Working Your Way Out: Building Premises for Change in Once Were Warriors

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

Given the relation between language and despair, it seems only natural that the hopeful transformation in Once Were Warriors arises from extra-discursive events, namely Grace's suicide and funeral. Ironically, and yet somehow fittingly, Grace's death represents the death of potential, a word she so passionately identified with and despaired over. Potential, after all, involves a promise of the current structure, a promise emerging from things as they exist. With Grace expires even the hope of this kind of promise. Promises, of course, signify something radically different from premises, invoking the successful exploitation of the current rather than a launching place for change. Grace's suicide sparks a remarkable transformation in Beth's character -- among other things, she kicks Jake out of the house and embarks on a program to help Maoris reclaim their true warriorhood and their cultural pride and power. Once again, this transformation relates intimately to language and translation. Note that Beth's complaints about the futility of the kohango reo movement make way for hope only when an aunt of hers begins translating into English the Maori speeches of the elders who attend Grace's funeral. With that translation and understanding, Beth begins to change. Two major premise-shifts follow: Beth's house shifts from one among many anti-premises of lost potential and spiralling despair into a premise for Maori invention and hope; and the street shifts from Jake's punishment to his pseudo-redemption when he befriends a lost child. Places and words have changed meanings; by the end of the novel, Maoris are not pent-up so much as ready to begin. Pine Block in general, and Beth's house in particular, has become a premise for change. The descriptions of the Maori elders'weekend speeches hosted by Beth beautifully capture this moment of premise-shift:

Yet you, most of you gathered here -- stabbing his finger this time -- You have been enduring your pain like -- like -- Seeming to be struggling for a word and not like him they knew that much of him. Like slaves! It hissed out of him (174).

Language fails, shifts, and then explodes. Or, as a Maori observer sums up the whole process (and, I would offer, sums up the thesis of the novel): "he just toldem: Work! We work our way out. Same way as we lazed ourselves into this mess" (185). Note the command to work our way out. The triumphant postcolonial vision requires starting out somewhere, starting out with real, overdetermined contemporary premises. History is not wiped clean, but rather employed as a necessary lauching pad for successful social change.

Overview New
Zealand Once Were