The first Maori writer to publish both a book of short stories and a novel, Witi Ihimaera considers ‘the world I’m in as being Maori, not European,’ and his fiction develops out of this perspective. He creates imaginative new realities for his readers, drawing from autobiographical experience. In 1996 he also moved to foreground his sexuality, describing Nights in the Gardens of Spain as keeping faith with his gay audience. He writes new work for opera and his novel, The Whale Rider, has become an internationally successful feature film.
Place of residence: Wellington, New Zealand
Witi Ihimaera shared the 1975 Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago with Sam Hunt.
He has received awards three times at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards: third place for Pounamu, Pounamu in 1973, first place for Tangi in 1974, and first place for The Matriarch in 1986. In 1995, he was awarded first place at the Montana Book Awards (later renamed the Montana New Zealand Book Awards), for Bulibasha.
Ihimaera was the 1993 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France.
In 1997, he published The Dream Swimmer (Penguin, 1997), a sequel to his 1986 novel The Matriarch. The novel continues the odyssey of Tama Mahana, heir apparant to the Mahana clan of the East Coast. On his return to New Zealand from Canada, Tama is reminded of his destiny: to lead his tribe to Parliament to petition for the return of Maori land confiscated during the Land Wars. In The Dream Swimmer, mana, power and boldness are once again the hallmarks of Ihimaera's style as he negotiates a story of breadth and breathtaking climaxes. (Penguin Press Release)
Mataora, the Living Face: Contemporary Maori Artists, edited by Witi Ihimaera, Sandy Adsett and Cliff Whiting received the Montana Award for Illustrative Arts at the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
The Uncle's Story (2000) is a powerful love story which illustrates the cyclical nature of destiny, courageously confronting Maori attitudes to sexuality and masculinity.
The Little Kowhai Tree (2002) is written by Witi Ihimaera and illustrated by Henry Campbell. A lonely little Kowhai tree longs for a brother to keep her company. When her wish is granted, she is left to protect him in a forest crowded with fairy tale creatures, nosy weka, inconsiderate pigs and chainsaw-wielding woodcutters. Will he survive?
The Whale Rider was first published in 1978 and has been reprinted numerous times. It is one of Ihimaera's best-loved books by adults and younger readers alike. In January 2003 it was released as a movie on international screens. Filmed on the East Coast of New Zealand, the film has been widely acclaimed and seen in cinemas around the world.
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera has won the coveted Nielsen BookData New Zealand Booksellers' Choice Award, an established acknowledgement of the books that booksellers throughout the country have most enjoyed reading, selling and promoting.
Ihimaera: His Best Stories, the Anniversary Collection (2003). Witi Ihimaera's first book, Pounamu, Pounamu was first published in 1972. In this anniversary publication he offers a personal choice of stories accompanied by author notes.
In 2003 Ihimaera travelled to the Brisbane Writers Festival as part of a Book Council Trans-Tasman Exchange.
Pounamu Pounamu: The Anniversary Collection (2003) was first published in 1972, it collects stories about Maori within settings that are Maori.
In 2004 Witi Ihimaera received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Victoria University of Wellington.
Sky Dancer (2003) takes legend to the skies in an awesome battle between the land birds and the sea birds. A book for young and old, Maori and Pakeha, Ihimaera moves the reader between centuries in a story that is both modern and ancient.
Sky Dancer (2003) was shortlisted for Best Book in the South Pacific & South East Asian Region of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
Whanau II: The Anniversary Collection (Reed, 2004) represents an unprecedented return by a contemporary novelist to the characters he first wrote about thirty years ago.
In 2004 Witi Ihimaera received funding from Fulbright New Zealand to take up an annual short-term residency in World Literature at George Washington University, Washington DC.
Ihimaera's novella 'The Halcyon Summer' appears in Nine New Zealand Novellas, edited by Peter Simpson (Reed, 2005). This is a companion volume to the bestselling Seven New Zealand Novellas.
The Rope of Man was published by Reed in 2005.
Children's book The Amazing Adventures of Razza the Rat (Reed, 2006), the story of a danger-loving, adventurous rat, was inspired by a real rat that made headlines around the world.
Ask at the Posts of the House (Raupo Publishing Ltd, 2008) was on the longlist for the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
In 2009, Penguin New Zealand published His Best Stories, a collection of twenty-four stories from the writer's career, chosen by Ihimaera himself. The stories span more than thirty-five years, and showcase his incredible range and originality.
