shining the spotlight on short story collections
Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa
Huia Publishers, 2010
“That last afternoon with Koro Joe was like a clue to the boy. There was a trail for him to follow: things he had seen, or heard, fractured memories he could link together to form an ongoing idea about the world.”
The world is a difficult, treacherous, shifting, but also wonderful place. That is the overriding feeling that comes from Tina Maketeri’s kaleidoscope of stories. No two voices are the same in this rich, accomplished collection: from the hopeless romantic-turned-conspiracy-theorist of blink, the spare sadness of a neglected boy trying to grow up better in what men do, and off again to the cheerful physicality of the selkie Pania, trapped in a bronze statue of herself in shapeshifter.
Some of the stories appear to be straight up retellings of Māori myths – like skin and bones, for example, a retelling of the creation of the first woman. The tone is light and teasing, the writing sensual and allusive. Other stories – what men do, the order of things, in the end – appear wholly set in the modern world, with all of its modern problems: poverty, social exclusion, paranoia, abuse, addiction, neglect and simple grief for those who’ve died.
There is a third set of stories: those set in the modern real world but with magical elements. These do not flinch from tough social problems – a lonely old woman ‘adopting’ a lost boy in kaitaki spares nothing in its depiction of two neglected people. But in the midst of this are the old woman’s dreams of her dead sister and the mountains where she was born. This is not enough to protect them from the inevitable police scrutiny – yet there is a sense that maybe this the scrap of love between old woman and boy might be enough to save them both: “He’ll take us with him now. Gave him some kaha, we did.”
topknot is one of the most extraordinary stories in the collection. On the surface it’s a brief, bloody tale that everyone’s heard already – the awkward girl, underage sex, a hidden pregnancy. But as the girl’s secret pregnancy progresses, she dreams of her baby, seeing him grow older and more independent: “she watched him chatting to the wildlife as if they were his own kin; and one night, in the inexplicable world of daylight dream, she watched him climb into the sky and argue with the sun, without being harmed by is brilliance or heat.” There is something disorientating and wonderful about the layering of harsh social detail and a magical dream world. Tragedy in the waking world is tempered, without being diminished or dismissed, by the girl’s dreams. As Pania points out in shapeshifter when musing about the different myth people tells of her: “There is a little bit of true in all those stories. People find it hard to hold in their heads: that it can be this way and that way.”
off-beat features a convincing child voice, a distinctly non-magical coming of age tale of nine-year old Luce and her tempestuous friend Jessie, who must both find their ways of dealing with the world. It has all the everyday detail of a child who wants to know “what is right and what is wrong, so I can go and do stuff with my friend Jessie and not worry about that.” It is precisely these big questions of what is wrong and right and who’s in charge that all Makereti’s characters must address, whichever world they inhabit. The story reaches a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, but is lifted to mean so much more by Luce’s occasional habit of seeing words as colours, which is where Makateri chooses to end.
“After a while of talking to Jessie, I noticed there was a light pink hue to my words, and this soon changed to brilliant yellow, strong and bright on my tongue, and I thought this must be a little like tasting the sun.”
Even a middle-class child with no mythological ancestors may access this magical world and draw wisdom from it. There is hope for everyone.
Read topknot here
About the reviewer:
Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson’s short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others. She is currently working on a radio play for the BBC. One day she may even finish it.