Maori Girl: Unintentional racism in the social protest novel

Maori Girl, Noel Hilliard, 1960

  • New Zealand, #4
  • Hardcover, £10.11 from Alibris.com
  • Read April 2015
  • Rating: 2/5
  • Recommended for: Strictly for social historians interested in the early stages of Maori civil rights in NZ

The titular character of Maori Girl is Netta Samuels, a kind and practical girl who grows up in a Maori community in rural New Zealand and moves to Wellington as a teenager in search of a better life. Most of the book focuses on the hardships Netta experiences, first as a child in the bush during the Great Depression, and then as a young woman in a city dominated by hostile whites and predatory men. It’s a social protest novel, inspired by Hilliard’s shock and dismay at moving to Wellington himself in the forties and seeing signs in want ads and bars reading “No Maori” and “Europeans Only.” Hilliard aimed to humanize Maoris for pakeha (white) New Zealanders:

It was really the first novel that portrayed Maori people as being members of contemporary society and as fellow citizens. All previous novels had depicted the Maori in their great heyday before the Pakeha arrived. Furthermore, the novel was not written from an anthropological point of view, smearing the Maori on a slide and peering at them through a microscope. Quite a lot of Pakeha did not like this at all. Today things have changed so much it is hard to believe what it used to be like.

(from “Noel Hilliard: The Public and Private Self“, a 1988 interview with Peter Beatson)

Version 2
San Francisco, 2015

But the degree of his success in portraying Maoris as individuals is debatable, and his depiction of his Maori heroine made me deeply uncomfortable. Although I recognize that all too often ideas are not accepted by the general public until they are espoused by a white man, I still wish this story could have been told by a Maori author. Hilliard’s tone tends to be troublingly paternalistic. A lot of this condescension comes from his characters, but I found it hard to shake the feeling that some of it was born of his own innate preconceptions and biases. The problem is that the writing just isn’t good enough to determine what’s intentional characterization, what’s bias, and what’s just poor execution.

Take, for example, Hilliard’s attitude toward Netta’s sex life. Netta doesn’t see any issue with sleeping with men before she’s married, and Hilliard doesn’t either; I mean, it literally doesn’t come up. This lack of judgment is refreshing from one standpoint, except that it seems like it might arise from an impulse to class Netta as a sort of noble savage trope, a throwback to a simpler time who is incapable of understanding modern society. Netta, raised Catholic, never has a firm grasp on the concept of sin. She seems to lack the mental capacity to understand it. Which is fine, really, from the viewpoint of a single character; I’m sure there are plenty of Catholics, especially ones with the poor spiritual guidance that Netta receives, who don’t understand some of the basic concepts of their faith. But Netta’s inability to understand dovetails a little too neatly with the European notion of primitive peoples who are just too darned simple to understand the corrupt and convoluted ways of more civilized people: a stereotype that is both faintly positive and damningly negative at the same time.

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Paris, 2012

And the big problem is that Hilliard doesn’t show us enough of Netta’s internal monologue to allow us to differentiate what is the characterization of an individual and what is a lazy reliance on stereotypes. Even though Netta is the protagonist, even though we follow her through years of her life and the seminal experiences of her youth, she remains something of a cipher throughout. Is it just insufficiencies in the writing, or is it because she’s supposed to be a symbol of racial inequality, and symbols don’t make very complete characters?

This review, included on the book cover (and it’s an old copy of the book, printed in 1971, so I doubt this would fly anymore), sums up what makes me uncomfortable: “It tells us something true about Maori character without glamourising its virtues or excusing its faults.” (What an interesting parallel construction you have set up there, nameless reviewer! Is it possible your own implicit biases are showing?) I don’t know that it is a white man’s place to illuminate the “Maori character,” and even the notion that there is such a thing as a homogenous “Maori character” is racist and offensive.

A Parable of Exploitation,” an essay from the New Zealand Monthly Review, addresses a lot of these issues. One of the take-home points, which I think is relevant here, is that

…although Mr Hilliard is using realist terms, this is not a realist novel so much as a moral parable, and that his purpose is not to work out Netta’s problems so much as to indict pakeha society.

Reading this, all the problems with the book made sense. Netta isn’t really the focus here. Netta is a symbol that allows Hilliard to explore the problems in pakeha society for the benefit of a pakeha audience. Hence the ickiness.

I don’t want to be too hard on Hilliard. In his own way he was speaking truth to power, and his book was revolutionary for its time. I also think that books can have literary merit despite being offensive or having dated views of human rights or social issues (though I do think we should notice these things when we read, and not necessarily forgive them for being products of their time). But Maori Girl isn’t such a great literary work that it demands to be read despite its faults in this area. In this way it’s a sort of Kiwi Uncle Tom’s Cabin: it served an important social purpose, while being far from perfect either in its literary merit or its explorations of race and ethnicity. Now it has been superseded by superior works. There are many books exploring issues of Maori issues in modern New Zealand–better books, by Maori authors, more thoughtful and better-written. In a world where we can read Tu, Whale Rider, and Once Were Warriors (all to be reviewed in later posts), I think it’s fair to allow Maori Girl to fall by the wayside, only revived from obscurity by the occasional social historian.

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England, 2013
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7 thoughts on “Maori Girl: Unintentional racism in the social protest novel

    1. It’s a great suggestion though! I still haven’t gotten around to seeing the movie. For a while I was toying with adding movies to this project (either watching the movie versions of the books I read or else just doing a similar top-ten from each country sort of thing) but it was more than I wanted to take on.
      Thanks for taking the time to visit & read my posts. I just found your blog yesterday and have really enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

      Like

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