Mams's trippin'Teachers' Notes

mama's trippin'

Katy Watson-Kell

Publication Date : 2006

ISBN: 9 781921 064074


The story opens with sixteen-year-old Von Taiaroa waiting anxiously for his mother at Wellington Airport. He hasn't seen her in over ten years and she's already an hour late. Von, a recently diagnosed diabetic, has been raised in Fremantle by his Moriori/Maori father, Jack, and is uncertain what to expect of a mother he barely knows.

Following an awkward reconciliation, Von is overwhelmed by a range of emotions. His conflicted state intensifies as he begins to understand the enormity of Charlene's problems. His mother works every night at the notorious Endorphin dance club; her boyfriend, Pete, set up a methamphetamine lab but is now on the run from the cops and his drugdealing partner, Rob. Charlene's been left with an onerous debt and no possible way of repaying it, and all the while she's struggling to look after her toddler daughter, Stella. Von is concerned for his mother, but he is also suspicious about her motivation for inviting him to see her - did she ask him to New Zealand just to be her babysitter? Nonetheless, Von soon forms a bond with his tiny half-sister - he can empathise with ‘the Torturer' - her situation often stirs up troubling memories from his own early childhood. And he even manages to find a bit of time for himself, befriending Henry who runs the local music store.

Then, one night after work, Charlene brings Rob home. A night of violence follows. Charlene takes up her drug habit again and a few days later, she doesn't come home at all. Von is left in crisis with a traumatised two year old. When Welfare visit the flat and threaten to take Stella away, Von realises he has to act. Enlisting Henry's help, Von follows his instincts and flees with Stella to the far-flung Chatham Islands where he discovers a deep spiritual connection with his Moriori ancestors finding both peace and resolution.

Author Inspiration

The inspiration for mama's trippin' came from two very different sources. The first was a growing frustration over the proliferation of one dimensional media coverage focused on youth drug issues. I passionately wanted to show a different (and very common) perspective - the lives of both a teenager and young child struggling to cope with the fall-out of their mother's drug addiction. Many young people live in homes where their adult role models abuse drugs and alcohol on a regular basis. I believed the novel would have much more impact if Charlene, the mother, was experiencing problems with an illicit drug such as methamphetamine - a substance usually discussed in the context of youth drug culture - because it would allow both teenage readers and adults to connect with her character more objectively. It was also very important to me that this novel didn't become an ‘issues' book - Von and Charlene's story had to come first and foremost - their demons and vulnerabilities needed to emerge very naturally.

My second source of inspiration came from the Moriori of Rekohu and Rangiauria, (Chatham Island and Pitt Island) New Zealand. Moriori culture was built on the principle of peace and they lived by an ancient law that forbade all killing and warfare. In the years following the 1835 invasion of Rekohu, the Moriori made the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs. Instead of repelling the invaders, they welcomed the new arrivals and were willing to share their resources. Moriori mana remained intact but decades of slavery and subjugation followed during the nineteenth century. Von, the main protagonist in mama's trippin', is a young Moriori descendent and I thought it would be interesting to explore the parallels between Von's struggle to form a bond with his deeply troubled mother and his emerging respect and empathy for his Moriori ancestors. In his efforts to help Charlene, Von draws on traits that lie buried in his nature - tolerance, forgiveness and compassion for others - which ultimately help him survive the ‘enslavement' he experiences during her slide back into addiction. While writing mama's trippin', I was invited to the official celebration of Kopinga, The First Moriori Marae, on Rekohu (Chatham Island). During my stay on the island, I finally had the opportunity to meet some of the Moriori friends who'd shared so generously during the research phase of the novel. There were also many unforgettable experiences on visits to Moriori sites including the Manu Moriori (tree carvings or dendroglyphs) at Hapupu, Manukau reserve and the kopi groves and middens along the Henga foreshore.

About the Author

Katy Watson-Kell was born in Scotland and moved to Western Australia when she was ten. After leaving high school on a whim, she spent the next ten years talking her way into a smorgasbord of occupations including golf course attendant, handbag seller and professional luncher. Eventually her creative juices bubbled to the surface and her first young adult novel, Juice, won the Avis Page Award for the highest ranking Australian novel, Older Readers category, in the West Australian Young Readers' Book Awards 2002.

Katy's ancestry is a melting pot of Australian, New Zealander, Irish and Scots, and she is the descendent of an Irish convict girl transported to New South Wales in 1828 for the robbery of a person. Her great-great-grandmother, (on her mother's side) was born in 1846 in Kawhia, a small west-coastal town on New Zealand's north island. After handing in the final manuscript of mama's trippin' to her publisher, Katy felt compelled to contact family in New Zealand. This contact was to lead to an incredible revelation - she finally discovered her Moriori cousins.

