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Honouring the ancestors

Honorary Doctorate Acceptance speech by Tessa Duder.
University of Waikato, Friday 3 October 2008.

Chancellor Jim Bolger, Vice-Chancellor Roy Crawford, distinguished guests, teachers, graduates and families.

I was astonished to receive a phone call from Hamilton two months ago and I remain astonished to be standing here this morning, thanking the University of Waikato for a very great honour.

If anyone had suggested in 1992 during my time in Hamilton as the university’s first Writer in Residence, that a capping ceremony 16 years on would include me in scarlet regalia, I would have snorted ‘Yeah, right.’ But here I am, and here we all are, young and older, together sharing one of the most important days of our lives. So thank you for extending to me this privilege.

When J.K. Rowling gave the commencement address at a recent Harvard graduation, she confessed that she’d remembered not a single word of the distinguished speaker at her own graduation 21 years earlier.

But what, she’d asked herself when preparing her Harvard speech, had she wished she’d known at the time; what important lessons had she since learned? Two answers: one, the benefits to be had, at some time in our young to middle years, of dealing with failure. The other, the crucial importance of imagination.

Here’s what I wish I might have heard, had I ever attended a graduation other than those of my own four daughters, one from the Maori Department of this university, at Turangawaewae. My wish – that I’d better realized then the importance of honouring our ancestors.

Not here, you might be thinking, in the Waikato and Tainui heartland, not to those present whose culture has always dedicated time and energy to honouring its ancestral past, on the marae and within whanau.

But my concern is more with the young Kiwis I’ve met regularly in classrooms over the years, those whose appearance indicates a European background. Often, talking about my books of history, I’ve asked if they can tell me, who in their families came to this country: how, or why, or from where.

Nearly always, I’m met by silence. ‘After all, those of us not Maori are all quite recent arrivals, boat people, so to speak,’ I say encouragingly. One blonde child, perhaps 8 or 9, might have spoken for many when she stated quite firmly, ‘But my family has always been here.’

What really saddens me is this: not only do they not know their family stories, but they don’t understand why this knowledge could be of importance. And, among older students, how it could contribute to the current anxieties about national identity.

I have a few ancestral spirits watching over me today. I’d like to give them names, because I know they’re always pleased to be reminded that their lives were not lived out in vain.

The boat people in my family were my great-grandparents’ generation, making me third generation Kiwi. All of the eight made the long sea journey under sail from Europe; all were ordinary lower-to-middle class Europeans seeking better lives for their children.

There were the two Malfroy brothers from eastern France, both engineers, probably in the turbulent 1860s fleeing political persecution. Julius Cezar became a respected sawmill owner and local politician in Hokitika; Camille played a leading role in developing Rotorua’s thermal attractions for international tourism in the 1890s. The wives, typically, I know practically nothing about, but they were English and Scots, and productive. Of Julius Cezar’s ten children, the sixth was my formidable grandmother Annie May.

Then there was the Irish connection: William Staveley, a storekeeper, whose son William, a forest ranger, married Annie May.

And on my maternal side, the English: Charles Wycherley, yes, distantly related to the naughty Restoration playwright. A saddler by trade, Charles and wife Hannah arrived in Auckland after 105 days at sea with ten children, the youngest a babe-in-arms, my grandfather Ernest.

It’s the working-class Italian couple Giovanni Lenzini and Elisa Marchetti who interest me the most. In 1875 they responded to the Vogel government’s offer of free passages for European immigrants, promising paradise. They sailed from Hamburg on a German ship, and were 116 days at sea, with a 2-year-old.

Giovanni, back in the Tuscan port of Livorno a maker of wooden oars, became a carpenter; Elisa gave birth to ten more children, three died.

Their life in Wellington was, from all accounts, one long struggle to put food on the table. The nine children’s education was minimal before they were sent out to work. Neither of the two sons had children. But the six surviving daughters all married men of good English stock. They put aside their mother tongues and became good English wives.

Giovanni died at 58 of throat cancer; Elisa spent the next 32 years virtually under house arrest, a stout little woman in a back bedroom of the various shabby homes rented by her drunken son-in-law and eldest daughter Pelegrina. In protest at the country she hated, Nonna learned no English and she remained illiterate until her death at 87. She cooked and washed and sewed for herself, she was just there, out the back, for 32 years.

But her third daughter was my beloved grandmother Elisa Cleofe, and it was her daughter Elvira who married the family’s first university graduate, my father Sir John Staveley, the only son of Annie-May Malfroy and William Staveley. No doubt his graduation from Otago Medical School in 1938 was another occasion of great joy.

