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No. 47 (June 1964)
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Rowley Habib
A New Voice in
New Zealand Writing

Rowley Habib, whose poem ‘The Raw Men’ is published elsewhere in this issue of ‘Te Ao Hou’, comes from Oruanui, a township—‘practically a ghost village now’—twelve miles north of Taupo on the old north-south road.

He says that when he was born, in 1933, Oruanui was a timber-milling place; his father owned the only shop there at the time. ‘It was a post office as well as a general store, and for a while my father ran a taxi service as well. You can imagine that it was the hub of our little settlement. People—it seemed the whole of the village, kids and grown-ups—used to come down in the evenings to do their shopping or get their mail, and there used to be a great din. People standing about talking, lingering on—some of them were fairly isolated and it was their chance to catch up on local gossip.’

Father from Syria, Mother from Taupo

His father was from Syria, and had come out to live in New Zealand with his parents when he was a young man. Rowley's mother, a full Maori, belonged to the Pitiroi family at Nukuhau, Taupo—‘There's a big swag of us at home. I'd say about every second Maori you meet in Taupo is related to me.’ Rowley was the youngest son in a family of seven.

He says that he was always a lonely child, even when he was surrounded by a dozen or so other children. ‘I knew right from the start that in some way I was different from the rest of the kids—and I didn't like it. I started to brood.’ The latter part of his home life was a disturbed one, and he did not shine at primary school—‘I was no scholar; I'd like you to mention that.’ He was especially hopeless at arithmetic.

Went to Te Aute

Rowley stayed at primary school—‘for lack of anything better to do’—until he was almost 16. Then he went to Te Aute for a couple of years. ‘At Te Aute I was thrown together with young Maoris from all over the country—I could go almost anywhere in New Zealand,

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Rowley Habib, from Oruanui near Taupo, is one of the most promising of the younger Maori writers. In the last few years he has published many short stories, poems and articles, some in ‘Te Ao Hou’ and some in other periodicals. At present he is working on a novel.

and I'll bet you I'll meet someone I was at school with, or someone who knows someone.’ These contacts, and the friends he made, had a great influence on him. ‘I was always a shy and rather reserved person and I wouldn't otherwise have made, on my own, the friends and acquaintances that I know today. At Te Aute, living so close together, I was forced to mix, I had no option. With all due respect to my old school this is the one thing that I can say that I am really grateful to the place for.’

Wrote About Own Experience

In his last years at Te Aute he wrote essays which, he says, were not far removed from the kind of writing he does today.

‘I always wrote about things and people I knew personally. I found I couldn't write about imaginary things, they had no interest for me. But with the things and people I knew, all I had to do was to be honest, and they would have life and meaning. Mr Sam Dwyer, a teacher at Te Aute, seemed to recognise this as my strength, and he encouraged me to keep

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my essays personal.’ Rowley remembers Sam Dwyer with gratitude; not only as a teacher but as a human being.

It was a little later, when he was 20 and in his first year at Ardmore Teachers' College, that Rowley suddenly decided that he wanted to be a writer—‘It hit me like a torando. I couldn't think of anything else.’

Wandered Restlessly, Wrote Furiously

He left Ardmore, worked for a year in a bookshop in Auckland, then spent three years wandering around the North and South Islands—working in freezing works, timber-mills, woolstores, hydro works, on the wharfs, digging ditches and ‘a dozen and one’ other jobs for short spells. All this time he was writing furiously. He sees this period as being a kind of apprenticeship as a writer—‘My only regret now is that I didn't take more notice of what went on around me and the people I met. I didn't start out drifting entirely because I was after experience—although it has worked out that way. In much of my writing now I am drawing on those restless years—at the time it was a hand-to-mouth way of living, as far as I was concerned.’ At this time his writing ‘just poured out. It was pretty shapeless at first—I had practically no control over it. All I knew was I had to get it down on paper.’

Like so many other writers, he is concerned chiefly with the people and places which he knew as a child: with his own experience and with the experience of all the people, especially working people, whom he has known. ‘By “working people”, I mean manual workers. They have more vitality and warmth than white-collar workers, and this seems to rub off on to me and into my writing.’

Five Years Down South

Later, Rowley spent five years down south; for much of this time he was associated with the Maori Club in Dunedin. ‘It was there in Dunedin that I found myself being pulled back strongly to my Maori side. I think it might be because I got such a fright how much Maori-tanga had died out down there. I realised that if we weren't careful the same thing could happen in the North Island. But make no mistake about the quality of the Maori in the South Island, even though there are only a few of them. I count some of my best friends amongst them. And I know that in recent years there has been a drive to get back what they have lost.’ But whatever the reason was, he says, the outcome is that he has become ‘a bit of a fanatic’ on anything Maori. He regrets that he cannot speak the language too well (probably because his father was Pakeha, and the language was not spoken in his home), but he says he is picking it up fast.

For the last four years he has been a public servant, first with the Ministry of Works and now, at Bulls, with the Agriculture Department.

‘Te Ao Hou’ and Elsewhere

Rowley's first published work was a prize-winning story which appeared in the Ardmore Teachers' College annual magazine. Since then most of his work—short stories, poetry and articles—has appeared in ‘Te Ao Hou’, starting in 1956. ‘It was “Te Ao Hou” which gave me my first real break.’ He has also had short stories and verse published in most of the literary magazines in New Zealand, including ‘Landfall’, ‘Arena’ and ‘Mate’, and two of his poems are to be broadcast later this year by the Broadcasting Corporation.

At present he is working on a novel which will have as the setting the district in which he lived as a child. He has also recently finished a collection of verse and prose, ‘While the Rain Tapped on My Roof’. It is from this collection, not yet published, that his poem ‘The Raw Men’ has been taken.

Two-Way Cultural Integration

Rowley feels strongly that Maori culture should become part of the heritage of all New Zealanders: that there must be a two-way cultural integration. It was partly for this reason that he was so interested in the operetta performed recently by Turakina Maori Girls' College, which he reviews on page 43 of this issue of ‘Te Ao Hou’.

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A memorial stone to the late Henare Te Paehu Tuhakaraina was unveiled at Rukumoana Pa last February, on the first anniversary of his death.

The ceremony was performed by a member of the Maori royal family, Tumate Mahuta. The Rev. Canon Wi Huata conducted the service, assisted by the Rev. S. Kemara and the Rev. C. Shortland.

The late Mr Tuhakaraina was a leader of the Ngati Haua tribe, being secretary of the Morrinsville tribal committee and of the Te-Ao-o-Waikato tribal executive. He was also a member of the Tainui Trust Board.