Patricia Frances Gunson was born on August 17th, 1937, in Wellington, New Zealand. Her mother, Joyce Flan, was a Pākehā (white European) of Irish origins, and her father, Edward Gunson, was predominantly Māori (indigenous New Zealander). She has two brothers and one sister. Her mixed parentage made her “conscious of living in two family worlds-–the contrasting worlds of my mother’s and father’s families” (“Influences on Writing”: 65). She says that she “became adept at moving from foot to foot between these two families and was confident and secure in both of these family worlds” (65). Through her father, she is a descendant of the Ngāti Rauwaka, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa tribes. When Grace was five, her father left to serve with the Māori Batallion in Italy during the Second World War, and when he came back to Wellington, he set up a stationery business in Karori. Grace sometimes tells people that she became a writer because her parents were stationery manufacturers and she “always had plenty of paper to write on” (67).
Her Māori world came to the fore at the weekends and in the holidays, when she spent time with her grandparents on the ancestral land of the Ngāti Toa people at Hokoenga Bay, where she herself has lived since 1975 and is still very active on the marae (the open area in front of the meetinghouse, where formal greetings and discussions take place). But outside the worlds of family, Grace admits that, as she was growing up, “life sometimes became troublesome and unfriendly” (65).. She had a Catholic education, in Wellington, at St Anne’s Primary School in Newtown, and then at St Mary’s College in Thorndon, run by the Sisters of Mercy. Both schools expected high standards of achievement from their pupils. Their aim was to instill “a life-long love of learning and the desire and skills to make a difference in society” (St Mary’s website http://www.st-marys-wellington.school.nz/). Being the only Māori girl in her class, Grace was made aware of her “difference” by the low expectations certain teachers had of her intellectual abilities, in contrast to high expectations of her ability at sport. Grace proved them wrong in their former assumptions by qualifying for Wellington Teachers’ Training College.
At Training College she met Kerehi Waiariki (Dick) Grace and in 1957 they were married. Through him, she became affiliated to the Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui iwi (tribes). They moved up north, and started their teaching careers in isolated schools. Their marriage was a happy one, and Dick later became well-known as an educator, writer, cultural expert, and advisor to the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, in 1962, Grace began to write and contribute short stories in English to Landfall, the New Zealand Listener and the bilingual quarterly Te Ao Hou, published by the Maori Affairs Department. Although another Māori woman, J. C. Sturm, had a manuscript of collected short stories ready by 1966, she could not find a publisher, and it was Grace who became the first to publish a book of short tales in English, in 1975. Entitled Waiariki and Other Stories, it is dedicated to her children and won the PEN/Hubert Church Award. The title is taken from the seventh story in the collection, and signifies “hot spring.” It is also the name of the narrator, who tells a nostalgic tale about his childhood, when they used their horses to gather seafood and wood. It is a marvellous evocation of Māori family life, and when Waiariki comes back as an adult with his wife and children, he regrets that he cannot offer his children a similar childhood. Grace generally uses the structures and rhythm of the Māori language, as well as some of its words and phrases, in the stories, and she attaches a glossary. The stories are mainly about simple events of life: a wedding, fishing, death, catching eels, a visit to grandparents, a dialogue between a son and his family explaining his need to explore family history. In this they are reminiscent of the stories of Frank Sargeson, for whom Grace has had a high regard. She pays careful attention to shifts in her characters’ moods and is a perceptive recreator of their psychology. The collection ends with the story “Parade”, in which the narrator has qualms about showing Māori culture to the public and says bitterly, “They think that’s all we’re good for … a laugh and that’s all” – only to be told by her grandfather that “It is your job this. To show others who we are.” Then, “with past, present and future, [she] felt a new strength pass through [her]” and took part in the performance (88-9). Grace has an extraordinary ability to render mundane situations poetic and politically significant.
