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The Duff Guy
An interview with the author of Once Were Warriors 



bookcover  IT PROBABLY WASN'T THE BEST TIME TO CALL -  the plumber was fitting a new dishwasher, the  sugar and coffee were AWOL, he was rushing to  finish a film-script and pack for an afternoon trip  north ... and then the fax had spurted out A  heavy, legalistic threat from an American  conglomerate. Mild agitation became serious  affront. Talk about tirades (and I would, if every  word hadn't been so enjoyably slanderous). In full  flight, New Zealand writer Alan Duff has a fine line  in vitriol, especially when he's convinced he's  been done down (and that, say people who know,  is mostly). He's no one-minute wuzz in the stamina stakes either - the ALP could have used his expertise in maintaining the rage. By the time we settle around our coffees out on the lawn, he's thoroughly relishing his ire over litigation (his) at the dispersal of money from the movie Once Were Warriors. That internationally-feted film was based on the book he wrote but not on his original screenplay. It rankles him that he is not getting due credit and, even more, due reward.

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HIS ADDRESS IN HAVELOCK NORTH, "New Zealand's rural Toorak" one commentator told me, has bought him status in class-conscious New Zealand. On the North Island, it is sanctuary with a view. Spring-bound, the area is virtual suburban Arcadia. Neighbourhood fruit trees are in blossom, jonquils and daffodils sprout in clumps, pansies and gerberas flower beneath magnolia bushes. To the west, the vista rolls down the hill, cuts across the "village" and the nearby city of Hastings and moseys on over wide plains to snow-capped ranges. It's a lifetime removed from the gangs and violence of his novels, the violence and loss of his childhood. The tangible proof of his self-made-man philosophy.

Returning to one's roots is always fraught and I was conscious as I chugged towards Havelock in my mother's Morris 1000 of being a stranger in my memory's landscape. I was there to talk with Duff about his new book - What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?, a sequel to Warriors ten years after. I knew there was a danger I might read too much into too little through nostalgia, or look unfairly to Duff for nuances that were nothing to do with him.

Mum's Morris, I found, was the only thing that hadn't changed in 25 years. Havelock has multiple roundabouts now, postcard-perfect street plantings, boutiquified shopping precinct, more millionaire residents than you'd believe possible. And a famous son in Duff. He's not a millionaire yet but he will be, bet on it. Right now he is comfortably ensconced as New Zealand's best-selling author (at one stage he had three of the top four books on the hit charts there). And he's prime among its controversial social commentators.

He made his name, big-time, with Warriors. A novel of raw violence set predominantly in a Maori community, it pulled no punches, figuratively or literally, as its high-octane prose scorched the page. The result: psychic GBH for many New Zealanders. It sold, says Duff, more than 50,000 copies there, even before the film packed out the cinemas. Public reaction - particularly among Pakeha - was almost one of genteel shock that someone had dared to speak out on crime, poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, gang warfare, homelessness and youth suicide as perpetuating problems among urban Maori. Duff was shocked at their shock.

Basically, what he had done was to speak the unspeakable; in rejecting the stereotype of Maori as colonial casualty, and by not ignoring the unflattering face of Maori society, he'd rewritten the agenda. Fuzzy, convenient concepts were under challenge. So was Duff. The left-wing, small-l liberals, the PC brigade, social and Maori activists all went on the attack: he was accused of appealing to the rednecked and the racist by confirming their prejudices and fears.

His response was characteristic. Attack back, hit harder. He become a Man with a Message: Maori people, he preached, needed to stop whinging, get off their bums and eliminate the cargo-cult mentality of expecting handouts all the time. Trouble is, the man became confused with the message; the writer got lost in the polemic.

He's written three other books since that first-book coup, with acceptable sales but luke-warm critical acceptance (he's hated, he says, by the coterie of "limp-wrists and wankers who write obscure books read only by each other and then sit around telling themselves what geniuses they are").

There's been several radio and screen plays, another novel he turfed "because it was no bloody good" and his weekly column syndicated around the country. His columns are very even-handed - their shoot-from-the-lip opinions antagonise everyone at some stage, whether Left or Right, Maori or Pakeha. He dismisses his political and academic critics as an "insecure group without an ounce of intellectual honesty between them. They're trying to rewrite history, using political correctness. But the people are with me, they know I'm speaking the truth."

Much flak also comes from Maori spokesmen, with senior elders making statements of the "Duff is irrelevant to the Maori" kind. He is unrepentant. "Many of our elders are part of the problem - they want to take us back to the last century. To hell with that, and the narrow, self-defining protocols they're trying to establish. It's just nonsense.

"We've got to use the modern ways, stop defining all Maori as being this or doing that. I don't speak for all Maori, I speak for me. And I just want to be a human on this earth. They've even set up a separate Maori writers art council organisation. That's so stupid - they may as well set up a separate grouping for red-headed writers or writers who are five foot two."

