Witi Ihimaera & Other Maori Writers
URL of this webpage: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci_articles/whalerider/ihimaera.htm

Millar, Paul. "Ihimaera, Witi." The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.  Ed. Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie.  Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 254-256.  Rpt. New Zealand Book Council. Jan. 2004. 6 Jan. 2004 <http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/ihimaerawiti.htm>.

Bardolph, Jacqueline.  "An Invisible Presence: Three Maori Writers."   Rev. of The Whale Rider (1987) and The Matriarch (1988), by Witi Ihimaera; Potiki (1987), by Patricia Grace; The Bone People (1986) and Te Kaihau - The Windeater (1988), by Keri Hulme.  [Section: Literary Feature Reviews.] Third World Quarterly 12.2 (1990): 131 (6pp).  Academic Search Premier.  EBSCO.  [Article Number 9609304244.] Central Oregon Community Coll. Lib., Bend, OR. 16 Oct. 2003. 

Millar, Paul. "Ihimaera, Witi." The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.  Ed. Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie.  Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 254-256.  Rpt. New Zealand Book Council. Jan. 2004. 6 Jan. 2004 <http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/ihimaerawiti.htm>.
IHIMAERA, Witi (Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler) (1944– ), novelist, short story writer, anthologist and librettist, was born in Gisborne. He has the distinction of being the first Maori writer to publish both a book of short stories and a novel. He is of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent, with close affiliations to Tühoe, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Kahungunu, and Ngai Tamanuhiri, and links to Rongowhakaata, Ngati Porou, and Te Whakatohea. His family *marae is the family house of the Pere family, Rongopai, in Waituhi, near Gisborne. The extraordinary paintings, rather than carvings, decorating the meeting house’s interior, have been described in rich detail in his writing.

Much of Ihimaera’s fiction is based on fact, but his work is never simply autobiographical. Waituhi, for example, the village setting for many of his narratives, is an imaginative recreation of the actual place. The fictional Waituhi’s ‘physical cohesion [providing] an "objective correlative" to the ethos that binds the *tangata whenua together’.

Ihimaera spent three years at Te Karaka DHS and a year at the Mormon Church College at Tuhikaramea, Hamilton. He completed his University Entrance at Gisborne BHS and then attended Auckland University from 1963 to 1966. Having acquired six units he returned to Gisborne without completing his degree, and began working as a cadet journalist with the Gisborne Herald before becoming a postman. In 1968 he moved to the Post Office, Wellington, and, in 1969, enrolled part-time at Victoria University, completing his BA in 1971. His first book, published in 1972, was read by then Prime Minister Norman Kirk, who decided that Ihimaera would be valuable in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He began there in 1973 as a writer, producing the booklet Maori in 1975 and a film script: although the film, Maori (1981), is a promotional exercise with little resemblance to his original intentions. He remained with the ministry until 1989, apart from leave in 1975 to take up a *Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago and, in 1982, the writing fellowship at Victoria University. During his time with Foreign Affairs he worked for the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra and spent four years in New York and Washington, two of them as New Zealand consul. Since 1990 he has lectured in the English department of Auckland University. In 1991 he was awarded a Scholarship in Letters and, in 1993, he travelled to France as the Katherine *Mansfield Memorial Fellow.

Ihimaera was interested in writing from an early age, and recalls scrawling stories across the whole wall of his room at the family farm at Whakarau. In 1969 he began writing seriously. His first story, ‘The Liar’, was accepted by the *NZ Listener in May of the following year. From the start, he saw writing as a valuable opportunity to express in print his experience of being a Maori.

Ihimaera’s publications are often the products of intensive periods of writing. In London, in 1970, the short story collection *Pounamu Pounamu (1972; awarded third prize in the Wattie Book of the Year Awards) and the two novels *Tangi (1973; first prize in the Wattie Award) and *Whanau (1974) were completed within a six-month period. The politics in these first books is implicit, and they primarily represent his horizontal view of the culture and history of his fictional Waituhi.

