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  • Tim Mathis

Kurangaituku: The case to make a surreal Maori myth the next book you read.

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka

I promise that this is an article about a book called Kuragnaituku by Whiti Hereaka.

You’ve almost definitely never heard of it, but it’s a retelling of a myth about a bird lady that you’ve also probably never heard of. I just finished reading it and I really want to tell you about it.

Before we get to that though, imagine for a moment that they tore down the Statue of Liberty and made it illegal to talk about the United States as a nation of immigrants.

Imagine if they disassembled Jerusalem and tried to stamp out the thousands of years of religious stories associated with the place.

Imagine if they tore down the Colosseum and took Caesar out of the history books.

Or - let’s be seasonally relevant - imagine if they made it illegal to talk about the myth of Santa Claus or the Christian stories of Christmas.

It’d change the world in significant ways, right? It’d erase core bits of meaning for a whole lot of people. It’d make it much less interesting to visit New York or Israel or Rome, and make December 25th tragic for those of us with a memory of what it used to be.

My white ass is not the one to speak for colonized people, but one of the undeniably bad things about colonialism is that it does that sort of thing. It steals that sort of meaning from the world because it erases the cultural stories that provide a sense of purpose and identity for huge numbers of people across hundreds or thousands of years.

Imagine the stories that existed about Tikal or Machu Picchu or Serpent Mound or Tahoma/Mt Rainier. Imagine how widespread and pervasive and life shaping they must have been in the cultures where they developed. Imagine the void left once they were gone, and how that’s affected the way that people who relied on those stories think about themselves. Imagine what it would be like to go to those places if you had a good understanding of what they used to mean.

Preserving those old stories isn’t just an academic interest. It’s tied to the baseline human need to experience life as meaningful. It’s tied to our collective human identity, our connection to history and our sense of the importance of places. All of that depends on keeping cultural stories alive.

The good news is that the world may actually be making some progress in that regard. While the world is a mess, and it’s easy to get down these days, everything is not actually terrible on the story front. The recent movement towards indigenous decolonization has produced some amazing bits of progress for human culture and meaning as colonized people have been re-asserting their identity by re-telling old or almost lost stories.

That’s a literary trend in a lot of places, but one of the most remarkable indigenous resurgences is happening in Aotearoa. It’s been significant enough that you might even be aware that Aotearoa is the Te Reo name for New Zealand, and that Te Reo is the name of the original language spoken on those beautiful little islands in the Pacific by the original settlers, the Maori.

The Maori people have been pulling off some next level shit for centuries. They figured out how to navigate the Pacific and found Aotearoa without the use of compasses or maps two hundred years before Europeans managed to bumble their way across the Atlantic. Their story continues to be fascinating and brilliant, and there’s been a complex, successful and multifaceted movement to re-establish Maori culture as a co-equal in Aotearoa across the last half-century. I’d encourage you to read up on the Maori cultural resurgence if you have any interest in decolonization because it’s one of the most hopeful examples in the modern world.

The question of how Maori have pulled this off is interesting, but really I came here to introduce you to one of the concrete products of this process. I want to point you towards the what of the modern Maori cultural resurgence as much as the how, because that’s what’s achieving the goal we talked about at the beginning - re-introducing indigenous stories that make meaning.

So, now that I’ve gotten us all lost in the weeds thinking about grand myths and scary images of banning Santa, I should get to my point. And that point is…

You need to figure out how to find and read Kurangaituku, by Whiti Hereaka

If you’re anywhere besides Australia or New Zealand, you’re probably going to have to work to find it (or, you know, just click the link above and get the ebook from Amazon), but seriously, it’s worth it. It’s a book that, from what I can tell, has received almost no attention or distribution outside of its own small corner of the Antipodes. Just wait though - it’s winning the highest awards there (which is how I heard about it originally) and it will eventually develop at least a cult following internationally.

Before I tell you what it is, I want you to know that Kurangaituku is seriously one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read. As I was reading, the comparisons that came to mind were allegories like Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist, allegorical fantasies like The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and myth rewrites like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s hard to come up with any comparison that isn’t in the range of a classic. In Aotearoa literature, Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera or The Bone People by Keri Hulme are the most obvious ancestors. Whale Rider is the most widely translated book by a New Zealand author and The Bone People won the Booker Prize in 1985 as the best English language novel written that year. I’m no literary critic, but in my opinion, Kuragnaituku is on par with those types of books.