Educational Adaptability

The themes explored in mama's trippin' make it a valuable resource for classroom studies and discussions over a wide range of subject areas. Written in an engaging, accessible third person narrative which flows between different viewpoints, this novel would be an excellent reader for students from Year 9 onwards through to tertiary level.

Topics for Classroom/tutorial discussions:

Parental drug addiction and its impact on families:

In mama's trippin', Von often has to deal with difficult situations as a result of his mother's erratic lifestyle and drug use.

  • In what ways can teenagers/children be at risk, both emotionally and physically, when exposed to the drug/alcohol abuse of their parents?
  • What choices/resources are available to teenagers/children when faced with such a situation?
  • Should people learn to take personal responsibility for the impact of their drug use?
  • Is drug/alcohol dependence an illness?
  • What is codependency? Is this also an illness?
  • Are there resources available for addicts and their codependents?

Diabetes and its management:

Von has recently been diagnosed with diabetes.

  • Discuss how diabetes has affected Von's self-image?
  • Is it possible for him to manage his diabetes and still participate fully in teenage life?
  • What aspects of his life have been most affected by diabetes?

Parenting issues:

Charlene, Von's mother, left when he was six. But Jack, his father, never told him about her addiction.

  • Was this a wise decision?
  • How could Jack have explained addiction to such a young child?
  • In what ways has Von suffered as a result of his mother's absence from his life?

Because Charlene is often distracted by the problems she is faced with, she sometimes overlooks the needs of her toddler daughter, Stella.

  • Discuss some of the parenting choices Charlene makes during the novel.
  • When called into work for an urgent meeting, what other arrangements could she have made for her daughter?
  • Does Charlene's exhaustion and drug use inhibit her ability to parent effectively?
  • When Von assumes the role of Stella's full-time carer, does he have the life skills and maturity to deal with the situation?
  • Does Charlene expect too much from her teenage son?
  • Should teenagers be expected to ‘play parent' to younger siblings?
  • How does Stella respond to the more caring approach of her brother?
  • Why does Von feel so protective towards Stella?
  • Are there any positives for Von as a result of his new relationship with Stella?

Cultural conflict

Information on the historical background of the Moriori of Rekohu and Rangiauria, (Chatham Island and Pitt Island) New Zealand has been provided by the author. This information may be useful to teachers when planning class discussions on the impact of European contact on indigenous cultures, cultural conflict and slavery.

The Moriori of Rekohu and Rangiauria:

For centuries the Moriori strictly adhered to a covenant of peace known as Nunuku's Law - a covenant that banned all murder and the eating of human flesh forever. In the late eighteenth century, the Moriori had their first encounter with Europeans. Never having seen white men before, the Moriori believed these strange beings had come from the sun - misunderstandings soon took place and an unfortunate skirmish left one Moriori, Tamakaroro, dead. Unhappy with the part that they played in the skirmish, the Moriori made a commitment to welcome all visitors from that time onwards.

When whalers and sealers started arriving on the Chathams in the early nineteenth century, the Moriori made them welcome and they lived together peacefully. However, the Moriori suffered badly from introduced diseases and their population soon fell dramatically. In addition to bringing new diseases, the sealers rapidly wiped out the seal colonies, a vitally important resource for the people of Rekohu and Rangiauria. In 1835, a European vessel, the Rodney, transported about nine hundred Taranaki Maori over to the Chathams.

After decades of fighting in the Musket Wars in New Zealand, warfare had become a way of life for the Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama Maori tribes who had lost their traditional homelands in North Taranaki. When they first arrived on the islands, the Maori tribes were severely weakened but the Moriori made then welcome and nursed them back to wellness. But soon the new colonists made their hostile intentions obvious as they began to ‘walk the land' and claim new territory. After holding an emergency summit, the peaceful Moriori refused to take up arms against the invaders. Instead, they decided to share their home with the new arrivals - to take part in warfare would have compromised their mana. But the Moriori suffered terribly as a result of this stance; around three hundred people were slaughtered and many were eaten. Any remaining survivors were enslaved for decades and nearly fifteen hundred Moriori succumbed to despair and disease.

By 1862 only 101 remained and when Tommy Solomon, the last full blood Moriori died in 1933, it was commonly believed that the race had reached extinction. But fortunately this was not the case - many Moriori descendents still live on, some on the Chatham Islands and others on mainland New Zealand. For more information on the Moriori and their resurgence as a culture please visit the excellent Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand website:

More information:

Moriori - A People Rediscovered (Revised Edition)
Michael King (Penguin Books)
ISBN 0 14 010391 0