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Mother Tongues

Renee (right) doing open mic with sister Rhea, circa 1976.
"It’s a complex and loaded business making work in other languages, even if they’re your own." Renee Liang on her personal journey with languages in the arts.


I was born at National Women’s Hospital, Auckland, but for the first three years of my life I mostly heard and spoke Cantonese.  It wasn’t until I turned three and started kindy that English started its entrenchment in my brain, turning my neurons into good Commonwealth citizens and sending plummy vowels out to infect my younger sisters.

For the rest of primary school, my mother fought a losing battle against the English in our house. No matter how much she enforced her ban, the three of us found corners to secretly inhale it together.  By then, the stunted Cantonese in my brain had retreated: pulled out, shamefacedly, for long-distance calls to my grandmother in Hong Kong and clumsy conversations with my cousins. (“Mut ye wha*?” I used to yell down the phone to my deaf ancestor. Much later, “Mut ye wha?” I said, when the hapless boy I’d given my phone number to at a dance tried to chat me up in Cantonese, as my parents listened trying not to snigger.)

At secondary school, I learnt Latin and French, also learning that I was no whizz at languages. I learnt a smattering of Māori phrases, taught to us by the PE teacher because she was the only Māori staff member at our school. I remember feeling resentful that I had to waste my time learning Māori, because I planned to travel, and what possible use would this language have in an increasingly international world?

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realised I should have listened to my mother more. The moment where I sat with a tape recorder between me and my grandmother, and needed my dad to translate my questions to her and her replies back to me, was both a high and low point: it highlighted my lack of language, but also pulled my father into my nascent attempts to capture the stories of our family.

By my 30s the storytelling had turned into a flood and I started calling myself a writer. I wrote scripts with bits ‘in Chinese’: by this I meant, I wrote in English with a stage instruction for the actor: spoken in Chinese. I still do this. I’m an illiterate writer who writes in Chinese; what else am I supposed to do?

I also made the usual mistakes grandstanding as a cultural commentator when I didn’t even speak or write the language. (You’d be amazed how many ‘China experts’ are the same.) In one particularly egregious incident, I had some play posters translated into Chinese and printed off in glorious colour, only to find no Chinese businesses wanted to put them up. My Mandarin-speaking friend told me kindly that this was because instead of ‘The Bone Feeder’, invoking respect for ancestors, the title, literally translated into their Chinese characters, had a meaning closer to ‘The Zombie Bone Eaters.’

So what’s my point? Languages are tricky? Yes, especially when they’re supposed to be your own.  Even more so when you have kids and you’re too scared to teach your kids your home language because you… don’t really know enough. But if you don’t then your kids might not be able to talk to the people in their families, or read the great books, or connect with people in the countries they originally came from.

When MP Marama Davidson called for all children in NZ to be taught te reo Māori, she started a huge conversation. "Despite huge progress over recent decades, the survival of te reo Māori is still not assured,” she said. “In 2013, only 3.7 per cent of New Zealanders spoke te reo Māori and the percentage of Maori who can hold a conversation in te reo Māori is falling."

And that is the deeper issue. Te reo Māori is not just Aotearoa’s ‘official’ language, it is the key to a rich culture. If it doesn’t survive, then all the stories – the oral traditions – will be rendered colourless, since no translation can adequately convey the nuances of an original language. It has been actively squashed out of existence by those same plummy vowels that so affected me as a child. (I remember how I felt when I read how Māori were punished for speaking Māori at school, and how a NZ Post employee caused a stink in the 1980s for greeting people with ‘kia ora.’)

It has only been recently, reflecting on Marama’s words and those of other informed commentators writing in the media, that I realise that Maori is so important to learn precisely because Aotearoa is the only place it is found. Māori view their language as inseparable from the land; it connects them to their tipuna. So if we consider ourselves also linked to the land,  learning or at least listening to this language will deepen our connection, too. That’s something I want my children to have.

Also consider this: in most first world countries, speaking two or more languages is normal. (I did eventually travel, and was stunned and quite turned on to be chatted up by guys who switched effortlessly from language to language until they found the one I spoke). Recent neurodevelopmental research has shown that bilingual children gain more flexibility in their brains: as adults, they can adapt to tough situations faster.  So even my scientific mama brain wants my kids to learn te reo.

Of course I want them to learn Cantonese too, and the Croatian connecting them to the other side of their family.  Cantonese also is a language that its speakers feel is under threat: in its ‘home territories’ of Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Mandarin, the language of ‘one China,’ has completed its takeover of schools, and the media and street signage are not far behind. Unlike Maori though, there are many more places where Cantonese has taken root. It was seeded to most of the world by the Chinese diaspora centuries ago along with noodles, rude table manners and yum cha (and as the media like to emphasize, those Chinese are everywhere.)

All of which brings me, circuitously, to my main and rather obvious point: what we write and perform and film and the language we use is important. Works in mother tongues can open doors; they can be educational. They preserve the past and inform the future. They are political acts. And since all languages evolve, as artists we can also influence how our beloved ancestral language moves as it takes new flight.

I’ve been watching the development of Maori Theatre in this country with some admiration. Works fully or partially in Te Reo are becoming more common, and I asked Amber Cureen, Producer for Te Rēhia Theatre Company, why it was important to make theatre works in Te Reo. Her answer was so potent that I have included it here in full:

Ahakoa he iti he pounamu

The question instead is "why is it taking so long for the importance of Te Reo Māori theatre to be recognised as a norm?" The importance of Te Reo Māori should be a given within our society so that it is common to see works presented in Te Reo Māori, it is common for all audiences to attend and the above question does not need to be asked.

