Star Waka by Robert Sullivan

Star Waka, by Robert Sullivan, is an expertly-written anthology of poems which provides an overview of the gradual morphing of imagination among the original inhabitants of modern-day New Zealand. It is a continuation of Maori oral culture which aspires to provide a concise depiction of the native people, faunae, and notable natural phenomenon which litter this particular landscape. Sullivan is renowned for his love for the Maori culture and, therefore, made it his life’s work to publish accounts presenting legends associated with the culture (Cram et al., 2018, p. 77). In essence, the author acts as a gatekeeper for Polynesian poetry. By writing Star Waka, Sullivan explores the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand from its inception; seemingly opening it up to an international audience while considering some of the most important aspects of Maori culture. Sullivan’s consistent use of te reo Maori and his description of Maori history are noteworthy issues to consider especially since some of the readers may be unfamiliar with Pakkeha.

At the very core of Sullivan’s technique is the expression of contemporary transnationalism through his multilingual property. The application of this approach is critical as a tool for expression and in the presentation of a new perspective in relation to national and cultural pride. It extends to thematic and imagistic approaches employed by the author to stay true to his roots even when confronted by changing times. Although the Maori’s consecratory language seemed to have been threatened and overshadowed by English, the author manages to present it in his text as an equal.  The only challenge associated with this approach is the overall inability of non-Pakkehas to fully comprehend the plot and context of the theme presentation. Yet, the author painstakingly seeks to avoid the possibility of a protracted supremacy battles between two heterogeneous languages. This can also be interpreted as the author’s penchant for defiance and resistance to domination by an alien culture. The author seems cognizant of the implications of this particular approach on non-Maori readers. However, his capacity for self-expression takes precedence in the poems, coupled with the “writing in translation” approach to improve comprehension among non-Maori readers.

Sullivan’s multilingual approach was not meant to hinder non-Maori readers from understanding the plot or themes in his poems, but as a strategy to keep a dying culture alive. The recent permeation of the English language in New Zealand and amongst a sizeable majority of Pacific islanders has resulted in a phenomenon where little to no attention is paid to cultural and traditional heritage. The author is, therefore, playing the all-important role of a cultural conduit within his people to ensure it endures in the coming years and for posterity. For instance, Sullivan describes an incident based on “the Watangi celebrations” and elaborately related in the text while the Maori looked forward to the ‘pass[ing] waka tua, pahi, waka ama,’ (Sullivan, 1999, p.26). Both English and Maori words in the text above are italicized and indicative of the author’s idea that are equals, in a bid to avoid undermining his native tongue. This is further compounded b sophisticated spatialized literary questioning with the aim of painting an elaborate picture of the inter-textual and socio-spatial environment in which it was crafted.

The continual use of the te reo Maori language, even with the knowledge that the book would reach an international audience, was meant to provide readers with a transnational Polynesian experience. Sullivan seeks to achieve this goal by putting the text into perspective by providing a clear account of the events that resulted in the formation of the island nation now commonly referred to as New Zealand through a multilingual text. The imbalanced power hierarchies which existed during colonial times were initially responsible for peddling imperialistic myths of British dominance and an existential threat to Maori culture (Connor, 2019). Sullivan’s approach, thus, represents a noticeable shift in relations between the colonizer and the colonized in a bid to debunk age-old axioms. The transitional tone in the entire expanse of the text is meant to challenge the status quo and serve as a drive towards cultural decolonization, ultimately resulting in emancipation. Sullivan uses reference points from his Maori culture to remind his community of their significance in contemporary times in an attempt to maintain its individuality. The Maori are the indigenous people of the island of New Zealand and with a rich cultural heritage. However, the imperialistic influence of British expansionist policies left the island reeling from the impact of this new reality and assimilation. Yet, the author still values his heritage and is ready to use it as a cultural reference point in the post-colonial era.

In conclusion, Star Waka is the embodiment of a cross-cultural intersection within the post-colonial era. The author is acutely aware of the impact of imperialism on his native Maori community and, therefore, employs a novel approach to enhance his expression while providing a Pacific experience to non- Pakkeha readers. The “writing in translation” approach was, thus, crucial in providing non-Maori readers with a clear and unadulterated account of Polynesian heritage.

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