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2024 Writer in Residence reconnects with heritage at Waikato – University of Waikato

Dedicating the year to writing his first novel isn’t the only positive thing about being named the Kaipukahu University of Waikato Writer in Residence for 2024.

Award-winning children’s author, poet and writer, Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī Kahukura, Ngāti Paoa), says this year is not only about writing a novel that’s been on his mind for years, but about reconnecting with his people, te reo Māori and whakapapa.

“The project I proposed to come here, I was almost hesitant to put it down. It sounds like some clever guy sat down and tried to think up a project that is purpose-built for this residency, but this is what I wanted to do – so here I am,” says Ben.

Ben arrived on campus in January and will spend the next 12 months working on his novel, Kaore Au E Mate Rānei – Neither Shall I Die, a novel disguised as a non-fiction biography.

Its subject, Moko, born at sunset as a ship’s cannon roars on the 6 February 1840 at Waitangi, is a Kīngitanga and Hau Hau warrior, Pai Mārire mystic, Parihaka ploughman, artisan, pounamu gatherer, and more. His story begins and ends in Waikato.

“It’s a personal relationship between the author and the world the character inhabits. The book itself is an impossible premise – I’m sitting down having a conversation with a 186-year-old man and that’s the gist of it.”

Having spent his whole life in Motueka, Ben recently moved to Hamilton for the residency – an award jointly funded by the University and Creative New Zealand.

“I’m 62 years old and I’ve never felt settled anywhere except at work. If I can pick up my laptop, I can go anywhere. I believe in what I do; I’m a storyteller, and good storytelling is effective. It’s how we map out our lives and where we fit in with each other and the world around us.”

Ben has written many children’s books, non-fiction works, and short stories. He has performed throughout New Zealand and his work has been published around the world.

Ben began writing children’s books in 1992, often collaborating with his former wife, the illustrator Helen Taylor. The pair published more than 15 books, including Ngā Raukura Rima Tekau M ā Rima (2005), A Fish in the Swim of the World (2006), Between the Kindling and the Blaze: Reflections on the Concept of Mana (2013), and A Booming in the Night (2006), which won the Best Picture Book award in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2006.

In 2009, Ben was the writer in residence at Hagley College, Christchurch, and was awarded the Māori Writer’s Residency at the Michael Kings Writers’ Centre in 2011. In 2021 Brown was named New Zealand’s first Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador.

“Kupapa Ki Raro. Titiro Ake! He haratau noo teenei whakataukii a Ngaati Koroki-Kahukura moo te mahi a Ben ki konei ki Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato. He whakahokinga i a ia ki tōna ūkaipō, he oti raa ki toona whakapapa, ngaa koorero i tuku iho i oona tuupuna, me toona reo rangatira,” says Professor Tom Roa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato).

“This Ngaati Koroki-Kahukura proverb is most fitting in Ben’s joining us here on the University of Waikato campus with its connection to his Ngaati Koroki-Kahukura and Ngaati Hauaa whakapapa, the reconnecting with his people, and the voice of his ancestors – te reo Māori.

“The proverb asserts a bowing of one’s head in humility but always looking upward and outward to improve not only one’s own lot but that of one’s people.”

As part of the residency, Ben wants to bring his play ‘Ma Te Wa’ – a piece he wrote for the Lyttleton Arts Festival in 2022 – to the Hamilton campus.

Post-residency, Ben will stay in Waikato to write the biography of the late Sir Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta, the founding director of Te Kotahi Research Institute at the University of Waikato in 1972.

Ben was offered the job of Sir Robert’s PA and researcher in 1984 but declined the position due to a recent accident.

“I was 21, fresh out of hospital and still recovering from a bike smash, with a few more years of recovering ahead. I was in no fit state, really,” says Ben.

Ben was first approached to write the biography in 2014 by Sir Robert’s son, but the project was put on hold until late 2023.

“I was approached again, this time with a very detailed proposal offering me a commission to write his biography. Anyway, I said ‘yes, absolutely’,” he says.

“He never said so, but Robert always gave me the impression that ‘one day you’ll be back in Waikato’.

“And here I am.”

 

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