Ihimaera was born in 1944 in New Zealand and it is there that he grew up. His hometown is Gisborne, a town located on the North Island. Like a significant portion of the population there, he is of Maori descent. He sees his cultural background as having a large impact on his writing, and many of his works have autobiographical elements that deal with the dynamics between Maori and European cultures.
His educational background mirrors those dynamics. He first took a few years of his education at Te Karaka DHS, before continuing to study one year at the Mormon Church College in Hamilton, New Zealand. He then attended Auckland College for three years and, after a brief break, finished his BA at Victoria University. In between schools, he worked as a journalist and a postman.
Ihimaera is most famous today for his work in literature. He is known as one of the earliest Maori writers of short stories. Ever since his childhood days he was interested in writing stories. Even then his interest was in expressing the Maori cultural experience. He has devoted much of his attention to the expression of the Maori cultural identity in a modern world, and to discussing the dynamic between modernity and Maori tradition. His being a part of that dynamic allows him to capture and articulate nuances of it.
The fact that Ihimaera draws so heavily on his own cultural background has sometimes created trouble for him. At one point he felt he had to stop writing, adhering to a self-imposed embargo on writing, because he felt that he works would be viewed as the definite voice of Maori issues in the field of literature. It was after this break from writing that Ihimaera produced his most famous work, The Whale Rider.
In addition to his work in literature, he also served as a diplomat under the government of New Zealand. His literary achievements, however, have typically overshadowed his contributions to diplomacy. After all, he received the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature -- not for services to diplomacy.