Friday, November 20, 2009

The Trowenna Sea

Witi Ihimaera's The Trowenna Sea. I work at the bookshop on a Friday, and the owners are away so no-one's shifted the stack. I pick it up and put a lime-green post-it note on top for Laurie, 'Return these to Penguin. Due to plagiarism, they are reprinting and will replace.' I wonder about keeping them and selling them as they are - after all, surely everyone knows now that there are unacknowledged passages there. Surely, in a country as small as ours, the acknowledgment has been made - legally, morally - at least in part. Isn't that enough? Look at the size of the thing - think 0.4% plagiarised -  think of the original work in there crying to be let out. Can't we get on and sell it? [note, it is already a bestseller...]

But Witi wants the book to regain its mana, he's asked for it back, and I suppose, in the end, it's his call. And his publisher supports him. Geoff Walker, my publisher too, sounded sad on the radio. He talked of their long relationship and how this would all be set right. I know how much the relationship matters to Geoff. Not long ago, he gave a dinner in Auckland for his fiction writers. He spoke of  how important we are to him. With one novel to my name, I sat next to Witi, Witi sat next to Kapka. We drank good wine and ate good food. It was a good night.

But there it is, The Trowenna Sea - green-stickered - humiliated - waiting to return.

Witi Ihimaera is a literary hero of mine  - I still remember the day I opened Pounamu Pounamu. I was a pakeha teenager with bunkbeds; it was night-time. I opened the green covers of that slim book and there was a world I didn't know existed - kicking and screaming, funny and moving, deeply alive. And then years later, Bulibasha: all that energy and charm and humour and love in the covers of one book. Whale Rider: the characters, the mythology, the magic. I can forgive Witi Ihimaera anything because he has given me so much. What's happened now can't wipe that out.

I am sickened by how fast the NZ public is to leap on a beloved writer's back and dig the spurs in, crying, 'You, storyteller, how dare you steal!' Storytelling is about stealing, writers always steal, it's just that we also have to turn what we steal inside out so it looks like something else. That is the issue. Why Witi did it, how he did it, I don't know and I can't say. I'm disappointed. I think he should have refused the money he won this week. But the spurs, people, why the spurs?

Working at a university, I know how wrong it is not to synthesise research. To put it bluntly, plagiarism is a bigger crime at university than murder - although Auckland Uni has, strangely, not demonstrated this. Anyway, all of this is about protecting original thought. I get that, so does Professor Witi Ihimaera. Hence the recall. Hence the green sticker. Let it rest at that.


Tim Jones said...

There's a refrain in a folk song:

"There but for fortune go you or go I"

And that's pretty much how I feel about this. Witi Ihimaera made a mistake, but that's what it is - not a capital crime. I like your perspective on the whole matter.

Clive Gash said...

Hi Mary,

Next time I write something, I'll plagiarise your novel. This is okay because I sat next to you at dinner once. I honestly swear to protect original thought.

Yours etc
Prof. Clive Gash

Law and Order said...

Hi Mary,

I love all of Witi's work, and was deeply disappointed when I heard about this but after reading your post I feel less so. I agree - let it rest at that. Thanks for posting.

Mary McCallum said...

Hey Clive (Prof) - Groovy! I'd love to know which sliver you'll take [for we are talking slivers aren't we?] - but remind me of your publishing record first? I want to know my words are in good company... said...

Ah, but Mary it is not the story that has been stolen, but the words to tell the story. And Witi has already rewritten work for his own reasons, so why not this piece (for good reasons) - Jolisa Gracewood challenges him to make it a better novel by losing the bits that are not in his voice and having confidence in his own voice - I don't think anyone has had pleasure in this. Hence, initially the pall of silence - and when you say "spurs" - then I feel that is not quite true, as the issue and the man to me are separate - we all love Witi - hence his Laureate award - I don't think many (if any, or apart from silly Paul Holmes being vengeful) feel pleased to have this happen - but the issue of plagiarism and professionalism within a university should be able to be debated, without it being seen as a personal attack on Witi. And, as we all know, there is no such thing as bad publicity - so here's hoping the original copies are snapped up as collectors items and the new version is a roaring success.

David Cohen said...

I’m not a fan of Ihimaera’s writing. But I don’t think he should have returned the money, and I don’t believe he should be offering public apologies. It’s all very well for the likes of Stead to accuse his academic rival (?) of sullying the creative process, but the fact is, nothing in this game is entirely cut from new cloth. As I understand it, the relatively tiny bit of material Ihimaera took liberties with was already in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright. In any event, if any other author was affected by his action, we’re yet to hear from them.

