A woman who is stranded in the United States, where she was seeking adventures but is increasingly feeling homesick. Never able to fully arrive in this country the woman wanders through the streets of New York one day until she finally enters a museum that eventually helps her realize that she must go home again to feel whole again. This is the core plot of the short story “Transient”, written by Kellly Joseph.
“And I cry for myself, thousands of miles from home, struggling to stay strong but failing miserably. I don’t know how I strayed so far from my beginnings.”
A relatable woman
Reading this story, I was quickly involved, it reminded me of my own experience of leaving my home country and diving in a new and different culture, remote from my roots and familiar surroundings. A major difference to the woman in the story was that I knew the day I would travel home, though, hence I never reached a point of comparable desperation.
Right from the beginning, I was able to sympathize with the female protagonist because of the intimate emotions and thoughts we are presented with. Being “the same awkward, shy-arse girl” is a thought I could relate to, which got me invested in the story and encouraged me to continue reading. I really liked the chain of events that emerged afterwards. Busy city, busy people and no one noticing what is really going on around them. Anonymous in the crowd, just like a beggar, the only person who notices her breaking out into tears at the exhibition. This little twist towards the end that builds a bridge to the beginning reminded me of a spiral inside the story, which in turn made me think of whakapapa, the way Māori look at their heritage.
“Surrounded by thousands of displaced objects, I know what must be done.”
Displaced like an exhibit
As the story draws to a close, the protagonist concludes that she must reconnect with her roots. Though it was clear to me that the story could only end in this decision, I enjoyed the metaphor of the museum, making the woman one of many exhibits that are out of place. By relating to one exhibited object in particular, and seeing it in a larger context of displacement, she is able to grasp the severity of her own loneliness and homesickness. All in all, the story was successful in conveying a sense of what it feels like to be out of place, surrounded by strangers in a strange place.
Calling all Kiwis and music lovers! And no, I am not talking about the fruit, but rather about Aoteoroa/ New Zealand, since this blog entry focuses on the music of this country’s biggest reggae rock fusion band Six60.
The single “Don’t Forget Your Roots“ of the five-member band from Dunedin was released in 2011 and reached number 2 on the New Zealand Singles Charts. In the past decade, this song has become somewhat of a ‘Kiwi anthem’.
The 2011 release, however, is not where the evolution and importance of the song ends. In September 2019, Six60 released a new Māori version: “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō / Don’t Forget Your Roots“ in the collection Waiata / Anthems of re-recorded New Zealand pop songs to promote Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week).
In the chorus of this song, Six60 reminds the listener of how important it is to remember our own roots, since they include our family and friends, but also our inner self – what we truly are: “the ones who made us – brought us here”. It deals with the idea of Indigenous heritage and identity and why you should be thankful and proud of it. Neglecting these roots easily leads to them being lost.
To further highlight the importance of what is said in the chorus, Six60 introduces a man (Johnny) and a woman (Jesse), who both are detached from their roots in Aotearoa after leaving their home which “armed them with power”. This results in them being lost in two ways: 1. They lack Māori values and morals and 2. the connection to their roots and their whānau (family), who are the only people that truly matter, becomes tenuous. Overall, both experience a disconnection from their origin. They are displaced and have lost their sense of belonging by leaving their homeland. The concept of loss applies to the man and woman as individuals, but also to their community – “He/She lost the faith of all those who mattered so…” Additionally, Six60 conveys a combination of nostalgia and homesickness with the simple words: “Don’t forget your roots…”
But only if no return is intended.
Representing Māori culture through music and language
Even though the band members all have Māori roots, they did not grow up with the language or culture, yet feel deeply connected to it. Their intention of releasing the song in Māori was to learn more about their culture and understand their origin – their roots. They wanted to provide a song of familiar lyrics that communicates their culture using Te Reo.
But why is music so important to remember your roots?
Well, wherever you are, in New Zealand or overseas, the distinctive sounds used in songs such as “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō“ can conjure up images of home. Translating popular songs from English to Māori can deepen empathy and provides a solution for the absence of communication between Māori and non-Māori by encouraging discourse. Embracing Māori culture, the waka, the whānau – community and music can convey heritage and is a start to help non-Māori engage with the language and culture. At the same time, it is dangerous to base one’s understanding of a foreign culture solely on one song, since Maori offer a diverse culture with many traditions and also contradictions.
My personal connection to the song goes back almost to its initial release. I first visited a Six60 concert in 2012 in German. When the band sang “Don’t Forget Your Roots”, those who were Māori in the audience, all far away from home, started a haka. It first got me thinking about the connection between music and culture. Whenever I listen to the song now, it also reminds me of my time spent abroad and the people I met.
And as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, friends and family remain apart from one another as we understand the importance of connecting, which includes doing it through Te Reo Māori.
At a concert in 2020, Six60 further combined the song’s new version with a performance of the haka, making the concert uniquely New Zealand by giving the crowd a taste of the country’s distinct Indigenous culture. Now they do it at every single concert worldwide on tour to reconnect with their homeland. Additionally, singing the song is a reminder for them that even if they are on the other side of the world, when they return to Aoteoroa the following quote:
i haere Māori atu, i hoki Māori mai
I left as a Māori, and I have returned as a Māori
applies to them.
