vocabulary and experience – the same I had as a kid, in English.

Hunting for books is as magical as reading them. I still remember the day I was trawling through my favourite store, Hard to Find, which used to be in Onehunga. I entered a particular room and I think my foot rocked a bendy floorboard. A book fell to the floor and I went over to pick it up. Tapihana: Brothers in Arms, by Russell Caldwell. Tapihana is a transliterated word taken from the word ‘top-sail’. My Danish ancestor Hans adopted Tapsell/ Tapihana as a surname when he arrived and married Hine-i-turama, of Te Arawa descent. Now I know that’s not a kid’s book, but that book is my whakapapa, through and through. I carry Hans’s Māori name, Ieni, as my own. That experience is what buying a book should be, but it isn’t always. I’ve been building a secret stash of fiction books for a little over a decade, for babies, for children, as well as for teenagers and adults.

I’ve been building a secret stash of fiction books for a little over a decade, for babies, for children, as well as for teenagers and adults. 

As a Māori language academic, one of my roles is to teach people about access to resources such as books – where to find them, how to get good deals. That’s time where I feel like I can make an impact for the reo at the whānau, home level, without having kids of my own. I can’t tell them how to raise children, because I don’t know. But I can make accessing books as easy as possible for them.

Now I’m not minimising the effort lots of parents probably go to to find great English books for their kids to read, but I’ve taught enough now to know that accessing kids books in te reo Māori is still hard for our whānau. Finding them is the first step, checking the correctness of the language is second, being able to afford them is the third and final cog in the wheel – no opportunity to even think whether the book looks interesting to a child. My friend Louise Whaanga says locating books is easier now than it used to be, and she’s right. But when you compare it to how simple it is to access English books, it’s also really easy to understand why lots of Māori speaking homes still have more English kids’ books around the house – they’re cheaper, easier to find and you don’t have to quality control them. You just pick the cool ones the bubbas like and take them home.

Some parts of the teaching gig aren’t easy. One of the most depressing parts is telling families there are literally hundreds of books out there in te reo Māori, but they aren’t allowed them – not to buy, not to borrow, not to read. We’re in desperate need of stuff to read, and it’s been written already, but they aren’t allowed to have it.

One of the most depressing parts is telling families there are literally hundreds of books out there in te reo Māori, but they aren’t allowed them 

Maori language literature is, as Dr Darryn Joseph points out, a service industry. Māori language books mostly arise from Ministry of Education tenders. For our kids to even see a book, schools need to buy those books from the Ministry’s closed-access, private bookstore, called Down the Back of the Chair. Once schools have bought the books, teachers need to put those books in front of the kids in the classroom, and use them to read.

How many of those Māori language books end up in schools, in front of students, is something I don’t know. I can make a few guesses, though. 2.5% of the total school population is enrolled in Māori-medium education settings (you can see all of these stats here). 97.5% of the total school population is enrolled in English-medium education settings. Of that percentage, 21.1% has a Māori language component. That means a grand total of 23.6% of the total school population has a Māori language education component in it. If we assume a correlation between having a Māori language component of any degree in a school, and providing Māori language books for students to read, that 23.6% are the only cohort that have a shot at seeing those books.

By this estimate, a whopping 76.4% (or 617,355 students) get nothing meaningful to read in te reo Māori from the school system. For that 76.4%, it’s up to the household to source, or buy, Māori language books for their kids to read. And those are people who can’t get books from places like Down the Back of the Chair.

I think I can probably understand why the Ministry does this, so I’m as empathetic as I am critical. It’s surely bound by law constraints which means it’s only funded to provide educational books to schools, not privately to homes. Probably not for profit too, so they surely can’t sell them in stores. I’m definitely not criticising authors who pick up those contracts, either. They deserve to be paid for their writing, and some books out there in the ether are better than no books at all. So, I’m not out to throw stones. But I also think it’s fair to be sad and about the fact that in 2018, we can’t give our children wholesome reading experiences – when those experience already exist. Those books are out there, being written, but not read. When it comes to revitalising te reo Māori, access to those books is crucial. Crucial, but impossible, for the most part.

When it comes to revitalising te reo Māori, access to those books is crucial. Crucial, but impossible, for the most part. 

I’ve pointed out that the books we write are mostly tied to schools. That means children. When I look at my bookshelf, I don’t own many Māori language books for young adults, or for adults. It’s not because I haven’t tried to find them, but because there isn’t much to read. I have two books written for young adults, both written by the late (and sorely missed) Dame Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira – Ngā Waituhi o Rēhua and Makorea. Ngā Waituhi o Rēhua is, thankfully, publicly available through Huia Publishers. Makorea is only available in second hand stores, from sneaky people who’ve taken them from schools and put them out into the world. I know there are copies of and Pōtiki out there, those works by Patricia Grace translated by Te Ohorere Kaa. They’re hard to find though. As far as I can tell, those really are the only books for teenagers available to the public. There really is nothing else publicly available for them to read.

