Offer the nation its history

Dr. Monty Soutar’s new novel is unprecedented – a gripping story of life in pre-contact Aotearoa that draws on decades of research into closely guarded oral histories dating back hundreds of years, writes Bruce Munro .

He may look relaxed, but respected historian Dr. Monty Soutar, ONZM, took the gamble of his life, sacrificing his job and his home to write his first novel as a deliberate act of building the nation.

It’s a risky and ominous undertaking that suits Dr. Soutar’s tipuna, Kaitanga, the flawed hero of his dramatic story.

“I wrote this book… [as] the result of an epiphany I had abroad, in 2019,” says Dr. Soutar.

“Everyone has something to do in this life. I believe part of my mission is to write the Kawai series.”

Kāwai: For a time like this was described by the founder of the New Zealand Academy of Literature, Paula Morris, MNZM, as “a vivid exploration of war and peace in the old world”.

“The novel is a piercing, page-turning tale of the everyday and the epic in te ao Māori. In Soutar’s hands, the past seems close enough to touch,” the novelist Morris said of the book which has topped the sales charts in New York. Zealand since its release in mid-September.

Kawai tells the story of Kaitanga (Kai) born in the 1740s on the east coast of Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island. Ariki Tawae’s eldest son, Kai is dedicated at birth to avenge the murder and consumption of his grandfather and other warriors.

In developing the script, Dr. Soutar, who is Ngāti Porou, Ngati Awa, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki and Ngāti Kahungunu, was inspired by the oral traditions of his own family, of which he became the guardian, as well as other stories gifted pre-Europeans for him for years working for the Maori Land Court.

Although set in Te Ika-a-Māui and three centuries ago, the tale is relevant for all of Aotearoa in the 21st century, Dr Soutar said during a visit to the South.

“I know the history here [in Te Waipounamu, the South Island] is different. But in a sense, it’s the same thing; we all ate our enemies, we all lived in the same style… in terms of protecting resources, living off the sea, the environment, taking care of it.

“Utu was strong in everyone’s tribe and family. Life was arbitrary. You had to be careful with your words because they could cost you your life.

“It gives people a window into the past that they didn’t have before.”

Dr. Soutar was raised in a large family in predominantly Maori communities in the Eastern Cape and Bay of Plenty. He first experienced racism when the family spent a year in Palmerston North, before moving to Hato Paora Maori boarding school in Feilding.

In the mid-1980s, after two years teaching at a primary school in Ruatoria, Dr. Soutar began working for the Maori Land Tribunal, researching and creating Maori history resources for schools.

“I would go out into the field because I had to find the pā sites they were talking about.

“I had to go to the old people who knew. And we would go riding around Mount Hikurangi.

“So all the places I describe [in the book] “I was shown them and we rode through them or camped on them. They are real places even though I coded the names.”

Dr Soutar spent some time in the New Zealand Army, where he met his wife, but was later offered a job by Sir Mason Durie, as a lecturer at Massey University.

After a decade he left and spent two years writing Nga Tama Toaa history of the exploits of the 28th (Maori) Battalion, Company C during the Second World War.

The next decade was spent as director of the Gisborne Museum, chairman of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Porou and working for the Department of Culture and Heritage on the history of Māori involvement in the First World War.

It was during a stay in France after the publication of Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! : The Maoris in the First World War that Dr Soutar felt called to write a series of novels examining the role of colonization in the formation of Aotearoa in New Zealand.

“In fact, in this epiphany, I was told three things. Quit your job…sell your house…and write those books.

“He’s a brave man who follows that lead, but then convinces his wife to follow it as well. So all the credit goes to him.”

Kawai reads as if written by an experienced novelist, a fact that Dr. Soutar attributes to the determination to learn the craft.

“The first draft I gave my editor Bateman, she said I was writing like a historian. She basically had me start over and work on about 80,000 words, which was a little disappointing.

“But, I was committed. Come hell or high tide, I was gonna write this stuff and do it right.”

The shift to fiction was made to reach a wider audience, especially his children’s generation.

“I think of the whole generation of New Zealanders – Maori, Pākehā, any New Zealander – it’s their story too. They need to have access to it. And it needs to be made easy for them.”

The first novel takes readers to a point – seven years after British explorer James Cook’s first encounters with M1aori – where Kai is fighting for his life against utu-seeking relatives.

“They had no way to stop the generational balance…of the books.

“So I think if people have read the first book and then we bring in colonization, settlers and missionaries, they have a much better understanding of the Maori world and what it was up against.”

We cannot move forward as a nation until we know where we come from, concludes Dr. Soutar.

“To me, this novel is my takoha. Takoha is your gift to the nation to make it a better place.

“If I somehow make it through, I can go to my grave smiling, knowing that when I meet those old people again, they’ll say, ‘Bravo’.”

THE BOOK

Kawai: For a moment like thisby Monty Soutar
Published by Bateman Books, September 2022
RRP $39.99.