Always remarkably clear, honest and elucidating about her writing, she says,
One’s own background and experience is central to one’s work. Events, lives, relationships, circumstances, environments, what our senses tell us, what touches and moves us, what our thoughts, feelings, dreams, concerns, imaginings are, all affect what we produce and, along with the research that we do, are the knowledge base on which creativity is brought to bear. Or that’s how I see it. (“Influences on Writing”, 67-8)
In an interview with Vilsoni Hereniko in 1995, she developed the idea of her writing process by adding: “You bring creativity to bear on what you know and understand. You attempt to push out the edges of what you know and understand.” She does this “through using language in some different way, through trying different structures, through experimenting and trying to break the rules” (76-7).
Her first novel, Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps, was published in 1978. The book is narrated in the first person by a Māori girl called Ngaio Ripeka. After leaving primary school she changes her name to Linda, feeling that it would give her the chance of a new life, even though her life, up until then, had been very pleasant. She is an only child, adored by her parents. Linda recounts the problems entailed by courtship and marriage to the Pākehā Graeme. Her Nanny warns her, “You’re giving our blood away. You want to make us weak” (74). But, despite her opposition, Nanny is persuaded to come to the wedding. Māori beliefs and customs dominate the novel. When Graeme’s job as a school teacher takes them from a rural Māori community to an urban environment, the marriage is threatened. The story takes surprising turns, but Graeme has sufficient love and understanding to accept whatever Linda asks of him. It is a haunting book in which Grace makes readers aware of the complexity of cultural difference, but structurally it is by far the least complex of her novels.
Grace’s second collection of short stories, The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories, appeared in 1980. During the beginning of her writing career Grace held down a job as a teacher and also brought up seven children. This is reflected in the things she wrote about. Many of the stories give detailed descriptions of particular moments in time: a birth, a half hour when the family is asleep and the narrator has some precious time to herself, a boy cycling to a rugby game. She conveys intense perceptions of each detail and does not spare the reader, who is treated to a dog shitting, or “a full load of the smell of pigs” (“Beans”, 26). She tries out different, sometimes very complex styles, and in certain stories does not give much continuity to a character’s thoughts, so that they represent real thought processes, giving no explanatory indication when they veer in a new direction. Grace has a life-affirming style, which makes Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique look thin and watery; if anything, it bears more resemblance to James Joyce’s.
But the styles of the stories vary. For instance, the story “Letters from Whetu”, which is very funny, is written in an epistolary mode from a pupil’s point of view. “Whetu”, the narrator’s name, means “star”. Instead of paying attention in class, the “star” writes letters to all her friends, because she is bored. Occasionally she makes satirical remarks about the various teachers. The story draws on Grace’s own experience of teachers’ condescension at times, but Whetu more than gets her own back. She deliberately employs the ungrammatical form ‘yous’, typically used by Māori, knowing that it will render the teacher apoplectic with rage and despair. In a similar vein, the story “It Used to be Green Once” is also distinguished by its Māori humour and repartee. A proud but poor Mother, living in the country, has fourteen kids, one of whom is the narrator. The mother is larger than life and very resourceful, but the kids are ashamed of her. This is mainly because she drives a wreck of a car with no brakes to do the shopping, and generously goes along the country roads hooting and calling out to neighbours to ask if they want anything from the shop. It forms a strong contrast to the story “Journey”, in which Grace’s work becomes more obviously political. It is the first time she writes about the theme of land issues, which will keep recurring in her work.
In the late nineteen-seventies Grace obtained her Diploma of Teaching English as a Second Language at Victoria University of Wellington, and started teaching English to Asians and Pacific Islanders. In 1981 she began a new venture in collaboration with the artist Robyn Kahukiwa. Together they produced The Kuia and the Spider / Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere (1981), which became the winner of the Children's Picture Book of the Year Award (a kuia is an old lady). Another joint effort led to Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street (1984), about a magic ee, who has gifts for all the children on Champion Street, and is used to teach children the Māori language. Nowadays there are charming renditions of both The Kuia and the Spider and Watercress Tuna on YouTube. Kahukiwa and Grace also worked together to produce Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth (1984), which is a beautifully illustrated book with paintings and drawings by the former and the text by the latter. It analyses the roles of strong female figures in Māori legend. In an interview with Jane McRae, Grace says, “I very much enjoyed working with Robyn and learned a great deal from the experience, realising more and more that the stories are both contemporary and ancient and have messages for any age” (“Patricia Grace / Interviewed by Jane McRae”, 288). Grace went on to write three more children’s stories, namely, The Trolley (1994), Āreta and the Kāhawai / Ko Āreta me Nga Kāhawai (1994), both illustrated by Kerry Gemmill (kāhawai is a local, coastal fish), and the most recent, Maraea and the Albatrosses, which describes a woman who lives near the sea and waits each year for the albatrosses to come back. It came out in 2008 and is illustrated by her brother, Brian Gunson.
