Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors -- Leading Questions

Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors -- Leading Questions

Members of English 27, Brown University, 1997

See also questions posed by the last year's class.


Poll saying, Dad but you're not a slave now eh? Nah, girl. Do I look like one? And the three of them: No way! Their laughter with an edge. (Poor little fuckers: only defending their father, the family name. And who blames them? Oh, but I wish a man'd told me; mighta been able to, you know, help in some way. Or at least understand him better. Oh but maybe he's tricking us.) Though a look at Jake told Beth no such thing. (97)

If Jake doesn't look like a slave, who does?? Although slavery metamorphosizes with New Zealand's history and colonization, Jake's slave status remains intact. Is it impossible to rid oneself of your historical status, your familial past? I refer to Jake's case where 500 years of slaved ancestors set a significant precedent for him to follow. Jake and his family live in a society in which slavery is said to have been eradicated, however all Heke characters are slaves in some form or another. Describe what forces drive slavery in Duff's present day novel. What are the objects to which the Heke family is enslaved? I think of drink, welfare, and their past. In the novel, do warriors, traditions, and families outlive colonialism and modernization? Does Duff's novel suggest family's are bound by heredity; does he offer any hope to his characters of escape from their genetic fate? [Corey Binns]

2. We don't ever really know, do we, whether Jake Heke raped Grace in Once Were Warriors. Even though by the end of the book we are convinced (at least I was) that Jake is not by any means evil, just really misdirected, alcoholic, frustrated, and ignorant, Duff makes a point of reiterating that even Jake cannot be certain of what he did all those drunk nights. In any case, the guilt is still in large part his because obviously he should've been aware of what he was doing, and whether or not his children were safe.

It seems that Duff's deliberate opaqueness surrounding the criminal's identity emphasizes the fact that for the purposes of this novel, it doesn't matter, and this concept is elucidated in the parable told by the Maori elders before Grace's funeral:

An ancestor whose child was accidentally drowned . . . blamed his wife, was going to kill her for her neglect . . . the tribe with him . . . But not so the great chief..he told him no they must wait...They did talk. For many days they talked. They decided it was all their fault . . . since the child belonged to the whanau, them as a whole, it was all their responsibility. So the chief asking them: Now tell me who dies?(120)

How closely is the ambiguity of Grace's rapist related to Duff's concluding vision of communal responsibility for the uplifting of the Maori people? [Jennifer Ellingson]

3. This book is really excruciating for me -- it bludgeons us as hard or harder than Emecheta but more painfully (at least to my mind) because for one thing, even though polemical, it flows a little more naturally, and it's Beth, not Duff, handing out opinions. The other reason is my question: love is constantly popping up in the book, either by its absence or as a twisted shadow of itself, pushed and pulled into grotesque, sickening parodies of some ideal version in my own (grotesque and sickening) mind. That causes me pain. Is love anywhere in the novel without causing rage, pain, and hurt? Is it as simple as all that to say that the root of troubles is in the inability of anyone to love without causing pain either in him- or herself, or in the object, or both? Does Jake's transformation make any sense at all, even if you read it that he learnt to love at last? (This was one of the most troubling parts of the book for me; it didn't seem to fit). Or am I just being a romantic here and believing that all you need is love? (yes.) [greg gipson]

4. My question regards the last portion of Once Were Warriors. When Beth finds redemption through Maori tradition, her voice is silenced. Her confrontation with Jake regarding Grace's letter is the last time we are allowed inside her head. Why do we think this is? Is it because a "good" character is a less interesting character? Or can we make larger assumptions from this silence regarding women's roles in cultural traditions or within postcolonial novels themselves?

Andy Greenwald

5. I would like to discuss the role of Americans in this book. There are actually no American characters in it but they make cameo appearances in places such as these:

She'd be watching TV. An afternoon soapie. The Young and the Restless. . . A passing truck and she'd cathc the flash of its sign on the door and might read something or other Seafoods, and she'd sit there thinking about what kind of seafood those Yanks ate, while the Yanks she was supposed to be watchingwere doing their usual drama stuff, beautiful people being nasty to each other, rich white bitches and bastards not being satisfied with life being kind to em, they have to go and hurt each other. (3)

Those soaps didn't fool a woman, inspire her to wanting to be like them, the nasty vicious unhappy beautiful creatures, Jesus Christ, if they're real then who wants to be a Yank whitey?(7)

He felt like a chief, a Maori warrior chief -- no, not a Maori chief, a real Injun, not one a them black thievin bastards own half the shops round town, a REAL Indian form comics and TV and America. . . Like cheif Sitting Bull! (60)


He dreamt he came upon several men with facial tats of exquisite design. They were beating someone. Over and over with the steady, rhythmic punches going thud . . . thud . . . thud into the man's face. Nig askin em: Are you my Maori ancestors? Because they looked so much like him, mirrors of himself. They paused from the beating to give a kid hostile looks, and one answered, No. We are not of your cowardly blood, for we know you are knowing fear. We are warriors.

