History and Geography in Once Were Warriors

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

Of all the novels we read, Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors most obviously addresses postcolonial premises for change. As part of this address, Duff particularly emphasizes the spatial characteristics of his setting. The Maori slum of Pine Block, for example, consists of "a mile-long picture of the same thing; all the same, just two-storey, side-by-side misery boxes" (1). Hard to miss the implications of "misery boxes" there: the houses are all identical, all dilapidated, all imprisoning. Further, these houses have taken on the miserable characteristics of their residents. Or perhaps vice-versa, and the miserable condition of the neighborhood has helped determine the condition of the Maoris who live there. In any case, Pine Blockers are locked into misery, pain, and suffering, and no premises for change appear at hand.

Pine Block is a Maori cultural wasteland as well as a spatial one. Hardly anybody speaks the language, and the Maori culture of old has been bastardized where not forgotten entirely, with proud warriorhood degenerating into bullying abuse (2). The kohango reo movement to rehabilitate the Maori language and teach it in the classroom attempts to address these concerns, but in the absence of a broader premise shift, speaking Maori does little good and can even breed resentment. As Beth puts it, "What damn use are your formal speeches, elders, in a tongue most of us don't understand and never will understand...this kohango reo stuff, what use when a race is tearing itself apart?" (116).

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Zealand Once Were