Grace stopped teaching at the end of 1984 and devoted herself to writing fulltime. She received a Writing Fellowship at Victoria University in 1985 and started on her second novel, Potiki (1986), which won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and, later, in 1994, the Literaturpreis in Frankfurt, Germany. In 2007, it was translated into Māori by the Huia Press. Grace does not keep notes while she is writing and just a sentence can lead to a whole book. Hence Potiki begins with the phrase “There was once a carver who spent a lifetime with wood”, even while the main subject is not the a carver or carving at all; instead, the book is about rape and violence, and land issues are its central theme. Different narrators evoke the struggle of a small Māori community to keep their ancestral land from being appropriated by evil entrepreneurs. The main narrator is Roimata, who utters sentences that could well have been written by Janet Frame or T. S. Eliot, and which help to establish Roimata as an educated voice. Grace admired Frame and sentences like “We live by the sea, which hems and stitches the scalloped edges of the land” shows this, just as “searching for … the beginning – or the end that is the beginning” cannot help but remind readers of Eliot (15, 18). There are echoes of Witi Ihimaera in her speech as well. Despite this, Roimata has an unmistakably individual style and gives a rational account of the community’s fight.
In 1987 Electric City and Other Stories appeared. The titular story describes the ramifications of a pun on “electricity”. Most of the other stories are about children, and simply told, but some of them are very provocative. There is a story called “Flies”, which outdoes Katherine Mansfield, in which a group of children play very inventive but atrocious games with flies. In a way it shows why Grace could never identify with the world which Mansfield evokes. A more positive story, “Urupa” (“Cemetery”), tells of children putting flowers on the graves of their relatives. But some of the stories have a much darker side. One is about a mother who persuades her fearful daughter to go and buy bread, only to have her daughter’s initial reluctance vindicated when, on obeying her mother and going out, she is deliberately injured by other children. “Going for the Bread” is a story which Grace admits “is about something that happened to me when I was four or five years old and is as I remember it with nothing changed but names” (“Patricia Grace / Interviewed by Jane McRae”, 293). But by far the most horrific story is “The Hills”, about an encounter between a young innocent Māori lad and the police. The police are racist and mistreat him for no specific reason. One tells him to shut his black face and when the narrator asks why, he is countered by the question: “You’ve got a black face, haven’t you?” He can’t think of an adequate reply. It is a shaming experience involving what seems like rape, and the narrator says he “couldn’t be a boy any more afterwards” (66).
In 1988 Patricia Grace became a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order, for community service, and in 1989 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from Victoria University of Wellington.
Compared to Potiki, Grace’s next novel, Cousins (1992), has an even more complex narrative structure. It starts off with a powerful description of Mata Pairama. The impersonal third-person narrator can enter Mata’s mind at will and objectively evokes her aimless walk through the streets of a city. We are given lists of the things Mata passes, a technique Grace uses often when she wants to establish the reality of a scene. She has become completely demoralised, abject, deracinated, homeless, with nowhere to go. The section of the novel tells of Mata’s life up to the point where she starts to wander, which had included one brief visit to what was her long-since-dead mother’s family and rural community, where she had met her cousins Makereta and Missy. At this lowest point of her life, she is recognized and taken in by Makereta, who has been well-educated and has responsible and activist roles in the city. In the second section Makereta tells her own story, with great assurance, in the first person. The third section is primarily centred on Missy, who has chosen to devote herself to marriage and an anchoring role within her extended family and community. It has a variety of narrators, including Missy’s unborn twin-brother, Missy, and Mata herself. Makereta has died, suddenly, and the action culminates with Mata’s involvement in bringing her body back to her rural marae, for the tangihanga (funeral), whereby Mata becomes united, at last, with her extended family and her Māori heritage.