A second intensive period of writing took place when Ihimaera was Burns Fellow in 1975, and he wrote the more overtly political stories of The New Net Goes Fishing (1977) and began editing the anthology *Into the World of Light (1982), the precursor to the extensive, five-volume, Te *Ao Marama series. In December of that year, concerned that his work might be considered the ‘definitive portrayal of the world of the Maori’ when in his opinion it was ‘tragically out of date’, he determined to stop writing for a time. His fiction’s initial purpose, ‘to establish and describe the emotional landscape of the Maori people’, suddenly seemed to him less important than describing the political and social reality.

At Victoria University, with his politics now explicit and his ten-year embargo on his own writing ended, Ihimaera plunged ‘vertically’ into Waituhi’s culture and history, with the ‘past placed firmly in front’ of him, to write The *Matriarch (1986)—which again received the Wattie Book of the Year Award. He also produced the libretto for an opera by Ross *Harris based on Whanau.

The Whale Rider (1987) was written in New York and Cape Cod in the space of three weeks. A magical, mythical work about a young girl whose relationship with a whale ensures the salvation of her village, it is, says Ihimaera, the work of his ‘that the Maori community accepts best’. He followed this in 1989 with Dear Miss Mansfield, a response to the Katherine *Mansfield centenary celebrations which rewrites her stories from a Maori perspective. Interestingly, this collection of experimental fiction was slated by New Zealand critics (who seemed to feel he had in some way molested a literary icon) but received excellent reviews internationally.

Another novel set in Waituhi, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies (1994), was awarded the 1995 Montana Book Award. Described by Ihimaera as an attempt to write a Maori western, this ‘exuberant novel with a New Zealand brand of magical realism’ recounts the rivalry between two great Maori families of shearers and sportsmen and women spanning the period from World War 1 to the 1990s. The conflict between the patriarch, Bulibasha—whose ‘marriage’ to grandmother Ramona conceals a terrible secret—and Himiona, the rebellious youngest male in the extended family, generates the most tension.

In 1996 Ihimaera’s writing moved in a significant new direction when he decided to foreground his sexuality and write a gay novel, Nights in the Gardens of Spain. To come out so explicitly was not an easy decision, but Ihimaera describes it as keeping faith with his gay audience as, in similar fashion, he attempts to keep faith with his Maori audience. Nights is, writes Roger Robinson, ‘a good story of conflict, growth and reconciliation, with subplots heroic, political and tragic. It wears its throbbing heart on its shoulder (for in many scenes no one’s wearing much else you could put it on)’ (*NZ Books, Mar. 1995).

There is a substantial body of critical, biographical and bibliographical work about Ihimaera. Among his autobiographical articles, the ones in WLWE, Vol. 14, 1975; Tihe Mauri Ora (1978); New Zealand Through the Arts: Past and Present (1982); and Through the Looking Glass (1988) are useful. Two extremely good interviews are by J.B. Beston in WLWE, Vol. 16, 1977, and Mark *Williams in In the Same Room (1992). Book-length studies include Richard Corballis and Simon Garrett’s Introducing Witi Ihimaera (1984) and Umelo Ojinmah’s Witi Ihimaera: A Changing Vision (1993), which includes a useful bibliography.

Central to Ihimaera’s fiction is the fact that the kaupapa he writes to has as its central goal the interpretation and reinterpretation of the concerns of the *iwi from the viewpoint of the past. He sees himself as a Maori in the world, and thinks of ‘the world I’m in as being Maori, not European’. Just as he grew up in a society transforming from rural to urban, so his writing developed during another period of change when, in ‘the 1970s and ’80s [Maori] began to demand sovereignty’. The legacy of this period, Ihimaera suggests, is a ‘new strength of which Alan *Duff is a beneficiary’.

 --PM [Paul Millar]

Updated Information

In 1997 Ihimaera published The Dream Swimmer (Penguin, 1997), a sequel to his 1986 novel The Matriarch. The novel continues the odyssey of Tama Mahana, heir apparant to the Mahana clan of the East Coast. On his return to New Zealand from Canada, Tama is reminded of his destiny:  to lead his tribe to Parliament to petition for the return of Maori land confiscated during the Land Wars.

