'Who would have thought that a boy from Waituhi would grow up, become a writer and make something of himself? The Laureate Award proves that anything is possible for all young men and women who perchance to dream.'

From 1972 Witi Ihimaera began to create imaginative new realities for New Zealand readers, describing The Matriarch (1985) as his most important book about historic Māori-Pakeha relationships. He subsequently expanded into even more ambitious territory, creating in Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1995) Pakeha characters, settings and themes that confirm his place, today, as a writer of international status. He has continued to increase his range, producing new work for opera, theatre, ballet and film, while his novel, The Whale Rider, has become an internationally successful feature film.

Witi Ihimaera DCNZM QSM, is a novelist, short-story writer, playwright, scriptwriter, anthologist and librettist.  His most recent book is The TrowennaSea (November 2009).  He has edited eight anthologies of contemporary Maori literature, including Get On The Waka (2007) and has completed a screenplay adaptation of his novel The Matriarch (1986).

Ihimaera was born near Gisborne and is of Māori and Anglo-Saxon descent through his parents Tom Smiler Jnr and Julia Keelan. He began to work as a diplomat at the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1973, and served at various diplomatic posts in Canberra, New York  and Washington, D.C.  Witi remained at the Ministry until 1989, although his time there was broken by several fellowships at the University of Otago in 1975 and Victoria University of Wellington in 1982 (where he graduated with a BA).  In 1990, he took up a position at the University of Auckland, where he was a Professor of English and Distinguished Creative Fellow in Māori Literature. He has held recent positions as Senior Fulbright Fellow at George Washington University, Visiting Writer at the University of Tasmania and Citizens' Chair at the University of Hawaii.

Ihimaera was the first Maori writer to publish both a book of short stories and a novel and most of his work consists of these genres.  As a world leader in indigenous and Pacific literature, he has written a considerable number of books,with many notable works such as Tangi, Pounamu, Bulibasha and The Whale Rider (the last of which became a successful film of the same name).  His stories generally portray Māori culture in modern New Zealand and his work often focuses on problems within contemporary Māori and New Zealand society. In 1995, Witi published Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a semi-autobiographical work about a married father of two daughters ‘coming out'. Always committed to excellence, he embarked in 2004 on a programme to rewrite his first five books, a project which has no parallels in world literature. He continues to maintain a distinguished and surprising career which he calls ‘a magnificent accident' not only as a writer and teacher but also through his public service. Recent appointments have been to Learning Media, a State-Owned Enterprise exporting education and literacy materials internationally and an appointment to the board of the New Zealand Film Commission.

Witi Ihimaera was made a Distinguished Companion inthe New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004 for services to literature. He was the recipient of the Te Tohutiketike a Te Waka Toi award in 2009, the highest honour given by Maoridom in the arts, and he received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in the same year.

In July 2017, Witi was awarded a top French arts honour, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, at a Bastille Day ceremony in Auckland. The French Ambassador Jeanblanc-Risler said Ihimaera had been selected to acknowledge his "career as a trailblazer in Maori literature and screenwriting".

Witi lives in Auckland.

Witi Ihimaera at the 2009 Laureate Awards, held at the ASB Events Centre, Auckland.
Witi received a cheque for $50,000 and a Terry Stringer statuette.
Image by Ken Baker

 

Video

2009
Witi Ihimaera accepts his 2009 Laureate Award from, and is interviewed by, fellow Laureate Ian Wedde
2006
Excerpt from the Royal New Zealand Ballet's production of "The Wedding". The rugby scene in rehearsal in 2006.

Galleries

Book covers from Witi Ihimaera
1944
Born, Waituhi, near Gisborne, Aotearoa/New Zealand
1967
Cadet journalist, Gisborne Herald
1970
Graduated with a BA from Victoria University, Wellington
1972
First publication of short stories – Pounamu Pounamu placed 3rd in Wattie Book of the Year Award
1973
First novel Tangi; Became NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomat
1973
Wattie Book of the Year - Tangi
1975
Burns Fellow, University of Otago
1986
QSM for Services to Māori Community The Montana Book Award,The Matriarch
1987
The Whale Rider published
1987
The Commonwealth Writers Prize runer up,The Matriarch
1993
Katherine Mansfield Fellow, Menton, France
1995
Semi-autobiographical work -Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Montana Book Award for Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies
2000
Became Professor of English and Distinguished Creative Fellow in Māori Literature, University of Auckland
2002
Whale Rider - Peoples Choice Award, Toronto Film Festival, Canada
2004
Began to rewrite first five books; Honorary Doctorate in Literature, Victoria University of Wellington; Distinguished Companion in the New Zealand Order of Merit
2009
Te Tohutiketike a Te Waka Toi Award; Arts Foundation Laureate Award
2014
Publishes "Maori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood"
2016
Finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for "Maori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood". His novel Bulibasha is adapted into a film by Lee Tamahori, Mahana/The Patriarch. Wins award for general non-fiction for his work Maori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood at Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.