In 1994 Collected Stories came out, incorporating the first three volumes of stories, and a new volume, The Sky People and Other Stories. The latter is prefaced with a remark made by Grace to fellow author Keri Kaa: “‘Who are the Sky People? The Haurangi, the Wairangi, the Pōrangi – those crazy from the wind or what they breathe, those crazy from water or what they drink, those crazy from darkness or depression. I know someone who is all three.’” The stories are about various forms of madness, but it is a madness that is not evoked in absolute terms, depending, as it does, on the perceiver. One story, “Ngati Kangaru”, particularly stands out, because it is a satire combining two of Grace’s favourite themes: appropriation of Māori land and migration. Grace reverses both of them. The protagonist Billy, with his cousin Hiko who lives in Australia, plan to take back the land which had once belonged to their iwi and which now has Pākehā holiday houses built on it. His wife thinks it is a crazy scheme, but Hiko, and the many other relatives who had migrated to Australia, want to come back to New Zealand, so Billy arranges for title deeds to be drawn up. While the owners are absent from their holiday homes working during the winter, he changes the street names and settles in his relatives from Australia. The owners employ lawyers to get their property back, but to no avail. Not all the tales are as straightforwardly told, however. Some are written in a confusing, experimental style, such as “The House of the Fish”, which is also about land confiscation. It is as though Grace wanted to convey madness through the use of language. Yet all the characters are portrayed with empathy and understanding.
In the next novel, Baby No-Eyes (1998), the prologue again begins with someone walking, although this time the walk is anything but aimless. The protagonist, Te Paania, walks to catch a bus to Wellington. The initial narrator, we gradually find out, is a fœtus, and Te Paania is his mother. There is a third presence, who turns out later to be a ghost. Four first-person narrators alternate and give different perspectives of the narrative events, interweaving them with family history. We find out that the fœtus’s name is Tawera in the second chapter, when he is born at the house of Te Paania’s friends, Mahaki and Dave. The book ends with Tawera recalling Te Paania’s walking in the prologue, making the narrative come full circle. Te Paania tells Tawera that he has a sister four years older than himself, who was killed in a car accident as a baby. When the family wanted to bury her, the request embarrassed the hospital, because they had removed her eyes. In a relationship evoked with exceptional imagination, the blind ghost becomes a demanding companion for Tawera.
The story is started by grandmother Kura, who mentions a suitcase which was returned to her. Te Paania explains:
There’s a way the older people have of telling a story, a way where the beginning is not the beginning, the end is not the end. It starts from a centre and moves away from there in such widening circles that you don’t know how you will finally arrive at the point of understanding, which becomes itself another core, a new centre. (28)
That is how the book works. It is subversive. The tale about the suitcase leads to the other stories, not only about the stolen eyes, but also about how Māori have been treated at school, how their land has been appropriated, and the problems they have to deal with in getting it back.
Dogside Story (2001) projects the day-to-day experiences of a physically disabled protagonist, Rua, against the history of an East Coast Māori community which had split up at the turn of the nineteenth century. Two sisters, Ngarua (to shake, move) and Maraenohonoho (to remain on the marae), humorously named to embody their actions, had quarreled over a canoe, causing Ngarua and her followers to move to the south side of the local tidal river. They brought their dogs, and the new community became known as Dogside, whereas the old conservative one was called Godside. Rua, despite having lost a leg in a car accident, has been keeping the community provided with crayfish, which has been his main job. He is pestered by a young girl, Kiri (alias Kid), because he knows a secret which concerns her and she wants to be privy to it. In parallel to Ngarua and Maraenohonoho, Kid’s guardians are two sisters who mistreat her, and accuse Rua of incest. The story of the relationship between Kid and Rua is intertwined with the developing romance between Rua and Maina. Meanwhile the Dogsiders are preparing a feast for the new Millennium. The strength of the whānau (extended family) is portrayed with warmth and the seascapes are beautifully depicted. The novel won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. Fellow novelist Kelly Ana Morey appropriately reviewed it in the New Zealand Listener as a “magnificent hui (Māori gathering) of a book that bubbles over with laughter, human frailty, hope and love”.