In The Dream Swimmer, mana, power and boldness are once again the hallmarks of Ihimaera's style as he negotioates a story of breadth and  breathtaking climaxes. (Penguin Press Release)

Published on November 2nd, 2000 The Uncle's Story is a powerful love story which illustrates the cyclical nature of destiny, courageously confronting Maori attitudes to sexuality and masculinity and containing some of Ihimaera's most engaging writing to date.

The Little Kowhai Tree (2002) is written by Witi Ihimaera and illustrated by Henry Campbell.
A lonely little Kowhai tree longs for a brother to keep her company. When her wish is granted, she is left to protect him in a forest crowded with fairy tale creatures, nosy weka, inconsiderate pigs and chainsaw-wielding woodcutters. Will he survive?

The Whale Rider was first published in 1978 and has been reprinted numerous times. It is one of Ihimaera's best-loved books by adults and younger readers alike.
In January 2003 it was released as a movie on international screens. Filmed on the East Coast of New Zealand, the film has been widely acclaimed, and has sold distribution deals for European and US cinemas.

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera has won the coveted Nielsen BookData New Zealand Booksellers' Choice Award. an established acknowledgement of the books that booksellers throughout the country have most enjoyed reading, selling and promoting.

Ihimaera: His Best Stories, the Anniversary Collection (2003). Witi Ihimaera's first book, Pounamu, Pounamu was first published in 1972. In this anniversary publication he offers a personal choice of stories accompanied by author notes.

In 2003 Ihimaera travelled to the Brisbane Writers Festival as part of a Book Council Trans-Tasman Exchange.

Pounamu Pounamu: The Anniversary Collection (2003) was first published in 1972, it collects stories about Maori within settings that are Maori.

In 2004 Witi Ihimaera is to receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Victoria University of Wellington.

Sky Dancer (2003) takes legend to the skies in an awesome battle between the land birds and the sea birds.  A book for young and old, Maori and Pakeha, Ihimaera moves the reader between centuries in a story that is both modern and ancient.


Useful Links

Bardolph, Jacqueline.  "An Invisible Presence: Three Maori Writers."   Rev. of The Whale Rider (1987) and The Matriarch (1988), by Witi Ihimaera; Potiki (1987), by Patricia Grace; The Bone People (1986) and Te Kaihau - The Windeater (1988), by Keri Hulme.  [Section: Literary Feature Reviews.] Third World Quarterly 12.2 (1990): 131 (6pp).  Academic Search Premier.  EBSCO.  [Article Number 9609304244.] Central Oregon Community Coll. Lib., Bend, OR. 16 Oct. 2003. 
Writers from New Zealand were initially considered as `colonial' writers, then as `Commonwealth' writers. As their outlook becomes more international, and less exclusively centred on Great Britain, they are now considered, along with Australian, Canadian and Indian artists, for example, as `poet-colonial' writers. But is the term itself correct, when New Zealand society is being reassessed for its colonial attitudes,
past and even present?

For a long time, Maoris were an invisible presence in literature. Paradoxically, their culture suffered not so much from outright warfare and destruction (as with Aborigines or Amerindians), as from assimilation. For many reasons--tactical, economic, religious, and even sheer mutual attraction--the Maoris intermarried with European settlers and adopted their ways, sometimes eagerly erasing traces of their own language and customs, which were obsolete in their own eyes. They were present in literature, it is true, but as foils to the Pakeha (white)
imagination: ferocious cannibals, beautiful natives, a noble and dying race, lazy picturesque dropouts emerged successively, mostly as negatives to the cliches the Anglo-Saxons had of themselves. The country was admired abroad as an example of harmonious racial relationships. But can one speak of a relationship when there is no `Other' left in dialogue, when there are few full-blood Maoris remaining in the country, when the rural communities have been `splintered', in the words of Witi Ihimaera, when the language and rites are well-known by a diminishing group of old people?

