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POTIKI by Patricia Grace (Penguin: $5.95, paperback: 185 pp.)

December 14, 1986| Michael Owen Jones | Director of the Folklore and Mythology Center at UCLA, Jones is editing a collection of essays on the "Kalevala" (the Finnish national epic of the 19th Century, based on folk poetry) and co-editing a volume on corporate culture and organizational symbolism. and

"I became . . . a teller of stories, a listener to stories, a writer and a reader of stories, an enactor, a collector and a maker of stories," says Roimata at one point in this, the second novel by New Zealand writer Patricia Grace. Like the author, Roimata is a native Maori and a schoolteacher.

Some of Roimata's stories concerned childhood experiences, such as attending the white man's school where "we were given holy pictures and toffees to help us do God's will. . . . It was his will that we pray, that we have clean handkerchiefs, wear aprons, bring pennies for souls, eat our crusts, hold our partner's hand."

Roimata's stories also included tribal myths and legends, "known stories from before life and death and remembering, from before the time of the woman lonely in the moon."

The novel begins with a myth about the carving of a pole for the community's meeting house. From the Prologue to the final chapter, called "Potiki," Grace's narrative flows beautifully in the rhythms of oral poetry--marked at times by stylized dialogue and description that seem more real and compelling for that.

Most chapters bear the names of various family members, each of whom tells stories or remarks on stories. In the fifth chapter, called "Roimata," the woman describes some of her family's traditions, including one son's "school stories," a daughter's "book stories," her husband's "work stories" and Granny Tamihana's stories, "which were weavings of sorrow and joy, of land and tides, sickness, death, hunger and work." There were also the stories from newspapers, library books and television.

"And this train of stories defined our lives, curving out from points on the spiral in ever-widening circles from which neither beginnings nor endings could be defined," says Roimata.

There were ancient narratives too. "It was a new discovery to find that these stories were, after all, about our own lives, were not distant," says Roimata, "that there was no past or future, that all time is a now-time centred in the being."

The "centred being" reaches out toward the outer circles called "past" and "future." "So the 'now' is a giving and a receiving between the inner and outer reaches, but the enormous difficulty is to achieve refinement in reciprocity, because the wheel, the spiral, is balanced so exquisitely."

Herein lie some of the themes of Grace's narrative, such as the pervasiveness and significance of traditions in our lives and the need in the present to cherish the past and respect the future. The literary form itself brings to life the past and celebrates the Maori heritage, exploring contemporary issues of native/white relations through the style of myth and structure of storytelling.

"Potiki" focuses on the conflict between the development interests of some whites and the rights of natives to their ancestral land. The situation involving Roimata and fellow villagers is similar to that of another community earlier. The songs, language and customs of the Te Ope had been "rubbished or ignored," their homes taken from them. Relocated to the city, they "did not have anything that belonged to them any more except they had each other, scattered as they were, and they had their stories." Their traditions helped maintain the identity and integrity of the Te Ope, necessary in their struggle to regain their homes.

The representative of white development interests, Dolman (called "Dollarman" by the community) entices, cajoles and threatens Roimata's own family and other villagers to sell their land for a quick profit to be made from turning their coast, meeting house and ancestral cemetery into a water playground and amusement park. It is "a much-needed amenity," he repeats.

"You're looking back, looking back, all the time," says Dollarman when community members resist. "Wrong. We're looking to the future," they respond, remembering the Te Ope. "If we sold out to you, what would we be in future?"

The villagers would not relinquish their land, "no matter how often the gold man came with his anger and his different way of thinking in his head," says Roimata's adopted child Tokowaru-i-te-Marama. "A misshapen and cauled baby boy," who is destined not to survive youth (but to live in myth and legend), this child prophet can foresee the future. Toko is afraid "because of a special knowing. I did not call out in sleep as my brother did, and I did not call out in anger as my sister did, but I had a special knowing that gave me fear."

The pressure to sell their land will--does--disrupt community members' lives. Ultimately, strife brings destruction and death. But it also creates new beginnings, which are connected to the past.

With great sensitivity Grace portrays the vicissitudes faced by her people, weaving together Maori legends and beliefs with some of the white man's own myths. Her style captures the rhythms of the finest oral poetry. Her imagery is memorable and her observations are penetrating.

This novel--composed of stories in which "story" is a central metaphor--transcends place and time. "(O)ur child, our precious one, our potiki," Grace seems to be saying, is the stories we tell whether we be Maori or anyone else. Traditions communicate our perceptions and perpetuate our values, helping us cope in now-time and survive in future.

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