Witi Ihimaera is the first Maori writer to have his works published and made accessible to a larger public. He was born in Gisborne, New Zealand, in 1944. In 1972, a year after he had completed his English studies, he enjoyed the success of his first publication and then embarked on a diplomatic career.
In his first works he was primarily interested in describing “the emotional landscape of the Maori people.” In the late 70s he became aware of the fact that his books were read as the definitive portrayal of the world of the Maori. He then became convinced that his portrayals no longer did justice to the real social and political changes which were taking place. In 1977 he therefore decided to take a break from writing. In the 80s his creative period is characterized by the conflict-filled political and social reality of New Zealand society.
“The Whale Rider” (1987), his novel which is probably most appreciated by the Maori, stems from this time and tells the fairytale-like story of Kahutia Te Rangi, who, through her friendship with a whale, takes up contact with her ancestors, thus preventing the break-up of her tribe. The film ´The Whale Rider´ has been shown in 2003. In New Zealand, his adaptations of short stories by Katherine Mansfield from a Maori perspective received scathing reviews but were well received internationally (´Dear Miss Mansfield,´ 1989). With ´Nights in the Gardens of Spain´ (1995) his writing takes a new turn: The novel is the expression and admission of his homosexuality.
Ihimaera is considered one of the most important native New Zealand voices. He himself sees himself as a mediator between the Maori and the Pakeha, the New Zealanders who are descended from the Europeans. His English-language texts are characterized by a simple language, a linear narrative technique and draw on material which has been handed down orally. He also uses many Maori terms for which there are no English equivalents.
He has received the Wattie (now Montana) Book of the Year Award, New Zealand’s most important literature prize, more than once. He is the editor of numerous anthologies and non-fiction books and the author of several opera libretti and the theater piece ´Woman Far Walking´ (2000). Ihimaera lives in Auckland, where he has taught since 1990.
Author: International Festival of Literature Berlin (ilb)