Of Warriors and Soldiers: Explorations of the ‘Noble Warrior’ in Contemporary New Zealand Literature and Culture – Ulla Ratheiser (by Sofia Aatkar, 26 April 2016)

Response to ‘Of Warriors and Soldiers: Explorations of the ‘Noble Warrior’ in Contemporary New Zealand Literature and Culture’ (Ulla Ratheiser, University of Innsbruck)

by Sofia Aatkar

26 April 2016

This week, Nottingham Trent hosted Dr Ulla Ratheiser from the University of Innsbruck, Austria. As part of the Postcolonial Speaker Series, Ratheiser delivered a fascinating talk on the trope of the noble warrior in New Zealand literature. Contrary to popular belief, the recurrent figure of the noble warrior is not exclusive to Māori culture, but is also used by the Pākeha[1] community to represent a collective Aotearoa[2]   identity. The strength of this shared identity and cultural pride is seen, most publically perhaps, before sporting events when the Haka is performed. Ratheiser informed us that the Haka is a traditional action poem which the Māori execute before battle, but, in contemporary Aotearoa culture, the Haka is also used to represent what it means to be a New Zealander. In this sense, then, when the New Zealand rugby team perform the Haka on the world stage, they combine Māori warriorhood and indigenous minority strength with an expression of national identity in a physical, visible and audible way, which publically conveys New Zealand’s unity. Thus, the image of the noble warrior works to transcend New Zealand’s precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories.

Certainly, in many ways the figure of the noble warrior can be understood as a unifying and productive emblem in New Zealand culture, because it works to promote a pan-Aotearoan identity. However, Ratheiser employed a critical approach which illustrated some of the complications linked to the seemingly positive image of the noble warrior. She examined the representation of this symbolic figure in four texts, namely Once Were Warriors (1990) by Alan Duff, Tu: A Novel (2004) by Patricia Grace, and Witi Ihimaera’s novels The Uncle’s Story (2002) and The Whale Rider (2003). I found Ratheiser’s analysis of The Whale Rider and Tu: A Novel particularly compelling, as she demonstrated how the ideal of the noble warrior is constricting for texts’ protagonists. Indeed, for The Whale Rider’s female protagonist, Kahu, the idea of the noble warrior is initially depicted as unattainable because she is discouraged from learning traditional Māori combat due to her biological sex, and for the same reason, is almost denied her rightful title of chief. By contrast, for Tu, the image of the returning war hero represents the modern equivalent of the noble warrior; however, he returns from World War II wounded, not glorious, and consequently sees himself as a failure. By interrogating the protagonists’ subject positions, Ratheiser revealed how the image of the noble warrior can also represent a hyper-masculine, empty construct which undermines its otherwise unifying agency, and emphasises the need to understand the noble warrior concept in a wider, less literal context.

In addition to her fascinating insights on the figure of the noble warrior in New Zealand literature, for me, Ratheiser’s talk highlighted the extent to which postcolonial studies marginalises the literature of settler colonies, such as Australia and New Zealand, and how their individual postcolonial contexts are often overshadowed in postcolonial studies.


[1] This is a Māori term which is used to characterise New Zealanders of European descent.

[2] A Māori term which is commonly used to describe the country of New Zealand in its entirety.


Sofia Aatkar is undertaking research on liminality in the postcolonial bildungsroman and will begin her Midlands 3 Cities AHRC-funded PhD on post-1945 travel writing of Caribbean to UK migration in October 2016.

Response:‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’ (Sofia Aatkar)

Response to research seminar by Dr Robbie Shilliam, QMUL, ‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’

by Sofia Aatkar, MRes English Literary Research

8 December 2015


This fortnight’s postcolonial speaker was Dr. Robbie Shilliam from Queen Mary, University of London. He delivered a powerful seminar, which was described afterwards by a fellow student as ‘poetic’, regarding the reparation of colonial injustice through anti-colonial connectivity among colonised and formally colonised peoples in the context of the South Pacific and the African diaspora, and queried the usefulness of the subaltern figure in accomplishing this.

Dr. Shilliam suggested that retrieving networks between colonised and formally colonised peoples can be achieved by connecting to the places that were left untouched by Cook and Columbus; namely, the spiritual domain. Shilliam argues that, because colonisation did not (and never could) breech this spiritual domain, these hinterlands could be used as a ground for re-establishing connectivity, and subsequently can actively repair the wounds of colonialism, reconnect black individuals and decolonise lands, ancestors and agencies. Shilliam exemplified this phenomenon in his discussion of the Māori people in New Zealand. He stated that the conception of time in Māori culture differs from that of modern, linear time, in which a future-centric view is adopted and the past is forgotten. Instead, Māori people believe that the past is a source of knowledge which should be remembered and drawn upon, which is typified by the phrase ‘the ancestors are meeting because we have met’.[1] In this light, it makes sense that the Māori word ‘muri’ connotes ‘future’ (verb) and ‘behind’ (location).[2] And thus, one way in which Māori people could forge connections across the African diaspora and adopt a decolonising ethos is by looking to the future through their shared past.

The term ‘subaltern’ commonly refers to specific struggles in colonial India. However, it has been noted that:

subaltern is not just a category that affects given sectors of the population of one single nation-state, but a category of the imperial and modern/colonial world that affects people and regions in a global distribution of wealth and meaning.[3]
Accordingly, ‘subaltern’ can also be used as an intellectual category to describe individuals or groups who exist outside the hegemonic framework of colonial power. Consequently, Shilliam suggests that in order for colonial and formally colonised peoples, or the subalterns, to connect through the spiritual domain, they need to cast ‘sideways glances’[4] instead of reflecting Western epistemology and thought production. In other words, they need to look backwards at their pre-colonial pasts in order to establish a decolonised future.

Personally, I found Dr. Shilliam’s seminar refreshing as he did not simply promote a specific collective national identity in an attempt at decolonisation, but instead suggests that a transnational identity is forged between colonised and formally colonised individuals through profound metaphysical connections, irrespective of an individual’s nationality. This view, in my opinion, promotes a more productive and empowering lens through which to examine postcolonial identities as such a global infrastructure invests a deeper connection among colonised and formally colonised peoples because it transcends geographical and historical boundaries.

Shilliam - coffee


Māori Dictionary, ‘Muri’, < http://maoridictionary.co.nz/word/4283  > [accessed             03.12.2015]

Mignolo, Walter D. ‘On Subalterns and Other Agencies’, Postcolonial Studies, 8.4 (2005),             381-407

Shilliam, Robbie, ‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’, <             http://theoryculturesociety.org/article-robbie-shilliam-on-africa-in-oceania-thinking            besides-the-subaltern/ > [accessed 03.12.2015]


[1] Robbie Shilliam, ‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’, < http://theoryculturesociety.org/article-robbie-shilliam-on-africa-in-oceania-thinking-besides-the-subaltern/ > [accessed 03.12.2015] (para. 1 of 14).

[2] Māori Dictionary, ‘Muri’, < http://maoridictionary.co.nz/word/4283  > [accessed 03.12.2015].

[3] Walter D. Mignolo, ‘On Subalterns and Other Agencies’, Postcolonial Studies, 8.4 (2005), 381-407 (p.386).

[4] Robbie Shilliam, ‘Africa in Oceania’ (para. 9 of 14).