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 Trowenna Sea (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 in the 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.