Duff, Alan

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DUFF, Alan

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Rotorua, 26 October 1950. Education: Two years of high school. Family: Married Joanna Harper; two sons and three daughters. Awards: PEN Best First Book award, 1991; best screenplay, for What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, New Zealand Film Awards, 1999. Agent: William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.



Once Were Warriors. Auckland, Tandem Press, 1990; Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1994; London, Random House, 1995.

One Night Out Stealing. Auckland, Tandem Press, 1991; Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

State Ward. Auckland, Vintage, 1994.

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? Auckland, Vintage, 1996.

Both Sides of the Moon. Auckland, Vintage, 1998.


Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge. Auckland, HarperCollins, 1993.

Out of the Mist and Steam: A Memoir. Auckland, Tandem Press, 1999.


Film Adaptations:

Once Were Warriors, 1994.

Critical Studies:

Writing along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction by Otto Heim. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1998.

Alan Duff comments:

Main influence: Contemporary American, Faulkner, Selby Jr., Doctorow, Gurganis, Styron.

* * *

Alan Duff is the enfant terrible of contemporary Maori writers. Like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, he focuses on the debilitating effect urban life has had on Maori. But the violent, drunken underworld of Once Were Warriors and One Night Out Stealing makes the cityscapes of Grace and Ihimaera look positively genteel.

Duff's formula for resolving the problems of the urban Maori likewise contrasts very sharply with the emphasis on traditional communal values in most Maori writing. In his syndicated newspaper articles, his autobiography (Out of the Mist and Steam ), and his book-length survey of Maoridom (Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge ), he has stressed the need for Maori to embrace orthodox Western education and an ethic of self-knowledge and self-help. Putting into practice the dreams of Beth Heke (in the opening pages of Once Were Warriors ) and Tekapo (in the closing pages of Both Sides of the Moon ), Duff has personally instigated a successful campaign to get books into every underprivileged Maori household. Conversely, he is wont to express contempt for many aspects of traditional Maori culturethough there have been signs recently of some softening in his attitudes.

In the early novels, Duff's politically incorrect views are implied by Grace Heke's excursions from her Pine Block ghetto to gaze on the plush Trambert house in Once Were Warriors and by Sonny's awed inspection of the Harland mansion in One Night Out Stealing. Typically Duff exaggerates the gap between these two worlds. The Harlands and the Tramberts, with their love of fine music, art, and furniture, are extreme examples of Pakeha patrician taste, and the account of the deep impression that their cultureespecially their musicmakes on the deprived Maori onlookers gets dangerously close to sentimentality.

Pakeha are not, however, depicted entirely uncritically in Duff's work. The men, in particular, have their shortcomings, ranging from Mr. Harland's penchant for pornographic pictures to the outright pedophilia of Mr. Dekka in State Ward. In What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? we learn of the moral and economic decay that underlies the splendid Trambert veneer. And in One Night Out Stealing the hardened recidivist, Jube McCall, is a Pakeha, while his softer sidekick, Sonny Mahia, is Maori.

In fact, Once Were Warriors does eventually grope towards a specifically Maori solution to the Maori problems that it illustrates so graphicallysolutions that are ultimately much closer to the communal ethic proposed by Ihimaera, Grace, and others than Duff the journalist would probably care to admit. Towards the end of the book Beth reestablishes contact with her marae, in the countryside just outside Twin Lakes, the city where Once Were Warriors like most of Duff's other novelsis set. (Twin Lakes is a fictional version not of Aucklandwhere the film of Once Were Warriors is setbut of Rotorua, the city where Duff himself grew up.) The funeral of Beth's daughter Grace takes place on this marae, presided over by "the paramount chief of the tribe," Te Tupaea. And a little later, after Beth has succeeded in throwing her aggressive husband Jake out of the house, she brings to town "a village committee," including Te Tupaea, to help her reestablish a sense of purpose among the Maori of the Pine Block ghetto.

