Rangatira, Paula Morris’ tribute to her ancestor Paratene Te Manu, has been on my to-read list since it came out in 2011. Good things come to those who wait.
The story takes place in two locations: 1886 Auckland, where Te Manu is staying in a hostel and having his portrait painted, while waiting to attend a Land Court hearing; and 1860s Europe, where Te Manu and a group of other Maori are visiting to meet dignitaries and to perform for locals as colonial novelties. As Te Manu sits for his portrait, he reminisces about his life, and about the ways his identity has been viewed, shaped and interpreted by non-Maori, particularly on that trip.
These themes – of colonial encounters and identities – are shared by many first nations, but Te Manu’s voice has a unique irony and beauty and Morris’ storytelling is made even more eloquent by her closeness to and reverence for her subject. I particularly enjoyed some of his generous impressions of the people he meets (“I do not understand why the Bohemian would want to be a soldier when he had no skill or passion for it, but he explains that there was no choice”) and his wisdom (“Drink is a waste of money, and it steals money, turning them into dreams”). In Te Manu, Morris has created a warm and intelligent narrator, and the story unfolds slowly and thoughtfully as it would on a marae.
Colonial encounters are too often marginalised into war or romance narratives, and Rangatira offers a smart and nuanced alternative to these stories. I loved it.