“A Way of Talking” displays a mischievous and comic quality in spite of its serious condemnation of racial prejudice in New Zealand. The story treats the contemporary conflict between the Maoris, the original New Zealanders who have lived on the remote islands for centuries, and the European colonizers who arrived in the nineteenth century and displaced them from much of their land.
This conflict between Jane the Pakeha seamstress and Rose the Maori student does not initially seem very significant or even particularly abusive. Certainly Jane has no intention of offending Rose by her casual remark about “the Maoris” and by her lack of concern over names. Yet to Rose, the statement represents a thousand other insults and indignities, some unintentional, others deliberate, that she and her people have suffered over the years. Rose’s derogatory remark about the seamstress having “a tough hide” epitomizes the insensitivity the Maori recognize in the treatment they receive from the Pakehas, who too often take for granted their superiority over those they have marginalized.
That Rose stands up for her people is admirable, but her stand is not the most important part of the story. Hera reveals that Rose has always been blunt and forthright in her relations with the Pakehas. In contrast, Hera and the rest of the family have simply suffered the humiliations, countering them to a degree by their private ridicule of the Pakeha. After the incident with the seamstress, Hera experiences an epiphany, fully aware that she will no longer remain silent, but, like Rose, find her own “way of talking.” This transformation came about when Rose said, “Don’t worry Honey she’s got a thick hide.” Hera reacts to Rose’s frank assessment, thinking “it made her seem a lot older than me, and tougher, and as though she knew much more about the world. It made me realize too that underneath her jolly and forthright ways Rose is very hurt.” So Hera pledges never again to leave Rose, or her Maori community, alone.
“A Way of Talking” is the opening story in Patricia Grace’s first collection, Waiariki (1975). Placed in context with the nine other stories in the volume, its title takes on a fuller resonance. Grace, one of the most admired of Maori writers, shapes the ten stories so that they progress toward a discovery of a Maori “way of talking.” Like Hera, the Maori must learn to talk so that they can show who they are. In the book’s final story, “Parade,” the Maori gain this ability and confidence. Grace believes that one way to accomplish the objective lies in fiction that is not confrontational but that represents the truth about the Maori. In the impressive body of work that has appeared since Waiariki, Grace views Maori culture in its social and spiritual context and hopes for a reconciliation between that culture and the one imposed by the European settlers.