I honour these eight great-grandparents today, and what they have contributed to the person I am and the country we live in. In the past decade the notion has been put about that as citizens of this Pacific country, we should now decline to tick boxes stating that we are a New Zealander of European descent.

Excepting those whose family roots and stories lie firmly within the countries of Asia, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, most of us here today have connections to Europe somewhere in our ancestry. Yet the new orthodoxy goes that we are all just New Zealanders, end of story. Forget the European bit.

If from childhood you haven’t been told your family stories, that’s what you might choose to do. But what if you have been told?

I can’t deny my great-grandparents’ courage in farewelling their families, surviving that terrible journey through the tropics and the southern oceans. Neither can I consign to ‘boring old history’ their grindingly hard work just to stay alive, sane and solvent in a land which for many arrivals turned out not to be paradise at all. Nor can I discount all that my eight great-grandparents passed down the generations to me, the whole sweep of their life stories, not to mention the mysterious matter of genes.

In my case, the Italians exemplified commitment, loyalty, endurance, and bequeathed a life-long love of music, especially Italian opera. It was my Italian-English grandmother Elisa who scrimped for music lessons in cello and piano for her two daughters, both achieving diploma standard; she I often heard singing ‘La Donna e Mobile around the house, she who gave me books of Chopin to play.

From that French engineer who settled in Hokitika, I inherited something that’s known in the family as the Malfroy factor, passed down to my other grandmother, my father and to me: high levels of energy, creativity and ambition, an ability to make dreams happen.

It was this Malfroy granny who introduced me around 7 or 8 to Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan. Her party piece, ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes‘, was the ballad she sang as the lead in The Gondoliers, which in the 1930s she also produced, raising the then very large sum of 3000 pounds for Hokitika’s Anglican church.

Am I being fanciful to put my love of language down to my Irish genes? And when I go back to Livorno and the Etruscan coast or French brothers’ town of Lons-Le-Sounier, and feel, in my bones, a sense of familiarity, is this purest sentimentality? I don’t think so. To Italy, France and to Britain, I am connected by stories.

These past 20-odd years, we’ve acquired a better understanding of stories and ‘storytelling’ as a profound human need. Look at the fiction being published, the biographies, the narrative histories, the short story competitions, the encouragement for children to write down their own stories as soon as they can hold a pencil.

Yet from my experiences in classrooms, I believe there’s this disturbing gap: apparently, many Pakeha families believe it’s not important to pass their family stories on to their children. If these stories were more naturally embedded in Pakeha familial culture, as they are for Maori iwi and whanau, we might feel less anxious about what constitutes national identity and nationhood.

A recent Listener quoted the eminent historian W.H. Oliver as saying that he didn’t think of New Zealand as a nation, just, ‘a very interesting society small enough for one to know quite well.’ That, I think, is a rather dry, academic view, not widely shared.

I offer my own. The 17-year-old swimmer who fifty years ago marched around Cardiff Arms Park at the opening of the 6th Empire and Commonwealth Games, had no doubt whatsoever that she came from a nation called New Zealand. We marched behind our flag-bearer left-right like a platoon of soldiers, wearing black blazers with a silver fern on the pocket and proud as punch. I was representing New Zealand, and in recent years have done so again at international literary gatherings in five countries.

From those happy experiences, I believe we are much more than ‘a very small interesting society.’ So surely would the Kiwis gathered in their thousands at any big sporting event, or major cultural occasions like the Lord of the Rings premieres, rock concerts starring local heroes, or the huge Maori and Pasifika music festivals.

Since wearing that black blazer, I’ve never accepted the argument that we are still searching for our identity, our sense of nationhood. I’ve lived for several years in three other countries, but nowhere else do I call home.

If you who are graduating today do not remember any single word of mine in 20 years, well, it’s a long time. But perhaps meanwhile, if you feel the urge, and I hope you do, you might start asking around about the boat people, or perhaps the more recent airplane people, special to your family.

I’m confident that just as our young people have re-discovered the importance of Gallipoli, so you will discover family stories that will equally inspire you, amuse you and probably also, break your hearts.

As Harry Potter’s creator told the Harvard students, ‘We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.’

That power is what motivated all our ancestors over the last thousand years. It’s what has inspired you through years of study: the dreaming of how you will use your power, in whatever field you work in, to imagine better.

Safe travelling on that journey, through the occasional failures but many triumphs that await you. Your ancestral spirits will be there with you, all the way.

Good luck to you all.

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