Enter the writers, as part of a consciousness-raising movement which has emerged in the past twenty years and opened many artistic and political avenues. The first works to emerge, as with any new national literature, were poems and short stories--easy to publish, and also close to oral forms. Two anthologies, Contemporary Maori Writing (1970) and Into the World of Light (1982), map this swift development and show the measure of the task for writers whose cultural heritage is less easy to recover than it is for a Yoruba from Nigeria, for instance. They know that in many cases, what is left of the oral tradition has to be complemented by nineteenth-century missionaries' records, by the works of anthropologists and historians. Hone Tuwhare, one of the poets who first set to work to speak for his people, knows the complexity of the task:

       . . . my literary ancestors . . .
       I have still problems in finding
       them, lost somewhere in the
       confusing swirl, now thick and now
       thin, Victoriana-Missionary fog hiding
       legalised land-rape or gentleman thugs.

                                (`Ron Mason', Mihi (1987))

The voice of such poets was powerful; it created an audience, both Maori and Pakeha, and assisted in halting New Zealand's monocultural perception of itself. Now their readers are to be found all over the world.

The first works, designed to express identity, follow a well-known pattern. The first novels, short stories and plays did what Chinua Achebe's novels did for the Africans: they present the full dignity of a culture from the inside, insisting on its rational organisation and the coherence of its world-view. The early short stories of Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace tend to have a rural setting and lay stress on the harmonious relationship between their people and the land and waters which have been theirs for a thousand years. First novels like Patricia Grace's Mutawhenua--The Moon Sleeps or Ihimaera's Tangi explain what it is like for a young Maori to adapt to the demands of Pakeha life or to rediscover the deep value of ancient mourning rites of tangi. The books under review strike a new note, in their ambition and confidence. They won recognition at home: in 1986 The Matriarch received the Wattie Book of the Year Prize in New Zealand, with Potiki winning third prize. It is fitting that in the wake of Keri Hulme's The Bone People and its 1985 Booker Prize in Britain, Maori writers should meet an international audience, with works whose value extends well beyond the merely regional.

Ihimaera's most recent novel, The Whale Rider, is an excellent introduction to this literature. It is short, well produced, and illustrated by Maori artist I Hovell, and demonstrates the quality that first brought this novelist to attention. In an understated and forceful manner, he tells a simple story around the disturbing behaviour of
groups of whales stranding themselves deliberately on a beach. A dual theme in the narrative gives the fable an ecological turn, connecting it to the wonderous tale of a young girl who can ride the whales back out to sea, giving them back their will to live. The whales feel doomed like Maori culture itself, no longer part of a cosmic harmony. The mythical account is rich and musical, and Ihimaera's poetry of doom in his twin theme is so convincing that one finds it hard to believe in the final recovery of the fragile saviour, the little girl with pigtails.

This pessimism of Ihimaera comes across strongly in his most ambitious novel to date, The Matriarch. This long book is tightly packed with incidents, facts, myths: he demonstrates his mastery in weaving a plot with many strands, made up of as many voices seeking to account for Maori identity. He has juxtaposed various styles, modes and storytelling conventions--whether complementary or contradictory--as though it were impossible to narrate the history of his people, from their origins to the present, with one voice. This existential dilemma is shown in the difficult relationship of the hero to his grandmother, Artemis; she has the traditional responsibility for his education, and tries to fashion him--firstborn from firstborn--into a new leader able to restore the and to his people who are still `suffering under Pharaoh'. The story of the young man who tries to balance successful modern life with a certain respect for family rituals is given depth by being told in parallel with many layers of history. The book opens with the founding myths, the creation of humankind, and of death, and these essential myths, repeated, punctuate the entire narrative. It also relates, in an epic mode which must be close to translation, the traditional story--myth and history intertwined--of the settling of the Maoris in Aotearoa, "The
Land of the Long White Cloud", as they came from Hawaiki in their many canoes: each group and individual today can be traced back to one of those canoes. At another level, it follows the particular history of a small area, populated by the travellers from one canoe. Ihimaera has chosen several episodes that are an excellent illustration of the colonial process.

