Tauhou by Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall; House of Anansi; 224 pgs.; $18.99
In Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall’s Tauhou, a hybrid work of debut fiction, many narrative and representational strategies are in play: poems, lists, letters, fables, as well as more recognizably traditional narration. At the center is a tragedy: in 1941, an Indigenous family is fractured by the imposition of residential schooling, and the trauma reverberates down through generations. The thirty-seven chapters mirror and document the fragmentation that is the difficult inheritance of any person subject to the violence of colonization.
Tauhou, a Māori word, has several meanings—novice, stranger, newcomer—that evoke the state of being far from home. But what is home in this roving, restless novel? A writer of Māori and Coast Salish descent, Nuttall has mingled her heritages in the novel’s setting, two islands that are fictional versions of Vancouver Island and Aotearoa. Setting them close together in the sea, Nuttall figures these islands relationally. An early chapter, titled “Daughter,” sets out the terms of their creation: “Creator throws them into the ocean, Mother and Daughter, to become islands. This transformation is accompanied by a covenant of mutual care between the people and the new land.” That final clause “between the people and the new land” elevates the book’s setting. More than merely inventive, Tauhou’s geography is a visionary response to the grievous losses of colonization. Home is the place where people look after each other, where everyone is the opposite of tauhou.
Bringing so much present and historical reality into a work of fiction inevitably raises questions about how such a work should be read. Nuttall carefully articulates the boundaries for readers tempted to infer too much: “This work cannot and should not be used to educate oneself about either of these cultures,” she writes. “The only things that are completely and unequivocally true in this work are the effects of colonization and genocide against Indigenous people.” For an epigraph, Nuttall has selected a Māori proverb evocative of the obstacles her Indigenous characters confront: Tukua mai he kapunga oneone ki ahau hei tangi māku. Translation: Send me a handful of soil so I may grieve over it. I can’t imagine a more apt lament for one who is, or has been rendered, tauhou.
Nuttall’s storytelling can be disorienting. As soon as one story starts to take shape, another intrudes, threatening to send the reader off course. But frustration is soon replaced by interest and curiosity. Nuttall’s story logic works by accretion, and she has rewards in store for readers willing to forgo the familiar comforts of narrative. Seasonal rhythms, for instance, provide the reader with lyrical orienting cues. Each of the book’s four parts bears a Coast Salish title corresponding to a season of the year. This gentle cueing helps to situate the reader in a temporal framework, easing passage from chapter to chapter, segment to segment. There are always threads to pick up and follow.
Characters connect in intriguing ways too. The book begins with two young women who unexpectedly discover they’re distant cousins; a girl in one chapter reappears in another chapter as the mother of yet another girl. These familial continuities contrast with the ruptures caused by colonization, losses suffered by Indigenous communities as a result of abuse, neglect, environmental degradation, habitat loss, residential schools and other forms of violent state intrusion on the autonomy of families, to name a few of the subjects Nuttall explores.
While Nuttall is unflinching in her presentations of the traumas suffered by her Indigenous characters, she also attends to the integrity, inventiveness, and grace of their responses. Take for instance thirteen year-old Mahuika, who fights furiously with her parents when food scarcity forces them to leave the whaling village where they have lived for generations. On the night of their departure Mahuika runs to the water where she sees a strange light that turns out to be “a ship from a long time ago, a European one with sails and a hulking frame.” “Moving faster than Mahuika would have expected,” the ghost ship is “made of blue light, the darkness visible behind its glowing outline.” Spectral human figures, the ghosts of Mahuika’s ancestors, are visible on the deck. The vision changes Mahuika. The next morning, she leaves the village with her family. Their departure does not sever her connection to the village or her family’s history there. The connection endures within her. But the link is now freighted with dread and abandonment: “She didn’t see another ghost until her father died, in their new house, in the new island. She woke in the middle of the night and saw him leaning over her, his wide frame an icy blue. He stooped to kiss her forehead, and her heart dropped. Then he laughed and was gone.”
Perhaps the most moving chapter of this deeply moving book occurs in the chapter that bears its title. In “Tauhou,” the young woman at the center of the novel repeatedly tries to write a letter to her estranged father’s mother. “Dear Grandmother,” the writer begins. “I am writing this song, over and over again, for you.” Nearing the end of a winding journey to her father’s country, she struggles with feelings of alienation, of being “a stranger in this place, he tauhou ahau.” As she reflects on the many losses—hers, her mother’s, her grandmother’s—that have brought her to this place, she has a moment of painful insight: “We are more troubled and aching than we give each other credit for.”
As Nuttall’s narrator comes to understand the familial and historical currents that have produced so much in her that is painful, fragmented, and alienating— in a word, tauhou—she also begins to see new possibilities for identification and connection. As readers, we’re privileged to witness this transformation and prompted to reflect on similar possibilities for ourselves.