Grace collaborated with Irihapeti Ramsden and Jonathan Dennis on another non-fictional book in 2001, The Silent Migration: Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club 1937-1948: Stories of Urban Migration. It recounts the remarkable tales of fourteen of the founder members of the Ngāti Pōneke Māori Club, established in 1929, with the aim of providing welfare and relief work. The club welcomed and helped Māori people who had migrated to the city, and did the social work normally done on the marae in rural Māori communities. They established their own marae and haka group. Pōneke is the Māori name for Port Nicholson, which Wellington Harbour was originally called, and during the Second World War they farewelled Māori soldiers departing from there by boat to fight overseas, as is recorded in Tu.
The work Grace did on The Silent Migration stood her in good stead for her next novel, in which the Ngāti PōnekeClub plays a significant role. Grace inherited a short notebook from her father about his service with the 28th Māori Battalion in World War II, which she read in 2002. Aware that there had never been a fictional account of the battalion, Grace began writing Tu. Published in 2004, it is dedicated to her father’s memory. “Tu” is short for Tumatauenga, the name of the Māori god of war, and the narrator’s full name is Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu, signifying “The Many Fighting Men of Tumatauenga”. The whole novel is enclosed within two letters, written by Tu, explaining why, nearly twenty years later, he is passing on his war diary to his nephews. A large part of the book consists of this diary, while the rest portrays his eldest brother Pita; Grace uses the third person to record his experiences and feelings. Tu ran away from school to join the army, “proud to be a member of the Māori Battalion and off on the biggest adventure of [his] life” (34). His older brothers, Pita and Rangi, were already with the Battalion in Egypt. None of them seem to have questioned the irony of fighting for the people who had colonised their country. Pita is introduced in Chapter Four as he had joined the Battalion in order to “help end” the war. Grace takes us back to Pita’s childhood and the suffering caused by his father’s damaged condition as a returned serviceman from the First World War. Rangi’s voice is represented by occasional letters or by what Tu chooses to tell us. War is the main theme, and Tu finds his knowledge of the arts of the taiaha (a long club, carved in wood and used in close combat) useful. Religion, marriage and love are important secondary themes. The novel’s high point is a dramatic and skilful account of the Battalion’s courageous fight against the Nazis at Monte Cassino. It won the Deutz Medal for fiction at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards ceremony in 2005. That year Grace also received the prestigious Arts Foundation Icon Award – Whakamana Hiranga – which honours New Zealand artists for their life-long achievements. Patricia Grance was recognised for her contribution to New Zealand literature.
The year before, Grace and her husband had collaborated with the photographer Craig Potton to publish a work of nonfiction entitled Earth, Sea, Sky: Images and Maori Proverbs from the Natural World of Aotearoa New Zealand (2003). The proverbs are given in Māori and translated into English. It is a small but beautiful book, combining the wonders of the New Zealand landscape with the heritage of its first inhabitants.
Grace’s most recent book of short stories, Small Holes in the Silence, was published in 2006. Its title is taken from the poem Rain by the Māori poet Hone Tuwhare, and the book is dedicated to him. It is the largest and most varied of all her collections. Grace has the imaginative power to turn anything into a worthwhile story. They often concern a specific moment in time. An elderly woman is about to die. A younger one chooses a husband. A little girl is lost in the street and found by a tramp. A man falls in love with a statue, and another is told by an old friend that she wants him to father her child. A young Māori is tortured by the police. A mute child, handicapped from birth, is taken in by a Māori woman and becomes a wordless busker. There are stories set in Russia and in Italy, and stories which modernize Māori myths. It is a very rich and versatile book which shows Grace’s enormous sympathy for all underdogs or outsiders.
In the same year she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement,and in 2007 she was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. However, Grace refused to be renamed a Dame Companion when titular honours were restored by the New Zealand government.
