River to River

by Janina Matthewson

Red Lines displayed on a phone between a mug and a laptop on the desk of writer Janina Matthewson

Ko Aoraki te maunga.
Ko Ōtākaro te
Ko Janina

In Māori culture, your connection to the land you walk on helps shape your very identity. You are who you are because of who came before you; the earth and waters that supported them, now support you. It’s this tradition that is behind your mihimihi (or simply mihi). When you perform a mihi, you introduce yourself taking a route through the history that created you. You identify your mountain, your river, your iwi (tribe), your family, and only once you’ve done that can you identify yourself: my mountain is Aoraki, Mount Cook. My river is Ōtākaro, Avon.

The relationship of pākehā (white New Zealanders) to Māori culture, especially those who grew up in the midst of the Kōhanga Reo movement, which sought to revitalise the dying language, is perhaps unique. While the culture does not belong to me, it belongs to the land on which I walk. It surrounds me and it informs a part of who I am. There is an inherent tension in this situation, of course. I have spent my whole life being taught what are essentially tidbits about this, the culture of my home: I learned that the world was created when Rangi, the sky father, and Papa, the earth mother, were pushed apart by their son Tāne, letting light into the world. I learned that Aotearoa, New Zealand, was created when the hero Māui caught a fish with a hook carved from his grandmother’s jawbone - Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui) became the North Island, while his waka, or canoe, became the South Island - Te Waipounamu. I learned stories and songs and how to perform with poi, I learned a smattering of the language. But I wasn’t taught about the violence of the colonisation that is my heritage. I wasn’t taught about the years of oppression and dismissal or the fact that by 1980 we’d all but killed the language.

So what do you do with the knowledge that your existence came at such a high cost to the people and culture that helped you become the person you are? What can you do but look it in the face? What can you do but walk with it? What can you do but look at those parts of you that were formed by a borrowed, almost destroyed culture, and acknowledge that they came at a cost?

Now, I live just about as far away from my mountain, Aoraki, and my river, Ōtākaro, as it’s possible to get. It takes quite literally days of travel to get back there. As I sit here at my desk in South London, my mind is never far away from the Auckland beaches I played on as a child. Or the Canterbury plains I travelled as a teenager. The mountains I looked on every day as an adult. The mountain of my current life, I suppose, is Leith Hill. The river of my current life is the Thames. This is a land that has known far more people over a much longer period of time than New Zealand. It is weighted with the history of millions, and I am only a guest. But then, I am a guest everywhere. My homeland was stolen and the homes of my ancestors are no longer mine.

Or perhaps I am at home everywhere. My history is pulled from a small river in Christchurch to a great one in London, and a thousand places in-between. My ancestors walked in the highlands of Scotland, and along the canals of Amsterdam, and they travelled for months across a vast and uncompromising sea; their history is behind my identity.

I sit here at my desk in South London and I look at a moving image of the New Zealand coast. I see the beach at Takapuna, with Rangitoto Island in the distance. I think of a childhood spent looking out at that island, sailing around it, climbing to its peak. If I stand up from my work, I can cross a busy road and be at the side of the Thames. The river flows into the ocean on which, though we have tried to divide it, borders blur into irrelevancy. And across the ocean is another river. A smaller river that flows pristine through a park, and out into an estuary before it, too, joins the ocean.

The roots of mountains knit into the earth, threaded deep into the core. I am as far away from my homeland as it is possible to be, but maybe it’s not possible to really be far away at all. Ko Aoraki te maunga, ko Ōtākaro te awa, and I am connected to them by the world around me at every moment. The land I walked as a child is connected to the land I walk as an adult, by the water that separates them. Which is a poetic way of saying, you can take the girl out of Aotearoa, but…

Janina Matthewson is a London-based writer from New Zealand. Her novel Of Things Gone Astray was published in 2015, she co-writes (and stars in) Within the Wires a podcast from the makers of Welcome to Nightvale, and has written for StylistWhite Noise and more.

Image: (above) Image: Red Lines displayed on a phone in the home of writer Janina Matthewson, 2018. Photograph: Jamie Drew