I was thrilled to meet Joanna Orwin and hear her talk of her latest book Collision at the INNZ Spring Workshop. Collision is a fictionalized account of Marion du Fresne’s French expedition to the Bay of Islands in 1772, told from the perspectives of a teenage French ensign and the recorded memories of a young Maori who was there at the time.
As a landscape architect/historian, I’ve a keen interest in the stories of those early relationships between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa’s years of settlement. So it was great to meet Joanna and learn how she tackled this delicate subject matterand interpreted these interactions from today’s perspective.
In keeping with the theme of the Conference Hard to Tell, Hard to Sell, Joanna noted the apprehension many feel at telling these stories for fear of causing offence, not getting the story right or leaving out something important. Joanna insisted that it’s vital these stories are told despite the contention. She cited the importance of seminal works such as Ann Salmon’s Two Worlds and Between Worlds that provide significant insights into the thought processes and misunderstandings that have historically occurred between Pakeha and Maori, rich grounds for moving forward and understanding each other as people. As Joanna says, “Anything that can improve empathy and understanding is worth the risk.”
Collision is an historical novel for adults published in 2009. The story itself is a dramatic one, yet not that well known. Joanna came to writing this account having already amassed a wealth of background material for the story. However she was keen to gather more, in order to ensure the story could be told as accurately as possible. After making contact with a Maori acquaintance in the Hokianga, she spent 2 weeks immersing herself in the local environment, recording interviews with her acquaintance and accessing the extensive personal library of her host. Over the fortnight Joanna learnt much about the wider Bay of Islands history and the complexity of the politics in the area, much of which had been shaped by du Fresne’s expedition.
Joanna noted that stories are always told from a participant viewpoint, and so, using the two cultural perspectives, the story follows both French and Maori versions of the same events. While telling the story from a French perspective posed its problems, telling the story from a Maori perspective was also not easy. For the Maori perspective, she eventually struck on the idea of simulating a manuscript written by her nineteenth century Maori character, translating this into English. She felt comfortable handling the material in this way, in that it would provide a more convincing exploration of the actions of her fictional character. The story portrays the mature character looking back at his experiences as a teenager at the time of du Fresne’s visit. On completion of Collision, Joanna sent a draft of the story to her Hokianga friend who believed the story to be an accurate historical account, incredulous that the character was fictitious. Joanna described this as reassuring feedback and a huge accolade in telling a complex and difficult story.
That these stories are difficult to tell makes it all the more important that we do, according to Joanna. They allow us to create a climate of trust and respect, and improve understanding between Maori and European, as we are sensitive to each others cultural perspective.