Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Reality vs. Legends

In Potiki, Patricia Grace weaves narration and legend in a way that sometimes makes it impossible to delineate between the two. The indifference to past and present, fact and fiction, is an aspect of the Maori homeland that may be different to many, but certainly not unique. Elements of the plot such as the mystic powers of Toko or even his supernatural birth are laid out and treated with just as much credibility as the novel treats the existence of cars or other machines.

For a character like Toko, his own life is treated as just another legend. He does not refer to his birth as an event but a story, saying rather, “I know the story of my birth …I know all of my stories” (42-43). He is barely bothered by the dual possibilities behind his birth, seeing each of them as only past stories, no more or less real than what is currently happening to him, “My making father could be a ghost, or a tree, or a tin-can man, but it does not matter. I have Hemi who is father to me”(42).

It is possible that Grace leaves the dual possibilities surrounding Toko’s birth open, in order to illustrate the insignificance with which the Maori treat the difference between reality and story. Whether he is the child of a drifter or the making of the lonely woodcutter’s statue is up to the interpretation of the reader. This is a clear illustration of the Maori culture’s manner of not dealing with things in terms of black and white, reality or story.

In my own home, I have acquired a knack for disregarding reality in order to appreciate a good story. Much of my family legend centers around my great-grandmother, or Big Nonna as we call her (my aunts and uncles simply called her Nonna but when her grandchildren came around we added the prefix ‘big,’ being easier for little ones to say than the Italian word for great-grandmother).

I was born at the perfect time to appreciate Big Nonna’s legend. I was still young when she passed, and lived on the crossroads between the reality of her life and the legacy of her stories. I would sit in her apartment as the big lady watched Matlock and would hear her tell stories of her life. Some would be happy like how her entire family managed to survive an influenza bout in 1918 that killed millions worldwide. Some would be sad, like the tiny bronze shoes she kept that belonged to her first child, who passed before outgrowing them.

Most stories I would hear through my father or home videos of Big Nonna. Some of them can be proven, others are dubious. She loved to tell us how pretty she was when she was young, and she had pictures to back it up. We know for a fact that she wrote recipes (without ever testing them, the culinary equivalent of reading music) and McCormick would publish them on their spice bottles.

However, stories like the one in which she met Colonel Sanders when she was a contestant in a fried chicken cooking contest may be embellished. Perhaps it was the part in which she complimented the Colonel’s chicken and he responded “Annie, thanks but I know your chicken is so good you’d never eat in my restaurant” that tipped us off. It also could have been a later claim that she invented the predecessor to the Chicken McNugget.

We all loved Big Nonna’s stories and still pass around ones like how at 18 she was still afraid she could get warts by kissing our great-grandfather. There was nothing dishonest about these stories. She was an old-fashioned storyteller, and they were as much a part of her life as any of the real ones. In a way, I find them even more honest than some of the stories people attempt to convince themselves of.

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