So what we’re left with controversy-wise is nothing more (or less) than a derivative author. Big deal.

Anonymous said...

Much of the material is from recent books, with living authors, and very much covered by copyright.

And even with works in the public domain, there is still the matter of passing it off as your own.

I don't mean to be applying "spurs" here, just adding a couple of facts to the mix.

Tania Roxborogh said...

Dianne Brown, in her Here Comes Another Vital Moment, says something along of the lines of this (and I'm too lazy to go find her book and find the passage) 'Such is our predatory nature...we are word thieves; scene stealers' or something like that. It is as you say. And, it is, as you say, our job of writers to turn it inside out and filter it back to the world through our own unique lens.

This whole situation has given me much pause for thought because right now I'm having to do a shite lot of reading about really tedious things to do with 11th Century shipping and battles and religious ceremonies.

On the one hand, I don't want people criticising me for being historically wrong. (A few have already tried but they are wrong, not me, so I'm nonplussed about their erroneous assumptions) but that I might INADVERTENTLY incorporate someone else's phrase into my narrative without realising that it had become part of my psyche is a huge stress.

People criticise me for using words not used in 11th C even though I said I was using 17th C words. They said some of the phrases are ‘too modern’ yet the ones they’ve quoted have come directly from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and 12th Night.

What I’m saying here, I think, and as I said on Beattie’s Blog, I am disinclined to join the others who have so quickly rallied to throw stones at a man who’s book Whanau was the first ever non children’s book I read as a child. (My step-brother won it as a school prize). I loved it for exactly the opposite reasons you loved Poumamu Poumanu – here was a story which told my story which all it’s glory and heartache and laughter and tears and violence.

Sad for him. And sad that people have been so horribly and unforgiving. Whoops – stuff up. Could happen to you, Mary. Or me. Or Jones. Or Alterio. Could. Shouldn’t but it might so we all have to be careful.

Fifi Colston said...

In art it is called appropriation.
Look at the Four Square Grocer man, then Dick Frizzells fabulous and now iconic 'Grocer with Moko and the variations, then Shane Cotton's version of Dick's work, 'Sold'.
In each artwork something has been added in the interpretation whilst still retaining some original line and content. Isn't Whiti's work an interpretation?

Mary McCallum said...

Kia ora all - thanks for all the interesting comments - how the battle rages eh?

A couple of responses from me...

Maggie, you're right the university should be able to look at the plagiarism issue in its own court, so to speak, but creative work always sits oddly in the university structure - they don't really know what to do with it sometimes it seems.

David, let's be honest, you've probably never read Witi as you don't read NZ fiction - however, as usual, you made me see a contradiction in my argument - why should Witi hand back the dosh when I believe the issue's been dealt with? It suppose it just seemed to me bad form to collect it...

And Tania, thank you for that fascinating comment on the business of being a history author - I felt much like you when I was writing The Blue, that I trod a thin line between my stuff and all the other stuff. It's not easy at all -

Finally, Fi, it's a genre thing I think - people accept different things in novels from poetry, which appropriate stuff all over the place, and different things again from paintings ...

Unknown said...

For everyone digging in their spurs, pointing out facts or throwing around literary protocols, I challenge you to read the book and then comment. (...and please forgive me if you have and still feel you need to do so!)

However, I have never had the priviledge of finishing a book so soon after it was published. The ink is barely dry! Like the other Ihimaera books I've read (at least 3), it is wonderful, special, unique and powerful.

I was in NZ visiting my family when it was recommended by my F.A.B sister. I bought her a copy for Christmas and savored one for myself on the long journey back to where I live in Switzerland. I didn't start it until I was back in Switzerland and coping with missing my whanau, land and sea.

The story of Hohepa and his fellow chiefs who were transported to Tasmania (where my family has also lived for many years) provided me with great comfort as I adjusted to again being an expat in a foreign land and culture.

Witi Ihimaera apologised as soon as the plagiarism was pointed out. The book is fantastic. Let it be reprinted. Let the current versions be composted if necessary but please do not stand in the way of it selling, prolifically and spreading New Zealands' terrific and unique history around our nation and around the world.

Thank you Witi Ihimaera for continuing to write such awesome books. How you manage to capture the sensibilities of every character whose eyes the stories are told through, I marvel at.

I look forward to re-reading the Matriach and Dream Swimmer at leat and to picking up the others you've written too!