An Introduction to Maori Literature in 7 Books

The Leys Institute Ponsonby Community Library | © Teacher Traveler/Flickr
The Leys Institute Ponsonby Community Library | © Teacher Traveler/Flickr
Some of the best pieces of Māori literature, fiction and non-fiction, are grounded on real-life reflections. Narratives often blend traditional values with issues pertaining to identity at large. These seven books, penned by pioneering Māori authors, are a great introduction for all readers wanting to get a deeper understanding of New Zealand society.

Pounamu, Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera

Pounamu, Pounamu was the first book of short stories written by a Māori author. Originally published in 1975, this collection of identity-driven tales quickly gained traction with Māori and European audiences alike. The book was a stepping stone for Witi Ihimaera’s highly acclaimed works of fiction, including his internationally renowned novel The Whale Rider.

Pounamu, Pounamu Courtesy of Raupo Publishing Ltd

Waiariki by Patricia Grace

Patricia Grace’s Waiariki (1975) was the very first story collection written by a Māori woman. Each short story explores cultural values, spirituality, family dynamics and human relationships – a true encapsulation of society at the time. All accounts are told in a sensitive, emotionally-driven manner, compelling the reader to reflect on each situation that is presented to them.

Waiariki Courtesy of Penguin Books New Zealand

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Keri Hulme’s mystery novel, The Bone People, won the 1985 Booker Prize. Her vivid entwining of Māori identity, spirituality and everyday relationships won audiences from the world over. Hulme’s book also deals with serious subject matters like child abuse, drug addiction and terminal illness. The story revolves around Kerewin Holmes, an artist of mixed Māori and Pākehā (European) descent who is in exile from her family. Her solitary life in a tower is disrupted by an uninvited guest, who changes her world forever.

The Bone People Courtesy of Penguin Books New Zealand

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Alan Duff’s first book, Once Were Warriors, reached international fame after the release of its highly acclaimed film adaptation. The bestselling novel, published in 1990, tells the story of the Heke family. Its plot portrays the raw realities of domestic violence, alcoholism, and the subjectivity of the Māori way of life. Beth Heke comes from a traditional family, but marries Jake ‘the Muss’ Heke against her parents’ wishes. Her struggle to keep her family life together, despite all squalor and violence, is at the crux of this heart-wrenching tale.

Once Were Warriors Courtesy of Vintage Books

Dedications by J. C. Sturm

J.C. Sturm was a poet, short story writer, and one the first Māori women to obtain a university degree in New Zealand. Her work primarily featured in anthologies and journals, and Dedication (1996) is one of the few books published under her name. All the poems featured in this collection are a window into the author’s reflections about children, grandchildren, family, friends, Māori identity, and her late husband (New Zealand poet James K Baxter).

Dedications Courtesy of Steele Roberts

King Potatau: An Account of the Life of Potatau te Wherowhero the First Maori King by Pei Te Hurinui

More of a historical novel than a biography itself, this book blends an important aspect of Māori history with the power of English language storytelling. The narrative focuses on the key events of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero’s life, from 1775 to 1860, including his ascension as the First Māori King, and famous battles with other tribes. Pei Te Hurinui makes full use of Māori voice and oral traditions in this account, but in a way that makes Te Wherowhero’s story accessible to all readers.

King Potatau Courtesy of Huia Publishers

Tikanga Maori: Living by Maori Values by Hirini Moko Mead

Hirini (Sydney) Moko Mead is renowned for writing about Māori culture, values, customs and history. This is probably one of his most famous works of non-fiction: if you’re wanting to understand more about the Māori way of doing things, both in the past and present days, this book will provide you with a thorough introduction. It discusses various topics like the creative arts, interactions between social groupings and iwi (tribes), and the ethical challenges to tradition posed by scientific and medical advancements.

Tikanga Maori: Living by Maori Values Courtesy of Huia Publishers