Now that I’ve given you my raves, here’s what the book is objectively, from the the official website:

“Kurangaituku is the story of Hatupatu told from the perspective of the traditional ‘monster’, Kurangaituku, the bird woman. In the traditional story, told from the view of Hatupatu, he is out hunting and is captured by a creature that is part bird and part woman. The bird woman imprisons him in her cave in the mountains. Hatupatu eventually escapes and is pursued by Kurangaituku. He evades her when he leaps over hot springs, but Kurangaituku goes into them and dies.
In this version of the story, Kurangaituku takes us on the journey of her extraordinary life – from the birds who sang her into being, to the arrival of the Song Makers and the change they brought to her world, and her life with Hatupatu and her death. Through the eyes of Kurangaituku, we come to see how being with Hatupatu changed Kurangaituku, emotionally and in her thoughts and actions, and how devastating his betrayal of her was.”

That description, I have to say, doesn’t come anywhere near communicating the complexity of what this book does. Unfortunately I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to do so either. It’s hard to write a review that feels worthy of the book. I’ve read multiple professional reviewers who’ve said the same.

It’s real art, man.

Here goes though. Here’s my attempt at a Kurangaituku review.

The book is going to mean different things to different people, but here’s the problem if you’re reading this.

You probably don’t understand Maori myth or care about it.

Worse, a book about a bird lady isn’t easy to relate to. The storyline is simple, and not obviously compelling: a bird monster kidnaps a guy and keeps him in her cave. The guy runs away and tricks her into jumping into a boiling mud pit. She dies, and he escapes. Weird, right? It’s not easy to see why that’s relevant to your day to day life, living in the big city modern world as you do.

The thing is, the book is really good at solving that problem.

It’s an interestingly and non-traditionally structured novel, written beautifully in poetic prose whose effect is to make you feel like you’re experiencing a bit of magic. In reviewer Ariana Tikau’s words,

“The structure is much like Māori oratory – not linear, but existing in different times, cycles, and spaces all at once, then looping back on itself. This challenges us to see stories as more complex, to read in different ways, and from multiple viewpoints and directions.”

That is less confusing in practice than it sounds, but it’s hard to describe. It’s enough to know that it takes some amount of work to get your head into the flow in the beginning but once you’re immersed, you’ll feel like you’re living in a parallel universe. It’s mesmerizing.

Once you make it through the beginning, and you’re acclimated to both the style and the universe, Hereaka draws out the traditional monster story into a complex allegory about so many themes. It’s about sexuality, gender, culture, race, colonization, violence and a whole lot more.

The device is clever and effective. Imagine in Frankenstein when Mary Shelley veered into the monster’s perspective, if you’ve read that. It becomes a complex sort of trauma narrative.

It makes you think repeatedly and from multiple angles about what happens when cultures (and genders) collide and the consequences of that process for everyone involved.

Along with the Hatupatu/Kuragnaituku story, the book integrates and re-imagines multiple other traditional Maori myths spanning from creation to the afterlife in a way that’s funny, sexy, and compelling. It keeps the narrative moving and draws you into a wider Maori cosmos of monsters, gods and supernatural figures.

Hereaka grounds the stories in the places where they were said to have occurred - Taupo and Cape Reinga, notably. This connects the myth with reality and makes your feel like you’re immersed in the universe that Aotearoa was before Europeans arrived and supplanted the old stories. She connects meaning to real places by way of the stories about them.

Kurangaituku integrates Te Reo words and concepts in a way that causes you to feel like you’ve been immersed in the culture and picked up some of the themes and lingo. By the time you’ve finished the book, you feel like you’ve lived in that mythological world for a bit and it’s seeped into your consciousness.

Hereaka also integrates allegorical messages about the importance of the loss of the old stories, which is very meta and warmed my writer heart. That message subtly underscores the value of what’s she’s doing in the book, as an indigenous writer re-claiming her territory, letting indigenous mythology and ideas shape the modern world and give it meaning.

So, with all of that, Kurangaituku really solves the problem well, about why you should care about a Maori myth about a bird lady.

And it leaves you feeling like you want to read and support more of what it is - literary decolonization and a revival of indigenous stories and storytelling models. It makes you want to check out other books published by Huia Press, who are on the cutting edge of the Maori literary renaissance. It makes you want to read The Bone People and Whale Rider and Purakau, a book of re-imagined Maori mythology edited by Hereaka and Witi Ihimaera that people also love.

I probably haven’t done Kurangaituku much justice.

Also, it’s embarrassing to gush like this.

But it really is one of the most complex and beautiful bits of literature that I’ve ever come across, and it does so many important things in the context of a really important global indigenous cultural movement.

I won’t lie, the book's not always easy, but if you’re the kind of person who likes truth, beauty, meaning or justice, I really think you’ll love it.

You used to be able to order Kurangaituku through the University of Hawaii Press but I’m not sure that you can anymore. For the full experience order directly from Huia Press in Aotearoa/New Zealand, or for the straightforward option, download the ebook.

And I’ll just leave this link to my books here too, mostly for SEO purposes.

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