My earliest memories – the feelings I remember most strongly – are of social anxiety. During boyhood, the world was a strange and baffling place. I watched from the sidelines. I was part of it, but it wasn’t part of me. My home life reinforced this sense of being an outsider. I am of Swiss-Maori heritage, and privilege my Swiss ancestry here because as I grow older my identity has become an open question, everything shifting and dynamic. My parents were teachers and artists. My father, Pius, trained as a photographer in Switzerland and emigrated to New Zealand in 1952. He married my Ngati Porou mother, Arapera, one of New Zealand’s first bilingual Maori poets, in 1958. Both went on to careers in teaching.
Our homes were decorated with my father’s black-and-white photography of Maori life, enlarged to poster size and mounted on softboard, including nudes of my mother. In 2014, my sister and I edited a posthumous omnibus of our mother’s writing and father’s photography, and after immersing myself in their artistry for two months, the nudes have taken on a new significance. They are an extraordinary statement – beautiful, shadowy, dark – about their relationship and my mother’s politics. My mother was from a high-profile and educated whanau, steeped in the Maori Christianity of the Anglican Church, and so I read these portraits as a daring representation of love and sexuality. Like all good art and literature, the images interrupt the discourse of the time, which located Maori women in domesticity, bearing large numbers of children, surrounded by rural poverty. These themes – love, passion, art, the potential of Maori women to nurture and lead – are the central preoccupations of Arapera’s writing, creating a powerful interplay between the nudity and the words.
Our parents’ friends were of the same ilk: arty, bookish, intellectual, foreign and local. They were a kind of Bloomsbury Set, intensely interested in Maoritanga and disdainful of New Zealand’s conservatism during the 1950s and 1960s. A colleague of my father remembers the time they watched Max Ophüls’ La Ronde at Ardmore Teachers College. Students were offended by the nudity, a discussion that continued in the men’s showers. Pius exited the showers hastily, belongings in hand, shouting ‘Peasants!’
I was comfortable and cocooned in my parents’ world, our home in suburban Auckland providing a sanctuary from the outside. Going to school was a different story. The parents of friends were younger, and their mothers didn’t work, waiting instead for their children to come home for a glass of milk and a Shrewsberry biscuit.
I knew, too, that I was different to most boys. I had little interest in sport, preferring instead the lunchtime activities of the girls – hopscotch, elastics, knucklebones. My latent homosexuality felt like a grubby secret that set me apart. I was fearful of other boys and yet desperately wanted to be near them, to be part of their world.
At high school, I excelled at swimming, thankfully, and got a taste of the prestige afforded to athletes. Being admired for physical prowess was intoxicating. For a moment I was an insider, buoyed by the approval that I so desperately craved. I understood how it all worked, got a sense of how culture is defined and enforced through approval and disapproval, through inclusion and exclusion.
As teenage hormones raged, so too the internal isolation and unhappiness: the heteronormative narrative of 1970s New Zealand was completely devoid of any other perspective. I could not have named one gay role model (teacher, sportsman, movie star, writer). There were no gay parades, no programs on television, absolutely nothing that affirmed this confusing and compulsive thing inside me.
The first cultural text with which I felt any connection was the telemovie of Quentin Crisp’s life, The Naked Civil Servant, first shown in New Zealand during the 1980s. That was the first time I had ever seen anything resembling my childhood on television. Dress-ups, friendships with girls, make-up, a sexual preoccupation with other boys – it was all there. I remember watching the program with workmates, and one of them said: ‘They’re not all like that, you know.’ I was a born-again Christian at the time; the church was a safe place to avoid my sexuality. The Naked Civil Servant precipitated an awakening of spiritual proportions, and I was not alone. It became my raison d’être, and my first homosexual encounter (naked, desperate and primal) followed shortly after.
The other aspect of my identity that was equally confusing was my Maori heritage. What right did I have to own this when there were no obvious signposts in my childhood? Our mother kept us separate from her world filled with whanau, Maori Writers and Artists’ hui and anti-racism protests. My sister Marino and I lived a secluded life with our father. Our home was a private place and we learned which of our friends could be part of it. There could be no judgement of our idiosyncratic parents, because the awkwardness of adolescence made me feel humiliated by the disapproval of my peers.
My evolution into a Maori identity, and into a professional life focused on Maori issues, accompanied my coming out. Entering social work in 1984, I was very influenced by postcolonialism and the protest politics of the period. I realised that ethnicity is a personal and necessary political choice influenced by context. Taking ownership of my Ngati Porou heritage, and participating in Maori development for the next decade, resolved another layer of identity confusion that had encumbered me. Being Maori gave me a sense of higher purpose and certainty, and I am still very driven by this altruism. I want to contribute to the greater good of Maori and make a difference.
But there was no point throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How would I resolve the international influences of my family? Many aspects of Swiss culture – aspects that have become part of me as a result of my father’s intense parenting – seemed completely oppositional to those of Maori culture. It seemed to me that all Maori had absorbed the influences of western culture, even if they refused to acknowledge it. A cursory glance at the influence of Christianity on my extended whanau was proof enough of that.
