Witi Ihimaera was born in Gisborne and educated at Kaiti Primary School, Te Hapara Primary School, Gisborne Intermediate, Te Karaka District High School, Church College of New Zealand and Gisborne Boys' High School. He studied at the University of Auckland and Victoria University and graduated with a B.A. from Victoria University in 1971. Ihimaera worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a Career Diplomat from 1973-1989 with postings in Canberra, New York and Washington and two years as a New Zealand consul. In 1990 he began lecturing in the English Department of Auckland University where he is now Professor of English.
Ihimaera began writing at the age of seven and published his first story, "The Prodigal Daughter," in the 1961 Gisborne Boys' High School annual magazine. He received encouragement to pursue full-time writing after attending a WEA creative writing workshop led by Barry Mitcalfe in 1969. He became a cadet journalist for the Gisborne Herald, and then worked as a journalist in the Post Office headquarters where he wrote and produced the Wellington Post Office newspaper from 1968-1971. In 1972 he spent a year in England and wrote a collection of short stories entitled Pounamu, Pounamu which was awarded third prize in the 1973 Wattie Book of the Year Award and was winner of the Freda Buckland Literary Award. In 1975 he was awarded the Burns Fellowship at Otago University and wrote a second collection of short stories entitled The New Net Goes Fishing. Subsequent collections of short stories were Dear Miss Mansfield published in 1989, and Kingfisher Come Home: The complete Māori Stories published in 1995.
Ihimaera has written eleven novels, the first of which, Tangi, received the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Award in 1974. The Matriarch was awarded the 1986 Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1987, and Bulibasha, King of the Gypsies, saw Ihimaera win the Wattie/Montana Award for the third time, making him the only writer in New Zealand to do so. His novel, The Whale Rider, received the Nielsen BookData New Zealand Booksellers’ Choice Award, and in 2003, the film based on this novel was released and became the winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Sky Dancer was short listed for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book in the South Pacific and South East Asian Region.
Along with his novels and short stories, Ihimaera has written children’s picture books, poetry, a play entitled Women Far Walking, which premiered at Wellington’s International Festival of the Arts in 2000 and a considerable number of non-fiction articles, reviews and publications.
Ihimaera has also written libretti for operaIn 1982 Ihimaera was appointed Writing Fellow at Victoria University and worked on the libretto for his first opera, Waituhi: the Life of the Village, which was a collaboration with Ross Harris and was first performed in 1984. Ihimaera went on to write further opera libretti including Tanz Der Schwane, with Ross Harris and premiered in 1994; The Clio Legacy, with Dorothy Buchanan and premiered in 1994; Symphonic Legends, with Peter Scholes and premiered in 1997; and Galileo, with John Rimmer and premiered in March 1998. From opera, Ihimaera turned to ballet and wrote the narrative of The Wedding, which was a major collaboration between Mark Baldwin (choreography), Raymond Hawthorne (dramaturgy), Gareth Farr (music), Tracy Grant (costume and set design) and John Rayment (lighting design), and was performed by the New Zealand Ballet in 2006.
As a major anthologist of contemporary Māori writing, Ihimaera published Into the World of Light with Don Long in 1982, and in the 1990s went on to compile five volumes of Māori writing under the Te Ao Mārama title. Other collections have followed including Where’s Waari? A history of the Māori through short story (2000), and Get on the waka: best recent Māori fiction (2007).
Ihimaera has received many awards for his contribution to New Zealand literature. These include a Scholarship of Letters (1991), the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship (1993), and the QSM for services to the Māori community (1993). In the 2004 Queen’s Birthday honours, he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In that same year he received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University and was a recipient of Fulbright New Zealand funding to take up a residency at George Washington University in Washington DC. He is a founder member and former chair of Nga Puna Waihanga, was involved in the establishment of the Māori and South Pacific Arts Council, and has been a founding member of Te Ha - the Māori writer’s society.
"Ask at the Posts of the House (Raupo Publishing Ltd, 2008) was on the longlist for the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
In 2009, Penguin New Zealand published His Best Stories, a collection of twenty-four stories from the writer's career, chosen by Ihimaera himself. The stories span more than thirty-five years, and showcase his incredible range and originality.
Ihimaera's work of fiction, The Trowenna Sea (Raupo, 2009), tells the story of Maori prisoners sent to Tasmania for opposing the New Zealand government in the 1840s. Convicted of insurrection, Hohepa Te Umuroa and four companions are transported to Hobart. Ismay Glossop and her doctor husband have also come to Tasmania, and their lives intersect with unexpected consequences.
