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Fantasy Heroines That Rock Helen Lowe’s World: Pania of the Reef from Tina Makereti’s “Shapeshifter”

HelenL2-1 (2)Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

The Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World

by Helen Lowe

In “Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World” I am shining a spotlight on favorite Fantasy heroines, not only revealing who they are but why I believe they kick butt and take names as characters.

A favorite from recent years is Pania—an interpretation of Pania of the Reef, a character out of Maori1 folklore—from NZ author Tina Makereti’s short story, “Shapeshifter.” Pania is associated with the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand and a bronze statue, similar in spirit to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, graces the Napier waterfront. And therein, as the saying goes, lies a tale…

From first reading of “Shapeshifter,” I loved Pania’s “voice.” As readers, we know instantly that we’re dealing with a genuine Kiwi2 gal:

“See that fella over there? … He just came up here before and kissed my tit. Got his wife to take a picture. Ha, ha, look at me, I’m kissing Pania’s boob. Like that hasn’t been done before. Jeez, you’d think they’d have a bit more class. I must have been felt up by half the country.”

Pania’s voice is firmly grounded in the recognizable vernacular of Maori New Zealand. In that sense alone, she’s distinctive. I also love the insouciance and feistiness of her character, both clearly established from the outset.

That’s not all there is to Pania, however. Within a few short pages readers learn that her humor can also be dry and that she has as few illusions about herself as she does of others:

“As darkness folds over the day I see myself clearly – a metal husk, no companion for men of flesh and pulsing blood.”

She is not, however, a character who gives into self-pity—but the attribute that makes Pania standout for me is that despite her difficult situation she remains interested in the lives of those about her:

“I have my regular visitors. There’s one old fella whose been coming here for years. He likes to sit by my side and look out at the sea, and he talks to me.”

The point is that Pania listens. You might say she has no choice, in her statue form, but the quality of Pania’s listening, and her response to what she hears, is what makes the character not only come alive, but matter to me as a reader:

“He is quiet for some time after this. It is a good silence between us.”

Since “Shapeshifter” and Ms. Makereti may not be familiar to international readers, I’m including a little additional information about them both.

TalesforCanty2 (2)“Shapeshifter” was first published in Tina Makereti’s short fiction collection, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa3 (Huia, 2010), and republished in Tales For Canterbury (Random Static, 2011) as a fundraiser following the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes.

Tina Makereti’s first novel, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, was published to critical praise in 2014. Her short fiction collection, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, won the Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards Fiction Prize 2011. In 2009 she was the recipient of the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing (non-fiction), and in the same year received the Pikihuia Award for Best Short Story Written in English. In October 2012 Makereti was Writer in Residence at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, and in 2014 she was the Creative New Zealand Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Makereti has a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University, and is Curator Māori at Museums Wellington. In 2014 she convened the first Māori & Pasifika Writing Workshop at the IIML – Te Hīringa a Tuhi. Tina Makereti is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi, Pākehā and, according to family stories, Moriori descent.

1Maori are the indigenous people, aka Tangata Whenua, of New Zealand
2“Kiwi” is a colloquial term for a New Zealander
3Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand; both are official usage.

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