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Pioneering Mâori Author Receive Honorary Doctorate

Pioneering Mâori author to receive Honorary Doctorate

Distinguished Mâori novelist, short story writer, anthologist and librettist, Witi Ihimaera is to receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Victoria University.

He will receive an honorary Doctor of Literature degree at the University's graduation ceremonies in May 2004.

Of Te Whanau a Kai, Aitanga-â-Mahaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngâti Porou descent, Witi Ihimaera has close affiliations to Tûhoe, Te Whânau-a-Apanui, Kahungunu and Ngai Tamanuhiri.

He also has strong links with Victoria University, graduating in 1971 with a BA and returning 11 years later in 1982 as the University’s Writer in Residence. His personal papers, drafts and literary memorabilia are exclusively lodged with the University’s library.

The successful film adaptation of his magical book Whale Rider, 1987, is currently enjoying wide acclaim among international cinema-goers and reviewers. It won the prestigious People's Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, 2002, and has subsequently won further awards at film festivals at Rotterdam, Sundance, San Francisco, Seattle and Maui (Hawaii).

A cadet journalist and postman, Witi Ihimaera was one of the first Maori career diplomats with a distinguished 15-year career of service in Wellington, Canberra, New York and Washington. He helmed, in the 1980s, with a group of brilliant colleagues, the establishment of Ngati Aorere marae for all Foreign Affairs personnel, the first such marae within a government department and a model for innovative bicultural policies throughout the public service.

Latterly an academic, Witi Ihimaera began writing at an early age and saw his craft as a way of expressing his experience of being Mâori. Since the early 1970s he has continued to make a major contribution to New Zealand literature having produced eight novels (his ninth is due in November), five books of short stories, three operas (Waituhi, 1984, Tanz Der Schwane, 1992, and Galileo, 2002) and a play (Woman Far Walking, 2000) which has been performed repeatedly in New Zealand and overseas in the past two-and-a-half years. Tanz Der Schwane, composed by Professor Ross Harris, was premiered at Victoria University.

Ihimaera has also greatly encouraged writing by other Mâori writers, artists and historians through his activities as an editor, anthologist and his active participation in New Zealand arts and culture formulation. His editions include the groundbreaking anthology of Maori writing, Into the World of Light (1982), the fascinating stories of Growing up Mâori (1998), the surveys of Maori art Mataora: The Living Face (1999) and Te Ata: Maori Art From the East Coast (2002), and the monumental five volume Te Ao Mârama series of contemporary Mâori writing.

He was a founder member of the Maori Writers and Artists Society, which spearheaded the Maori cultural renaissance in the 1960s, and was an inaugural member of the QE2 Arts Council of New Zealand (now Creative New Zealand) in the 1970s.

Ihimaera served on the Arts Council three times and guided the establishment of MASPAC (now Te Waka Toi), an organisation which has had a crucial role in maintaining and funding all Maori arts in New Zealand. He was a member of the Heart of the Nation Task Force, 2000, reporting to the Prime Minister on a cultural strategy for New Zealand. He has maintained a career of public service, and is currently a trustee of the Books in Prisons Trust and a director of Learning Media.

Born in Gisborne in 1944, Witi Ihimaera has the distinction of being both the first Mâori writer to publish a book of short stories (Pounamu Pounamu, 1972) and the first to publish a novel (Tangi, 1973). Some of his most loved fiction deals with what he has called “landscapes of the heart” and is based on his experiences of growing up in the village settlement of Waituhi near Gisborne. Thirty years after Pounamu, Pounamu he has rewritten the stories for a new 2003 edition and will follow this up with new rewritten versions of Tangi and Whanau.

A Burns fellow in 1975, he was awarded an Arts Council Scholarship in Letters in 1991, and in 1993 travelled to Menton, France as the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellow.

His work has been recognised with many major awards including the Wattie and Montana New Zealand Book Awards for the novels Tangi, The Matriarch, and Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies. The Matriarch was written during his writer’s residence at Victoria University in 1982.

The breadth and depth of his work is evidenced in a body of writing that ranges from the compelling study of gay culture in Auckland, Nights in the Garden of Spain, 1996, to a book for children, The Little Kowhai Tree, published last year. He was chairman of Te Waka Awhina Tane, the first support organisation for gay Maori and Polynesian men and women in Auckland.

Witi Ihimaera now lives in Auckland where he is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Auckland University teaching and mentoring students in courses on Maori, Pacific and Asian literatures and in creative writing.

Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon says the decision to award the honorary doctorate was in recognition of Witi Ihimaera’s powerful documentation of the 20th Century experience of rural and urban Mâori.

“Through the years, Witi Ihimaera has made a major contribution to New Zealand literature both as a pioneering author and mentor to other Mâori writers.

“With great human detail, he cleverly captures and portrays Mâori culture, history and politics in a way that singles him out as a writer with unparalleled credentials,” Professor McCutcheon says.

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