Ihimaera's work of fiction, The Trowenna Sea (Raupo, 2009), tells the story of Maori prisoners sent to Tasmania for opposing the New Zealand government in the 1840s. Convicted of insurrection, Hohepa Te Umuroa and four companions are transported to Hobart. Ismay Glossop and her doctor husband have also come to Tasmania, and their lives intersect with unexpected consequences.
Witi Ihimaera was one of five Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureates in 2009. Along with Anne Noble, Chris Knox, Lyonel Grant and Richard Nunns he received $50,000, which is to celebrate the laureates' past achievements and invest in their future.
In late 2009 Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea (Raupo) attracted significant media controversy. Reviewer Jolisa Gracewood identified a number of uncredited passages in the novel that appeared to be extracted unchanged from several historical and academic works.
Gracewood’s allegations appeared in the New Zealand Listener, and quickly became national news. Some media commentators attacked Ihimaera. Karl du Fresne, writing in the Nelson Mail, suggested ‘a cloud of suspicion now hangs over’ his body of work. Auckland University was also criticised by academics from New Zealand and overseas for failing to adequately acknowledge the seriousness of plagiarism. However Lawrence Jones, writing in the Otago Daily Times, acknowledged that while Ihimaera’s plagiarism is inexcusable it only forms a tiny component of the novel and was due to ‘carelessness about sources, excessive haste, and maybe taking a few shortcuts,’ rather than a concerted effort to steal from other authors. He also felt that Ihimaera, ‘as a Māori, a gay man, an award-winning writer and a professor at the University of Auckland, […] is a target for a variety of prejudices,’ and unfortunately these obscured what could have been a productive debate on the nature of plagiarism in post-modern fiction.
The revelation of plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea came two weeks before Ihimaera was due to receive an Arts Foundation Laureate Award. Ihimaera agreed to purchase all unsold copies of The Trowenna Sea and publisher Penguin NZ agreed to buy back retail stock on request.
Witi Ihimaera was also honoured with the premiere Māori arts award Te Tohutiketike a Te Waka Toi at the 2009 Creative New Zealand Te Waka Toi Awards. Ihimaera joined a luminary list of past recipients of Te Tohutiketike a Te Waka Toi including Sir Howard Morrison, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and the late renowned master carver Pakariki Harrison and esteemed weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa. The premiere award acknowledges the work of individuals who are exemplary in their chosen field of artistic endeavour. Witi Ihimaera will receive this award at a ceremony at his home marae, Rongopai, in January 2010. Ihimaera made the following acknowledgement, 'To be given Maoridom's highest cultural award, well, it's recognition of the iwi. Without them, I would have nothing to write about and there would be no Ihimaera. So this award is for all those ancestors who have made us all the people we are. It is also for the generations to come, to show them that even when you aren't looking, destiny has a job for you to do.'
The fourth edition of Nights in the Garden of Spain was published by Raupo in 2010. Witi Ihimaera was interviewed by Selina Tusitala Marsh in the anthology, Words Chosen Carefully, edited by Siobhan Harvey (Cape Catley Ltd, 2010).
Witi Ihimaera’s twelfth novel The Parihaka Woman was published by Random House in 2011.
The Thrill of Falling, a collection of short stories, was published by Random House in 2012. In these stories Ihimaera continues his exploration of the novella and the long story begun in Ask The Posts of the House (2007) with a new set of intriguing narratives: urban fiction in 'Maggie Dawn'; contemporary comedy in 'We'll Always Have Paris'; the science fiction novella in 'Purity of Ice'; the new genre of conservation fiction in 'Orbis Terrarium'; the different ways of telling history in the title story; and an adaptation into novella, 'One More Night', of Albert Belz's play Whero's New Net, which itself was adapted from stories in Ihimaera's second short story collection, The New Net Goes Fishing (1976).
In late 2014 Witi Ihimaera released the first volume of his memoirs, Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood (Random House NZ). It is the first instalment of a journey through Witi Ihimaera’s life, covering his formative years until the age of fifteen.
During an interview aired on Radio New Zealand National, Witi Ihimaera said that he 'had to bite the bullet and take off the veil' when writing memoirs, as the story was not only his but rather one shared by his community. He states, 'It's not just about me. It's about this valley, it's about a Māori story that draws its inspiration from oral traditions. It's about what we were like in the 1940s and 1950s.'
Last updated April, 2015.
- Witi Ihimaera interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand National
- Witi Ihimaera’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File
- Witi Ihimaera features in the Christchurch City Libraries interviews with NZ Children's Authors
- Witi Ihimaera on the Fantastic Fiction site
- Witi Ihimaera in an Auckland Herald feature article
- Witi Ihimaera on the Arts Foundation site
- Book Council Review of Reviews: The Parihaka Woman