About ancestral roots
Who would have thought learning te reo Maori would propel me on a quest to discover Wales?
My father was from North Wales but I was born in Aotearoa New Zealand. I love the beauty here, the landscapes, skies, mountains, rivers, coasts both gentle and rough. Birds and marine creatures. After travels abroad I’ve always returned because it’s my home, my tūrangawaewae – my place to stand, or be, in life.
But earlier this year, when I began learning Maori, our national language along with English, I became fired with the need to know my father’s land.
A lost past
You see, I discovered that learning te reo is not just about language. It’s also about knowing who you are, where you come from, where you feel you belong. About connections, with people and land.
A big part of my learning was building my pepeha – an introductory recitation based on whakapapa (genealogy), and links to land and water. Pepeha are recited as greetings, at meetings and gatherings, not only in traditional situations but also, increasingly, in professional life. It’s about relationships, connections. And context.
For me, building my pepeha was fascinating, scary and emotional.
I found that, beyond my parents, I knew little of the people responsible for my existence. I didn’t know my grandfather’s name on my mother’s side or my grandmother’s name on my father’s side. Or anyone further back. Just that my mum’s mother’s people had a tannery and possibly a mill in early Christchurch, and that my father, who spoke Welsh, came from somewhere in North Wales.
So while my classmates recited names and places, I struggled to fill in the gaps of even a rudimentary self-intro.
Tribe and land
My tutor told me to build from my father’s side. I understood his side took precedence over Mum’s. All right. I didn’t mind that. But Wales was on the other side of the world and I knew only that my grandfather’s name was Gabriel Jones. I couldn’t name a mountain or river.
Somehow, with info from a family member or two, I managed to find the farmhouse where my father was born on Google Earth. Shrieks of excitement! And more than a bit of eye wiping.
Then a lovely Facebook friend living in North Wales went there for me. She visited the elderly couple who now own the house and sent me photos. Here was our ancestral home, sold out of the family sometime in the 1920s – a centuries-old, slate-roof farmhouse, with an enormous traditional hearth complete with bread oven. This was where my father was born.
Gillian, archaeologist and manager of the Llangollen Museum, also gave me names of hills nearby, and the name of my river. Later, thanks to Pam, a rellie who has worked on a family tree, I found my Welsh grandmother’s name. Mary Ann Jones.
At last, my pepeha was taking shape. Here's part of it, from my father's side.
Tēnā koutou katoa
I te taha o tōku matua:
Ko Moel y Waun tōku maunga
Ko Clwyd tōku awa
Ko Wera tōku iwi
I whānau mai au ki Ōtautahi.
Ko Gabriel Jones rāua ko Mary Ann Jones ōku tūpuna
Ko John David Jones rāua ko Amy Barnett ōku mātua
Engari, kua mate rāua inaianei.
Ko Bronwen Jones tōku ingoa.
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa
Greetings to you all
On my father’s side:
Moel y Waun is my mountain
The Clwyd is my river
My tribe are the Welsh
I was born in Christchurch (NZ).
My grandparents are Gabriel Jones and Mary Ann Jones
My parents are John David Jones and Amy Barnett
However, they have passed away.
My name is Bronwen Jones.
Therefore, greetings, greetings, greetings
Claiming my heritage
As my lessons in te reo progressed, I became fired with the need to go to Wales. I had to go there. Soon as possible. Never mind the cost. With the help of my tutors, I did my tests early, and jumped on a plane. Now here I am, in a northern winter and on the quest of a lifetime.
I’ve visited the house in North Wales, been inside, laid my hand on the ancient wooden beam above the hearth, and on the old, old wooden doors. I’ve walked the lanes and hills, heard our ancestors’ voices on the wind. On a recent Sunday, I went to a chapel service where my father might have sung, and elderly ladies remembered the family, legendary, it seems, because of all the kids.
As I walk the land, learn the stories, I know this is my place too. In my pepeha I claim my mountain and river using the word tōku (my) for belonging rather than te (the) for affiliation.
If only my dear father could be with me. How thrilled he’d be to walk me around his boyhood places, to tell me the stories, to see me discovering my Welsh heritage. But he’s gone. A kind, loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
We all miss him, me more than ever.
The tragedy is, he thought of us girls as Welsh but in my case I denied it to his face. I’m a New Zealander, I insisted, as a callous and disrespectful teen. Remembering now, I see him slump a little, a lost look on his face.
Now it’s too late to tell him I’m sorry. Too late to tell him, Yes, I am Welsh as well, Dad. I’m both.
But then, perhaps he hears me as I walk the land of his youth, though he’s buried so far away in New Zealand. I think he does.
My father’s eyes
so my mother said,
her face lit with memory.
by the time I looked
but they shone with love
Do others have stories of searching for their roots? I'd love to hear, so do leave a comment below.
