Tomson Highway (Cree, Canada) and Witi Ihimaera (Maori, New Zealand) are two of the most prominent voices in Indigenous literature. They were here last week as guest faculty in our two-week Indigenous Writing Program, and I met up with both of them to talk about the closeness of their cultures, and the writers and stories that are shaping the landscape in Indigenous arts.
AA: Tell me about the cultural and artistic landscapes in Canada and New Zealand — how do they relate, and how do they differ?
WI: Canadian authors are so well-known in New Zealand that we actually think of them as belonging to the same literary tradition. I don’t think that would be the same for New Zealand authors in Canada. As far as indigeneity is concerned, we are absolutely similar — in terms of our histories and in terms of what’s happened to us as Maori and First Nations peoples. There are similar texts about young native men trying to find a way in the world. My books are actually a reflection of similar conflicts — personal and political—that I have had to go through in New Zealand, just as (Tomson’s) characters go through in his Canadian novels and plays.
TH: The principle difference is the sheer size of Canada. I say that with great passion, because I come from one of the most isolated parts of the country, the Manitoba-Nunavut border. That affects the way you think, the way you feel, the way you write, and the way you imagine the vastness of a place. The similarities are much more notable. When the native people of Canada and the Maori people of New Zealand get together, it is fantastic. This is the story I wanted to tell you, Witi: I hosted a party at my house in Toronto for a Maori group that was passing through. The party went on until 10 o’clock the next morning, and it ended up at the airport.
WI: It’s really great to come to Banff in particular. At least 25 Maori have been here just this year. I come to find out what the situation report is for our two literatures. Also to party, because we like to party.
TH: We come from joyful cultures. We laugh a lot, our languages laugh a lot.
WI: Tomson was invited to come down to New Zealand to play the piano; there are these exchanges all the time.
TH: Distance be damned, we’re still together.