Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
Told in the first person by Hera, “A Way of Talking” focuses on the narrator’s older sister Rose. Hera is to be married soon, and Rose has come home to her Maori family so that she can take part in the wedding. She has been studying at the university in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, for an extended period. When members of the family meet her at the bus station in the village, they find that Rose has not changed and can still make them laugh with “a way of talking” that is distinctive to her. When they arrive home, Rose and the family have their evening meal, referred to as tea. After tea, they stay up talking into the night. This scene, although brief, creates a communal warmth in which three generations of the extended family participate.
The next day, the sisters drive over to the home of the local seamstress, Jane Frazer, to order Rose’s dress for the wedding. Jane is a Pakeha, the disparaging name the Maori have adopted for the European settlers they consider interlopers, so Hera fears that there may be an ugly scene once they meet because of Rose’s reputation for being outspoken. At first, all goes well as Rose and Jane talk about the university and about life in Auckland. While Hera listens, she suspects that Jane may be jealous of Rose’s freedom and her life in the city, even though the seamstress has a beautiful house and ostensibly all that she needs to be happy.
The narrator’s worst fears materialize when Jane makes a casual remark about her husband getting some Maoris to cut scrub. Although Rose remains calm, Hera knows that her sister will not let the remark pass unchallenged. After a pause, Rose asks if the Maoris have names. When Jane admits that she does not know any of their names, Rose asks her why she has never bothered to find out. Jane mumbles something about how difficult the names are to remember. During this exchange, Rose has taken on what Hera describes as a “Pakehafied” way of talking.
The sisters immediately climb in the family station wagon and head home. Hera is so angry that at first she cannot speak, but she finally manages to tell Rose how much she had embarrassed them in front of Jane Frazer. Rose tells her sister not to worry, then assures her that Jane was not offended because “she’s got a thick hide.” She also notes that Jane will still want to be their friends because Maoris are fashionable these days. When they return home, Rose becomes her cheerful self again, mocking Jane’s walk and continuing to talk in a “Pakehafied” manner, imitating the condescending remarks she imagines Jane would make about their Maori family.
The clash between the two women and Rose’s harsh remark about “a tough hide,” followed by her comic rendition of the incident, deeply affect the narrator, who has always considered herself weak. The experience serves as a turning point in her life, and she pledges that she will never leave her sister alone in the pursuit and defense of Maori dignity.
The story closes with another family scene around the table as the three generations joke and talk and laugh and eat the simple meal of Maori bread and corn.