The Uncle’s Story (2000) – Witi IHIMAERA

Like the good person I am, on my recent jaunt over the ditch (to New Zealand, for those playing overseas), I sought out some good bookshops. Partially because I’m a book whore, but mainly because the book I took wasn’t nearly long enough. I managed to get some good advice about New Zealand literature from this rather wonderful second hand bookstore in Wellington. Check it out if you get a chance.

Michael chooses perhaps the most inopportune moment to come out to his Maori family – the week before his sister’s wedding. Doing so unleashes a chain of events in his own life that see both his family and partner reject him. But then, his aunt comes to him with a bundle of notes from his uncle – an uncle he never knew existed. An uncle that fought in Vietnam. An uncle carrying a secret not unlike the one Michael has just shared with his family.

This is, essentially, two novels that have collided to form one. The first is the modern coming out tale of a young Maori man in contemporary New Zealand, trying to find his way in a world dominated by white gays, and how he can reconcile is own sexuality in a Maori context, and how he can still be a Maori in a gay context. It’s a good question, and not one with an easy answer. Ihimaera, for the most part, stays away from any kind of moral preaching, though his ending implies he is optimistic about young gay Maoris. Michael’s best friend, a young women who sounds like a walking advertisement for militant feminism, occasionally comes off as ridiculous, but this is mostly undercut by her position as a Maori woman trying to fight her way in a white man’s world, and the realisation that maybe this is the only way she can be taken seriously.

It is Sam’s story, the uncle’s story, that Ihimaera seems more concerned with, and this shows in the novel’s construction. Perhaps simply because I, too, was more invested in this half, but it felt more real, perhaps, certainly I think it takes up more page space than the contemporary narrative strand. Sam falls in love with an American fighter pilot – Cliff Harper – and despite slight reluctance from Sam’s side, their relationship eventually becomes physical. It is a relationship that, in today’s terms, is nothing but homosexual, but in pre sexual revolution terms, the two men don’t seek to label it. Both have had women in the past, and perhaps because of the intensely emotional situation in which they find themselves, they have fallen in love, both emotionally and physically. Of course, the fact that Cliff is willing to follow Sam to New Zealand to meet the parents suggests this is more than just a short but intense burst of gay, but whether either

There is an inevitability to Sam’s fate – partially because it’s been foreshadowed, and partially because it seems that there is only one way out of the cycle of abuse perpetuated by his father. What was surprising, though, was the brutality and physicality of it all. Look away if you don’t want to know what happens. When Sam’s father, Arapeta, a highly respected Maori elder, and a man who seems to take great pleasure in breaking the spirit of his own children, discovers that his oldest son likes boys, let’s just say the phrase “he loses his shit” is not even vaguely appropriate. In a deeply disturbing display of masculine strength, he whips Sam until he lies bleeding on the ground, and then in perhaps the most confronting thing I’ve read in a while, urinates on his own son. It’s shocking, brutal and appalling, and really hammers home just how not ok Maori culture is with homosexuality.

Masculinity is at the heart of this novel – and at the heart of that is the the father/son relationship. Sam and Arapeta’s relationship is disturbingly dysfunctional, though in Sam’s defence, it is clear that Arapeta is a raving loony. His inability to interact with anyone outside his circle of army friends is worrying. The fact that he has broken his wife’s spirit, and is doing his best to break the spirit of his eldest son, highlights the twisted way he seems to view love. His youngest son, Michael’s father, at first seems to have similar problems dealing with his own son’s sexuality. Though, as he begin to understand the household in which he grew up, and the way in which Sam’s “abomination” was viewed, one can perhaps be a little more forgiving. Perhaps with some intense reeducation, he’ll get there. For Arapeta, though, there seems to be no hope. Too deeply wrapped up in ensuring the family line stays intact, and ensuring Maori tradition is followed to the letter, he is blinded to the fact that his oldest son is, fundamentally, a good person.

I did a course about Indigenous Australians at uni last year, and one of the questions that kept coming up was whether “traditional” Indigenous culture could survive in a contemporary, multicultural Australian setting. The corollary to this, of course, is whether this is an important question. Should we be trying to preserve Indigenous culture in some kind of vacuum, not allowing it to interact and change, just as all other cultures do over time? This was the question I kept coming back to again and again reading The Uncle’s Story. How can we, as liberal (very much with a small L) social democrats, dedicated to encouraging equality for all, simply accept that – in this case, Maori – culture dictates that it is ok to ostracise someone because they happen to be gay, all in the name of “traditional culture”?

The lessons contained in this novel are universal. Though they evoke a specific culture in a particular time and place, they are also a warning against tradition for the sake of tradition. The optimistic ending sees Maori culture taking a step towards the contemporary, and highlights the one universal constant – cultures and values are constantly changing, and one mustn’t be afraid of this. The Uncle’s Story is a story of past mistakes, and offers a way forward.

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One thought on “The Uncle’s Story (2000) – Witi IHIMAERA

  1. […] The Uncle’s Story, by Witi Ihimaera What happens when you are gay, and your culture completely rejects you because of it? That’s the question at the heart of Ihimaera’s novel, which takes place in two time periods: the Vietnam War, and present-day New Zealand. The two men at the heart of this novel, one in the 60s and one now, are both dealing with the same question, but in different contexts. It’s an interesting way of viewing the shift in gay rights over the last 50 or 60 years. […]

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