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Taking the performance to the page: Stories from the South Pacific

Heidi Van den Heuvel-Disler

Résumé

Dans une partie importante de son œuvre, l’auteur Maori Patricia Grace emploie des techniques narratives et des thèmes qui remontent à la tradition orale de la culture Maori avant l’arrivée des Européens. Par l’analyse d’un extrait de texte que l’on peut considérer comme caractéristique de ce genre de littérature, cet article montre que l’écrit sert l’événement de l’énonciation narrative. Il aborde la question de l’identité des acteurs de l’événement et de sa traduction dans le langage. A la lumière des théories de la description du conteur de Walter Benjamin, des structures narratives de Richard Bauman, de la sémiotique sociale de Michael Halliday et de la philosophie du rôle décolonisateur de l’intellectuel indigène de Frantz Fanon, il s’agit de montrer que dans le Pacifique Sud, des textes écrits contenant un certain nombre d’éléments du conte traditionnel peuvent être considérés comme des marqueurs de continuité culturelle.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Patricia Grace

Texte intégral

KAHAWAI

All right then. One morning I got up late and hurried to the kitchen. He was up before me and would have the jug boiling, the pan plugged in, the bread popped down, I thought.
Instead he was in the front room looking out.
Because the gulls had gathered out at sea, under cloud, and were chasing, calling, falling to the water. Up, chase, drop. Screaming. There’s fish, he said. It brought juices. Kahawai, beating green and silver through purple water, herding the herrings which exited the gulls, which excited me . . .
(...)
Lines, bait, knife, hooks, sinkers, jerseys, towel, apples, can of two-stroke, putt-putt motor, rowlocks, oars. Push the dinghy out and sidle out past the weed.
He winds the rope and pulls, tries again and then we’re away putt-putting out over the navy blue, under cloud, stopping for a while to remove the sinkers from the lines and to bait the hooks with the heads of soldier fish.
Then away again to where the gulls swarm above the swarming kahawai that herd the swarming herrings. One fish each will do.
Then we are in the middle of it, the darting, leaping little fish crack open the dark water, leap and splash, the gull’s eye singling out one, the eye of the kahawai on another. Gulls swooping, following, rising, diving, rising, swallowing, turning, following. And the kahawai zigging, zagging, leaping, shooting through the water, beating silver on the surface of it. Hundreds. But for us two will do. (244-5)

  • 1  Patricia Grace (1937- ), “Kahawai”, Electric City and Other Stories (1987) in Collected Stories, A (...)

1This fragment comes from “Kahawai,” a story by Patricia Grace1. Grace, who is of Maori ancestry, has published several novels, story collections, and some children’s books over the last thirty years.

2From its vocabulary it immediately becomes clear that “Kahawai” is not a transcription of a traditional story, and yet an experienced reader will almost certainly recognise that in form as well as in content it refers to the oral use of language. Consequently, the question arises to what extent this written text can be associated with oral performance techniques in the Maori tradition. In this paper I will argue that this type of text can be regarded as a storytelling event.

The Maori storyteller and Walter Benjamin

3For those who are not familiar with the oral culture of the Maori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa - New Zealand, it can be useful to turn to Walter Benjamin’s rendering of the storyteller or “der Erzähler”; to a large extent his description of the interaction between storyteller and audience within a shared cultural context also applies to the traditional Maori context. The most significant difference between Benjamin’s storyteller and the Maori tohunga lies in the fact that the latter used to be educated in all tribal knowledge that was publicly available, and – in addition to that - was trained in the upkeep of sacred and therefore restricted knowledge.

4Unlike the situation in most parts of the Western world, contemporary Maori people have maintained the art of storytelling, also referred to as the informal variant of oratory. Such public speeches or take may contain jokes, word play, myths, historical accounts, proverbs, protocols, practical knowledge, and arguments (Salmond 58-62). Stories, therefore, serve an educational, as well as an entertaining purpose; they can be strung together by free association, and interwoven with chants. This overlaps with “the nature of every real story,” as Benjamin calls it. “It contains, openly and covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or a maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel … Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom” (86).