I later completed a Bachelor of Arts in English and political studies at the University of Auckland. English was a particularly liberating discipline, one obsessed with issues I had pondered over for fifteen years – identity, culture, gender, race, sexuality and spirituality. English theory taught me that there are no absolutes in any of these domains, that change is the only constant. Having worked almost exclusively with Maori families and in Maori teams for the duration of my social work career, I now had space to explore these issues, to give form to my gestating philosophies about identity and to support my thinking with academic rigour.
Like me, most of the Maori families I encountered over the years had limited exposure to Maori culture and language. In fact, they were often intimidated by it. With very small numbers of Maori being fluent in Te Reo, could we then argue that Maori language is an essential element of our identity? If we answer yes, then we are limiting Maori identity and ethnicity to a tiny elite. The Maori renaissance was strongly predicated on postcolonialism, but its reclaiming of tradition led to cultural fundamentalism, aspects of which I found unattractive because of how it promoted such a unidimensional reading of identity. I couldn’t see myself in it.
It also favoured a hyper-masculinity with which I felt absolutely no affinity. A strict division of duties separated the genders: men performed the haka and presided over oratory. Contemporary role models offered up for Maori boys were inevitably sports stars or tattooed musicians – always butch, always heterosexual, never effeminate. Some of New Zealand’s most prolific dancers are gay Maori men. Why not invite them to speak to school assemblies about reaching for the stars? Having had our own identity eroded for so long, and having had to deal with the damage this caused, shouldn’t we therefore nurture diversity within? The reality over the decades has been quite contrary, with Maori political and church leaders routinely pontificating about the evils of homosexuality.
I was very attracted to American writers like Lyn Hejinian, whose observations of culture were predicated on inquiry. I was drawn to cultural comment posed as questions, when there were no answers. The Beatniks reminded me of my parents’ friends: grey-haired, free-thinking, subversive. I wrote an essay about how I represented a postmodern Maori identity. I’d come to the conclusion that the only surety about Maori culture is whakapapa; that is the only thing that every Maori shares. Apart from that we could make whatever we wanted out of our lives, otherwise there was no point participating in democracy. All of our experiences are valid; it is identity as assemblage. These are views I still hold.
Around this time, I discovered gay writers like Edmund White (his biography A Boy’s Own Story given to me by a friend on the cusp of my coming out), David Leavitt and Michael Cunningham. Their voices resonated with me, especially White, whose middle-class childhood was full of intellectual and quirky adults, in surroundings very reminiscent of my own. The writing reinforced, too, the importance of telling my own story. A couple of years ago I was invited, with other Maori writers, to speak to students at the all-boys Dilworth School in Auckland. In a carpe diem moment I decided to read from an autobiographical and highly confessional essay, which had been published a few years earlier. This I found extraordinarily difficult. It is one thing to expose oneself on the page, and quite another to read it to a hall full of teenage boys. Afterwards the headmaster thanked me for the reading. ‘Our boys need a range of role models,’ he said, offering me a moment of emotional closure.
Postcolonialism continues to be a central tenet of Maori discourse, even though it has almost passed its use-by date. What sounded radical in the 1980s – tino rangatiratanga, an us-and-them divide between Maori and Pakeha, the state as enemy of the oppressed – is less convincing as the New Zealand population diversifies and the Maori middle class grows. My main beef with postcolonialism is that it positions Maori as perennial victims, and implies that we have no agency. I’m also resistant to the policing of culture that tends to come with it – in and out rules I have battled most of my life. There’s an endless regulation of social and cultural change against a checklist of ‘authentic’ Maori criteria. The old radicals have become the new conservatives.
If we think instead in terms of cultural assemblage, then colonisation becomes one of many features that define us. This list should also include issues like globalisation, the Maori diaspora, the media and other factors. The degree of influence fluxes and will be weighted differently according to the focus of any given discussion. I see in this approach much more room for potential diversity and change. What happens, for example, when we say we are liberated and able, that we have answers? For me this is a much more exciting metanarrative, which is playing out in my life, and the lives of my contemporaries. As a result, our contribution to the greater good, to Te Ao Maori, becomes exponentially more powerful.
Reclaiming Te Reo and tikanga Maori have been important aspects of our evolution. But they are conservative exercises, resulting in a kind of cultural tyranny; this knowledge will only ever be available to a small elite of the elderly and the most motivated learners. It is also very self-reflective.
In reality, culture is being influenced and shaped by complex external forces. Half of Maori are under twenty-three, for instance, and are digital natives. They live in cyberspace, bombarded by brands, images and sound bites. This messaging is not neutral; it influences the way they think and behave. Popular culture has become as important as, and more omnipresent than, Maori tradition. Social media accelerates the rate of change and decentralises any locus of cultural control – everyone participates in the conversation and contributes to social change. This is a very outward-looking and international cultural space, and it celebrates and thrives on diversity.
Maori can continue to focus solely on their own interests, expressed in terms of land, language, culture, equity and wealth-creation, or embrace the opportunities offered up by the new world. Look left and right, aliens are here! Leadership is required as we march forward towards diversity and multiculturalism. Maori are centrally positioned to be the vanguard, and we cannot be afraid of what we might become.