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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Keri Hulme (1947-2021)


New Zealand novelist, short-story writer and poet, whose first novel, The Bone People (1983), lifted the author from obscurity to world fame. In the work, which has sold over 1,4 million copies, Keri Hulme blended naturalism and poetry, and showed her deep understanding of the spiritual legacy of Maori culture.

"She takes a silk handkerchief from her pocket, and with her bare hands, scoops up soil, enough to fill the hollow of her palm. She secretes handkerchief and earth back in her pocket.
Wherever I go, however I go, I carry this earth for memory. And should I die in a strange land, there is a little more than just my flesh to make a friend and sanctuary of alien ground."
(from The Bone People by Keri Hulme, Updated edition, 2005, p. 330)

Keri Hulme was born in Christchurch, of mixed Maori, Orkney Island Scottish, and English parentage. She has identified most strongly with her Kai Tahu Maori origins, though they only represent one-eight of her ancestry. Her mother, Mere, was of Orkney Scots and Maori descent - the Maori are the original inhabitants of New Zealand. Hulme's father John W. was a carpenter and businessman - he died when Hulme was 11.

As a child, Hulme was a voracious reader. She was educated at North Brighton Primary and Aranui High School. At the age of eighteen, she left home and worked in odd jobs, as a postwoman, fish and chips cook, tobacco picker on a tobacco plantation at Montucka, woollen mill worker, and whitebait fisher. In 1967-68 she studied at the University of Canterbury and then worked as a fish-and-chip cook and a postwoman.

At the age of 25 Hulme too up writing full time. Some of her early short stories and poems had appeared in school magazines. She settled in Okarito, a small settlement on the west coast of the South Island, where she build her own house. This isolated environment has also made an impact on Hulme work. She once remarked: "I can walk on the river beach for 20 miles, cross the mouths of four rivers and not see anybody." ('A Prizewinner Explains Why 8 Walls Are Better Than 4' by Nancy Ramsey, in The New York Times, December 1, 1985) In 1975 Hulme won the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award for her short story 'Hooks and Feelers'. In 1978 she was a writer in residence at Otago University and in 1985 at her old university.

As a poet Hulme made her debut with The Silences Between (1982). Her best-known work, The Bone People, came out one year later after difficulties. The book originated from a short story entitled 'Simon Peter's Shell,' about a mute child, but it took twelve years before Hulme finished the manuscript. It was eventually, following rejections by three publishers, taken up by Spiral, a Wellington-based feminist collective. (A feminist  publisher thought it was not feminist enough, and a woman publisher and a commercial publisher wanted more work done on it.) The novel gained a huge success and won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award, the Pegasus Award for Maori literature, and in 1985 the Booker Prize. The prize was accepted on her behalf at the ceremony by a small group of chanting women in men's evening wear and Maori feather cloaks.

"Haere, mou tai ata, moku tai ahiani = Go, the morning tide for you, the evening tide for me (an old saying)." (The Bone People by Keri Hulme, Updated edition, 2005, p. 357)

The Bone People has been praised for its language which follows the rhythms and accents of the Maori idiom. Joy Cowley stated in the New Zealander Listener:"We have known this book all our lives. The pages are textured with the rough and smooth of our own being." (Reading Pakeha? Fiction and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand by Christina Stachirski, 2009, p. 37) Dissenting from the general enthusiasm, the  the New Zealand poet, critic and novelist C.K. Stead argued that some essential Maori elements in the novel were unconvincing. "Her use of Maori language and mythology strike me as willed, self-conscious, not inevitable, not entirely authentic." Although Stead was glad about that the book had been written and published, he concluded that "the most important thing to be said about it, a bitter aftertaste, something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric, which no amount of revision or editing could have eliminated". ('Keri Hulme's "The Bone People," and the Pegaus Award for Maori Literature' by C.K. Stead, in Ariel: A Review of International English Vol.16, no.4, October 1985, pp. 101-108) As a response, Hulme made public her distrust of Stead's deeper knowledge of Polynesian literature. Stead was not the only voice of criticism. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani said that "The Bone People feels too much like a grab bag stuffed with weird dreams . . . intriguing talismans . . . and lots of willfully symbolic elements." ('Hulme, Keri,' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby, 1991, p. 445)

Hulme narrates the story mostly in the third person, but also employs modernist narrative technique and interior monologue. The protagonist is Kerewin Holmes, a painter part Maori, part European, who can no longer create, she don't have any sexual urge or appetite; she thinks she is a neuter. Kerewin lives as a recluse in a tower-shaped house, and undergoes a spiritual renewal. Hulme's powerful images have much parallels to Jungian psychoanalytical ideas. Kerwin's house reminds the tower which Carl Jung built for himself at Bollingen. It became for him a place of spiritual concentration. In his autobiography Jung wrote: "At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself." (Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung, Collins Found Paperbacks, Thirteenth Impression May 1979, p. 252) 

