Rowley Habib grew up in the one-time timber settlement of Oruanui, near Taupō, youngest son of a Lebanese father and a Māori mother. Anxious and "no scholar" at school, he began writing due to encouragement he recieved at Māori boarding school Te Aute College. "I always wrote about things and people I knew personally," Habib has said. "I found I couldn't write about imaginary things, they had no interest for me."
Aged 20 — the same year he won an award for a short story at teachers' college — Habib knew he wanted to be a writer. Leaving teachers' college, he spent a year working in an Auckland bookshop, then another three around the country, gaining inspiration from the people he met working in timber mills, freezing works and hydroelectric dams.
In 1956 the first of many short stories, poems and articles began appearing in Te Ao Hou, a quarterly published by the Māori Affairs Department. The magazine's one-time editor Bruce Mason told him he had an ear for dialogue, and suggested writing plays. He was also published in Landfall and quarterly Arena; encyclopedia The Pacific Islands describes him as "one of the pioneers of modern literary expression by Māori". Poetry anthology The Raw Men, culling 50 years of work, was published by O-a-Tia Publishers in 2006.
Habib had met Don Selwyn at teachers' college. When Selwyn got involved with the Māori Theatre Trust in the 60s, Habib began coming along to rehearsals. He encouraged Selwyn to direct, weary of watching Pākehā directors telling Māori actors how to play Māori. Around 1976, keen to see more Māori stories on stage, Habib plunged in the deep end himself, founding theatre group Te Ika a Māui Players. Amongst the actors were Jim Moriarty, Tungia Baker (Open House), Keri Kaa, Rawiri Paratene, Wiki Oman and Marnie Morgan.
Though not the first Māori play, Habib's Death of the Land (1976) is probably the earliest to be widely seen. Te Ika a Māui performed it around the country in community halls and marae; it was adapted for radio and for television, and later collected in landmark volume He Reo Hou. The courtroom drama revolves around whether a block of Māori ancestral land should be sold, dramatising injustices over Māori land which Habib had debated while part of the legendary 1975 Māori Land March. The screen adaptation was made independently at Avalon television studios in 1978, using actors from Te Ika a Māui.
Death of the Land's television debut couldn't have been more timely. Decades-old tensions over stolen and occupied lands were reigniting. In the months before it screened in August 1978, Raglan golf course was occupied by protestors (Habib was one of those arrested), and 222 were arrested at Bastion Point.
In 1979 Habib became the first Māori to write an original drama specifically for television, when producer Tony Isaac commissioned him to write The Gathering. Devoted to New Zealand stories, Isaac had previously battled with his bosses after refusing to direct stories by foreign writers. The Gathering explored tensions around an elderly woman's tangi; Habib writes about the genesis of the tele-play here, arguing that its main theme is "the vexed matter of where a Māori person is to be buried, when they die". Again Te Ika a Māui featured on-screen, including recent arrival Riwia Brown (later to write the screenplay for Once Were Warriors).
The Gathering marked another kind of turning point; the moment where bicultural TV dramas, though still few in number, began to feature more creative input from Māori. As Trisha Dunleavy writes in her book Ourselves in Primetime, from 1979 to 1982 five Māori dramas, all one-offs, were made for television. Three were written by Habib (the other two were 1982 Koha drama Te Ohaki a Nihe, and Kingi's Story).
Habib returned to the topic of land for tele-play The Protestors, which won him the 1983 Feltex award for best script. Once more echoing current events, the plot involved a group of protestors arguing over how to handle the imminent arrival of the police, who plan to evict them. The cast showcased an impressive range of Māori talent, from Don Selwyn and Bastion Point - Day 507 co-director Merata Mita, to Jim Moriarty and Billy T James. Dunleavy describes the result as "provocative and strikingly contemporary", the jewel of the 12-part Loose Enz series.
When drama series Open House debuted on TV One in 1986, Habib publicly critiqued the show's portrayal of urban Māori. "Pākehā television writers are afraid to write realistic parts for Māori characters," he said. "Māori are down in the dirt in real life and we have to show them like that on television [...]. All the Māori on Open House are so nice, nice, nice."
Habib later took up an invitation to write for the short-lived series, scripting episode 'Ahi Kaa Roa / Keeper of the Fire'. This tale of a visit by a distant cousin showcased another impressive cast, including Wi Kuki Kaa and Tama Poata. Yet Habib's involvement in television actually predates all of these: in 1973 he shared the writing of Tihe Mauriora, with Don Selwyn and Earle Spencer. Each episode of the six-part series showcased a different aspect of Māoritanga.
In 1977, Habib's poetry was included in the half-hour Te Tutakinga o Nga Awa e Rua (also known as Two Rivers Meet). Habib wrote the film and worked on it with Richard Turner, who would direct the TV adaptation of Death of the Land. The documentary showcases a range of Māori poets; the Evening Post called it "extremely powerful and moving".
Habib continues to write, and occasionally speak at theatre conferences. In June 2011 Taupō Museum, Taupō Library and local Māori combined to mark Rowley Habib Week. The veteran scribe helmed workshops and readings, alongside a screening of The Protestors — and a talk recalling Habib's beginnings growing up in a largely Māori-populated timber mill settlement near Taupo.
Merrill Coke, 'Towards a Māori theatre' - Listener, 21 November 1987, Page 61
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Brij V Lal and Kate Fortune, Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia (University of Hawaii Press, 2000)
Roma Potiki, 'Introduction', in He Reo Hou - 5 plays by Māori playwrights (Wellington: Playmarket, 1991)
Taupo District Council, 'Taupo Literary hero celebrated'. (Press Release) 14 June 2011
'Rowley Habib - A New Voice in New Zealand Writing' (Interview) - Te Ao Hou, No 47, June 1964
'Matariki Forum: Where is Māori Theatre now?' (Transcript) The Big idea website. Loaded 5 November 2008. Accessed 9 March 2015
'The bicultural landscape & Māori theatre'. Te Kete Ipurangi website. Accessed 31 January 2011