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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Patricia Grace (b. 1937, also known as Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa)


New Zealand writer of novels, short-stories, and children's books, a story teller with a distinct Maori voice. With Waiariki (1975) Patricia Grace became the first Maori woman to publish a collection of stories in English. Major themes in her work are the conflict between modern and traditional values, relationships in an extended family, and the implications of cultural colonization. Often Grace's stories are set in small communities and bring together Maori folklore and mythology and Christian myths.

"There is freedom to search the nothing, the weed pile, the old wood, the empty shell, the fish skull, searching for the speck, the beginning – or the end that is the beginning."  (from Potiki, 1986)

Patricia Grace was born Patricia Gunson in Wellington. Grace's Maori father was of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Aea descent. On her mother's side she was of Irish origin. In her childhood Grace spent holidays with her father's whanau (family) on their ancestral land in Plimmerton, learning their customs and spiritual heritage. However, they did not speak Maori in the whanau. Grace has always identified herself as a Maori, but she writes in English, added with Maori words, phrases, and rhythms, enlarging the boundaries of standard Pakeha language (defining a person of non-Maori descent, especially someone whose family originally came from Europe). Some critics have found her language unconvincing (partly due to the fact that she don't speak Maori); there was even an attempt to translate a passage from her short story into "proper English".

As a child, Grace was a keen reader. Being the only Maori girl, Grace felt quite isolated at primary school. Moreover, teachers had low expectations of her intellectual abilities. After attending Roman Catholic schools, she entered Wellington Teachers' Training College, and continued her studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. At school she had read some of Katherine Mansfield's (1888-1923) stories, but could not identify herself with the world of her fiction. The first great literary impact on her was Frank Sargeson's (1903-1982) short stories.

Initially Grace had no plans of pursuing a career in literature, although she enjoyed writing and joined in her mid-twenties a woman's writing group that was based in Auckland. In 1957 Grace moved with her husband Karehi Waiariki Grace to the North Island, where she taught English as a second language in remote schools. While raising her seven children, she began to contribute short stories to journals and magazines, including the bilingual quarterly Te Ao Hou, published by the Maori Affairs Department. In her early stories Grace drew mainly from her childhood memories and her own past. Waiariki, which collected Grace's early pieces, won the PEN/Hubert Church Award for Best First Book of Fiction. It remains one of the landmarks of Maori literature, in which book-form publications did not appear until the 1970s.

Mutuwhenua (1978), Grace's first a novel, dealt with the Maori-European relations through the experience of a young Maori woman, Ripeka, who marries an European schoolteacher, Graeme. However, the focus is not on the confrontation between races but on Ripeka's sense of displacement in an urban environment. Like it is the case with the Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, Grace has published works that feature youthful protagonists but which are not necessarily meant for young readers.

The Kuia and the Spider / Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere (1981), the winner of the Children's Picture Book of the Year award, began Grace's collaboration with the artist Robyn Kahukiwa, one of New Zealand's foremost women artists.  After working as a teacher for nearly twenty years, Grace became a full-time writer. In 1985 she obtained the Writing Fellowship at the University of Victoria in Wellington.

With The Dream Sleepers (1980), a collection of short stories, her work took a more political turn. This work expressed the growing rise of Maori conciousness. In his review of the book, David Norton criticized Grace for writing with "minimal punctuation. Particularly in some of the earlier stories there is so little that reading is almost as difficult as making out a troublesome handwriting". ('Patricia Grace' by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure, in A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon, R.C. Feddersen, James Kurtzleben, Maurice A. Lee and Susan Rochette-Crawley, 2001, p. 191) Chidi Okonkwo noted in Decolonization Agonistics in Postcolonial Fiction (1999) that many Western critics responded with hostility to decolonization writers' linguistic experiments. "Compelled by history to write in the colonizer's language, they seek to transform it from a hegemonic instrument into an agency of self-empowerment and identity reintegration." (Ibid., p. 88) Grace has said that she don't write postcolonial literature, "I am just writing what I know about and bringing creativity to bear on that." ('An Interview with Patricia Grace' by Paloma Fresno Calleja, in Atlantis 25.1., June 2003) That what she has in common with decolonization writers is to challenge the boundaries of language, evolved for the European experience, in order to convey her own special cultural experience and emotion. "It is your job, this. To show others [Pákehá] who we are," says Grandpa Hohepa to his granddaughter in the short story 'Parade' in Waiariki.