So the sweat broke, because the fear was his own. And so was the face of the bone-rattling victim. (182-183)

The last refrains of the sweetsad hymn more mighty than the departing rumble and roar of Browns. And a sky stayed blue. And that cloud formation had changed shape - Oh, but only if you're looking for that sorta thing. (192)

From the above passages, how are we to interpret the title of the book? Were the Maoris once warriors and no longer retain that glory today? Or does the title refer to the timeless presence of their inherited warrior-spirit? Yes, yes, I know that the book ends on a rather hopeful note with the inhabitants of Pine Block finally finding some pride in themselves and taking the initiative to better their lives. But, if dreams mean anything at all, what exactly does Nig's dream signify? Does his hopeless vision only apply to the Brown Fists, or is this Duff's way of inserting some cynicism into the grand, uplifting end of the novel (for what is cynicism but just an unpleasant way of looking at the truth?)? [Alaka Holla]

7. Once Were Warriors is obviously a novel about a culture -- and a people struggling to identify with their past (and mostly lost) culture. The most interesting thing to me, however, is the crossing of many cultures, or the way in which all of the mentioned peoples in this book view all the other cultures. For the Maoris living in Pine Block, the white men (represented by the Trambert family), and the Chinese immigrants who run restaurants, the most common source of information about "the other" seems to be filtered through the television and other media-produced images. Prejudice runs rampant, and having been so built up by media and years of bias, even first-hand interaction do not always dispell streotypes.

"They [chinese restaurant owners] assessed each and every customer for how pissed he was to know how much less fo something to put in his order, add it up man, it comes to a bit you open seven days all year cunts don't even close on Christmas day; looking at you, Maori boy and girl man and woman, brown people, all the time drunk, calculating you, giving you the Chink eye all ovah, at you, stupid drunk Maori, all the time lookign for trouble, why you not try look for money for a change? Ah five thousand years of history against you, Brown people, no wonder we Chinese loathe you. Five thousand years to know secret to life is hard work -- work ethic, you hear of work ethic? But smiling at their swaying, red-eyed, foul-smelling customers because Chinese person he love what you carry in your pocket, and he don't mind have to work hard for it... Yet thinking htey, thee prevailing brown customers, we shit, scum.

(Not once do we see the animosity between the Maori and the Chinese broken down, or any mutual understanding take place. I find this interesting because the Maori and the Chinese are the two groups that have the most amount of everyday interaction. Compare it to the detatchment of the Tramberts and the Maoris. Do both groups hate each other as the other? It seems so, and it also seems that the reasons for their hatred is similar -- lack of understanding. There are no passages that show the Maori's resentful because the Chinese have come into their land; it is more of a disapproval of the other's life style.)

"and Gordon Trambert comparing it to his Russian choral music recordings (perhaps this a little on the rustic side, but nothing that good training wouldn't fix), Trambert having difficulties reconciling the files in his head of newspaper readings and TV programmes, and TV news figurings, of this race being a people in such trouble, spiritually; and even the culutre of meant to be shaky, or so he understood. (Really?)

Here, the cultural stereotypes seem to be breaking down, when the Maori's are at their cultural peak, doing what they do best. The comparison to Russian culture is also interesting, for though it doesn't reflect a true understanding of Maori tradition, it does show an elevation of their heritage on Trambert's mental scale of assessment.

Even much of people's behavior, their actions, is an imitation of another culture. The funny thing is that the culture they imitate is not the one of their ancestors, but one of an entirely foreign race. And even the mannerism that they imitate, could not be considered "real", but that which is fueled by media images.

And he stood there, waiting while the jugs were filled, aware of people's awareness of him; he felt like a chief, a Maori warrior chief -- no, not a Maori chief, I can't speak the language and people'll know I can't, and it'l spoi it -- an Indian chief, a real Injun, not one a them black thieving bastards own half the fuckin shops round town, a real Indian from comics and TV and America... ... he flared his nostrils, like a, you know, a bull -- I know! LIke Sitting Bull. Like Chief Sitting Bull."

Ali. Ali, man! What a fidah! Oh yeah, what about Sugar Ray then? Sugah Ray? O far out! but he's the -- And that dude foughtim that time wouldn't fight no more, what's his name ag -- Duran. Roberto Duran, man. Know what they callim in his, you know, wherever the fuck he comes from, language? Hands a Stone. Howzaaat?! Oh wow. Call me that, man, I'd love it."

