Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, October 22, 1999


‘The beginning is
not the beginning,
the end is not
the end’

'Baby No-Eyes' creates Maori
characters on journeys of cultural,
spiritual and political evolution


By Joleen Oshiro
Special to the Star-Bulletin


TAKE away the specifics of Maori culture and New Zealand law, and "Baby No-Eyes" could be a story about any indigenous race.

In this latest novel by Patricia Grace, the Maori struggle of personal and cultural survival illustrates the universal challenges of native people everywhere. The topic may not be fresh to Hawaii readers saturated with sovereignty sound bites. But the novel employs an intricate storytelling style that offers a complex, intimate understanding of a native perspective, something news reports cannot.

Grace, who was the first Maori woman to have published a collection of short stories in 1975, is considered to be among the finest writers in New Zealand and the Pacific. Her novel "Potiki" was winner of the 1987 New Zealand Fiction Award. Her works, including 1988's "Cousins," have been translated into more than eight languages.

Bullet Baby No-Eyes By Patricia Grace (University of Hawai'i Press); 294 pages; paperback; $19.95

Grace tells her story using four Maori voices which, alternating from chapter to chapter, weave a theme that explores the dynamics between politics and spirituality. The story revolves around Te Paania, a Maori woman who loses her unborn daughter in a car accident. When family and friends come to the hospital to claim the baby's body, they are given a mutilated corpse -- the baby's eyes have been removed.

After much consternation, and no explanation, the baby's eyes are returned "in a container inside a supermarket plastic bag." The humiliation and disrespect behind the incident becomes the motivation for each character's evolution -- culturally, spiritually and politically -- in response to New Zealand's white power structure.

Each of the four voices in the novel present a different perspective of the Maori struggle.

Kura, Te Paania's mother-in-law, provides historical perspective. Anger at Baby's mutilation liberates her to tell the stories of traditional times and the pain of the past.

"I speak to you now in the language that I haven't used since the time of Riripeti," she says. "I will never speak English again. By the time I die I hope to be again who I was born to be."

Riripeti is a girl from Kura's childhood who attends a school run by whites.

From the first day, Riripeti is chastised. "Who are you and where are your manners, coming in here and sitting down as though you own the place?," the teacher rages.

"She didn't understand and sat there smiling," Kura says. "At that moment I didn't want her to be a girl so black that it would make the teacher angry."

Eventually, after daily beatings and the shame of banishment to the corner, Riripeti transforms into a scared, defeated girl, a withered shadow of her former smiling self.

Kura's stories explain the emotional and psychological baggage of the native experience.

As a modern Maori woman, Te Paania illustrates the struggle of existing within dual cultures. While she mistrusts the white structure, she still bears insecurity at not quite fitting in. Te Paania describes herself as "frog" and undercuts her accomplishments with, "Not bad for a frog." Yet, when Te Paania discovers why Baby was mutilated, she finds that her "croak" is a voice she can own without apology.

"Sometimes it is your own being, who you are, that causes your life to change -- when suddenly, but not from choice, you must breathe in air instead of water," she says. "All I could do was croak ... I'd have my croak to add."

Mahaki, a Maori lawyer/ activist, provides the novel with the political world that springs from experiences like those of Riripeti and Baby. When Te Paania enters Mahaki's world of strategizing and organizing, her political awareness awakens and we see a bridge connecting the political and the personal.

It is Tawera, Te Paania's son, to whom Baby's ghost latches. Their difficult relationship infuses the story with an undercurrent of both sorrow and humor, then eventually, hope. In contending with Baby, Tawera makes the connection between past and future; his life is constantly shaped by the ghost of an event that occurred before he was born.

But Baby's presence in his life is not just a haunting reminder of their family's victimization. She also nourishes Tawera with familial identity and love, and influences the man he grows up to become.

The immediate challenge of "Baby No-Eyes" is following the various storylines as the voices alternate from one chapter to the next. Just as one story builds momentum, it is cut off and another one abruptly starts.

But, as Te Paania says: "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."

Grace did well to organize her tale "where the beginning is not the beginning, the end is not the end." The technique shatters the shallow, common belief that native issues are simply about people living in the past, wanting special treatment.

Instead, "Baby No-Eyes" displays the full dimension of a human experience, weaving, the way life does, the past, present and future -- and showing that they're indelibly connected.

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