5Maori storytelling is about what matters, not about what happens. It deals with affairs relevant to the Maori world and its strong social structures, with the passing on of experience to the next generation. In accordance with Benjamin, it is not concerned with information:

The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time. (...) For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained.  (89-91, my emphasis)

  • 2  Repetitions and constant time shifts are brought about by the necessity of referring to “what matt (...)

6The “accurate, factual account” is not what interests an audience, but the values behind the story (Patterson 156-7). Therefore, Maori storytelling – as life itself - is symbolised by the koru or spiral, for all that is told needs to be shown in its relation to the core body of communal interest, knowledge and spirituality.2 It relates the present to the past - the living to the dead – and the individual to the communal. In doing so, it relies on the two-way communication between storyteller and audience during the storytelling event.

The storytelling event

7Richard Bauman has written extensively on oral performance and the storytelling event. According to Bauman performance is:

[a] mode of communicative behavior and a type of communicative event. While the term may be employed in an aesthetically neutral sense to designate the actual conduct of communication (as opposed to the potential for communicative action), performance usually suggests an aesthetically marked and heightened mode of communication, framed in a special way and put on display for an audience. The analysis of performance – indeed, the very conduct of performance – highlights the social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of the communicative process. (1992, 41)

8From a meta-level he describes how performance needs to be identified first, before it can function as such:

Each speech community will make use of a structured set of distinctive communicative means from among its resources in culturally conventionalized and culture-specific ways to key the performance frame, such that all communication that takes place within that frame is to be understood as performance within that community.  (1978, 16-23)

9It is important to my argument that where performance is concerned, Bauman does not distinguish between the spoken and the written: when rooted in a traditional oral culture, and when “lettered in the traditional idiom,” a written text can be treated asthe continuation of oral performing art (1978, my emphasis).

Spoken and written language

  • 3 Apart from following Benjamin’s, Bauman’s, and Halliday’s ideas, I am indebted to Finnegan and Ong, (...)

10To bridge the gap between Bauman’s conceptual “lettered-in-the-traditional-idiom” and a concrete text, I turn to Michael Halliday3. He explains that “[s]peech and writing are two rather different ways of representing our experience.” Written language represents phenomena as products that can be observed, so it is more static. Spoken language represents phenomena as processes: the text happens, so it is more dynamic. What is written down is given the form of an object: most lexical words in written texts tend to be objects or nouns. Speech is linked to action: what is represented by talking is often phrased as doings or happenings (81-2). In his terminology a text with obvious spoken-language features refers to the spoken register, which in turn interlocks with a specific context. Halliday’s theory of Social Semiotics is centred on this connection:

The notion of register proposes a very intimate relationship of text to context: indeed, so intimate is that relationship ... that the one can only be interpreted by reference to the other. Meaning is realised in language (in the form of text), which is thus shaped or patterned in response to the context or situation in which it is used. To study [a text] is to concentrate on exploring how it is systematically patterned towards important social ends.... (vii)

11Let us now return to “Kahawai,” and see where these theories fit in with an actual text.

How orality appropriates and patterns a written text

KAHAWAI
All right then. One morning I got up late and hurried to the kitchen. He was up before me and would have the jug boiling, the pan plugged in, the bread popped down, I thought.

12The story starts off with providing a few keys. The title keys into the Maori cultural context: the sea, fishing, and of course the Maori language, of which the oral register has more prestige than the written one, for it is the vehicle of poetry, oratory, and the spiritual. The opening sentence, subsequently, keys into the communication frame of the performance: a dialogue is established. It can be understood from this phrase that an audience member, already familiar with the story, has commissioned for it to be told once again; finally the storytelling decides to give in. “One morning” keys into the storytelling frame. What is to come should be treated as a dialogue between storyteller and audience.

13He” in this context has by no means an alienating effect on the audience; this second character simply does not need any further introduction, for he lives in the same house as the storyteller, and is, therefore, a community member and known to the audience. His usual breakfast preparations “the jug boiling, the pan plugged in, the bread popped down” can be regarded as the first example of a list. I believe that oral language may include two types of lists: the first type is an exhaustive one, containing fixed information that must be remembered in a set order, like genealogies and travel directions; the second type consists of an open set of items as can be found in this story. My theory is that open sets are part of a technique to invite audience participation. This initial paragraph closes with “I thought,” which suggests that the storyteller is speaking from personal experience.