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IN HIS MID-FORTIES NOW, Duff is both more complicated than his pr persona indicates and less complex a personality than he tries to project. He's beginning to tire of the circus, the crusading enfant terrible, talking-head, "count on Duff for a contentious take" personality he has been forced to adopt (even if he jumped into the role feet first). He's not beaten by it, it's just that he wants to get on with more important things - like learning to fly, or how to conquer the golf course, or to be with his family, or enjoy his beloved music. Most of all, he's sick of having to deal with so many "idiots with closed, small minds". He wants to focus on writing, "to be a great novelist with a readership extending around the world".

That's not too far-fetched an ambition, if Broken-Hearted is any indication. It's the best book he's written, a considerably more mature work than his others. It still has the power and limitations of his earlier fables and there's the inevitable messages, but if you can get your head around the style, his idiosyncratic spellings and colloquially-true speech, it will reward you with sophisticated subtleties, psychological insights and considerable wit. Ostensibly another study of violence (but more this time of the spirit than the flesh) and losers, the book is really an investigation of loss and a life-affirming manifesto of personal growth. Mostly, though, it's about the power of love. As in All you need is ... At heart, the gruff Duff is basically a Beatle.

What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? by Alan Duff is published by Random House.




The Word According to Duff


"I despise left-wing people. Despise them. They are contemptible because they're dangerous - they want to put a lid on everybody's ambitions, to punish people for working hard and making a success of their lives. They want a level playing field because they can't compete otherwise. They're filth. Left-wing welfare ... destroys people. I do however admire business people. Most of my friends are self-employed, probably 98 per cent. They take a risk, are generally more dynamic, more interesting and more interested in the world. They're always pushing into new areas. I'm like that. I'm learning how to fly a plane, then I'll learn to fly choppers; I want to learn how to play golf properly, I want to do everything, I'm just greedy ... greedy for experience, for knowledge.


"Life's big fallacy is security. There is none, ever. And I love that. I love the lack of security, of not knowing where the next buck's going to come from. I love the need for adaptability. My kids can do anything they like as long as they don't become lazy. If they become hoods, let them be the hardest working hoods around, not the footsoldiers.


"My work deals with universal problems - they not just Maori or New Zealand problems, but Australian, American .... it's a male problem. Some might say Alan Duff's on his usual hobby horse here, you can never tell with the literati. Which pisses me off because they don't actually look at what I'm doing. I like to strut my stuff as a writer, and be acknowledged for that. I think technically I'm up there with the most polished. I might come exploding off the page but it's a very carefully thought out. There's all sorts of speech rhythms, word selection, tense changes and so on involved. I can hold my own if they want to talk about literature.


"Love, and lovelessness, are at the heart of all my books. I know what happens when people grow up in a loveless background. It's just the end, the effective end. It's particularly so among Maori - it shouldn't be but it is. As a society, they all fucked up. Their concepts are never a maturing thing, they stay fixed. If you're a non-reading, non-consciously advancing people, it will inevitably be the same tomorrow as it is today."


"I'm not Jake, (the hero of Warriors/Broken-Hearted). That's not me. I was Grace, the daughter who hanged herself. Or in One Night Out Stealing, I was sort of Sonny, he's a little fulla, very sensitive. I'm very sensitive, I've got to be sensitive, that's my job. But when I was growing up - you had to be tough. What a lot of shit that was - that's why I like to go to schools and tell them it's good to love, you've got to tell your buddies 'I love you man'..."


"The manhood image that Jake portrays is passing away but I'm not entirely optimistic for the future. The sad thing is those violent men have inherited that mentality from their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. The only way to stop the cycle? You use the kids' heroes like rugby players Jonah Lomu or Zinzan Brooke and you say get out there and push this message across. You need to change the thinking. It can only be a gradual process, unfortunately. But we can all help. I've set up the most successful educational private trust in the history of this country, for instance. This month alone, a thousand new mothers are going to go home with their babies and a bag of books from the trust. Since August last year when we started, we've got books into 30,000 homes, we've had All Blacks visit every school ... it's a concrete attempt to break the cycle of ignorance."


"Life has got better for just about everybody, and that's thanks to capitalism. Only through capitalism can working class people own their own houses, drive their own cars, live their own lives. They can even say 'I want to become one of you' ..."


"Music is one of the central things in my life. And I write about it better than anybody I know. I envy American Blacks - they really understand music, all the layers. Where we hear three layers, they hear 33. I think I'm like an American Black in literature - I see quite a few more layers than a lot of writers. That's why I'm coming in from so many different angles, unexpected angles."




This article appeared first in The Australian magazine. Copyright Murray Waldren 1996


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