Multiple award-winning author Alan Duff, whose works launched with Once Were Warriors 25 years ago, spoke in Cambridge this week of his desire to use the written word to influence those behind bars to lead better lives.
Duff was speaking at Paper Plus Cambridge’s Tuesday evening book signing of his latest work, A Conversation with my Country. He described it as a “deeply personal” account that also offered solutions to some of the key problems facing both Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand today.
Fresh from a visit with Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis, Duff said plans were underway for a series of stories intended for distribution to prisoners. Using what he described as his “cast of characters” they would be morality tales centred on acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
“I also told the Minister that, with all due respect, teaching prison inmates Te Kāinga Maori will not lessen incarceration rates. They are not in prison because they lack Te Kāinga Maori, they are there because of bad parenting. The same applies to white people in jail … again that is largely due to bad parenting, a lack of education and a failure to instil values. That is what I want to get across.”
Duff said women should be elevated to ‘star status’ in New Zealand. “If you have a society where males don’t respect women, you have a sick society, and right now that is happening to too many of my people. Women don’t need or want the tough, staunch guys. They want gentle, loving men in their lives.”
He countered a perception that he has used his people as a ‘whipping boy’, and said Maori were not exclusive in their immorality. “I consider the crimes committed by people like departed Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings and ANZ CEO David Hisco to be more immoral than those of the drunk shoplifting Maori, or the Maori with a knife. That is because in their case, they were robbing all of us. I know of middle-class white people claiming benefits on the advice of their accountants.”
Born in Rotorua in 1950, Duff was the son of a research scientist father and a mother he said almost destroyed the lives of her children. A troubled childhood saw him enter the then Waikeria borstal at 15, where a fight over a stolen egg resulted in him accessing a Taylor Caldwell book in the prison library. “That turned me around … I knew the power of the written word”.
Some of that power was in his DNA. Duff’s grandfather Oliver Duff was a writer, a former editor of the Christchurch Press and foundation editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine. Alan Duff has gone on to use his skill with words to reflect society and advocate for change.
In the early 1990s, he launched the Alan Duff Charitable Foundation – better known as Duffy Books in Homes – a literacy programme encouraging reading among underprivileged children. He recently attended a gathering with New Zealand’s Governor General, Dame Patsy Reddy, which marked both the 25th anniversary of the programme and the 13 millionth book given to a child.
“That’s more than in all the libraries across New Zealand,” he said. “Not a bad effort for a bad boy.”