Instead he was in the front room looking out.
Because the gulls had gathered out at sea, under cloud, and were chasing, calling, falling to the water. Up, chase, drop. Screaming. There’s fish, he said. It brought juices. Kahawai, beating green and silver through purple water, herding the herrings which exited the gulls, which excited me . . .

14Instead” and Because” at sentence initial position both follow blank spaces in which there is room for questions - “What had he been doing?” and “Why did he look out; what was there to see?”. After both hypothetical questions – which by their nature will not be included in the text, for they belong to the audience’s realm - the storyteller takes his turn again and answers them. In retrospect the blank lines between the title and the opening sentence can have that same function, just as the gaps between lyrics leave space for the music to set the tone.

15Apart from the turn taking, the fragment shows an abundance of action, movement, and colour, characteristic of the spoken register. Therefore, it can be stated that here the visual and sound effects generously fill in for the paralinguistic features of actual spoken language. From this fragment it also becomes clear that full stops are not put to standard use; they indicate breathing space and follow a climax. Together with the alliteration and word play (“herding the herrings”), these features enhance the poetic qualities of this text. Moreover, the repetitions and anaphora stress chains of events and create a rhythm. Sometimes repetitions even link the actions of humans to those of birds and fish (“herding the herrings which exited the gulls, which excited me”).

16There’s fish, he said.” is an example of direct speech in an account by someone else, underlining the mimetic effect. Note that no quotation marks are used in the original text. The storyteller has various possibilities to indicate that this sentence is spoken by someone else: either by a variation in pitch, or through body language. The expression “It brought juices.” could be a literal translation from Maori idiom, perhaps indicating that the scene is mouth-watering to the beholder. Those members in the audience who share the same cultural context as the storyteller will immediately understand. Finally, this section ends with a contemplative pause – an obvious oral marker.

Lines, bait, knife, hooks, sinkers, jerseys, towel, apples, can of two-stroke, putt-putt motor, rowlocks, oars. Push the dinghy out and sidle out past the weed.

17This section shows another example of an open list, which does not only contain essentials. Again, this can be a storytelling technique to encourage the audience to participate. In addition, we are reminded of the fact that we should not start the motor until we have crossed the patch of seaweed; later on we are taught about the techniques of catching sea trout, and are implicitly told that the fishing tackle should not be prepared in haste: relevant educational elements based on experience are brought into play.

He winds the rope and pulls, tries again and then we’re away putt-putting out over the navy blue, under cloud, stopping for a while to remove the sinkers from the lines and to bait the hooks with the heads of soldier fish.
Then away again to where the gulls swarm above the swarming kahawai that herd the swarming herrings. One fish each will do.

18Here a significant change of pace and action takes place: the past tense of the first three paragraphs becomes present tense; then and now become one. In “putt-putting” one will recognise theonomatopoeia, whereas “the navy blue”is apun as well as a metaphor. This section ends with an important Maori code of behaviour: “One fish each will do.” It illustrates the Maori philosophy of dealing with nature: only take as much as is needed.

Then we are in the middle of it, the darting, leaping little fish crack open the dark water, leap and splash, the gull’s eye singling out one, the eye of the kahawai on another. Gulls swooping, following, rising, diving, rising, swallowing, turning, following. And the kahawai zigging, zagging, leaping, shooting through the water, beating silver on the surface of it.

19The section’s last paragraph opens with another “Then,” adding speed to the sequence of actions that have proceeded, and those coming up. The movements and the metaphors by means of which they are described, however, now become more violent, and the colours become less bright - “crack open the dark water.” “[S]wooping, following, rising, diving, rising, swallowing, turning, following” is another sequence of actions which conjures up strong intonation and body movements, just like “zigging, zagging, leaping, shooting, beating” which includes more aggressive action and the coining of new words.

Hundreds. But for us two will do.