Whose observations about other races are valid? Whose sources for cultural images are acceptable? Why does the greatest moment of understanding come when one is apart from the other (Trambert standing outside the church listening, and even then it is more of a blind aesthetic appreciation rather than an undertanding) as opposed to when two cultures are face to face (over the counter in the Chinese food restaurant)? With a better understanding of one's own culture (the Maori's at the end), can we assume that the next natural step is a better understanding/appreciation of other groups? And where does the propagation of media images come into play? [Zandra Kambysellis]

8. Authenticity is a powerful theme in Once Were Warriors. Being a "real" Maori warrior is a complicated equation for Jake Heke, one that figures in amount of Maori blood, descent from a slave versus free ancestor, and ability to speak the Maori language. Unfortunately, Jake doesn't measure up very well to his self-applied standards of authenticity:

And [Jake] stood there, waiting while the jugs were filled, aware of a people's awareness of him; he felt like a chief, a Maori warrior chief -- no, not a Maori chief, I can't speak the language and people'll know I can't, and it'll spoil it -- an Indian chief, a real Injun, not one a them black thievin bastards own half the fuckin shops round town, a real Indian from comics and TV and America . . . (Duff, pp.59-60)

How does Jake tap into the mass media image of the Native American? Although it is clearly stereotypical, is it empowering? How so? I'm interested in general in the way presentations of authenticity consciously (in the case of Jake's rejection of the South Asian Indian) or subconsciously construct the inauthentic. How do fears of inauthenticity, of not keepin' it real motivate the characters in Duff's work? [Adam Stolorow]


"..hating himself for not plucking up the courage to come earlier so he might pay proper respects to a girl who, after all, had hung herself on his propery (like my Penelope..A mirror, God, a bloody mirror of my own daughter.)" [127]

"Hey, where we goin? but she just smilin atim, making her beauty the more (wasn't for the star tats under each eye, though) Leading Nig by the hand past a replica of home, but I guess every home in Pine Block is a replica.) [143]

"Not a lot to see out there, just the same old two-storey houses hared by two families, fuckin mirrors of each other. . ." [49]

"And laughter, Maori laughter: explosive, spontaneous, it made you want to laugh without having to know the joke, it's like a mirror, an emotional mirror of yourself." [42]

"Oo, look at me--look at me, at her reflection in the medicine cupboard mirror with the silver starting to break up behind the glass and mould formed in the lower tow corners. And this face--if you could call it a face--framed there, beaten to a barely recognisable pulp." [32]

"Aee, Beth, nemin the crying for your own race. I were you I'd be crying for you, girl. Just you." [42]

I'm interested in the image and metaphor of the mirror in Once were Warriors , and the interplay between the notions of replication and individuality. What does it have to do with the notions of self-respect and pride? How does this relate to the Brown Fists and the replication of the star tatoos under all the members eyes? How does it relate to the lack of individual identity and agency that all the characters seem to feel? How does it relate the the communal, collective solution that Duff, like Achebe advocates in the last portion of the book? [Irene Tung]

10. At Grace's funeral, Te Tupaea tells the story of

<>an ancestor whose child was accidentally drowned. . . blamed his wife, was going to kill her. But not so the great chief. . . he told them no, they must wait. . . discuss it first, your anger, and let the fire die down before you start talking of shedding your clothing. They did talk. For many days they talked. Tehy decided it was all their fault. . . since the child belonged to the whanau, them as a whole, it was all their responsibility. So the chief asking them: Now tell me who dies? (120)

Again, but at the Heke's house, we find Te Tupea calling for the Maori to accept responsibility for themselves. He told them

ta stop being lazy. (Who's he callin lazy?) Ta stop feeling sorry for emselves. Ta stop blamin the Pakeha for their woes even if it was the Pakeha much to blame. . . Do I accuse the storm that destroys my crops? (Well, come ta think of it that way. . . ) No! No, I don't accuse the storm, I clean up. THEN I PLANT AGAIN! (176)

The tendency to lay blame on others has defeated the spark of life in many of the Maori people in Pine Block. What role do you see alcohol playing in this? Why do people blame others for their misdoings? What does this say about pride of heart, or warriorhood? What happens to the people (think of the fall of Grace) in Pine Block that they forget their dreams? On an radically different note, how does Duff use parenthesis in the above quotes? Although Duff uses slang, why does use so little dialogue in this book? Or does he use dialogue but in a altered form? Why would he do that? [David Washburn]

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