A land of shifting light
Review of Kārearea by Māmari Stephens
I had plenty of time to wonder what I’d got myself into, as I lay on my back and contemplated the ceiling of the wharenui. It was my first noho marae, an overnight stay that formed part of the te reo course I’d started earlier that year. I’d signed up for the course as part of my quest to understand what it means to belong in this land and, to be honest, I was well out of my comfort zone. Over the next 36 hours my apprehension dissolved in the hospitality of the tangata whenua and the liberal application of kaputī, but the question that drove me there still motivates me today. Behind it is another question—what, indeed, is this land? In Māmari Stephens’ telling, it’s a land of light and shadow, one she illuminates beautifully in her book Kārearea.
Stephens is a gifted storyteller, weaving together the personal and the political, the immanent and the transcendent in this collection of essays and reflections. Her use of narrative mirrors her concern for the stories we tell to and about each other; stories can create reality, “even when they are false, because they often hold pieces of truth that wound, like tiny unseen shards of broken glass.” A legal academic at Victoria University, she works surrounded by symbols of colonial power (the law school is based in the Old Government buildings in Wellington) while also grappling with the stories that the legal system and its chief protagonists tell about Māori, a “hyper-incarcerated people,” her people. These symbols, she reminds us, are powerful, even when—perhaps especially when—we’re not aware of them. Our symbols, stories and histories create a past and a present, one that “calcifies around us like an oddly inefficient shell: porous enough to let the hurt through, and unyielding enough to last through generations.”
The stories she hears and the stories she tells are “formed of this soil and of this air, and in this land of shifting light”—stories of attachment and agency, justice and right relationships, personhood and nationhood. They’re stories of marae, and of the lengthening shadows over them. Demographic change stalks much of New Zealand and already “some paepae, or speaker’s benches, are simply empty. In some places, too, the karanga is no longer heard.” Well-intentioned changes also burden these places of belonging—Building Act requirements and earthquake standards impose stringent obligations that, if unmet, threaten these structures and their “spiritual meaning” that makes them more than just buildings. They’re stories of resilience and “relational citizenship”, seeking new ways to be in a changing world, as when “Māori communities have sought Māori solutions to welfare” by assuming responsibility for state-funded entitlements. In the arid language of bureaucracy, the Ministry of Social Development considers the possibility of “partial fiscal decentralisation”; Stephens speaks of pursuing a perilous balance between “common good for all, and upholding rangatiratanga.”
Stephens has a long history with the justice system—years spent working as a Probation Officer before practising and then teaching law. So she’s acutely aware that law is not neutral, that it embodies a certain set of values and a certain way of seeing the world. In her view, “the legal system … had never been inevitable and was not immutable. It was, and remains, the institutional result of choices made, though not by Māori. Its disproportionate and calamitous impact on Māori has never been an accident, but is central to its design and operation.” But she doesn’t simply rage against the machine; instead, she brings the grace of empathy, where she can, shared feeling borne of a common experience of intergenerational trauma and deprivation that’s offered freely to those Māori offenders on whose behalf she writes sentencing reports. And when empathy isn’t available, she calls on “other things, my compassion and aroha, my instincts, and my morality.” She challenges us to do likewise: how, otherwise, will we turn around a system in which 65 percent of all youth in prison were Māori in 2017?
Finally, Stephens invites us to consider the question, “who are we?”, and in response she interleaves her own story, our story as people, and our story as a people. Stephens’ own story is one of light and shadow, of opportunity bequeathed by a resourceful mother who provided after her father left, and of a journey to overcome alienation from her culture and language (growing up in 1970s Christchurch, “my imaginary friends all had English accents and said ‘My hat!’ a lot”). It’s also a journey into faith, of submission to the “something” in the world around us, of entry into the church and its community of fellow sinners or, as she puts it, “the whanaungatanga of the f**ked-up.” Community and fellow-feeling likewise defines her view of who we are as people, as persons in relation to other persons: not autonomous individuals free to choose whatever we will, but interconnected creatures who depend on one another and who owe each other something for no other reason than that we are neighbours. And as neighours, we make up a people, a nation of differing yet somehow unified communities, factions, ethnicities, and stories. It’s because of this unity that Stephens can say, quoting a Waitangi Tribunal report, that the Crown is not only Pākehā, but also Māori, and that this statement has profound implications for our future.
No doubt every land has its own particular combination of light and shadow; reading Kārearea was an insight into the shifting light that makes this land what it is. I came away from it grateful for Stephens’ honesty, realism, and hope, and enriched in my own journey to know this place more fully and participate in it.
Kārearea by Māmari Stephens is available from Bridget Williams Books.