20Hundreds.” This one word, marked by breathing space before and after, is almost a sigh in itself. “But” then follows, almost as a warning - one can imagine the index finger and the pitch of the voice rise - before the audience dares react to this wealth of fish in a greedy and un-Maori way. The section closes with repeating the Maori code of behaviour in slightly different wording. It almost sounds like a slogan now, meant to sink in and never to be forgotten.

21After having gone through the text in this way, I would now like to pose three questions, and provide possible answers.

Who are the actors in relation to this text?

22Apart from the author and the readers, essential to bring a text alive, this text creates the role of a storyteller who communicates with an audience in the process of passing on experience and re-affirming communal knowledge. To approach “Kahawai” in such a way, readers need to recognise the keys to the storytelling frame, and be acquainted with the cultural context to which it relates. This type of reader will go along with being “stage-managed” into the audience position - playing that double role. An outsider to the Maori cultural context is excluded from, or will only be able to partially participate in, this double role.

What is the function of texts like these? In other words, what can be regarded as Halliday’s “important social ends”?

23In The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre, 1961) Frantz Fanon expressed his views on how native intellectuals should proceed when leading the way to de-colonising their indigenous culture by means of literature. Initially, they were to aim at the rehabilitation of the indigenous pre-colonial culture through the revival of oral genres – stories, epics, and songs of the people, to bring to light once more the “dignity, glory, and solemnity” of pre-colonial times, necessary in the therapeutic process of dealing with the traumatic experience of colonisation (210). Once the indigenous culture was liberated from the shame and ridicule imposed on it by the coloniser, only then could imagination and creativity start to develop:

… the native writer (…) takes on the habit of addressing his own people.(...) The storyteller once more gives free rein to his imagination; he makes innovations and he creates a work of art.(...) The storyteller replies to the expectant people by successive approximations, and makes his way, apparently alone but in fact helped on by his public, toward the seeking out of new patterns. (240-1)

  • 4  In interviews both Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera have indicated having read Fanon.

24In the South Pacific region, indigenous writers did read Fanon, and they did find his theories not that much removed from their own circumstances, possibilities, and desires.4 It would be an exaggeration to claim that without Fanon, texts like these would not exist in this form, but it certainly helps understand the political impact of this type of literature, which, in fact, started to appear in the early 1970s, and coincided with what now is referred to as the Maori Renaissance.

25However, this literature deals with more than “just” the de-colonisation process of the Maori people. In the 1960s the consequences of land alienation in combination with extensive urbanisation led to social disruption. Communities fell apart, and the upkeep of communal knowledge was no longer possible by means of the oral storytelling event. An alternative medium was needed to counter further fragmentation – a medium that had as much Maoriness to it as possible.

What consequences does this have for the reception of texts like these?

26Texts like these invoke contrasting receptions, even with professional readers. We have looked at keys to the performance frame, but of course there are other types of keys as well. “Kahawai” is part of a book – written and printed in English, not in Maori - which conforms to the conventions of a written text, in so far that it offers a table of contents and page numbers; each story has a title set in bold and italics. This cluster of features gives rise to expectations that may seem unambiguous, but that prove to be culture-specific. To add to the opaqueness of the corpus, some of Grace’s texts can be interpreted as belonging to the modernist tradition, lacking all performance techniques; others are written on the cutting edge of both cultural repertoires. Taking all this into account, Western readers will most likely key into the frame of the short story (the blurb-text on the back of Collected Stories, quoting the NZ-listener, calls Grace a short-story writer) a modern fictional genre of Western origin. Having done this, they will perceive a sense of estrangement and mystification, and relate this to certain (post)modernist narrative techniques. It is ironic that where the strengthening of coherence and unity are intended, the opposite can be achieved, and that a broad readership associates exactly this alienation with the literary qualities of the text.