On that level, it is a thrilling historical novel. The account is clear, told with such a mixture of passion, sarcastic wit and scholarship that it comes alive for any reader unfamiliar with the subject, forcing comparisons with similar accounts of colonial and post-colonial struggles: the `Mau Mau' rebellion in Kenya, Shaka's resistance, the Indian Wars. The process of buying land while `people were kneeling in prayer with their eyes closed', the suppression of a dissident religious movement by colonial power, the Hauhau, in the 1860s under their leader
Te Kooti, the political contestation by the Honourable Pi Were, MP, in the 1880s, the negotiations with the prime minister in 1949, the 1975 Land March, are all told in parallel strands. The writer's skill is such that these episodes remain very clear, and bring light to bear upon one another. It is striking to note how much of the energy of the novel is provided by the historical facts. Ihimaera's account of the conflictual moments is reinforced by the recent approach of New Zealand historians, engaged in a reappraisal of the Victorian version of the 1845-72 New Zealand Wars, and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, between settlers and Maoris, in time for its 150th anniversary. It is remarkable also that some pages, directly reproducing long speeches by Pi Were from Hansard, read as well as the framing literary text. In fact, with their clear rhetoric and emotional impact, they ring as strongly in favour of justice now as they did when they were first delivered.

The last strand, the most personal one, is perhaps weaker: the matriarch with her pride and domineering will is for her grandson both a black queen and a lethal spider. In an attempt to connect her with the mythical and the historical past, Ihimaera has given the character Venetian and operatic overtones. The result does not always cohere, and he is more adept at showing the way Maori values and emotions shape the lives of ordinary family members. He makes us feel the deep meaning of concepts such as mana, aroha and tang), inadequately translated by `prestige', `love' and `mourning'. This major book, a splendid introduction to the history of a people, has confirmed the international stature of the writer, even if his fundamentally pessimistic vision is found by some Maoris to be demotivating. Similar reproaches have been voiced against Achebe's Things Fall Apart: in the words of a young African critic, `by narrating how Mother Rat got her children eaten up by the Hawk, he gives more joy to the white man than to us . . .'

Patricia Grace tackles the same topics--land, the identity of the modern Maori--in a different, arguably more optimistic or positive, mode. Adding to her successful collections of short stories, particularly The Dream Sleepers (1980), she has produced a more complex work, the novel, Potiki. Published at the same time as The Matriarch, it has obvious similarities: a rural community finds its identity threatened when even more land is claimed by property developers. As in The Matriarch, a grandmother is at the core of a new determination to resist, helped by a fey child who--as in The Whale Rider--helps the group keep alive its spiritual force, embodied in the meeting house. It is fitting that the novel should be published in Great Britain for the first time by The Women's Press, since Patricia Grace's outlook and idiom, starting from premises similar to Ihimaera's, are strikingly original and clearly express a feminine vision. She has created a form of language in which dialogue and narration merge in an English which is recognisably Maori, with its own rhythm and syntax, and specific modes of conversation. Reading its slightly unfamiliar cadences or images is never a strain, and it provides a direct continuity between the mythical and the very familiar. At the heart of the story are family bonds, the giving of life and the acceptance of death, and daily occurrences, such as fishing or preparing food, are shown in their coherent, distinctive Maoriness. Emotions are freely expressed, but never sentimentalised. The robust humour and down-to-earth approach are not in contradiction with the lyrical passages or the spiritual vision, and it may be said that this particular mode lies the mark of the woman writer; at times, her compatriot, Katherine Mansfield, is not far-removed.

Grace's identifiable voice consists in the unity of the text and the outlook, whereas Ihimaera at times resorts both to a mythical mode and journalist's report (set in brackets) to account for the same event. The tragic tension in his work comes precisely from the unresolved plurality of the voices--as is the case in Salman Rushdie's novels--whereas in Potiki, it comes from another feeling: the sense of the urgency of action. In some ways, Potiki is a militant novel, relating how a community preparing to fight an unjust land scheme discovers its inner resources, a new image of itself and also its true friends. The presentation is not idealised or Manichean. Maoris have learnt from political struggles elsewhere. The Maori Writers' Association founded in 1980 is aware of the worldwide resonance of its approach; Franz Fanon, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Amerindian movements are useful precedents. But such a book is not reductive or simplistic.
It conveys the warmth, the energy and the quiet determination of a new generation well aware that in the 1980s, they have been not so much restoring as constructing, in a continuous creative process, their Maori identity.

