Alan Duff was born in 1950 as son of a Maori and a European father and grew up in a typical government housing area in Rotorua, New Zealand. After the separation of his parents he lived with different relatives, ran away from home the first time at the age of twelve.
A Children’s Court sent him to the custody of a Boy’s Home where he spent a year. At the age of 15 he was sentenced to a borstal training, a youth’s reform school where the discipline was harsh – his childhood memories have been captured in "Out of the Mist and Steam" which came out in 1999.
Since 1985 Duff has been a freelance writer. He is now a nationally syndicated weekly columnist for ten newspapers. In his extensive prose work, Duff depicts the current life of the original inhabitants of New Zealand whose social problems are, in his view, caused largely by a lack of educational facilities. In order to break the vicious circle of illiteracy, unemployment and violence, Duff created the ´Books in Homes´ aid programme in 1995, which annually gives books to 80,000 children, half of them being Maori.
Alan Duff became internationally famous in 1990 with his first novel, ´Once Were Warriors´ which was awarded the P.E.N. Best First Book Award and was successfully filmed by Lee Tamahori in 1994. In a harsh language of dialect and slang and a dynamic narrative style of the ´stream of consciousness´, Duff portrays the everyday life of a Maori family which is characterized by alcoholism, physical and psychological abuse, despair and the lethargy of unemployment. The diversity of voices in the novel is dominated by Beth who suffers from the attacks of her husband Jake, who demonstrates his explosive and sometimes violent masculinity not only in the pub but also at home. Beth’s despair culminates when both her children die. Nig is killed in a gang fight and Grace commits suicide after having been raped. Finally Beth finds strength in her return to the cultural traditions of her tribe and passes on the ancient lore, realising, that she grew up in a "bookless" society, that caused her own and other peoples desperacy. The sequel to the novel, "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" (1996) focuses on Jake and his gradual and painful self-recognition.
Duff represents the view that the willing assimilation of the culture grafted on, as it were, by the European colonial powers, is not the solution for the Maori to find a way out of the poverty. In his novels, he rather presents intellectual creativity and traditional spirituality as positive perspective. This is the case in the novel ´One Night out Stealing´ which came out in 1991. Jube and the Maori Sonny flee their dreariness of the hopeless everyday lives to go to Wellington one night. While Jube feels that his opportunity of the evening is the burglary of a wealthy home, Sonny discovers a world of music, art and security previously unknown to him. In his essay ´Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge´, published in 1993, Duff formulated the controversial thesis that many Maoris are too passive in an attitude of expectation towards the government and should themselves contribute more strongly to an improvement of their situation.
Today Alan Duff lives with his wife and three children in Havelock North.
Author: International Festival of Literature Berlin (ilb)