Potiki (1986), Grace's second novel, won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the 1994 Literaturpreis in Frankfurt, Germany. Written from various viewpoints, it told about a small community defending maoritanga against entrepreneurs. Tu (2004), its title referring to the Maori god of war, partly drew on the experiences of Grace's father who fought in the Maori Batallion during World War II.

Grace's style is lyrical but often sparse; there is a sense of timelessness in her work. The utterances of her narrators resemble the structures of whaikorero (communal speechmaking). Many of her stories engage with social injustice; she has dealt with feminist issues, or the historical aspects of the change in Maori culture, as in Cousins (1992). "I also feel very comfortable when I am writing about women," Grace has said in an interview, "especially when I am writing about strong Maori women characters. I come from a culture where women are strong." ('An Interview with Patricia Grace' by Paloma Fresno Calleja, in Atlantis 25.1., June 2003) Differing from her earlies collections of short stories, Electric City and Other Stories (1987) do not mix poetry and prose, and Maori words are used more limitedly. Waiariki, Mutuwhenua, and The Dream Sleepers included even glossaries.

In addition to novels, short stories, and film scripts, Grace has published picture books and Maori language readers for children. Maraea and the Albatross (2008), a children's book, was illustrated by her brother, Brian Gunson. A film adaptation of her novel Cousins, directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, her daughter-in-law, premiered in March 2001.

Patricia Grace's numerous awards include the Queen's Service Order in 1988, the 2001 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for Fiction, the 2006 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement in fiction, the Distinguished Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2008. In 1989 she was made an Honorary Doctor of Literature by Victoria University of Wellington. She also has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. Patricia Grace lives in Plimmerton, a small coastal town community, the ancestral land of her extended family.

For further reading: 'Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace' by B. Pearson, in Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story, ed. C. Hankin (1982); Turning the Eye: Patricia Grace and the Short Story by Judith Dell Panny (1997); Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction by Otto Heim (1998); 'The Wider Family: Patricia Grace interviewed' by Paola Della Valle, in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 42, No. 1, 131-141 (2007); 'My Mother was the Earth, My Father Was the Sky': Myth and Memory in Maori Novels in English by Nadia Majid (2010); From Silence to Voice: The Rise of Maori Literature by Paola Della Valle (2010); The Lonely and the Alone: the Poetics of Isolation in New Zealand Fiction by Doreen D'Cruz and John C. Ross (2011); The Novel in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the South Pacific since 1950, edited by Coral Ann Howells, Paul Sharrad, and Gerry Turcotte (2017); 'Patricia Grace,' in The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors by Deborah Shepard; photographs by John McDermott (2018); 'Patricia Grace,' in Te Kai a te Rangatira: Leadership from the Māori World, editors Rawiri J. Tapiata, Renee Smith & Marcus Akuhata-Brown (2020)

Selected works:

  • Waiariki and Other Stories, 1975
  • Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps, 1978
  • The Dream Sleepers, 1980
  • The Kuia and the Spider, 1981 (illustrated by Robyn Kahukiwa) - Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere (translated by Syd Melbourne with Keri Kaa, 1981)
  • Collected Stories, 1984
  • Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth, 1984 (with Robyn Kahukiwa)
  • Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street, 1984 (with Robyn Kahukiwa) - Te Tuna Watakirihi me nga tamariki o te tiriti o toa (translated by Hirini Melbourne, 1985) / Tuna o le kapisivai ma tamaiti o Champion Street (translated by Albert Wendt, 1988)
  • Potiki, 1986 - Potiki - pieni lintu (translated into Finnish by Leena Tamminen, 1990)
  • Electric City and Other Stories, 1987
  • Selected Stories, 1991
  • Cousins, 1992
  • The Geranium, 1993
  • The Trolley, 1993
  • The Sky People, 1994
  • Areta and the Kahawai, 1994 (illustrations by Kerry Gemmill) - Ko Areta me nga Kahawai (ko te huri ki te reo Maori na Akuhata Tangaere, 1994)
  • Collected Stories, 1994
  • Baby No-Eyes, 1998
  • Dogside Story, 2001
  • Earth, Sea, Sky: Images and Maori Proverbs from the Natural World of Aotearoa New Zealand, 2003 (with Waiariki Grace and Greg Potton)
  • Tu, 2004
  • Small Holes in the Silence: Short Stories, 2006
  • Maraea and the Albatross, 2008 (illustrated by Brian Gunson) - Ko Maraea Me Nga Toroa (translated by Waiariki Grace, 2008)
  • Ned & Katina: A True Love Story, 2009
  • Haka, 2015 (illustrated by Andrew Burdan)
  • Chappy, 2015

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