Lynn Jenner's launch speech for The Burning River

I’ve been told that a launch speech should be very short and that its plot should move quickly to its climax at which point I find an original and witty way to say buy this book. So here is the crux. The Burning River is book is an important as well as a fantastic read. It is a rattling good story. There will be places where you just can’t put it down. It will probably make Lorry very uncomfortable when I say this, but I believe it is also an important book for Pākehā writing in Aoteraoa New Zealand right now.

It is a privilege to be asked to share the moment of its launch with Lorry and his various families. Tonight Lorry has several of his families here. One of those is the VUP family which has made Lorry’s manuscript into this book and who are the hosts tonight. I met Lorry in the PhD programme at IIML and very much value being part of Lorry’s writing family. All the families overlap of course because this is Wellington and this is Aotearoa.

The Burning River has families and relationships in its sights. Relationships between individuals, within and between families, between tribes, relationships with the past and the future, relationships with the land and relationships between cultures, are all in the mix, and all of them get their fair share of attention.

Van, the Pākehā protagonist of The Burning River, knows some Te Reo Māori but not as much as he needs, and, in a way that he cannot refuse, the story of The Burning River nudges Van to learn much more Te Reo Māori and to learn about his own family’s origins. The reader sees that this is awkward and full of the risk of misunderstandings and offending people. But the reader also sees that that if Van learns enough, not just about the language but about the culture underneath the language and about himself, he can be a man with a full life and take a significant part in the bi-cultural complexity of the world he lives in.

In addition to plot excitement and cultural complexity, The Burning River is beautifully written. Lorry is a craftsman who makes beautiful sentences and great dialogue. No one who knows Lorry will be surprised by any of what I have said.

Lorry is on record as saying that above all he wanted The Burning River to be a good story, one that would grip the reader. When I first met Lorry in the PhD programme at IIML, his aim was to learn the craft of story-telling and his first book, I Got His Blood on Me, a collection of short stories published by VUP in 2012, showed that he really could do that. The Burning River is a novel, so the canvas is broader than in a short story, but the commitment to story-telling is as fierce as ever.

As I have said already, language is of enormous importance in The Burning River. People speak to each other in a mix of Te Reo Māori and English. As a non-Māori-speaking reader I was sometimes in the same position as Van, or even worse. When Lorry asked me to speak about this book tonight I felt, like Van, that surely there would be someone who could talk about these complexities of language and culture with more authority. But, after knowing Lorry for as long as it takes to write two books, I trust his judgement. So I’ll talk a little about my experience as a Pākehā reader of the book and leave others to add other dimensions. Everything that touches on the relationship between Māori and Pākehā has a political dimension, and this book is part of that. There are many views about who has the right to do what in terms of story-telling and the use of Te Reo Māori. No decision made by a writer will be unanimously approved. In that sense The Burning River is a brave book.

There are not many works of fiction by Pākehā writers in Aotearoa that operate in both Te Reo Māori and in English. I’m not sure there are any in fact. Often in The Burning River the parts written in Māori are unobtrusively translated, but not always. There is no glossing of these words and phrases. Recently I looked at a book of poetry by a Pākehā writer, published in 1999, and in the back there was a glossary of every single word of Te Reo Māori that appeared in the poems. The Burning River belongs to a different time, when more is expected of readers.

If you are a non-speaker of Te Reo, you have a choice. You can either look up words and phrases or let the story carry you along. I let the story carry me along and that worked well. Did I miss things? Yes, I’m sure I did, the way a learner or an outsider does. Did I feel left out or left behind by the story? No. Not for a second.

I don’t think that is an accident that reading this book put me in the same position as Van. The experience made me more aware of the world I am missing. I don’t know for sure if this is part of Lorry’s intention, but I think The Burning River adds to the tide that is sweeping Pākehā New Zealanders towards learning Te Reo Māori.

Even in English the book has its own vocabulary. Lorrie takes some quite familiar English words and gives them a big twist so that they take on much bigger, more weighty meanings.

One of these words is ‘trade’. Everyone in the book trades for what they need. Trading can also stop people killing each other. Everyone in this book trades what they have, what they know how to make and every bit of knowledge they bring into a situation. They trade in little situations and they trade for the biggest situations you could imagine.

Perhaps the most important word in The Burning River is ‘waters’. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of finding out what this word means, but as with ‘trade’ it starts with the conventional meaning and takes off to a very different place.

The biggest trade, the most important one in the book, is between two groups of people who may or may not have a shared future.

Here is Hana, Van’s lover, describing what is at stake:

‘Like Van said, this is our real trade. It’s about growing up our forest. It’s about joining our waters with yours, and growing our families and our children and making us all big again.’

She made a motion like the old woman had, her hands moving down the air to show a river coming down and growing fat.

‘That’s the way we can all get big again, eh. Big like a river gets, when it’s in good health. Big with water, and with all the waters that are joined in it. Big with aroha.’ (p329-30)

Because Van’s dispersed and disconnected Pākehā family turned out to be important for his future as well as for the people he loves and wants to care for, The Burning River made me think of my own small and dispersed Pākehā family as a proper family. Pākehā families used to have a way of talking about this. “Who are her ‘people’?” they would say. Or, “She’s visiting her ‘folk’.” I think this book wants Pākehā people to know our own stories and where we come from. I think it wants us to work from there to making new connections. And I think it wants us to properly see other people with other cultures and learn how to talk with them, even when that is awkward and frightening.

I might be wrong. But that’s what I thought as I read this story.

Please raise your glasses and toast Lorry Patchett’s new book The Burning River. And quite soon, when you get the chance, buy your copy and then you can make up your own mind about why this is such an extraordinary book. 

The Burning River p/b $30