To me this performance combined with the haka is filled with a celebration of the Māori culture since the Māori performers get the opportunity to proudly present their traditions and language on a big stage – it cuts through that fear of not being able to express and give Māori back their sovereignty by pushing the unspoken tension between Māori and non-Māori to the side and saying: here is a place for all to gather, unite and sing. Including Te Reo Māori and the haka, therefore, can enrich New Zealand’s music scene and empower national athletes, but some songs also engage worldwide audiences. Embracing the language should be as simple as not forgetting one’s roots … or family.
In an interview, the front singer of Six60 Matiu Walters stated that he noticed more understanding of the culture and an acceptance of songs in Māori especially in New Zealand, which has been a good thing to see. He further suggests that it is something the band helped push by redoing their song in Māori. The translation followed the dream to make Māori music in future not only usable for a political purpose or for social currency but also for the daily and ordinary life.
This is exactly what the band is doing with their new song “Pepeha“, which deals with their personal experience of learning about their actual pepeha – the way of introducing yourself in Māori. It tells people who you are by sharing your connections with the people and places that are important to you. By writing the song, the band was able to acknowledge and further explore their heritage. It helped them connect to their whakapapa and whenua. A pepeha shows their connection to the physical and spiritual place they call home. This anthemic waiata links significant things – prestige, love, and family – with their environment and to their ancestors.
Matiu Walters said they wanted to try to write a pepeha for all New Zealanders, whether you were born there, or you moved there and decided to make Aotearoa your home.
He further stated that the goal of their music is to always transcend any categories and have it all “feeling-based” since it’s what they like about music: It makes you feel a certain way and you can succumb to that feeling and forget about everything else, all the small things in life and just go along with the song.
However, there are a couple of critical voices on the band’s use of music and Te Reo as a way of public reconnection arguing that songs such as “Pepeha“ disregard the sanctity of cultural practices and do not consider the right translation nor provide the listener with the deep meaning Māori terms can carry.
Would you agree with the critics? Let me know in the comments!
Is it the place where one grew up? The place where one is living now? The place where one’s ancestors lived?
Or is home defined by the people with whom one lives together? Family. Friends. Neighbours. Those people surely are needed to make a simple geographical location into a home. Connection to a place is often tied to experiences, shared between a certain group of people.
Māori culture and literature can show us how ambivalent and varied the perception of home may be. As Polynesians, Māori have a nomadic history where mobility and the impetus to find a new home play a huge role. Even today, after living in Aotearoa for hundreds of years, the mythical home island of Hawaiki (where Māori originally came from) is central to Māori spirituality and folklore. The connection to one’s ancestors and family also is an important part of Māori culture. Whakapapa (genealogy) is an integral part of identity for Māori people.
“Transient” is a short story about the uprooting and feeling of disconnection a lot of Māori (and Indigenous people in general) are confronted with. It mostly takes place in New York and is written from the perspective of a Māori woman living in the US.
Deep down I ache constantly for home and family. I have flown back a few times but things have changed since I left. It’s clear to me that my homesickness is not just longing for a place; it’s a yearning for people and a time that have passed, that no longer exist and that can never be reached again.
This part of the short story shows the struggle with being disconnected from the place where, and people with whom, you feel at home. Even though the protagonist has been living in the States for five years already, she is still homesick and feels foreign in her new “home”. This may also be connected to the struggle of all Māori people after the arrival of the people who are now called Pākehā. Like a lot of other Indigenous peoples, Māori had their home stolen (in a geographical and cultural sense). Their land was forcefully taken from them or was purloined through unfair contracts (most guarantees to Māori in those contracts were not maintained). Additionally, Māori people were (directly or indireclty) forced to live like Pākehā people did and were encouraged to abandon their spiritual beliefs. These experiences may have led Māori people to travel to other countries in the hope of finding a new home, a chance to get different tools to fight for their rights back in Aotearoa, or as a means of proving their worth (e.g. the Māori Battalion in the Second World War).
An uprooting is also shown in the short story through the waka huia, an item which may have been stolen and is now exhibited in the museum the protagonist decided to visit. A waka huia is an intimate object which contains personal treasures and is exchanged between different generations, families and tribes. It was often displayed hanging from the ceiling in traditional Māori whare (houses), hence part of a family’s home. In my opinion the waka huia symbolizes the violation of Māori people through colonialism and imperialism. Both the waka huia and the protagonist are uprooted from their homes and stuck in a foreign place. While one could argue that the protagonist is studying in the States of her own volition, I believe that it shows that even though Māori people aren’t direct colonial subjects in today’s world, the collective uprooting that was done to them in the past and the social and cultural problems caused by that still have considerable repercussions on contemporary Māori society.
In conclusion, I think that “Transient” does a good job of showing the relation of Māori to their home and the personal problems and feelings they are confronted with due to the continuous violent occupation of their home. It’s not possible to understand the problems Māori face in today’s world and the society of Aotearoa without understanding the connection between Māori and their home, which is why I believe that it’s important to read literature written by Māori authors.
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