Witi Ihimaera, (1944 - ) New Zealand Writer

Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler, who writes under the name Witi Ihimaera, was born in Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand on 7th February 1944, and grew up in nearby Waituhi, which, in a fictionalized form, is the setting for many of his novels. On his mother’s side he is Maori, of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent, and he is closely connected to the iwi of Tühoe, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Kahungunu, and Ngai Tamanuhiri. His father, Tom, is Pakeha (a New Zealander of European ancestry). The family followed the Ringatu religion – a combination of Christianity and Maori spiritual beliefs.

Ihimaera studied at Te Karake District High School, the Mormon College at Tuhikaramea, Hamilton and Gisborne Boys High School where he passed his University Entrance exams, before beginning his tertiary education at Auckland University in 1963. He didn’t complete his degree at that time, however, leaving university in 1966 to become first a cadet reporter with The Gisborne Herald, and then a postman, moving to the Wellington national headquarters of the post office in 1969. According to Mark Williams in Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace: The Maori Renaissance, Witi “felt compelled to write after reading Bill Pearson's essay, 'The Maori in Literature' … in which Pearson noted that there were still no Maori novelists or playwrights” .

Whether that’s so or not, in 1970 Ihimaera’s stories began to be published in mainstream magazines like The Listener and the iconic New Zealand literary magazine Landfall and with the publication of a collection, Pounamu, Pounamu in 1972 Book of the Year Awards in and a novel, Tangi, in 1973, he certainly became the first Maori to be published in both genres. These two books took first and third price respectively in the Wattie Book of the Year Awards and also earned him the Freda Buckland Literary award in 1973. Before this, however, he had returned to study at Victoria University where he completed his degree in 1971.

Pounamu, Pounamu presented a Maori perspective and explored cross-cultural issues in a way that was unique at the time, and when Prime Minister Norman Kirk read it, he arranged to have Ihimaera recruited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His first job was as a writer/information officer, in which role he produced the booklet Maori and he continued in the Ministry until 1989, taking roles in Canberra, New York and Washington DC including 2 years as New Zealand Consul. He interrupted this service twice, however, to take up a Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 1975 and, in 1982, the writing fellowship at Victoria University.

It wasn’t until the Burns fellowship he became overtly political, specifically challenging the Pakeha perspective of the country's history and national identity and provide a Maori alternative, but since the stories in The New Net Goes Fishing (which focus largely on the conflict between the value systems of European and Maori New Zealanders in an urban setting) and the novel The Matriarch – an aggressive reconstruction of colonial history from the view of the colonized (which also won the Wattie award), this has often been to the forefront in his work. It is interesting, however, that it is absent in his best known work The Whale Rider which he says is his best accepted work amongst Maori – possibly because the Pakeha doesn’t really intrude at all in it.

From 1990 Ihimaera has taught at Auckland University, receiving a scholarship in letters in 1993 and taking up a Katherine Mansfield Scholarship in France in 1993.

In 1996 his writing took a new, and, quite unexpected, direction. Using a white protagonist, Nights in The Garden of Spain concentrated on a new aspect of Ihimaera’s experience: his sexuality . David, the lead character is, like him, a university lecturer, and he struggles to balance love for his family (like Ihimaera himself, David has a wife and two daughters ) and his homosexuality. This is a theme he extends in The Uncle’s Story in 2000, this time challenging Maori attitudes to masculinity and the homophobia inherent in the culture – he is also a founder member of Te Waka Awhina Tane, a support group for gay Maori. This courageous public coming out has not, however, affected his status as the foremost living Maori novelist.

Ihimaera works on a broad artistic canvas however – he has written three opera libretti, In 2000, the New Zealand Festival of the Arts commissioned his first play, Woman Far Walking, and in 2008 he devised the concept and narrative for The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production The Wedding.

Filming of Whale Rider in 2002 brought Ihimaera to world attention, as the film received 29 awards and a further 29 nominations worldwide. Witi himself is no slouch when it comes to awards, however. As well as those already mentioned, he has received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Victoria University in 2004 and in the same year received funding from Fulbright New Zealand to take up an annual short-term residency in World Literature at George Washington University, Washington DC, he’s won Montana book awards as author and editor, was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal and later, in 2004 made a Distinguished Companion in the New Zealand Order of Merit (equivalent to a knighthood in the old honours system) for services to literature.

As an aside, in the same year his nephew Gary Christie Lewis married Lady Davina Windsor, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (the queen’s cousins) becoming the first Maori to marry into the British Royal Family.


Tangi (1973)
Whanau (1974)
The Matriarch (1986)
The Whale Rider (1987)
Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1995)
The Dream Swimmer (1997)
The Uncle's Story (2000)
The Little Kowhai Tree – a children’s book (2002)
Whanau II: The Anniversary Collection (2004)
The Halcyon Summer in: Nine New Zealand Novellas, edited by Peter Simpson (2005)
The Rope of Man (2005)
Band of Angels (2005)
The Amazing Adventures of Razza the Rat – a children’s book (2006)

Short Story Collections
Pounamu, Pounamu (1972)
The New Net Goes Fishing ( 1978)
Dear Miss Mansfield: A Tribute to Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp. ( 1989)
Kingfisher Come Home: The Complete Maori Stories (1995)
Ask the Posts of the House (2007)

As editor:
With D.S. Long: Into the World of Light: An Anthology of Maori Writing (1982)
Te Ao Marama: Maori Writing Since the 1980s – a five volume series (1992)
Vision Aotearoa: Kaupapa New Zealand (1994)
Mataora, the Living Face: Contemporary Maori Art(1996)

Plays (p) & Opera Libretti (l):
Scenes from Waituhi : the Life of the Village -l- (1985): composer Ross Harris
Tanz der Schwaene -l- (1993): composer Ross Harris
Woman Far Walking –p- (2000)
Galileo -l- (2002): composer John Harris

Maori (1975) – A government publication.
With Sir Tosswill Woollaston and Allen Curnow: New Zealand Through the Arts: Past and Present (1982)
With photographs by Holger Leue: Land, Sea and Sky (1994).
Narrative of ballet The Wedding for The Royal New Zealand Ballet (2008)



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