Witi Ihimaera was one of five Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureates in 2009. Along with Anne Noble, Chris Knox, Lyonel Grant and Richard Nunns he received $50,000, which is to celebrate the laureates' past achievements and invest in their future.
In late 2009 Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea (Raupo) attracted significant media controversy. Reviewer Jolisa Gracewood identified a number of uncredited passages in the novel that appeared to be extracted unchanged from several historical and academic works.
Gracewood’s allegations appeared in the New Zealand Listener, and quickly became national news. Some media commentators attacked Ihimaera. Karl du Fresne, writing in the Nelson Mail, suggested ‘a cloud of suspicion now hangs over’ his body of work. Auckland University was also criticised by academics from New Zealand and overseas for failing to adequately acknowledge the seriousness of plagiarism. However Lawrence Jones, writing in the Otago Daily Times, acknowledged that while Ihimaera’s plagiarism is inexcusable it only forms a tiny component of the novel and was due to ‘carelessness about sources, excessive haste, and maybe taking a few shortcuts,’ rather than a concerted effort to steal from other authors. He also felt that Ihimaera, ‘as a Māori, a gay man, an award-winning writer and a professor at the University of Auckland, […] is a target for a variety of prejudices,’ and unfortunately these obscured what could have been a productive debate on the nature of plagiarism in post-modern fiction.
The revelation of plagiarism in The Trowenna Sea came two weeks before Ihimaera was due to receive an Arts Foundation Laureate Award. Ihimaera agreed to purchase all unsold copies of The Trowenna Sea and publisher Penguin NZ agreed to buy back retail stock on request.
Witi Ihimaera was also honoured with the premiere Māori arts award Te Tohutiketike a Te Waka Toi at the 2009 Creative New Zealand Te Waka Toi Awards. Ihimaera joined a luminary list of past recipients of Te Tohutiketike a Te Waka Toi including Sir Howard Morrison, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and the late renowned master carver Pakariki Harrison and esteemed weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa. The premiere award acknowledges the work of individuals who are exemplary in their chosen field of artistic endeavour. Witi Ihimaera will receive this award at a ceremony at his home marae, Rongopai, in January 2010. Ihimaera made the following acknowledgement, 'To be given Maoridom's highest cultural award, well, it's recognition of the iwi. Without them, I would have nothing to write about and there would be no Ihimaera. So this award is for all those ancestors who have made us all the people we are. It is also for the generations to come, to show them that even when you aren't looking, destiny has a job for you to do.'
The fourth edition of Nights in the Garden of Spain was published by Raupo in 2010. Witi Ihimaera was interviewed by Selina Tusitala Marsh in the anthology, Words Chosen Carefully, edited by Siobhan Harvey (Cape Catley Ltd, 2010).
Witi Ihimaera’s twelfth novel The Parihaka Woman was published by Random House in 2011.
The Thrill of Falling, a collection of short stories, was published by Random House in 2012. In these stories Ihimaera continues his exploration of the novella and the long story begun in Ask The Posts of the House (2007) with a new set of intriguing narratives: urban fiction in 'Maggie Dawn'; contemporary comedy in 'We'll Always Have Paris'; the science fiction novella in 'Purity of Ice'; the new genre of conservation fiction in 'Orbis Terrarium'; the different ways of telling history in the title story; and an adaptation into novella, 'One More Night', of Albert Belz's play Whero's New Net, which itself was adapted from stories in Ihimaera's second short story collection, The New Net Goes Fishing (1976).
In late 2014 Witi Ihimaera released the first volume of his memoirs, Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood (Random House NZ). It is the first instalment of a journey through Witi Ihimaera’s life, covering his formative years until the age of fifteen.
During an interview aired on Radio New Zealand National, Witi Ihimaera said that he 'had to bite the bullet and take off the veil' when writing memoirs, as the story was not only his but rather one shared by his community. He states, 'It's not just about me. It's about this valley, it's about a Māori story that draws its inspiration from oral traditions. It's about what we were like in the 1940s and 1950s.'
Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood won the General Non-Fiction Award at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards."
- Correspondence from Witi Ihimaera 12 August 1998, and 17 Oct. 2007.
- Te Ha questionnaire 1992 and interview with Ihimaera in 1993.
- Contemporary Māori Writing. Selected with an Introduction by Margaret Orbell. Wellington: Reed, 1970.
(http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/ihimaerawiti.html 7 September 2016