In a country where the risk for a minority--10 per cent, growing steadily--has been not so much in elimination as in fading out through assimilation, such an identity has to be deliberately claimed. At a time when lawyers and land surveyors are examining ways of compensating Maoris for the land and fishing rights unjustly taken from them, the whole country is aware that the issue involves not only restoring the economic balance between the two groups, but enabling those who want to claim their Maoriness, to identify with the piece of land and sea which is their spiritual home. Keri Hulme has chosen to be Maori, declared herself as such, although only one great grandmother was Maori. The choice is not questioned, because she grew up in a Maori community, in a small place on the West Coast of the South Island, and knows she shares their values and codes. The Bone People is the product of this proud stance in the face of the Pakeha establishment: she refused editing or cuts to a most unusual manuscript. It has the salty energy, the uncompromising harshness of her chosen place. The story of the difficult conjunction of an independent woman, a strange child and his mysterious father would, if summarised, read in some ways like a gothic fantasy or turn-of-the-century romanesque: a mystic artist in her lonely tower, castaway after an unexplained shipwreck, esoteric objects and signs . . . But what reader can keep hold of recognisable narrative landmarks when swept away on such waves of language? The voice is by turns protean, joyful or harsh: raucous drunken dialogues at the local pub, Maori myths, passages in verse, Christian or Zen symbols alternate, yet without giving the effect of a postmodern collage because there is no ironical distance, only sheer exuberance.  The reader's interest does not flag, even when the pattern becomes obscure, because Keri Hulme's is
such a distinct voice: it speaks from a harsh environment, with no telephone and rare mail--she `wrote nights after working in the Matueke tobacco fields'. She has imbibed many traditions, and has a limitless supply of stories which she uses to awaken us to a fresh use of language and image. Her other major strength is the one she shares most deeply with other Maori writers: she can convey the feeling of place, and particularly of the sea, the joy of fishing, the sensations and dreams of beach and storm which are truly her elements.

The immediate impact of her description of coastal joys, even in a harsh climate, gives poetic density to the best short stories in Te Kaihau--The Wind eater. Some of the pages are a pure delight in the way in which they give meaning to every shell and shade on a sandy beach. Others show her ill at ease in the medium--a simplified plot can seem simplistic, or an experimental short piece too gimmicky. This is the obverse side of her rich talent. One successful story connects her immediately with the endeavours of the other Maori writers. Like Patricia Grace, Hone Tuwhare in his poetry or Rowley Habib in his stories and television plays, she tells bravely of the difficulties and contradictions of trying to keep memory alive and at the same time claiming modernity. A cultural group has organised itself for a visit to another group, has learned the ritual modes of address from old people, rehearsed long-forgotten phrases; yet, when the day comes they are kept waiting outside in the rain, unrecognised, because their hosts are entertaining an official from Maori Affairs . . . There is pain in the telling of such floundering attempts, the recognition that the ways to identity are not simple, that Pakehas are at times needed to tell the Maoris of their own traditions yet, in her words, `aroha' is there, and the courage in the humorous telling transforms the mock-epic into an epic of its own.

These five books, now widely available, place Maoris squarely on the literary map. The first two writers offer a particularly good introduction to their culture; the myths, history, present-day social and political issues. But above all, all three have listened to the telling of genealogies, the narrating of founding myths and traditional oratory, and all three manage to convey the richness, vitality and present relevance of their vision.


Millar, Paul. "Ihimaera, Witi." The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.  Ed. Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie.  Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 254-256.  Rpt. New Zealand Book Council. Jan. 2004. 6 Jan. 2004 <http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/ihimaerawiti.htm>.

Bardolph, Jacqueline.  "An Invisible Presence: Three Maori Writers."   Rev. of The Whale Rider (1987) and The Matriarch (1988), by Witi Ihimaera; Potiki (1987), by Patricia Grace; The Bone People (1986) and Te Kaihau - The Windeater (1988), by Keri Hulme.  [Section: Literary Feature Reviews.] Third World Quarterly 12.2 (1990): 131 (6pp).  Academic Search Premier.  EBSCO.  [Article Number 9609304244.] Central Oregon Community Coll. Lib., Bend, OR. 16 Oct. 2003. 

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by Cora Agatucci - Email: cagatucci@cocc.edu - Professor of English
Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College