Māna wāhine study inspires a creative career

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumna Ataria Sharman has built a creative career stemming from her Master’s research.

Ataria Sharman
Ataria Sharman. Image by Patrick Monaghan

Ataria completed a Master of Arts in Māori Studies, researching mana wāhine and the experiences of wāhine Māori with the atua wāhine (female Māori gods). Mana wāhine theory is a Kaupapa Māori theory dedicated to the affirmation of Māori women within Māori society, whānau, hapu, and iwi.

“I wanted to do this because I knew nothing about the atua wāhine and was keen to learn more, and having a year to study this kaupapa seemed like a good way at the time to learn,” Ataria says. “Although the research process was challenging, I’m proud to have completed this big project I set out to do.”

Ataria says pursuing university study was a no-brainer for her.

“I always wanted to go to university. I enjoyed learning when I was young, and I continue to now. I much prefer it to work! As a kid, being able to continue in subjects you're interested in sounded fun and cool.”

As well as giving Ataria the opportunity to learn more about this topic, her thesis also led to the publication of her first book, Hine and the Tohunga Portal.

It was one of her lecturers, Professor Maria Bargh, who first told Ataria she was a good writer.

“Honestly, I never knew I was—none of my teachers at school had ever said that to me. That was the first time I thought I was good at writing.”

This encouragement from Professor Bargh, plus everything Ataria was learning from her research, inspired her to write a book.

“I think I needed a creative outlet for my academic research and a way to express and share what I was learning about the atua wāhine,” Ataria says. “I also believe in taking learnings outside formal learning institutions and the smaller group of people who might read a thesis.

“Writing a book for children that drew on my research seemed a good thing, and it's proven to be great for my career, taking it far beyond the thesis in ways I would never have imagined.”

Hine and the Tohunga Portal was selected as a finalist in the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

“That was massive, I think winning the book awards is the only thing that can top that. I was so excited, it was bigger than my wildest dream. When I started writing the book I didn't even know if anyone would publish it,” Ataria says.

Ataria has also pursued other literary endeavours since graduating from her Master’s. She was one of the recipients of the 2021 Verb Festival micro-residency, where she had the opportunity to stay in a home with two poets throughout the Festival and spend a week focusing on writing, walking, and performing.

“The Festival and the residency was an excellent period of growth for me as a writer,” Ataria says.

Ataria also worked as an editor for Pantograph Punch.

“I started at Pantograph Punch in a Kaupapa Māori editorial role after finishing my Master's,” Ataria says. “I wanted it because it was part-time and remote, and I'm allergic to working full-time in an office!”

Ataria says working as an editor was an amazing opportunity to learn from other writers in New Zealand.

“The best thing about editing was reading all this excellent writing because I think it got ingrained in my brain. I didn't write for myself for about a year while working as an editor, but when I got back into it, I realised I was so much better and it wasn’t because I'd been practising. It was because I'd learnt what excellent writing looks and feels like having read so much by the best in Aotearoa.”

Ataria is currently working on the sequel to Hine and the Tohunga Portal, as well as her magazine, Awa Wahine, which celebrates the creativity and strength of women.

Long-term, Ataria hopes to keep working on many different creative projects, including running her own business, publishing more books, and even taking her storytelling into animation one day.

Ataria encourages others to take a creative approach to their university studies.

“Think about ways to take your research outside the university and bring it to new audiences in ways they can relate to and understand. If you feel a pull to create something, even if it's completely random, like writing a children's book while doing a Master's thesis, act on it. I did, and it changed my life.”