Witi Ihimaera: New Zealand writer (1944-) | Biography
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Witi Ihimaera
New Zealand writer

Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro New Zealand writer
Is Writer Novelist Academic
From New Zealand
Field Education Literature
Gender male
Birth 7 February 1944, Gisborne, New Zealand
Age 79 years
Star sign Aquarius
Victoria University of Wellington
Queen's Service Medal 2004
The details (from wikipedia)


Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler DCNZM QSM (born 7 February 1944), generally known as Witi Ihimaera /ˈwɪti ɪhiˈmrə/, is a New Zealand author. He was the first published Māori novelist.

Early life

Ihimaera was born near Gisborne, a town in the east of New Zealand's North Island and is of Māori descent (Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki) and Anglo-Saxon descent through his father, Tom. He attended Church College of New Zealand in Temple View, Hamilton, New Zealand.


He is commonly believed to have been the first Māori writer to publish both a novel and a book of short stories.

He began to work as a diplomat at the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1973, and served at various diplomatic posts in Canberra, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Ihimaera remained at the Ministry until 1989, although his time there was broken by several fellowships at the University of Otago in 1975 and Victoria University of Wellington in 1982 (where he graduated with a BA). In 1990, he took up a position at the University of Auckland, where he became Professor, and Distinguished Creative Fellow in Māori Literature. He retired from this position in 2010.

In 2004, his nephew Gary Christie Lewis married Lady Davina Windsor, becoming the first Māori to marry into the British royal family.


Contributions to New Zealand literature and culture

Most of Ihimaera's work consists of short stories or novels. He has written a considerable number of stories, with the most notable being works such as Yellow Brick Road, Tangi, Pounamu, Pounamu, and The Whale Rider (the last of which became a film of the same name). His stories generally portray Māori culture in modern New Zealand. His work often focuses on problems within contemporary Māori society.

In 1995, Ihimaera published Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a semi-autobiographical work about a married father of two daughters coming out. The main character in the book was Pākehā (European), Ihimaera's way of keeping his personal experiences somewhat concealed. He had come out to himself in 1984 and began the work, but out of sensitivity to his daughters, did not finish or publish it then. Nights in the Gardens of Spain was filmed in 2010 (Director; Katie Wolfe – run time 76-mins featuring Calvin Tuteao in the central role of 'Kawa') with changes to the book, making the central character Māori rather than Pākehā, to more closely reflect Ihimaera's life. In an article in The Sunday Star Times Ihimaera was quoted as saying the change "was quite a shock to me because I had always tried to hide, to say this is a book that could be about 'everyman', this is not a specific story. So it (the film) is actually nearer to the truth than I would like to admit."

Ihimaera is also an occasional poet. His poem "O numi tutelar" was recited on an occasion of particular note, namely, the dawn opening of the British Museum's long-awaited 'Maori' Exhibition. Ihimaera alludes to this in the poem's italicised epigraph: “At the British Museum, London, 25 June 1998”. While the poem addresses the complicity of the British Museum within the colonial sphere of Albion's empire project, Ihimaera ultimately proclaims the virtues of the Museum as a medium for cultural exchange and revitalisation: "We are Magi, bearing gifts / and our dawn is coming". The poem's subtext hints at the narrator's struggle in coming to terms with his homosexuality. The residue of colonialism is implicated in this, with "Britannia" reconfigured as "Victoria Imperatrix", implying a legacy of imperial domination. This dexterous use of language, evidenced throughout the poem, is also apparent in the title. 'O numi tutelar' riffs on 'O nume tutelar', an aria from Spontini's opera La vestale. 'Nume' means ‘(a) god' in Italian, with 'numi' the word’s plural form. Hence the invocation late in the poem "Take heed, oh Gods of all other worlds, numi tutelar". 'Numi' is also a Māori word, translating as 'bend' or 'fold'. Here the Italian and Māori come together, with Ihimaera implementing the plurality of language, bending it to his purpose. The final word of the poem's title, Tutelar, from the Latin tutelaris, refers to a guardian or protector. The poem goes on to demonstrate that language, properly employed, can be indispensable in a tutelary role.

Literary scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago Alistair Fox in The Ship of Dreams: Masculinity in Contemporary New Zealand Fiction (2008) devotes four out of the eleven chapters in the book to the writings of Ihimaera indicating his importance within the context of New Zealand literature. Fox describes his epic novel The Matriarch as "one of the major and most telling 'monuments' of New Zealand's cultural history in the late twentieth century as far as the situation of Māori in this postcolonial society is concerned," noting that Ihimaera "has remained at the forefront of Māori arts and letters to an unprecedented degree, with an impressive output across a range of genres."

Accusations of plagiarism

In 2009 book reviewer Jolisa Gracewood detected short passages from other writers, especially from historical sources, used without acknowledgement in Ihimaera's historical novel The Trowenna Sea, a work on the early history of Tasmania. Confronted by The Listener magazine with this evidence, Ihimaera apologized for not acknowledging the passages, claiming this was inadvertent and negligent and pointing to many pages of other sources that he had acknowledged. The University of Auckland investigated the incident and ruled that Ihimaera's actions did not constitute misconduct in research, as the actions did not appear to be deliberate and Ihimaera had apologised. Ihimaera removed the book from public sale, purchasing the remaining stock himself. A revised edition, with fuller acknowledgements, originally planned for 2010, has since been cancelled.

Awards and honours

In 2004, he was made a Distinguished Companion in the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. When in 2009, Prime Minister John Key restored the honours to their pre-April 2000 state, Distinguished Companions were given the option to convert their awards into knighthoods. Witi was one of a small minority of such members to decline.



  • The Lair (1972)
  • Tangi (1973)
  • Whanau (1974)
  • The Matriarch (1986)
  • The Whale Rider (1987)
  • Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies (1994)
  • Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1995)
  • The Dream Swimmer (1997)
  • Woman Far Walking (2000)
  • The Uncle's Story (2000)
  • Sky Dancer (2004)
  • Whanau II (2004)
  • The Rope of Man (2005) - features 'Tangi', and its sequel 'The Return'
  • Band of Angels (2005)
  • The Trowenna Sea (2009)
  • The Parihaka Woman (2011)

Short stories

  • His First Ball (published 1989 in Dear Miss Mansfield)
  • The Makutu on Mrs Jones
  • The Seahorse & The Reef

Short story collections

  • A Sense of Belonging
  • Pounamu Pounamu
  • Tangi
  • The New Net Goes Fishing
  • Growing Up Māori (1989)
  • Yellow Brick Road
  • Return To Oz
  • Ask the Posts of the House
  • Dustbins
  • The Whale Rider
  • Big Brother Little Sister
  • The Escalator
  • Gathering of the Whakapapa
  • Clenched Fist
  • Catching Up
  • Passing Time
  • Kingfisher Come Home
  • Masques and Roses
  • Where's Waari?
  • The Thrill of Falling
  • "Dear Miss Mansfield"


  • "O numi tutelar"
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 10 Apr 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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