On the one hand, Beth's "project" is a very practical one; she attempts to wean her people away from their reliance on state funding (notably the unemployment benefit) and to foster instead the spirit of "self-help" that Duff the journalist preaches. So, for example, she organizes the building of "a changing room and shower block" for a "newly ploughed and sown rugby field" conveniently donated by the benevolent Trambert family. On the other hand, all this practical "self-help" is underpinned by a strong dedication to traditional Maori culture, with the more aggressive aspects of that culture (the "warrior"or, as some historians term it, "Red Maori"heritage, particularly as exemplified in the haka) receiving special emphasis. So in the end the novel tentatively embraces a kind of primitivism, albeit a harder form of primitivism than the "Green Maori" version preferred by Ihimaera and Grace.

In fact it is not always easy to distinguish between the admirable aggression of the traditional "warriors" and the degenerate aggression of Jake Heke and his drunken mates. This confusion becomes particularly troubling in the final pages of the book, where scenes from Beth's "project" alternate with scenes from the last days in the life of Beth's son Nig, who has joined a Maori gang (the Brown Fists). The gang violence is presumably meant to act as a foil for the noble primitivism of the haka, but it is hard not to sense a kinship between the two. The film of Once Were Warriors actually seemed to some to present the gang in a positive light.

Meanwhile, in the background, the exiled Jake Heke, growing wiser as he lives rough and consorts with other down-and-outs, looks like a more realistic hope for the future. As a detached observer of Maori culture he actually occupies a position somewhat similar to Duff's own. Sure enough, in the sequel (What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? ) Jake, guided by his new partner Rita, begins to adopt middle-class values: he finds work, takes up rugby and pig-shooting, and even becomes house-proud. Similarly, Beth's new partner, Charlie Bennett (a social worker), teaches her the importance of self-reliance. Even Mulla, a senior member of the Brown Fists gang, yearns for a better life.

One Night Out Stealing is less concerned with traditional Maori culture, but State Ward is built around the kind of liberating journey from city to country that features in the work of many Maori authors. George, a native Maori speaker, helps Charlie to escape from Riverton Boys' Home, where they have both been confined, and takes him backnot to Charlie's home in Twin Lakes, but to the Maori heartland of Ruapotiki (evidently a place not far away from the Waituhi of Ihimaera's fiction). Here George burns down the house haunted by the evil spirit (kehua) that has dogged his career hitherto, and celebrates the pair's "freedom"freedom to adopt Pakeha values perhaps?

In Both Sides of the Moon (the most autobiographical of the novels) Duff attemptsalmost too explicitlyto clarify his view of the proper relationship between Maori and Pakeha values. The story of Jimmy, growing up half-Maori, half-Pakeha in present-day Twin Lakes runs parallel to a tale of his Maori ancestors around the beginning of the nineteenth century. While, in the present, Jimmy fumbles towards his father's Pakeha ethic of self-reliance, his ancestors' "Red Maori" culture (awful, in both senses of that word) splits, under the pressure of European colonialism, into two strands: a "gang" mentality intent on "immediate satisfaction" and a "thinking" approach to the new Pakeha ways that recognizes (among other things) the value of books. While Once Were Warriors hedged its bets on the issue, Both Sides of the Moon clearly argues that there is no longerif indeed there ever wasany place for the old "warrior" culture.

To convey the tough concerns of his novels, Duff has developed a strikingly idiomatic and hard-hitting form of interior monologue that, at its best (in One Night Out Stealing, for example) is flexible enough to accommodate varying states of inebriation and drug use in the characters. His energy often leads to excess; critics have complained of his "tendency to hector the reader" and to use "a vocabulary that would normally be out of the reach of his linguistically impoverished characters," and the purple prose of Both Sides of the Moon is sometimes almost indecipherable. State Ward, on the other hand, is generally regarded as Duff's weakest novel because of its departure from his customary in-your-face style. There are, however, two good reasons for this: the book deals with younger characters than its predecessors, and it was originally written to be read on radio, which requires a readily accessible idiom.

Richard Corballis