Saturday, 7 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Sky Dancer by Witi Ihimaera

I'm going to New Zealand for the first time this summer and I wanted to take the pulse of the place first by reading some Kiwi novels. This one is by the author who wrote The Whale Rider, on which the film of the same name is based. Sky Dancer follows a similar recipe, in the way it uses Maori mythology as a base from which to launch a contemporary adventure story. I'm not sure how much of the story uses real mythology, and how much is created by Ihimaera. 

Sky Dancer is all about an ancient battle between sea birds and land birds. A bird lover myself, some of my favourite passages describe the joyous bird calls in the forest:

"Below her the forest began to peal with the most extraordinary music. Snatches of descant. Bits and pieces of an indescribable tune. Fragments of other melodies drifting in on the playful morning wind... From every part of Manu Valley came birdsong, outpourings of liquid trills and runs swelling with unrivalled wildness and passion."    

The strong connection of the Maori people to their land, to the forest and to the creatures within is evident in the story. There's also plenty of Maori language scattered throughout - sometimes with translation, sometimes not - which I really enjoyed. Letting the unfamiliar sounds and syllables roll around my mind and off my tongue gave me some sort of insight into the Maori world.

"Welcome, waewae tapu! Welcome to the marae of nga kaka iwi." 

This is not A grade literature though. The characters are cartoonish and simple, the dialogue is clunky, the writing is loose with too many bad cliches, and the book is far too long. The battle scenes are spelled out blow by blow, and last for whole chapters. There were so many bits of weird slapstick comedy that I thought could have been written by a high school student:

Airborne and intent on the kill, Arnie didn't give a shit. "Use it or lose it, Kawanatanga," he said. "Nothing's fair in love and war. Time for you to go. Hasta la vista, baby." 
I didn't know what to make of a passage like this:
"Arnie glared down. Contemptuously, he turned his bum to Kawanatanga and delivered his message. A long white string of crap arced through the air, splattering Kawanatanga and the sacrificial victim, who still shuddered in her death throes." 

Ihimaera is far from a high school student. He is a former diplomat and now lectures in creative writing and literature at the University of Auckland. So I guess that his style of writing is intentional, and perhaps even grows from a Kiwi sense of humour.

I found it painful reading, but it got me thinking. Most of the books I read are written by white males, and I bring my own white male perspective to what I read. History has shown that white males have an unfortunate tendency to think their own way is superior to all others. Who says that the criteria I use to judge what is quality literature is valid? Perhaps Ihimaera's writing connects with the audience he is writing for. I suppose the books I love would be despised by that audience.

Having said all that, while I appreciate the exposure to Maori mythology and language, I couldn't get past my tastes and preconceptions so that I found this book barely readable.

In a word or two: he toharite moka (a bit average)

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