As part of my indigenous authors project I picked The Uncle’s Story by Witi Ihimaera, a gay Maori author, and I am so glad that I did because this was a really wonderful book!
The Uncle’s Story follows Michael Mahana, a young Maori artist, who returns home to Gisborne before his sister’s wedding to come out to his parents. Being gay is something that is not accepted within his community nor is it something that is really talked about. As such this really doesn’t go well for him. After falling out over with his father over this disclosure he finds out that he had an uncle he never knew, Sam Mahana. Sam was also a gay Maori man and he fought in the Vietnamese War with the New Zealand army. Upon finding out at about Sam, Michael becomes desparate to find out more about his uncle and to connect to those who played a big role in his uncle’s life, especially an American helicopter pilot, Cliff Harper, who Sam may have had a relationship with in Vietnam.
The story is told in dual perspectives, flipping back and forth between Michael in the present day and Sam before, after and during the war. In this way we get to see two different generations of Maori men and how their lives have diverged over the intervening years. Getting to follow both strands of the story was really useful because we were exposed to different aspects of Maori culture in each and we were also able to see the way in which time had altered certain aspects and how other aspects had endured seemingly unaltered.
The stand out aspect of the book for me was the writing. it was beautiful and atmospheric and it really came into it’s own in the sections set in Vietnam. I genuinely felt like I was there in the jungles and could hear the helicopters overhead and I believe that it was Ihimaera’s use of language which allowed me to feel that way. There was also this feeling at times that it was almost magical and I loved that aspect.
I also loved the strong friendships that we saw on the page. We got to see the influence of Michael’s closest friend, a young Maori woman who identified as a lesbian, on Michael. Their relationship is a really positive one and she supports Michael through a tough break up, encourages him to be open about his identity and to accept it and to make art and push himself out of his comfort zone in this regard. We also saw the relationship between Sam and two other Maori men from his area who went off to fight in Vietnam, the cameraderie between them and the heartbreak when one of them dies.
This was definitely a book which taught me a lot. I had not read anything by a Maori author before and beyond having watched the haha being performed before rugby matches my knowledge of Maori culture was fairly non-existence. Ihimaera did a great job of weaving different elements of Maori culture into the book. I learned a little bit about Maori beliefs on the creation of the world and their rituals during funerals. Naturally some parts were kept back and that is only right as certain aspects of a culture are not meant for outsiders to consume for the purpose of entertainment. However, I feel I’ve walked away from this book having learned something and having started a journey towards understanding Maori culture a little bit better.
There were two things I didn’t like which I’ll mention briefly. Firstly, while Ihimaera’s magical dreamlike writing in Sam’s parts was enjoyable it did sometimes make things a little confusing and hard to follow. Secondly, I’m not sure I’m really happy with the relationship between Sam and Harper. There was a moment when Sam told him no and Harper decided to go ahead and have sex with Sam. No means no to my mind so that sent up all kinds of red flags for me and had me questioning the healthiness of their relationship for the rest of the book.
Overall, this is a book I would recommend and am really glad to have read.
Rating: 4 stars