The New Net Goes Fishing by Witi Ihimaera
Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi.
The old net is cast aside, the new net goes fishing.
In the decades after World War II, Māori came to the city in huge numbers. They found themselves between two worlds, at once estranged from the places they left behind, but not quite able to fit into the new ones. The bond with the land, once established, is said to be warm with the fires of occupation (ahi kā, “warm fires”). But as those with rights to the land leave, the bonds diminish and the fires go cold (ahi mātao, “cold fires”). The result is an alienation from one’s land, ancestry, and finally one’s self. In The New Net Goes Fishing, Witi Ihimaera captures the struggles of those people in desperate situations that are caught between two worlds, struggling with the question of where they fit in.
The first and last stories concern a family that has made the move to Wellington - the “emerald city”. In the last story, the same father who made the move as a boy is returning home in his old age. His grandson tries to understand why: “I couldn’t understand all he told me except when he said that just as Mum’s parents had come by ship from England in search of a new life, so had his parents come from Waituhi for the same reason. It didn’t really matter, so he said, that the distances were different because their dreams and hopes were just the same.” (193). Despite the grandfather’s cynicism - he laments his son as a product of the Pākehā world - he is hopeful for his grandson’s reconciliation with his Māori roots. “It is not too late, e pā.”
When the connection with land and whakapapa is fully severed, the result is numbness and anomie. In Cousins, the narrator is pressured into going to a funeral for a Kingi. He doesn’t know Kingi and struggles to join in with the mourners. His alienation from them is reflected in the oppressive description of the city: it is some kind of vulnerable, twisted creature, with “mutated sounds” gathering in the “intestinal coils” of its alleyways. Its skyscrapers are “shimmering shapes of glass towers and tall office buildings being melted together by the sharp soldering point of the sun.” (135)
Only part-way through the funeral does the narrator realise that Kingi is his cousin and that they have crossed paths before. Ironically, Cousins begins with the narrator hastening to attend a history lecture. He is careful to note the history written down in books, yet neglects his own history, the history still very much alive in oratory, memory, and tikanga. Though this may be a peculiarly Māori way to understand the past and how we belong to it, its lessons are accessible to anyone, if only they are willing to rekindle the fires of occupation and keep the bonds of family alive.
After taking up as a pall-bearer, the narrator withdraws to the church, a tapu place where religion and ritual bring consolation, “the fluted pillars reaching up and interlocking like fingers forming a protecting circle around us.” (145). There he admits his failures to Kingi’s father, his one lasting regret being the way he and Kingi had “each succumbed to the ultimate heresy” and “willingly embraced the pākehā world.” (146). If they had tried to make it in the city together, Māori alongside Māori, perhaps things would have turned out differently.
Api and George also feel this loss in Clenched Fist, where it erupts as anger. George has succeeded in making something of himself in the Pākehā world. He is optimistic that other Māori can also make it, despite the racism and disadvantages that have barred the way for many of them. Api sees it differently though. He loathes the system and looks down on the Pākehā who benefit from it. To him, it’s a simple matter of Māori vs. Pākehā, winners and losers - and he worries that George is throwing in his lot with the wrong side. After a stormy discussion, George walks home alone and sees a (Māori) woman being racially abused in the street. He’s beginning to understand why Api has been radicalised.
Their story continues in Tent on the Home Ground. George is drinking with some (Pākehā) friends when Api approaches him. He is berated for not inviting him, “Aren’t I good enough for your mates?” George fails to keep an awkward peace between everyone and the conversation descends into an argument about racism and “Māori rights.” “Māori rights?” scoffs Api. “Man, we’re protesting for human rights. And we want the white system to acknowledge our rights.” One of George’s mates won’t back down. He presses the point and Api finally leaves in a huff. Though Api has been rude and confrontational, a line is crossed when George’s mate refers to Api as a “black bastard”. True feelings revealed, George takes his leave for parliament lawn, where Api has camped out to protest land alienation. Everyone suddenly looks at George as he walks in the tent. “Api,” he grins, “aren’t I good enough for your mates?” He has taken his side.
