|- Published NZ Listener on November 5, 2011 | Issue 3730
Defending America (having married an American) amid the fervent post-9/11 anti-Americanism can’t have been easy in po-faced Wellington, but she completed the course and her first novel, Queen of Beauty, which won the Adam Prize that year and launched her new brilliant career. Yes, she misses the fat pay cheque. To fund her craft she goes where the creative-writing jobs take her – to Iowa, New Orleans (surviving Hurricane Katrina) and, last year, to Glasgow. An international flotsam-and-jetsam career. “It’s a life rather than a career, I guess. I have a writing life and I have to do what I can to support it. When the job I have now [at the University of Stirling] came up, it seemed like a good opportunity. Opportunities come up, and you take them.”
It’s not that different, she suggests, to Paratene te Manu, the narrator of Rangatira, when he got the chance to go to England. The Ngati Wai chieftain, whose portrait by Gottfried Lindauer graces the bookjacket, travelled there in 1863 with a party of northern rangatira organised by the impetuous, naive and narcissistic entrepreneur Henry Jenkins. It was a cultural mission to meet British royalty and aristocracy but disintegrated into poverty, mistrust and humiliation for all involved. Unsurprisingly, there’s still a big question mark over the trip and the intentions behind it.
The tale fascinated Morris, whose tribal affliliations are Ngati Wai, and became the inspiration for a short story she wrote in 2003 for an Iowa workshop taken by US literary luminary Marilynne Robinson. “There wasn’t much of a discussion, though I do remember Marilynne saying one scene was ‘under-imagined’. A cruel blow!”
The story was published in Landfall in 2004 and various anthologies. The thought of developing it into a historical novel hadn’t entered her head until Witi Ihimaera suggested it, and Penguin then-commissioning editor Geoff Walker hooked her in with a contract. The idea of the 19th century Maori voice speaking out was a story that hadn’t been told in fiction, they insisted.
Full story at The Listener.
And for my 4 November report on the book launch link here.