Breathing Out: A Review of Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā

Literature

14.02.2017

Breathing Out: A Review of Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā

Elizabeth Heritage reviews Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā and discovers a collection of short stories that are surprising, multi-faceted and relevant.


My favourite thing about short story collections is also my least favourite: just when you’re starting to get into something, it changes. Editors Robyn and Brian Bargh of Huia Publishers say in their introduction: ‘After twenty-five years of publishing, we asked the best of our storytellers to give us something that would surprise us.’ The result is an impressive anthology comprising a mix of new and previously published short stories by a range of writers, from big names to mid-career to newbies.

Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā starts with a bang: ‘A Small Light’ by Briar Grace-Smith, which turned out to be my favourite. It is the story of Toi, a man who learns to weave flax:

Since Toi was a man who had no real past, he understood that it was dangerous to think about the future. The ground he stood on was a thin biscuit of washing powder. If he craned his neck suddenly to look ahead, it would crumble … Scared of what was both behind and in front, Toi had learnt to make his present-day self become nearly invisible.

Grace-Smith is a filmmaker and playwright, and has a knack for creating compelling visual images. I found that when reading ‘A Small Light’ I could see the action of the story happening very clearly in my head. Often when this happens to me as a reader it’s because the prose style is purely functional: that is, the writer is simply conveying the plot without the words themselves being beautiful or interesting. But Grace-Smith’s writing, as well as being pictorially vivid, is also thoughtful and well crafted. ‘A Small Light’ has really stayed with me.

Grace-Smith’s writing, as well as being pictorially vivid, is also thoughtful and well crafted.

My next favourite story is the creepiest: ‘Killing Ginger’ by Alice Tawhai. Tawhai – a pen name – is an accomplished short story writer with three collections of her own also published by Huia. I am a sucker for unreliable narrators and in this story Tawhai has created a stunner: a cold-blooded killer who sees the world from a dangerously strange angle.

‘Killing Ginger’ is a horror story told in the form of diary entries that gradually reveal how the protagonist’s obsession and lack of self-knowledge (‘I’m very observant,’) have led them to commit murders. Tawhai’s eerie prose emphasises the character’s feelings of estrangement: ‘I felt as if I was on a conveyor belt as I walked up the drive towards Denise’s door; gliding through the night towards her house … She was a black hole that a person had fallen into; a representation.’ The twist at the end is clearly signposted but nonetheless horrible.

Another story I liked immediately was ‘Three Princesses’ by novelist and short-story writer Paula Morris. Fraser is on a business trip to present-day Estonia, and is stressing out about finding a suitable gift for his wife:

His wife was, overall, an intelligent and reasonable woman, but buying presents for her was fraught with peril. There was too much implicit symbolism, a symbolism Fraser never grasped until the present was handed over and the damage done.

Fraser notices a painting of three medieval princesses, and the story switches to them. It’s a fairy tale told with Morris’ trademark sharp humour: ‘Once upon a time there were three princesses, beautiful and fair-haired … They were never kicked in the face by a cow. It was much easier to be beautiful if you were rich … Beautiful princesses are never over forty.’ A Māori man comes to their court, and the tale unfolds with a twist of magic realism that made me rethink the whole story.

Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā contains 20 stories from 18 writers, and I was excited to see not one but two stories by Maualaivao Albert Wendt from his collection Ancestry (also published by Huia): ‘Fast’ and ‘Neighbours.’ I found ‘Fast’ strange at first because it’s told in the second person – a difficult literary feat to pull off – and begins mid-sentence: ‘… And it is blinding morning, laced with the unpleasant odour of winter mud, bursting through the gap under your bedroom curtains and flowing over your duvet and up over your chest and into your nostrils and eyes.’ The ‘you’ turns out to be Jonas, a Samoan post-grad student at the University of Auckland Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau studying New Zealand and Pacific literature. ‘Fast’ is the story of Jonas, his ‘āiga, and his friendship with fellow student Graeme, a retired architect. Although it took me a while to get into, twenty pages later I was crying. ‘Neighbours’ covers similar themes of (not) belonging but without quite so much of an emotional punch.

Reading an anthology of Māori and Pasifika writers gives me a feeling similar to the one I experience when I read a collection of just women writers or queer writers: a breathing out, a feeling of spaciousness; a relaxing of a muscle I hadn’t even realised was tense.

Overall, Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā is a rewarding volume to dip in and out of. I read it over a period of several weeks and was always happy to return to it; Often I had to put it down for a while to let a particular story ‘settle’ before moving on to the next one (which is always a good sign). There were a few stories I loved and only a couple I disliked, which I’m counting as a win.

Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā is beautifully produced. The cover works particularly well to evoke not only the multi-faceted nature of an anthology but also what seems to be the kaupapa of the book as a whole: the coming-together of Māori and Pasifika writers; a reference to Ngā Hau e Whā (our national marae) where all are welcome; an acknowledgement of the historical and societal influences on the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa and the Pacific.  

Reading an anthology of Māori and Pasifika writers gives me a feeling similar to the one I experience when I read a collection of just women writers or queer writers: a breathing out, a feeling of spaciousness; a relaxing of a muscle I hadn’t even realised was tense. Bravo to Robyn and Brian Bargh and to Huia Publishers for all their work nurturing the literature of Aotearoa and making a new space for stories from the four winds.


Stories on the Four Winds: Ngā Hau e Whā edited by Brian Bargh and Robyn Bargh is available from Huia

The authors inlcude: Patricia Grace, Albert Wendt, Alice Tawhai, Briar Grace-Smith, Paula Morris, Tina Makereti, James George, Renée, Jacqui McRae, Eru Hart, Helen Waaka, Toni Pivac, K-t Harrison, Anya Ngawhare, Ann French, Piripi Evans, Mark Sweet and Terence Rissetto. 

Feature image used under a Creative Commons license.

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