27This misreading of generic keys is not just a matter of inexperience; even perceptive literary critics seem troubled by what I would like to call “supposedly conflicting registers”.“[Events are] told in a mixture of stream-of-consciousness dialogue, (not ‘interior monologue’ but talking to herself as if to someone else) ...” (Pearson 181). Through his wording Pearson illustrates his puzzlement, when wanting to deal with a text that represents the storytelling event. I would like to add one more example by another critic, who sticks even more strictly to the conventional frame of reference. According to David Norton, Grace’s stories show a lack of coherent purpose: “the reader should have, as he reaches the last word of a story, a sense of the whole story he has read. A progressive sense of discovery is needed... the result is confusion.” Norton almost demands a linear story line, leaving no room for free association. “Less important, but still a worry, is the minimal punctuation. This book is likely to be used in schools, but such punctuation will not help to give young readers a sense of the clarity and meaningfulness of language” (330-2). It may be a comfort to know that Grace (as well as other writers in the South Pacific region) has continued to apply her oral storytelling techniques for almost thirty years now.

28In an interview, Patricia Grace has stated that she does associate with the figure of the oral storyteller. “I think that written stories are just an extension of our oral storytelling – not superior to, not inferior to it; just another aspect of it. We are people of [today] who express our culture in many ways, in every way available – just as our ancestors did. They used everything that was available” (Sarti 50, my emphasis). Against this background I claim that authors like Grace effectively merge storytelling-before-an-audience and writing into a new type of text: the written storytelling event.Even though this literature is presented in the written mode, it unambiguously refers to the oral register, for it contains and refers to all that is important to the Maori cultural context: the sea, fishing, co-operating, good humour, sharing, and mores in regards to natural resources. And of course the love for language, poetry, and storytelling. It will be most interesting to see how second and third generations of Maori authors deal with this issue of continuity, and whether they will stick to these newly developed writing techniques, or turn to the spoken word once again, in the way of drama and poetry.

Bibliographie

Bauman, Richard. “Performance.” Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-Centered Handbook. Ed. Richard Bauman.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

–––––., Verbal Art as Performance. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers, 1978.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works by Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Transl. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. London: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.

Biggs, Bruce. Let’s Learn Maori: A Guide to the Study of Maori Language. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth.  (Les Damnés de la Terre, 1961) Transl. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Finnegan, Ruth. Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Grace, Patricia. “Kahawai.” Electric City and Other Stories (1987) in Collected Stories. Auckland: Penguin, 2001.

Halliday, M.A.K. Spoken and Written Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Norton, David. “Patricia Grace. Book review of The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories.” Landfall, September 1981.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London/New York: Methuen, 1982.

Patterson, John. Exploring Maori Values. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1992.

Pearson, Bill. “Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace.” Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story. Ed. Cherry Hankin. Auckland: Heinemann, 1982.

Salmond, Anne. “Mana Makes the Man: A Look at Maori Oratory and Politics.” Political Language and Oratory in Traditional Society. Ed. Maurice Bloch. London: Academic Press, 1975.

Sarti, Antonella. “Patricia Grace. August 1994.” Spiritcarvers: Interviews with Eighteen Writers from New Zealand.Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Notes

1  Patricia Grace (1937- ), “Kahawai”, Electric City and Other Stories (1987) in Collected Stories, Auckland, Penguin, 2001.

2  Repetitions and constant time shifts are brought about by the necessity of referring to “what matters,” as by the associative character of an oral tradition.

3 Apart from following Benjamin’s, Bauman’s, and Halliday’s ideas, I am indebted to Finnegan and Ong, to Anne Salmond’s description of Maori oratory, and to Bruce Biggs’s introduction to the Maori language.

4  In interviews both Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera have indicated having read Fanon.

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Heidi van den Heuvel-Disler, "Taking the performance to the page: Stories from the South Pacific", Journal of theShort Story in English, 47, autumn 2006, 143-153.

Référence électronique

Heidi Van den Heuvel-Disler, « Taking the performance to the page: Stories from the South Pacific », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 47 | Autumn 2006, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2008, consulté le 23 octobre 2017. URL : http://jsse.revues.org/802

Auteur

Heidi Van den Heuvel-Disler

Heidi van den Heuvel-Disler (1957) teaches postcolonial literatures at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and is finalising a PhD project concerning the continuation of oral storytelling traditions in written texts. Her research involves a case study of the fictional writing of four South Pacific authors Albert Wendt, Sia Figiel, Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. Apart from having written articles on this topic, she co-edited the CDS Research Report (no.23) on the family in contemporary post-colonial fiction.

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