Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi writer Colleen Maria Lenihan remaking the literature of Aotearoa

By Jessica Tyson

Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi short story writer Colleen Maria Lenihan has been appointed as the 2023 Victoria University of Wellington, International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and Creative New Zealand Emerging Māori Writer in Residence for 2023.

During her three-month residency at the IIML, Lenihan will work on a novel set in Aotearoa in pre-European times.

She says she’s also interested in indigenous futurism and exploring what Aotearoa would be like if it had never been colonised.

“I can't think of any better way to spend my time than to think, dream, research and write about our tūpuna and what remarkable, formidable and interesting people they were and are,” she says.


Māori author keen to explore more about indigenous futurism.

“They were so close to nature and I'm really interested in exploring that incredible, rich world and relationship and imagining what their daily internal worlds might have been like.”

Lenihan is a fiction writer, screenwriter, and photographer, and a graduate of Te Papa Tupu and The Creative Hub. She says being gifted time to write is the dream for writers.

“Having that space to fully focus, away from day jobs, helped me complete my first book. I'm excited to try my hand at writing a novel and will seek to apply some of the screenwriting principles I've learned to fiction. I hope to create something epic that will make my tūpuna proud,” she says.

Kōhine pukapuka. Source: File

Lenihan's first book of stories, Kōhine, was published this year and received rave reviews. The stories range in location and topic from Tokyo to Tāmaki Makaurau and rural Aotearoa.

“It's been described as a meditation on grief, and I think that's pretty much is what at, what is at the heart of my pukapuka (book), you know, loss and how people deal with the cards they are dealt.”

She says there are a variety of different characters and points of view in the stories but the central characters are a mother and daughter in their journey between Tokyo, Japan and Aotearoa.

“It could be a confronting, uncomfortable read for some but I did put my heart into it and I hope I created some moments of beauty that resonate with some people.”

Kōhine book launch. Source: File

After fifteen years in Tokyo and a year in New York City, Lenihan returned to Tāmaki Makaurau in 2016 where she is now based.

She is a writer for Shortland Street and has also written for Whakaata Māori drama series Ahikāroa where she especially enjoyed working with other Maori writers and learning from them.

“We had a really amazing cultural advisor, Mana Epiha, who shared some really beautiful korero about tohungatanga and spirituality. I also loved working with my friend Annette Morehu, who is a real powerhouse in TV and she's helped me enter the industry. It's really fun and challenging mahi,” she says.

“The show is really fun too. It's quite addictive. It has lots of vivid characters and really cool modern reo and themes.”

Kōhine book launch. Source: File

Lenihan's writing has appeared on Newsroom, in the New Zealand Herald and The Pantograph Punch. She has been awarded a number of residencies: the Michael King Writers' Centre Emerging Māori Writer in 2019; the Newroom/Surrey Hotel Winner in 2019; and the Dan Davin Literary Foundation 2021 residency.

International Institute of Modern Letters director Damien Wilkins says Lenihan is part of a remarkable wave of wāhine toa remaking the literature of Aotearoa.

“Her debut book of stories revealed a writer of great talent and promise. She's fully set to launch into the next stage of her career and we're thrilled to be hosting her."

Lenihan says, “There are so many incredible kaituhi (writers) Māori out there who are just as deserving of more so, of such an opportunity like this. So I really want to make the most of my time.”

She will take up the residency in March 2023.