Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff – A dramatic fall from grace

Once Were WarriorsOnce Were Warriors by Alan Duff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just finished re-reading Once Were Warriors as part of my little side project “Top Ten Again” – (The ten books from my “Top Ten” in 2003).

It’s easy to understand why Once Were Warriors made an impression on me – its unique manner of storytelling, combined with such hard-hitting material, made it a book to be reckoned with. But I don’t know why else I liked it – let alone gave it a top ten spot.

Because this time around I found Once Were Warriors so very difficult to stomach. I was still impressed by Duff’s skill at ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative style, but that’s where my admiration ended. A decade down the track I looked at Once Were Warriors with fresh eyes and felt affronted.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Duff is on a simple mission to horrify and disgust as a means of asserting his very biased view about the position of Māori in contemporary NZ society. This view is that Māori (at least those Māori depicted in Once Were Warriors) are the architects of their own destruction. Duff labels alcohol dependence, the abuse of children, and the cyclical inter-generational poverty experienced by his characters, as ‘Māori’ issues.

Where is the recognition of those historical, legislative and political factors that, since colonisation, have ensured that Māori would always have lesser opportunities to succeed in a Pākeha-dominated world? Where is the acknowledgement that cumulatively, barriers to access have prevented Māori from enjoying the same education opportunities and health privileges as Pākeha, and so would always start off on the back foot? More to the point, where is the qualifying statement that New Zealand in the 1980s when Once Were Warriors was set, was crippled by an institutional racism that no-one now can deny. (There’s a wealth of texts out there supporting this argument – for a view of the waterfront start with Nga Patai by Prof. Paul Spoonley, 1996).

But instead, Duff leads his readers to believe that all that is required to break this damning cycle of poverty and alcohol dependence is the right intervention, enough courage and strength, and the simple will to pull oneself up ‘by the bootstraps’ – to use a handy little right-wing phrase. It is a political statement in the extreme – and one which he was allowed probably only because Duff is himself Māori. You only have to wonder how the same book would have been received if it had been written by a Pākeha to sense the imbalance.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t get so worked up if the characters weren’t SO believable, if their experiences and internal monologues weren’t SO perfectly realised as to feel completely authentic. So I’m not taking anything away from Duff on that count (hell, I’ve read the book twice now so he’s having the last laugh I’m sure!) But for me, the refusal to engage with the socio-political complexities of the Māori reality in the 1980s, his insistence that these issues are black and white, makes me feel as though the person who lacked courage was Duff, not the Māori in his novel.

Sure, Duff’s novel is fiction. He’s got no responsibility to present a balanced argument if he doesn’t want to. But if he’d had that balance, favoured a little more in-depth reflection instead of surface blaming, a little more sympathy for the very grey world in which we ALL live, Once Were Warriors could have been more than just a good book, it could have been a GREAT book.

Rating in 2003: 5 Stars
Rating in 2013: 2 Stars

Average = 3.5

View all my reviews

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3 thoughts on “Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff – A dramatic fall from grace

  1. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2013 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. Wow, this really makes me want to read this book now, Nadine! I have to admit that I’ve been a bit put off by its confronting description but now I want to see how an author writes a book that generates two such different responses in the same person. I’m interested in that other books too, the one by Nga Patai – is it an academic text?

    • well… it’s only fair that I round out this review a little by telling you how I came to re-read it again in the first place. It goes like this: Some time last year I came across Ann Morgan’s extraordinary project to read a book from every country in the world in one year (http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/what-on-earth-am-i-doing/). Ann called for suggestions and I jotted down a few for NZ in her comments section and promptly forgot about it.

      But, lo and behold, I opened up my blogs one morning to find she’d taken up one of MY suggestion – well… sort of. See, I’d used Once Were Warriors as an example of what NOT to read, suggesting she read something indigenous that is framed in a more positive light. Apparently it was the warning away from a book that piqued her curiosity (doh!) Happily though, I found Ann’s review to be incredibly sensitive and well thought-out, and I rested easier with the knowledge that even tough books are safe in the right hands. (here’s her review: http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/2012/10/30/new-zealand-cultural-values/ ) Still, I felt like I needed to re-read the book myself to really be able to engage with her comments.

      why such a difference in my opinions ten years apart? Education I guess… a degree, some life experience. The usual things! Still, all’s not lost – it kick started my Top Ten Again project (in which The God of Small Things has kept its spot I was relieved to find!).

      As for Nga Patai, yes, it’s an academic text. Just a good snapshot of the race-relations waterfront in NZ http://www.amazon.com/Nga-Patai-Relations-Aotearoa-Zealand/dp/0864692668

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