The Huia Short Short Stories Collection is the only real avenue for adults to find fiction to read. Those books really have tried to change the landscape of Māori language readership. As amazing as they are, there are no Māori language novels for adults to read, so far as I can locate. We might make an exception for Moetū: Sleep Standing, which is historical fiction, and bilingual. All in all though, the Māori language book world looks finite right now, it has an end.

That leaves me with two concerns for my bookshelf: what will my kids read, once they’ve reached the highest reading level the Ministry contracts for? Secondly, if I have nothing to read, and my children don’t see me reading in Māori, why would they value reading in Māori at all? I think that’s why Darryn Joseph said:

‘[Success will be] when the readership and reader population is big enough in Māori that it can sustain some form of adult fiction being produced in te reo Māori. That would be fabulous.’

…if I have nothing to read, and my children don’t see me reading in Māori, why would they value reading in Māori at all? 

Adults need fiction too. This doesn’t detract from the autobiographies, historical narratives, short stories and poetry that we have. As Robyn Bargh CNZM, Huia Publisher’s co-founder, correctly points out, this also doesn’t detract from the ‘rich literary tradition’ of our ancestors – from mōteatea to whakairo, and everything in between. But we also need our Harry Potters, our Luminaries and our 1Q84s, all written in te reo Māori. I need it now, for me, and my kids later on. Until we sort our priorities between contract obligation and reality, I’m really not sure how easy that is going to be.

I need to point out too, that I’m not the first person to say talk about the need for adult fiction in Māori. As well as Darryn, Krissi Smith pointed this out in her 2012 Master’s thesis. All but one of the books (Moetū) mentioned above were published before that, so not much has changed.

So, how do we fix it? How do we create a full world of imagination, wonder and creative thought for our children, and our adult-children too? Those of us who work in revitalisation aren’t necessarily writers, we’re teachers, academics and parents. Yet, we’re still writing to fulfil that ‘service need’ Darryn talks about, not to create writing that, in his words, is ‘the best piece of literature it can be’. It’s a weird situation, really. There are no books to read. There are no books to read because there’s no one to write them. There’s no one to write them because we don’t know how to write them. We don’t know how to write them because there are no exemplars to follow. There are no exemplars because there are no books to read, to learn from.

This rant has been quite gloomy, but I do see some solutions.

Someone needs to fund a few books for adults to read. And I mean really fund them. This might mean funding great English authors to help and support those with great Māori language proficiency to write. That connectivity of support is one thing we could do to write some really great books for adults to read, and to be inspired by. We also need to buy those books and take steps to ensure those books are accessible to those who can’t buy them.

We need the Ministry of Education to really understand the impact of gatekeeping the Māori language books it funds so tightly. We need it to really critique that idea within its own walls, properly. Does it really need to keep all those books vaulted and gathering dust somewhere? Or, could it actually just release them to the public or, at the very least, not take ownership of copyright, so authors could try to publish publicly elsewhere? Where there’s a will there’s a way, and from my perspective as a pre-parent academic at least, there are lots of ways the Ministry could will if it wanted.

We could fund more translation of some contemporary international literary greats. I know people who are critical of translated work because we don’t need to just have the West re-represented in Māori, to make a great book. I totally accept that, of course! But Murakami is still one of my favourite authors right now – I love reading his English work, natively written in Japanese. I love it. So, if inspiration is at all a reason to sustain judgement, let’s not be too quick to write translation off. Having no books to read is the price we pay for that.

Let’s not be too quick to write translation off. Having no books to read is the price we pay for that. 

Lastly, and this is probably the most important. We need to inspire imagination in our Māori-speaking children. Teach them to be creative, to love literature, to write ideas and be crafty with language. This can be really hard for language purists who want to preserve the linguistic integrity of te reo Māori, and are quick to jump on error. Yet we do so at the expense of letting our kids run free with language, which is how great young people become great literaries. How can that be bad for the life of the language we love so much?

Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

Vini Olsen-Reeder

Ko Koopukairoa te maunga,

Ko Waitao te awa,

Ko Rongomainohorangi te whare tipuna,

Ko Tūwairua te wharekai.

Ko Ngā Pōtiki a Tamapahore te iwi,

Ko Te Tauhou te tangata,

Ko Paraire te whānau.

Ko Vincent Ieni Olsen-Reeder ahau.

He kaiako reo ahau ki Te Whare Wānanga o Wikitōria.

He ngoke kai whārangi, he kaituhi, he ngākau nui ki te whai kia noho para kore.