But political agitation cannot by itself undo the damage of ahi mātao. When the fires have gone cold, it is necessary to rekindle the bond and revive the personal relation to land and whakapapa. This is the task Nanny Tama has taken upon himself in Gathering of the Whakapapa. Old and dying, Nanny Tama spends the last gasps of his life committing the entire whakapapa - long ago lost in a fire - to writing. For over a year he has been dictating (from memory) the long lines of descent that stretch back beyond first settlement. His recollection is failing him though, and he must go to Ruatoki to meet with a distant relative who can fill in the final branches.
His loved ones are concerned he might die on his journey, but stubborn Nanny Tama sees through anyway. The whakapapa is essential to identity and belonging. It is a way for the village to understand who they are in terms of each other and it is also - for Nanny Tama - a guarantee that the permanence of death does not render life insubstantial, for it weaves him “into a pattern of life that began at world’s creation and will be here till world’s end.” This is why he is so resolved to complete it. “I am the people who came before me and I am the people who will come after me. Although I will die, the pattern will not be broken. There is no such thing as time passing because I have always been here and will always be here.” (33).
As the two koros settle down to trade whakapapa, the young ones listen to the “soft syllables of Māori speech,” and feel also that timeless sense of belonging that whakapapa offers. They feel as though they are not alone in the room, as though “there were other people in the room, people from the past, looking over the shoulder of the two old men as if ensuring that the work was correct.” (35). Darkness closes in as the whakapapa is filled in. Nanny Tama returns home, where he is welcomed onto the marae by villagers singing songs of joy. The koro finally lays down to rest. Having rekindled the fires of occupation and given the village a renewed sense of belonging, he passes over to Hawaiki, just as the sun bursts across the hill and fills the marae with light.
The New Net Goes Fishing has a powerful sense of place, not just in the descriptions of home and countryside, but in the bits of Wellington city in which Māori have made their new home. You can find real streets and landmarks in these pages. It’s a testament to Ihimaera’s writing that the Wellington in this book - written in 1977 - feels the same as the Wellington of today. In this scene from Big Brother, Little Sister, two siblings walk through Newtown:
Cars had double-parked all along the main shopping centre impeding the stream of traffic. A trolley bus had snapped its poles, and the showering blue sparks made it appear like a giant red beetle writhing in pain. Along the crowded pavement echoed the voices of people talking in strange languages. The shops spilled their crates of fruit, bolts of cloth and other wares almost to the street. Two small children sold evening newspapers. A Salvation Army band exhorted the passers-by to come to God. A man in a fish shop swung his cleaver and cut off the gaping head of a large grey fish. Crayfish seethed in a tray near him. (12).
Your home never stays the same, but even when it changes, there is a continuity to it which you recognise. You draw strength from it when you love and belong to it. I recognise the Newtown Ihimaera is describing here. The trolley buses may be gone, but anyone who knows them will picture them exactly as Ihimaera is describing them. There may no longer be street preachers - except maybe for the Hare Krishnas passing out their books - but their legacy is felt in the innumerable op-shops, charities, and churches on Riddiford and Owen Street. Much of the other hustle and bustle is still the same. There are still butchers and grocers, the whispers and susurrations of foreign tongues, the children hanging around.
Ihimaera’s gift for story-telling is clear. His beautiful renditions of place - of Waituhi and Wellington - lure you into the place and mindset of those who have fallen between the gaps of two worlds. He does not take himself too seriously or too lightly though, for life always continues. As the old net is put aside, the new net goes fishing. Māori may find themselves banished from their old lives and strangers to their own history, but establish new ways to connect back to them, or entirely new ways of belonging altogether.
Merely to be of a certain lineage is not necessarily to belong to it. The fires of occupation - ahi kā - are always at risk of going cold if they are not rekindled. This takes effort, energy, occupation - whakakāinga, in short. And despite our losses, there is always growth. There is always joy despite sorrow. And most importantly, in our most lightless despair, there are always glimmers of hope, the promise that we might finally belong somewhere.