As it stands, there are few te reo Māori theatre shows presented annually, all significant and all speaking to the many layers of importance of Te Reo Māori Theatre.  There is the obvious, incontrovertible importance of Te Reo Maori that our shows speak to; Wai 11 and the acknowledgment of Te Reo Māori as a taonga secured for protection under the Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The subsequent recognition of Te Reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa.
The passion, work, activism and sacrifice of those before us laying the path for the reclaimation and revitilisation of Te Reo Māori. And the fact that despite huge movement forward for te reo Māori the last census again showed a decline in the number of speakers in Aotearoa.

Youth and whānau theatre* has the power to educate, place Te Reo Māori in a fun context and encourage young reo Māori speakers to pursue performing arts.  We started making Te Reo Māori TIE (Ruia Te Kākano) when we saw our daughter went to an English medium school and there was no Reo Māori taught in school and while shows would come promoting road safety and anti-bullying perhaps there was no te reo Māori promotion happening through the arts. That was 7 years ago and the need for this project is still present.

In the marae and the community, te reo Māori and bi-lingual theatre brings the arts to our people and increases the opportunities for Māori to have te reo in their lives.   Te Reo Māori plays performed in  theatre extends a hand to the Māori community, demonstrating that theatres, which often receive a significant public funding are actually also (despite all appearances) places for them.   Te Reo Māori plays on the mainstage validate the language for all the nation and the world to see; we make a stand for the place of Te Reo Māori and promote the expectation that the average theatre-going audience will take up the wero and engage with theatre in our national language.

Through theatre we create worlds; Through contemporary set plays performed in te reo Māori** we create and hope to propogate a world in which Te Reo Māori is normal in the here, the now and the future.  Classic works***, which have been translated into te reo Māori since the 1940s, the masters and scholars of Te Reo Māori showcase the beauty and the metaphoric lyricism of our language as well as the words that had been rediscovered by these
scholars and are being brought back into use.

And finally, for the sake of the art! Te Reo Māori is the window into a Māori worldview; plays in our language allow us to tell our stories with great depth and integrity.

Te Reo Māori Theatre puts a stake in the ground saying that the language belongs in the arts, it belongs in our society.  Despite the fact that you will see only one or two te reo Māori shows in Auckland theatres this year, they are a product of generations of work for Te Reo Māori revival and symbolise hope for the future of te reo Māori.

*i.e Taki Rua's long running Te Reo Māori season that travels to communities and Māori Medium kura and Te Rēhia Theatre's Ruia Te Kākano series that also travels to English Medium schools
** i.e Our Purapuawhetū, Briar Grace Smith (2016) and E Kore A Muri E Hokia, Mo & Jess Kill Susie, Gary Henderson (2017) as well as Taki Rua's He Kura E Huna Ana by Hohepa Waitoha (2016 & 17).
*** i.e the recent Shakespeare translations, Troilus and Cressida/Toroihi raua ko kāhira and Romeo raua ko Hurieta translated by Te Haumihiata Mason

And what of growing a NZ audience for work not in English?  Is there a financial as well as a political risk to making these works? Amber explains:

We grow audiences by continuing to create and present, establishing this as a norm. We have trialled presenting a season with some token English language nights, inviting non reo speakers to come and then receive free tickets to the reo Māori season as a reo learning experience. We put a lot of work into engaging the reo Māori community and presenting works that cater to different age groups and interests. But mostly... we keep presenting, we keep advocating, we keep developing new theatre makers and we keep challenging why there is even a question around the importance of Te Reo Māori Theatre.

As an inexperienced writer, I was once pulled up by members of the Chinese community for treating Cantonese and Mandarin as interchangeable in my plays. Cantonese is the language of the first Chinese settlers in Aotearoa 175 years ago. To get actors to play them in Mandarin is akin to having the character of Shakespeare speak only in French. (Aside: we celebrate ‘Chinese language week’ here in NZ, but mostly only the Mandarin language. What of the other dialects commonly spoken by settlers – Cantonese, Hokkien, Seeyip, Hakka and many others?)

I’ve learnt since then to specifically use Cantonese in my plays, both for historical accuracy and as a stake in the ground. The Cantonese language belongs to my community here in NZ and links us to our roots both in NZ and in China. But it’s a complex and loaded business making work in other languages, even if they’re your own.

As a recovering Cantonese speaker, I relied on a friend, Henry Liu, to translate my libretto in Cantonese and ensure there were no more tone deaf disasters. Henry happens to be one of the world’s top translators – he’s president of the International Federation Of Translators and travels the world speaking about the nuances, politics and potential pratfalls to be considered when translating from one language to another. (Te Tiriti O Waitangi is probably the case study). And an amazing thing happened when Henry began speaking the words I’d written in English back to me in Cantonese.  The words of my mother tongue started walking around in my brain, reactivating memories and retrieving images I thought were lost. My inherent understanding of my first language was not lost, it was only sleeping. It had grown with me so that the ideas and themes and lines of poetry were those of an adult, not a child.  I can’t begin to describe the magic when Henry and I realised that I could connect with my Cantonese again. It was like I had a whole new dimension to manipulate as a wordsmith.

So what next?  I will go on using Cantonese in my work, though I will never be fully fluent. My Cantonese is not broken, it is just blended with all the other languages and cultures that have impacted my life, and it can stand proudly if a little self-consciously. Like my sisters and brothers using Te reo Māori, Samoan, Hindi or Nuiean, my mother tongue is a way to connect to my roots and to open a gateway for others. A stake in the ground.

*Mut ye wha? What did you say?

Written by

Renee Liang

20 Jul 2017

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.