Review of PŪRĀKAU – Edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

Posted: July 5, 2019 in mythology, Review
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A lively, stimulating and engaging retelling of purakau – Maori myths – by contemporary Maori writers.

Ka mua, ka muri . . .

Ancient Maori creation myths, portrayals of larger-than-life heroes and tales of engrossing magical beings have endured through the ages. Some hail back to Hawaiki, some are firmly grounded in New Zealand and its landscape. Through countless generations, the stories have been reshaped and passed on. This new collection presents a wide range of traditional myths that have been retold by some of our best Maori wordsmiths. The writers have added their own creativity, perspectives and sometimes wonderfully unexpected twists, bringing new life and energy to these rich, spellbinding and significant taonga.

Take a fresh look at Papatuanuku, a wild ride with Maui, or have a creepy encounter with Ruruhi-Kerepo, for these and many more mythical figures await you.

Explore the past, from it shape the future . . .

The contributors are: Jacqueline Carter, David Geary, Patricia Grace, Briar Grace-Smith, Whiti Hereaka, Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Kelly Joseph, Hemi Kelly, Nic Low, Tina Makereti, Kelly Ana Morey, Paula Morris, Frazer Rangihuna, Renee, Robert Sullivan, Apirana Taylor, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Clayton Te Kohe, Hone Tuwhare, Briar Wood.


Edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

RHNZ Vintage

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Lee Murray

A beautifully presented volume in which Māori writers retell local lore and mythology, if the mission of Pūrākau is to give new relevance to familiar stories, then it is certainly a success. It is a fabulous collection, richly told in vibrant and varied voices. The table of contents reads as a who’s who of Māori writing, with stories and poems, both original and reprints, from familiar names like Patricia Grace, Tina Makareti, Robert Sullivan, Hone Tuwhare, and Apirana Taylor. There are, however, one or two stories from newer writers, or at least new-me writers, which I welcomed, although perhaps the editors’ might have taken this further, providing more space for emerging Māori writers less well known in mainstream literary circles. That said, the works offered by those involved are diverse and engaging, and nicely balanced, so perhaps the project’s focus was more about content than the mix of creators. With several black and white images to accompany the text, and, in some places, rather innovative formatting, the book is divided into seven parts, and works within each focus on a distinct theme: Ancestors, Sea to Land, Mythical Beings, for example. Convenient groupings, although I am not sure why the editors have elected to separate the stories in this way other than perhaps to demonstrate they have spread their nets widely. Some explanation for their decision might have been helpful. In any case, none of that matters because the stories and poems in this volume are simply stunning. More than one resonated for me personally on several levels. It was a pleasure to re-read Patricia Grace’s Moon Story again, for example, and D.avid Gear.y’s [author’s spelling] RPG-lit retelling of Rarohenga and Reformation is inspired, irreverent, and highly entertaining. I can see teachers hauling this one out as a way to engage young readers with a culturally significant text. I expect it’ll end up on a NCEA paper somewhere down the line.

The chapter focussing on Pounamu was particular favourite. It includes a beautiful Keri Hulme poem ‘I have a Stone’ and stunning short story by Nic Low, entitled Te Ara Poutini. I hadn’t come across Low’s work before, although the Australian-based Ngāi Tahu writer clearly has some form with his provocative short story collection Arms Race named Listener and Australian Review Book of the Year in 2015. His story in Pūrākau, is a speculative one, a delightful blending of primeval legend with modern-day narrative, the latter tracing the journey of Poutini with his beloved Waitaiki on a monorail bus-tour no less. In this story, the past is immediate, with the author cleverly using AI learning as a literary device which allows the story’s protagonist Āhua to reach into the past and resolve a conflict that has endured for twenty-three generations. Beautifully told in gorgeous prose which fantail-flits between the time zones. Low’s feisty main character is rounded and real, no mean feat in a tight wordcount. I loved the drama of this bite-sized speculative thriller.

One of the most striking stories in the collection is Īhe and Her by Frazer Rangiihuna, a retelling of the story of Rotorua’s Īhenga and the patupaiarehe blended with bad break-up mojo. It is unapologetically in-your-face. In language that is vivid and visceral, Rangihuna plucks the mythological out of the forest and dumps it in the present: in the pub, in the smoko room, ‘in the corrugated lean to at the back of the wharekai’. A bad decision made in an unguarded moment. Who doesn’t know the pain of that? Rangihuna’s story is a highlight. The biographical notes at the back of the book say Rangihuna is writing a novel. I can’t wait to read it.

Lee Murray is a double Bram Stoker Award-nominee and multi-award-winning writer and editor (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). The author of the Taine McKenna military horror series, and several novels for children, she is also the co-author of the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series (with Dan Rabarts), and the editor of ten anthologies of dark fiction. Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at She tweets @leemurraywriter

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