Whiti Hereaka

Biography and research courtesy of the undergraduate UNESCO City of Literature research class

Whiti Hereaka was born on January 26, 1978 in Taupo, New Zealand. Hereaka accepted a residency in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2013. In the Fall semester of 2013, Hereaka joined 33 other internationally acclaimed authors whom together have helped represent a total of 1,400 writers hailing from 130 countries. To date, Hereaka has published more than a dozen literary works, as predominately a playwright, novelist and screenwriter, including ‘Collective Agreement’ (2005), The Graphologist’s Apprentice (2010), Fallow (2005), Olivia (2007), Bugs (2013), and “Unclaimed Luggage” (2005). 

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs — a branch within the U.S. Department of State — made her program participation possible, alongside an invitation by the American Embassy in New Zealand.

Her educational achievements include a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and a period of residency at Randell Cottage in Wellington — similar to that of the Iowa Writers' Workshop — in 2007. There, she continued her work on completing her debut novel, The Graphologist’s Apprentice.

Despite being a young author, Hereaka has won a number of awards. In 2012, she received the Bruce Mason Award, which is given to successful New Zealand playwrights. She also won Adam Play Awards for Te Kaupoi in 2010, for Rona and Rabbit on the Moon in 2011, and was shortlisted for Raw Men in 2012. For her debut novel The Graphologist’s Apprentice, she was shortlisted for First Book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize in Asia/Pacific region in 2011.

Upon her arrival to Iowa, Hereaka found several similarities and noticeable differences with her home country and Iowa — often regarded as a “flyover” state. One of the most acute, she said, came in the woodland creatures.

 “… I’m mad about squirrels,” she said in an Oct. 22 interview, noting that the small animals are not found in her home country. “… I’ve just been fascinated because they’re just these creatures hopping about and it’s as if nobody seems to notice them.”

Surprisingly, Hereaka said she has been incredibly appreciated and surprised by the vibrant literary community within Iowa City. “… I think I’ve just been to more readings than I’ve ever been in my whole life, and it’s just real nice to have a community that’s really supportive of writers and writing,” she said in the interview.

In her spare time, Hereaka enjoys sewing and knitting. In addition, she is in a process of learning to garden and is planning to plant vegetables for the upcoming summer in New Zealand. She enjoys gardening because the work is physical and it allows her to “get out of the house.” Because she writes mostly at a computer, getting out into the fresh air now and then is rejuvenating for her.

From the early ages of her life, she always told stories or drummed up plays, and while there is no particular experience that made her a writer, several occurrences led her to that path. As a proud Maori citizen — a New Zealand-based culture — many of her pieces of literature are related to the culture.

Two of Hereaka’s better-known literary examples are ‘Collective Agreement’ and Bugs. 'Collective Agreement' is a black comedy set in a large department store. The story involves a conflict between four female characters that are working in the store as a team. Jamie is the team leader, and Kate, Aimee, and Ngaire are Jamie's three assistants. The other characters in the play are fellow store associates Jeff and Joe who come out between the shifts of the scenes and act as philosophers. The pair often discuss about the topics of love and life.

If 'Collective Agreement' is about the grown up characters, Bugs is about three youths during their adolescence. Bugs, which was published in September 2013, is about the three young people name Bugs, Jez and Charmaine living in a small town in New Zealand who are in their last year of school. Bugs and Jez are best friends, however, their life seems just boring. However, when the girl named “Stone Cold” (Charmaine) appears in their lives, things become pretty interesting. The three begin to figure out what could be the best way for them to get out of the small town. In the end, they all come up with different thoughts. It describes how they mature.

Although her time in Iowa City was short-lived, and she opted out of continuing to write while in Iowa, Hereaka’s writing experiences still remained valuable. When a prime literary moment came up, she would jot down notes in a journal for what may end up in later works. The thirty-five-year-old returned to her home country in early November 2013 and is now working on her next novel, which she expects to finish in the next two years.

Her perspective on American life, she confessed, also stood out from what she had seen in movies and television, as well as read in novels.

 “America’s been a place of imagination for me,” she said. “In a way I thought I knew America through those things. So when I first got here, my brain just could not comprehend the accents. I mean I could understand but it was like I was in a movie and it was just really surreal.”


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