In 2007 Dick and Patricia Grace went to Europe. They visited Monte Cassino in Italy, but the main aim was to go to Crete, and do research for the double biography, Ned and Katina: A True Love Story (2009). The first biography is the history of Ned Nathan, a soldier from Northland who joined the Māori Battalion, and went to fight in Crete. In introducing her protagonist, Grace follows Māori ritual by identifying him first with his mountain, followed by his river, then by his traditional home (“ocean”, here, but Kawerua is a seaport), and finally by his iwi (tribe), or tribal ancestor, demonstrating how important natural features are to their identity:
My mountain is Maunganui
My river is the Waipoua
My ocean is Kawerua
Taoho is the eponymous ancestor. (18)
Ned got wounded, and was looked after by a local woman named Katina. He wrote and declared his love for her, but he never got a reply, and was caught by the Nazis who took him to a German prisoner-of-war camp. However, he told Katina’s father of his intentions to ask her to marry him. He survived, and in 1946 made his way back to Crete. The second biography tells Katina’s history. She was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest and trained as a primary school teacher. When the war ended, Ned and Katina were married and spent the rest of their lives in New Zealand. They had three children, who asked Grace to write the romantic story of their parents’ lives. The assistance of the Nathan brothers, according to Grace, was “crucial to the writing of this book” (323) and she calls it a group effort. It was the last time she shared a writing project with her husband. He died in April 2013 and is much missed.
Grace has brought out six collections of short stories and seven novels to date. The latest novel, Chappy, came out in 2015. In some ways, it is totally different from any fiction she has written before. She says, “The writing I do is mainly a challenge to myself. I set out to write a story and that’s the main thing. I have no thoughts of changing the world or of enlightening people. I am expressing myself through writing about ordinary people living their ordinary lives” (“Patricia Grace / Interviewed by Jane McRae”, 292). “Chappy”is an injured and starving Japanese stowawayon a ship going from San Francisco to Wellington. He is found by a sailor named Aki, one of the three narrators in the book. Knowing that stowaways are often arrested on arrival, or thrown overboard before a ship reaches its destination, Aki supplies Chappy with food and drink, and smuggles him ashore when they reach New Zealand. He takes him home to his marae, where he is adopted by Aki’s parents, Tanaa and Dorothea.
As usual, Grace wants to give characters their own voices wherever possible. But there is a language gap. The story is essentially told by Daniel, whose father is Danish and who has a Japanese-Māori mother. At twenty-one, he has been sent from Switzerland to stay with his Māori grandmother Oriwia. His grandfather, Chappy, had died in 1981 and Daniel becomes fascinated with him. The passages which Aki tells are generally in Māori, and are translated for Daniel into English by Oriwia. Chappy initially speaks only Japanese, but the bond between Aki and Chappy transcends the problem of language. The book focusses on the extraordinary love story between Chappy and Oriwia, as pieced together by Daniel. One of Grace’s themes is the acceptance of cultural differences. The novel has a positive ending. Daniel resolves to go to Japan and trace the story of his grandfather’s youth.
Grace’s books have been translated into many languages, and published not only in Anglo-Saxon countries but also in Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain. They have brought her world-wide fame, and in 2008 she became the twentieth laureate to receive the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Her humane and non-judgmental treatment of the interaction between people has led her to engage with social injustice and to dramatize themes such as cross-cultural or arranged marriages, city versus country living, single parents, the conflict between modern and traditional values, violence, and the implications of colonization, all from a predominantly Māori perspective. She brings these themes to life in a prose as complex or simple as each story demands.
Grace, Patricia. “Influences on Writing.” In Inside Out:
Literature, Cultural Politics and Identity in the New Pacific.
Eds. Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson. Lanham, MD, Boulder, New
York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. 65-73.
- - - and Vilsoni Hereniko. “An Interview with Patricia Grace.” Idem. 75-83.
- - - and Jane McRae. “Patricia Grace / Interviewed by Jane McRae.” In In the Same Room / Conversations with New Zealand Writers. Eds. Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1992.285-96.
Citation: Oettli-van Delden, Simone. "Patricia Grace". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 October 2015 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1827, accessed 29 January 2022.]