First, a postscript: Arohanui to my te reo class whanau for an unforgettable farewell when I embarked on my journey to find Wales. And for these gifts, which include a lily woven by Carla, and a blessed toki from Ro to keep me safe on my travels. See you in class next year!
Anyone thinking of learning te reo Maori, do it – it’s incredibly rewarding. Classes are free at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, which has sites around the country.
About narrative voice
Anyone sat in an audience and heard the opening paragraphs of their very own novel-in-progress torn to shreds by a panel of experts? I have—it’s hair raising. But it’s rewarding too.
Keen to learn what initial words attract a publisher’s attention, eight of us brave writers bared our souls before publishing industry experts and a roomful of onlookers at the recent Historical Novel Society Australasia conference in Sydney.
Five minutes is all we have—if that—to hook an agent or editor when submitting unsolicited manuscripts. So those opening words and paras are makers or breakers.
I sat through six critiques before mine came up—I was second to last.
So after hearing the no-holds-barred feedback on the other six, I kept my head down when it was my turn. Surreptitiously, and with a shaking hand, I scribbled notes while hoping no one would guess it was my baby being red-inked.
Leap off the page
After the critiques, the panel gave us a few pithy pointers. The Number One Biggie when submitting an unsolicited manuscript is a narrative voice that jumps off the page.
If we can achieve that, they may turn the first page, then the next and the next. And if we’ve also got a good storyline, then we’ve got a chance. Most other problems in a debut manuscript can be sorted at the editing stage, the panel told us.
But what about this narrative voice thing?
The way I understand it, narrative voice can be the voice of a character, in first or deep third person. Or even second person. Or it can be an identified narrator. Or a hidden, undeclared narrator with a voice so distinctive it comes across almost like a character.
Or the narrative voice could be your own unique author’s voice.
Anyway, it’s something I’ve struggled with when writing, and now revising, my two novels-in-progress.
How the experts do it
“Do it like these guys,” said the panel. And they threw out examples for us to note.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Well, of course. Next.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, who begins as she means to go on with her slyly witty remarks:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife…”
Australian classic My Brother Jack by George Johnston. Here’s the start:
“My brother Jack does not come into the story right away. Nobody ever does, of course, because a person doesn’t begin to exist without parents and an environment and legendary tales told about ancestors and dark dusty vines growing over outhouses where remarkable insects might always drop out of hidden crevices.”
Anything by Australia’s beloved Booker short-lister Tim Winton. Here’s the beginning of Eyrie.
Here was this stain on the carpet, a wet patch big as a coffee table. He had no idea what it was or how it got there. But the sight of it put the wind right up him.”
Keepers have it
When I got home to my writing den, I flicked through the books on my shelves. These novels are my keepers. I might have read them on Kindle but I’ve loved them so much I’ve also bought the paperbacks.
I scanned the first pages. They all have a narrative voice that jumps off the page.
Here’s a keeper I’ve read perhaps five times:
On Canaan’s Side by award-winning Irish author Sebastian Barry
“Bill is gone.
What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound…”
And a ripping historical yarn by a local New Zealand author:
The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall
“When the Captain find us stowaways and give us the choice between join the island or join the crew, all of us to a man cry island! island! So he put us ashore with a few provisions and a trypot and sail away. The ship weren’t even out of sight before our choice seem like a mistake.”
Keep on truckin’
Whew! No pressure!
But I was grateful to get a moderate-sized tick from the panel for narrative voice.
I find it helps if I meditate daily. Then, when sitting at my keyboard, I can bring my attention within to release words, thoughts, deeds that belong more to the person in my head—or chest, perhaps, or gut—than to me.
If I’m having a good day, my character will pour herself out via my fingers and keyboard. This is a form of story dreaming, I suppose. Amazing moments that are all too rare.
What do others think about narrative voice. Do you recognise it when reading? When writing, do you achieve it with ease or does it make you sweat?
About gratitude and life
Diamond Harbour, New Zealand
When I sat down to think about a first blog topic, the things firing—or haunting—me right now rushed to put their hands up. Like my gorgeous new first-ever sea kayak, which is firing me. And my novel-in-progress, which is haunting me, thanks to my obsession with my new sea kayak. I also blame this glorious summer.
As I sat thinking about blogging, feelings of thanks and gratitude flowed around inside me, bringing my attention back within me. It felt good. Yes, I thought, I’ll begin here.
So, right here, at the start of in this first blog, I give thanks for being alive.
Thanks to whom? Well, my parents. But other people as well. Nature. The Universe. Myself—for somehow being involved in bringing this Bronwen-being to where she is…where I am.
And where am I? In my lovely upstairs writing room, overlooking the sparkling water and burnt volcanic hills of Purau Bay. In a beautiful country. Among good people. Brewing writeable memories, both warm and chilling. Living the writer’s life. though not always writing, as mentioned above.
