I am now familiar with the turns around the coast, the view over the ocean, how the mountain ebbs and flows from sight as the clouds sink low and heavy. I know that even a cold frost slicing through the morning air and the sunlight—no matter how strong—does not dull its sharp edge. I know that to turn away from the ocean is to turn towards a dense, dark green that climbs upwards as the temperature begins to drop. I know how it feels to greet this landscape from a distance. On a clear and still day you can stand at the top of Paekākāriki Hill Road on the Kāpiti Coast and look north-west to Taranaki, a view that collapses time and space.
In Ōpunake, where J. C. Sturm was born in 1927 and where she was buried in 2009, the coast is a black stroke of ironsand that reaches past Ngāmotu New Plymouth—where I live—to the far north. Jacquie traced her whakapapa through this fertile landscape: Taranaki Iwi, Te Pakakohi, Te Atiawa; and over towards the east, Te Whakatōhea from Ōpōtiki Mai Tawhiti.
I’m sitting on the floor in sunlight, reading through interviews with Jacquie, looking for an expression from her childhood: ‘waterlogged’. This is how the family doctor described her to her parents when she was an ill child; it is central to how she came to writing.
I’m having trouble finding the reference because there are two: Jacquie told the story twice, in two interviews ten years apart. There she was, ten or eleven years old and waterlogged on the Kāpiti Coast, where she began to write, looking out the window to Kāpiti Island, describing what she saw. The doctor told her family to move inland. When they moved to Palmerston North she stopped writing, and didn’t begin again until she moved to Dunedin for university.
Many things pose as obstacles to writing. I’m writing now with the knowledge that soon I will have to stop, cook dinner, and clean. Jacquie wrote and wrote. She wrote poems that weren’t published, and articles and reviews and short stories that were. And then she stopped, again: for more than twenty years Jacquie placed a pause on her literary practice, faced with the demands of providing for a family as a mother and as a grandmother. She had returned to living on the Kāpiti Coast by then, having spent time in Dunedin, Christchurch, and Wellington.
There is a difference, wrote Jacquie in 1955, to being Māori in Wellington and should be ‘belong[ing] to Wellington in the Māori sense of the world’.1 From 1970 to the end of 1991 she was the librarian of the New Zealand Room at the Wellington Public Library, which occupied an interwar, classical building from 1937 to 1991. The site of that building, Te Ngākau Civic Square, could be described as ‘waterlogged’. Jacquie called it ‘sea, all sea / And only sea’.2 Like much of central Wellington it is built entirely on land reclaimed, built out of the harbour, in the 1880s.
The reclamation of the city centre involved the erection of civic institutions on top of Wellington’s Indigenous histories. Although it was not so much a reclamation as a claim of ownership over land which resists the demands of the colonial project placed on it.
‘The word Home’, noted Jacquie reflecting on her time in the New Zealand Room, ‘has bothered New Zealanders, white or brown, since they arrived here. This preoccupation could be described as a chronic complaint peculiar to colonialists, of being out of step/place/joint with their environment. But does feeling distanced, willy nilly, from Home, make us exiles? If so, can we be more than that?’.3
Further up the road and inland from Civic Square at Pukeahu, outside the New Zealand Dominion Museum Building, is a small memorial. It is a testament to the histories that have been obscured by the construction of the National War Memorial Park which surrounds it: A park which seeks to provide a space for ‘New Zealanders to remember and reflect on this country’s experience of war, military conflict and peacekeeping, and how that experience shapes our ideals and sense of national identity’.4 The memorial, formed of stones gathered in Taranaki, is the single marker for the Māori histories of land upon which the national identity is articulated.
By 1865 over 800,000 hectares of Māori land in Taranaki, from Pukearuhe in the north to the Waitōtara River in the south, was seized by the government under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863. This process lead to a series of acts of resistance by local Māori, including ninety-four men from Te Pakakohi, who were captured and sent to Pukeahu Mount Cook Prison in Wellington. They were held there, at Pukeahu, for three months without trial before being sentenced to hard labour in Dunedin. Further conflict and resistance followed in Taranaki, leading to the establishment and growth of the intertribal, pacifist community of Parihaka. The prison at Pukeahu continued to fill, now with men first detained at Parihaka. They were eventually sent to the South Island too. ‘Have you heard of Parihaka’, asked Jacquie in 2001, ‘Between / Maunga Taranaki / And the sea’.5
Standing on the edge of Wellington’s south coast at Pariwhero Red Rocks, I begin to notice the landscape engage in a conversation of its own: A fog stretches out from behind the hills, the lapping of waves against the rocks starts to quicken. The greywacke cliffs above me balance precariously; the rocks along the shore redden. I try to push away these seeming distractions, to remember what I thought I was coming here to see. I sit on a rock and wonder whether I should continue on to the seals, not sure of how many more bends of the coast it will take me to find them. Did Jacquie come here as a writer, looking for a subject, or did she write from memory? Did she write what she saw or what she knew? Suddenly, the sky crumbles and I am wet with rain. ‘Better not take anything / For granted here or even / Make the usual assumptions’.6
- J. C. Sturm, ‘The Ngatiponeke Young Maori Club’, Te Ao Hou (September 1955): p. 32.
- J. C. Sturm, ‘On the building site for a new library (for Win)’, in Dedications (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 1996), p. 11.
- J. C. Sturm, ‘A Kind of Time Capsule: The New Zealand Room in Context’, in He Tohu: The New Zealand Room; A Commemorative Project, exh. cat., ed. Gregory Burke (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1994), p. 12. Published on the occasion of the exhibition He Tohu: The New Zealand Room by Jaqueline Fraser, City Gallery Wellington, 1 August–21 November 1993.
- ‘Pukeahu National War Memorial Park’, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Aoteaora New Zealand.
- J. C. Sturm, ‘He waiata tēnei mō Parihaka’, in Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, ed. Te Miringa Hohaia, Gregory O’Brian, and Lara Strongman (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington; Victoria University Press, 2001), p. 205.
- J. C. Sturm, ‘At Red Rocks’, in Postscripts (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2000), p. 19.