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Duff, Alan
Writer's File

Alan Duff

Duff, Alan
In brief
Alan Duff is a novelist, columnist, advocate and businessman. His first published novel, Once Were Warriors, was a huge success, and was subsequently made into a feature film. He has published several novels, and written for radio and as a newspaper columnist. Son of scientist Gowan Duff and Kuia Hinau (of Ngāti Rangitihi and Tūwharetoa), Duff has been an outspoken commentator on Māori affairs, and was the driving force behind the Books in Homes scheme, which aims to make books available to underprivileged children at minimal cost.


Duff, Alan (1950– ), is a novelist, newspaper columnist, polemicist and cultural phenomenon. Son of scientist Gowan Duff and Kuia Hinau (of Ngāti Rangitihi and Tūwharetoa), and grandson of Oliver Duff, he was born and raised in a state housing area in Rotorua.

After his parents separated when he was 10, Duff lived with a Māori uncle and aunt at Whakarewarewa. He was expelled from Rotorua BHS and became a runaway, ending up as a state ward at Hamilton Boys’ Home. He then lived for a time with his uncle, anthropologist Roger Duff, and went to Christchurch BHS.

At the age of 15 he was sentenced to a term in Waikeria borstal for assault and breaking and entering. After a period working as an installer of sheet-metal insulation and singing in a band, and with numerous convictions for petty offences, Duff went to London, where, he has said, he ‘messed up but grew up’.

Back in New Zealand, Duff ran various businesses of his own, before beginning to write full-time in 1985. His first novel, a thriller, was rejected; after burning the manuscript, he began a second, Once Were Warriors, which was taken on by literary agents Chris Else and Barbara Else and published by Tandem Press in 1990. It had an immediate and huge impact.

Another novel, One Night Out Stealing, appeared in 1991. After the many opposed voices of Once Were Warriors, this has just two: those of Jube, a Pākehā small-time criminal with big ambitions, and his more sensitive Māori ‘partner’, Sonny. The novel traces the increasingly desperate circumstances that lead the pair to their ‘one night out stealing’ in Wellington, and the divergence between them that results. Where Jube sees the Harland house as a trove to plunder, and squanders his share on buying friendship, for Sonny it opens up a sophisticated alternative world of art and music, love and belonging, into which he retreats in growing fantasy. One Night Out Stealing is strongest in depicting the mean world of the Tavi pub and petty crime in Auckland, and in making real Jube’s confused thoughts and hopeless dreams. It has been constantly in print in New Zealand, and has been published in Australia.

State Ward began as a series of episodes on RNZ in 1993, and was published as a novella in 1994. The story of 13-year-old Charlie Wilson’s experiences in and escape from Riverton Boys’ Home, it is a mixture of childlike simplicity and harsh realism.

Duff’s toughest, most sophisticated, complex and controlled work to date is What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1996), the sequel to Once Were Warriors. The central focus here is Jake Heke, and his slow, sometimes bewildered and always painful growth into self-knowledge. Juxtaposed with that are the stories of his second son, Abe, joining the rival Black Hawks gang to get revenge for the death of Nig; and of his second daughter, Polly, coming to understand the suicide of her older sister, Grace. Beth, the character at the heart of Once Were Warriors, is now partner of Māori welfare manager Charlie Bennett and far away from Pine Block. There is an implicit contrast between her and a new character, Gloria Jones, still stuck in Pine Block, whose resentful dreams of material wealth emotionally destroy Mulla Rota, gang member and jailbird, though inwardly another lost Māori warrior looking for meaning. Again, the white and (apparently) wealthy Trambert family serve as a symbolic opposite, but their lives are shown here also from the inside as being as complicated and troubled as anyone else’s. It is not your troubles that matter, the novel suggests, but how you deal with them.

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? is less angry than Once Were Warriors, more mature, with a wider emotional range; acknowledging complexity and difficulty, it recognises the lack of easy solutions but the need to keep trying. The novel uses the same technique of juxtaposed interior monologues; their interweaving is controlled and subtle, leading to an understated yet forceful conclusion.

Once Were Warriors catapulted Duff to national attention, and his views on Māori issues and problems are widely sought. In 1991 he began writing a weekly (later fortnightly) column for the Evening Post, syndicated to eight other newspapers. In this, and in his 1993 analysis, Māori: The Crisis and the Challenge, he has developed his ideas on the failures of Māoridom, castigating both the traditional leadership and the radical movement for dwelling on the injustices of the past and expecting others to resolve them, instead of encouraging Māori to get on and help themselves. The blame for Māori underperformance he puts squarely back on Māori, for not making the most of the opportunities given them. This somewhat simplistic message has proved highly controversial. Apparently relishing rather then resiling from the fight, Duff has gone on to prove his point with the Books in Homes scheme launched in 1995. With commercial sponsorship and government support, this scheme aims to break the cycle of illiteracy, poverty, anger and violence among underprivileged children by making books available to them to own at minimal cost, thus encouraging them to read and to enjoy and value reading. This self-help approach, which in its first year put 180,000 new books in the hands of 38,000 children, reflects the path of Duff’s own remarkable career.


Readers of Duff's fiction often question how many of his characters and stories are based on his own experiences. Duff's memoir, Out of the Mist and the Steam (1999), may answer some of those questions.

In 1991, Duff was awarded the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship. In the same year, Once Were Warriors was awarded second place at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards.

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted received the Montana Fiction Book of the Year Award at the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Duff's 2001 novel, and his first set outside New Zealand, is Szabad (2001). Set in 1950s Budapest during the Hungarian revolution it is inspired by the stories of people Duff met during several trips to Hungary.

Jake's Long Shadow (2002) is the third volume in Duff's Once Were Warriors Trilogy. The Millenium has changed, but have the Hekes?

Once Were Warriors
director Jim Moriarty and producer ARTCO announced the cast for the national touring stage musical drama of Once Were Warriors, 2003: The cast of 40 performers included Tina Cross as Beth Heke, and Willie Craig Fransen as Jake "the Muss" Heke, supported by Maria MacDonald as Grace Heke, Henri Perez as Nig Heke and Louie Porter-Samuels as Boogie Heke. Jim Moriarty himself performed as social worker, Kahu Bennet.

Who Sings for Lu? was published by Vintage in 2009. It is a moving, fast-paced novel set in two contrasting worlds: the rich, horse-breeding milieu of Riley Chadwick and his family, and the hand-to-mouth life on the street of Lu and her mates. The work is a gritty portrait of envy and relationships gone awry.

In 2019, Duff released A Conversation with my Country (Penguin).