I am grateful for all this. And more.
A life of passions
I’m a person given to sudden enthusiasms, the latest of which, besides sea kayaking, is a desire to blog. Why? I don’t know. Is it procrastination? Another way to avoid the difficulties of revising my novel-in-progress? No, I don’t think it’s only that.
Anyway, while thinking back over my life and all I have to be grateful for, I wondered at the long list of pursuits that have fired me.
Firstly, imagine the raw material—a timid little girl with cracked, itching skin and whistling lungs so constricted sometimes I had to sleep sitting up. I could never bear tight clothes and still can’t. My darling older sisters (future story topic) described me, lovingly, as a scratchy little thing.
Despite my gentle family and sheltered childhood, I had my terrors—that someone was throwing me in the Avon River in my dreams, that my parents might leave me somewhere, that my mother might be taken away and someone else substituted. I kept an eye on the large dark pore in my mother’s chin. That was how I’d know she was really her.
At seven, I was moved to a tougher school. I got bullied and I’m embarrassed to say that instead of slugging Patricia Chesney, I jammed myself behind the school taps so she couldn’t reach to thump me.
A girl’s first obsession
I hardened up in my years at Redcliffs Primary. Thanks mostly to my earliest recorded obsession: horses. Though I learned ballet and piano, these didn’t fire me as a child. Not like riding.
“I want a pony,” I sobbed to my kindly father. He’d had a pony—or at least had shared one to get to school, in North Wales. (Or he’d walked the four miles in snow.) Long days in the saddle, cantering grass verges, charging up and down sand hills at South Brighton, jumping waves at Sumner (and falling off), built within me the confidence and independence I needed. I stopped getting bullied.
And I’ll pause here to thank my dear parents again, the horsey Partingtons (family friends), Flicker, the long-suffering pony Ma and Pa borrowed for me, and, later, the 15-hand Blue. I look back in gratitude on these years.
Big girl passions
By 15, I’d discovered boys. I stopped horse riding and went ice skating at Cashmere and surf lifesaving at South Brighton—where the boys were. I drove round with boys in old bombs.
But I was scratchy. And infinitely restless. Thanks partly, I believe, to Dr Andrews who did not prescribe these new-fangled inhalers for asthma but filled me with steroids instead. Anyhow, more about that another time.
By age 18 I was off backpacking around New Zealand then overseas. Fiji, Samoa, San Francisco. I hitched across the US in the early ‘70s, experiencing the scary and generous sides of beautiful America. On to England, which was pretty but cold. Off on the trans-Siberian railway. Working in bars in Japan. Becoming obsessed with philosophy, religion, zen.
From my late 20s through my 40s, I gave in to a new passion—Building My Career, in New Zealand and Japan. Journalism, public relations. An MBA. I left the workforce once to write a novel but that failed so I dove back into work.
Older girl oddities
Into my 50s and on came rock n roll dancing, playing boogie woogie classics (badly) on the keyboard. A redundancy and launch into network marketing, where I lost more than one dear friend in my passion to push health supplements and “build a down-line”.
And here I pause again, to express my gratitude to my family, friends and associates who stuck with me through that one!
Then came weight training and road cycling, and I remember with awe and pride the multiple events—the four-day Tour of Northland, the one-day K2 (a 200km tour of the Coromandel hills), Le Race in Christchurch. Super fit. Freewheeling down hills.
An old passion catches up
At last, after all this action, my passion to write fiction returned in 2008. I dug in, both to writing and learning. I did umpteen online courses, completed a Master of Creative Writing (Aucks), joined writers’ groups—in person and online.
Now that I am into my après-50s (oh, all right, my 60s, but it’s still my early 60s), the fiction writing is sticking with me, despite the periodic nuzzling in of other passions. I’m sure writing is here for life, and I am thankful for that. Later, I will blog about the writer’s life and fiction writing.
Meanwhile, in thinking of all my enthusiasms over the years, I ask myself where I am in all this. Mostly, I suspect, I have been so immersed in living as to be almost lost. Looking back, though, I do glimpse myself—the feisty, independent one; the one who is consumed by learning new things (and bores others by telling them how to do it); the one who is still searching…for what?
For certain, in my journey to find Bronwen in all that action, I have much to discover. I’ll need to cover all the big human things: Love, heartbreak, joy. Death, grief. Loneliness, fulfilment. The burdens of Time. Sex. Hormones. Money. Women’s things. As with everything else that interests me, I’ve got a book to help me explore. You might like it too. It’s Writing From Life: For Women with Stories To Tell by Susan Wittig Albert - click here.
In my life learning, my enthusiasm, my living, I am privileged and I am grateful.
Next week, or soon after, I will begin blogging about my journey with sea kayaking.
Meanwhile, how about you? Have you found yourself in your life?
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About gratitude and life