Traditional Polynesians did not need books. Their vessel of knowledge was the meeting house, adorned with carvings, symbols and woven patterns. These buildings housed the art of storytelling and speech making. It was a home for the preservation of truth and the art of words as spoken by the chosen ones who ‘had their ear held’.
Hearing the genealogies was something I was used to when I was growing up. As a boy, I would become impatient with these recitations because I was made to sit and listen to them for hour upon hour while other children were outside playing. It was Paa who would sit me beside him, holding my ear to aid my hearing, and who wouldn’t let go until all was done.
Like many cultures, there was no great chasm between the worldly and the heavenly. Inside this tribal building recitations of genealogy were chanted, precise chains and branches of names stretching back through time to the demi-Gods. These were the super-humans who once walked this earth and who feature in the myths and stories. The point of the genealogical recitation was to place the people before us on the unbroken path;
’Who’s he’s mountain?’ he garbled and puffed from his mouthside, speaking in English because there was a stranger present.
‘I don’t know,’ I said in my own language. ‘I know his country, but not his land.’
‘Who’s he’s ancestors?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Who’s he’s name? Who he is?’
‘I don’t know.’
A traditional Maori greeting is precise giving your mountain, river and ancestors. To lose one’s name and genealogy is therefore a fate worse than death. So what must a family of Maori make of a Japanese stranger in their midst, a dispossessed soul washed ashore with their sailor nephew and who, due to the ravages of war, has lost even the right to his name? The “little chap” from “Chapan” becomes “Chappy”. If you don’t have a name, we will give it to you. Names are powerful things not to be taken lightly;
When Chappy was taken as a prisoner to Somes Island, he had given the Japanese name that his grandmother had told him to use. This was the name he was known by in Tokyo as well.
‘Got to have my real name, Chappy Star. Got to have work and be able to look after my family. My family mustn’t be hurt.’
And he said again, ‘In a place where Japan is not loved.’
Chappy is the tale of the dispossessed. A man with three names and his sophisticated grandson who travels back from Switzerland to visit his mother’s homeland, to discover who he is by discovering who his grandfather was. These were the outcasts of an older world, those who through various processes of conquest (be they British, Japanese or American), had been pushed to the edges of a society keen to rob them of everything they have;
We went inside to purchase our tickets, asking for seats downstairs in the mid-section just as we often did in our little theatre back home. ‘Gallery only,’ the boxed ticket seller said.
I didn’t understand at first. There were patrons already making their way in through the downstairs entrance. But Moana-Rose knew. She’d heard of this. She was standing behind me speaking our language. We only ever spoke our language at home, not in public places, but now she was whispering into my neck that this must be one of those segregated theatres where Maori were barred from downstairs seating.
What value a culture fearful of the spoken word? This was an era of fear. The depression, the war, the aftermath. There were victims swept into corners, not just the dead but also the living – victims of that most violent of forces, the relentless push of civilisations. People branded as traitors and as spies, Japanese or German, or labelled as simply not worthy of consideration. People brushed aside and abandoned with only their capacity to work, to think and to remember. Europeans arrive like the wispy edge of smoke, devouring all like a swarm of insects – the land, the water and the very livelihood of those they replace;
When my Hawaiian family spoke of new roads, they were talking in general terms about roads to accommodate high-cost housing and the expansion of private beachfront properties along the coast. Homes for the wealthy. Planning was advancing. Road construction would see Ela’s people removed from the remainder of their land.
Today we read of violent forces sweeping across nations, eradicating settlements, forcing their religious practice onto other cultures and stealing great swathes of territory with a lack of due process. Yet what a glorious lack of circumspection we at times display.
In this Polynesian world the spiritual side is ever present. When Aki loses his toddling baby brother in a swampy bamboo grove, the reasons are obvious. The fairy people, attracted by the voices of the young ones, have come to claim his little brother back;
Footprints, footprints, footprints, I thought. How do we know your minds didn’t go walking, putting those footprints down in front of you as you made your way? Isn’t it true that the Patupaiarehe run naked, dance naked, their bodies incandescent in the dark forest light, their lustrous hair flowing like the night-time fish which weave green light in and out along the backs of darkened ripples?
The book is an expansive journey in search of words. Using a tape recorder to record his ageing relatives, Daniel delves back, skipping across cultures and into colonial English and the musical cadence of Maori. From the cosmopolitan ski fields of Europe, well versed in French, German and Danish, Daniel voyages back into the world of the lost, to those who speak the truth. Grace records beautifully the imperfections of Maori colonial English and shows the beauty of Maori as represented through English. The tape recordings become a living conversation between his Grandmother Oriwia and his Great Uncle Aki. This aged pair, once betrothed to one another, present versions of events that vary in focus and rhythm. Aki is the great voyager and Oriwia the home maker. Relationships are woven between Grandmother and Grandson, husband and wife, cousins, sisters and sons. The story roams from Europe to New Zealand, to Hawaii and on to Japan and then back again. It is foremost a tale of the spoken word, a story that seems real, a story that no doubt insisted that it had to be told. A tale of displacement and the value of worldly patience – the refusal to live one’s life on someone else’s terms and of the need to build our own peaceful garden.
It is a valuable lesson and one we must all heed; that in the end all that is left of our lives is the simple and elegant spoken word.
Music by Maisey Rika, “Tangaroa Whakamautai” (maiseyrika.com)