One night Kerewin Holmes meets Simon Peter, a young boy. "Small and thin, with an extraordinary face, highboned and hollowcheeked, cleft and pointed chin, and a sharp sharp nose. Nothing else is visible under an obscuration of silverblond hair except the mouth, and it's set in an uncommonly stubborn line." (The Bone People by Keri Hulme, Updated edition, 2005, p. 16) Kerewin gets involved with the lives of Joe, a Maori factory worker, and Simon, who lives is his private, mute world. Simon has survived a mysterious shipwreck. Joe has lost his son and wife to influenza. He adopts Simon, but beats him badly and serves three months in jail. After his release Joe attempts suicide in the wilderness. An ancient Maori kautatua helps Joe to return to civilization and heals his broken bones. All the characters face personal crises but they are purified by suffering and at the end they come together in a new union. "They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more that people by themselves. But all together, they become the heart and the muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change." (Ibid., p. 4) The story can be read as an allegory on the healing of past national wounds. Kerewin, Simon, and Joe are "the bone people" - the founders of a new way of living. Hulme, who avoids publicity and likes fishing, painting, drinking, and writing like her protagonist Kerewin, once confessed that had she known the book would be so widely read, she would have made Kerewin more different from herself. 

Hulme's other works include The Windeater / Te Kaihu (1982), a collection of short stories, and Homeplaces (1989), her homage to three coasts of the South Island. The photographs for the book were taken by Robin Morrison. Strands, Hulme's second collection of poems, appeared in 1992. Strands, as the author wrote, is "... fishing and death. Angry women/angry earth chants, and funny inserts/insights/snippets/snappings. Winesongs of fifteen years' maturation. Plait together land and air and sea: interweave the eye and the word and the ear." Peter Alcock wrote in his review, that the book transforms Hulme's home are into a "kind of Walden of the South Pacific" and the second pat recalls to a certain extent the "later W.B. Yeats...and his wild old women". (Indigenous Literature of Oceania: A Survey of Criticism and Interpretation by Nicholas J. Goetzfridt, 1995, p. 122)

Hulme was a founding member of the Wellington Women's Gallery. Her paintings were included in 'Mothers,' which toured galleries in New Zealand and Australia. For several years, Hulme worked on two novels, Bait and On the Shadow Side. Stonefish, Hulme's second collection of short stories, was published in 2004. Hulme left Okarito, a small town on the west coast of the South Island, in 2011. She had lived there almost 40 years. "We have people who fly in, planes, helicopters, to their very ugly mcmansions,'' she said. (Otago Daily Times, 22 December 2011) Hulme died on December 27, 2021, at her home in Waimate.

For further reading: Modernism, Postcolonialism, and Globalism: Anglophone Literature, 1950 to the Present, edited by Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses (2019); A History of New Zealand Literature,  edited by Mark Williams (2016); Reading Pakeha? Fiction and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand by Christina Stachirski (2009); The Sacrificial Child in Maori Literature: Narratives of Redemption by Keri Hulme, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera and Alan Duff by Ulrika Andersson (2008); Women on Womenliterature and Themes, with Authors such as Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Keri Hulme, Kate Grenville, Manju Kapoor, Monica Ali and Chandini Lokuge, ed. by Amina Amin et al. (2006); The Cirle & the Spiral: A Study  of Austrian Aboriginal and New Zealand Māori Literature by Eva Rask Knudsen (2004); The Culture Within: Essays on Ihimaera, Grace, Hulme, Tuwhare by Judith Dell Panny (1998); Opening the Book, eds. M. Williams and M. Leggott (1995); What I Believe, compiled by Allan Thomson (1993); In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers, eds. Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams (1992); Myths, Heroes and Anti-Heroes, eds. Bruce Bennett and Dennis Haskell (1992); 'Hulme, Keri,' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby (1991); Leaving the Highway: Six Contemporary New Zealand Novelists by Mark Williams (1990); 'Keri Hulme's "The Bone People," and the Pegaus Award for Maori Literature' by C.K. Stead, in Ariel: A Review of International English, 16.4 (October 1985)

Selected works:

  • Coast Voices, 1979 (ed. by Roger Ewer; poets: Keri Hulme under the pseudonym of Kai Tainui... et al.)
  • The Silence Between, 1982 (poems)
  • Te Kainau / The Windeater, 1982 (short stories)
  • The Bone People, 1983 (novel; Updated edition, with a new preface by the author, 2005)
    - Mauriora: maan voima (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1987)
  • Lost Possessions, 1985 (novella)
  • Te Whenua, te iwi = The Land and the People, 1986 (edited by Jock Phillips; contributions Keri Hulme ... et al.)
  • Homeplaces: Three Coasts of the South Island of New Zealand, 1989 (photographs by Robin Morrison)
  • Strands, 1992 (poems)
  • Hokitika Handmade, 1999 (photography by Julia Brooke-White)
  • Stonefish, 2004 (short stories)
  • The Silences Between: (Moeraki Conversations), 2016 (with prints by Claire Van Vliet)

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