“Te Ao Hou”
In the letters section of Te Ao Hou number 65, Mr Rowley Habib expounds a thesis which I feel compelled to challenge. He seems to be saying that no work of art dealing with a specific social or ethnic group can have validity unless it is the work of a member of that group itself. Furthermore, he expresses “a certain amount of contempt” for any non-Maori who has the temerity to tread what he calls, “the sacred ground of my people”.
The implications of such a point of view are awesome. By extension of Mr Habib's thesis it now becomes clear that nobody but a Pakeha can write about Pakehas, nobody but a Negro can write about Negroes, nobody but an Easter Islander can write about Easter Island, and so on. And the word “can” above has its two senses, namely (a) is able to, and (b) has the right to (Mr Habib's words are “legitimately suited to”). Thus Mr Habib demolishes a major portion of existing world art and literature (that very large part of it which is “extra-ethnic”) and goes a good deal along the way to making all art impossible, since it is precisely a sensitiveness and perspicuity to other people in other situations which is the basic credential of an artist.
By implication also, the non-Maori ethnologist and anthropologist can go home, as he too is outside the huge glass enclosure and will also miss “those little subtleties” Mr Habib writes about.
Nobody will contest that an artist who bases his work on his experience of his own people has a considerable advantage and by and large ought to do a better job than an outsider working in the same field. At the same time the work of such an artist can and often does fail precisely because of his proximity to his source. His vision is often too myopic and his outlook too parochial to enable him to treat his subject with the generosity of mind which is the mark of good art.
As a Pakeha, I have absolutely no objection if Mr Habib ever decides to write about me; in fact I would be very interested in any fresh vision he could bring to the enterprise. And conversely I reserve the right, should I ever feel like doing so, to write about him.