In Memory of Keri Hulme

An appreciation of Keri Hulme by Kelly Ana Morey

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1985

A New Zealand novel that had been turned down by publishers and had almost ended its days as a doorstop of ‘hubris’, before being rescued by a small feminist publishing collective called Spiral, won literature’s most ‘glittery’ prize, the Booker. Its writer, Keri Hulme, hadn’t made the journey to London for the ceremony, as she didn’t think the novel had any chance. These days I’m sure one is contractually obliged to attend if you make the top five. But it was a different time, so they just rang Keri up and told her the good news. ‘Bloody hell!’ she’s rumoured to have said. Winning the Booker didn’t change Keri’s life, after all she had spent years perfecting the one she already had, but it certainly must have enhanced it. She didn’t court the media, wasn’t a habitual attendee of literary events and festivals, nor did she follow up her writing success in a timely fashion with further publications. Instead Keri retreated to her land at Ōkārito, set her nets, lit her pipe and wrote some poems.

What little Keri did do in the public eye she always carried her Kāi Tahu, Orkney Island and English whakapapa with her into any kōrero about who she was and what informed her as a writer. She was ploughing new ground for Māori writers to come, just as JC Sturm and Hone Tūwhare had in the 50s and 60s and Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace had in the 70s when they too started publishing. And this is important, because each time that sharpened steel cuts into the fertile territory that is Māori land/story, it becomes a little bit easier for the next generation of Māori writers and the next. Remember, back in 1984, this is a time when you can count Māori writers publishing with mainstream publishing houses on one hand. Now we’re everywhere. It’s extraordinary and yet it isn’t. Narrative is indelibly written into our DNA.

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1996

‘Oh I love The Bone People,’ I say reaching up and sliding the novel out of a new friend’s bookshelf.

‘Have you actually read it?’ she says in amazement. It turns out her book shelf has been chosen to impress. Our nascent friendship founders on a tranquil sea of  uncracked spines.

 

……..              

 

2004

I’m booked to do a writers’ panel at the Christchurch Writers’ festival with Keri and James George. We each have a new book out – Stone Fish, Hummingbird and Grace is Gone – and a healthy collection of what Keri called ‘glittery literary prizes’ between us with Keri providing the lion’s share of the glory in that department obviously. Still, how many new writers get to read with a Booker winner? It’s a big deal for me, and I’m sure it is for James too. Only in New Zealand. We gather before our session with various publishing people from Huia for Keri and James, and Penguin for me, and our chair. Keri who had driven her van over Arthur’s Pass from the West Coast the day before, sits down, opens her bag and extracts a bottle of champagne. Maybe Veuve Clicquot but it could have been Dom Pérignon, my memory fails me at this point which is annoying because Keri took her drink very seriously and I would like to get it right. Fine French champagne at 9.30am is decadence enough, but Keri’s not done. There’s more. An ice cream container of whitebait fritters, with the faint warmth of the pan still upon them, and another that contains thin slices of fresh brown bread, buttered all the way to the edges. There’s even lemon wedges. In session Keri is shy, humble, gracious, unassuming and generous. At pains to make sure that James and I have our fair share of the stage. In this little room we all have the right to be heard.

This would be one of Keri’s last appearances at a writers’ festival and she became increasingly reluctant to do media. There was always rumoured to be something in the writing pipe line that never happened in terms of making it onto bookshop shelves which is not to say that she hasn’t left behind words for publication now that she doesn’t have to promote them. Fingers crossed.

 

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2022

So much has changed for Māori Literature over the close to 40 years since The Bone People was published, and we owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Keri for doing an awful lot of the heavy lifting for Māori writing in those difficult middle years of the 80s and 90s, simply by existing. By being a Māori woman and winning the Booker with a novel about Māori doing Māori things in Aotearoa.

Māori writers. These days we’re everywhere as I’ve already said. Publishing books, securing overseas book deals, looking fabulous in magazines, sitting on panels at writers’ festivals, having books made into films and winning prizes. Hungry for fame and those glittery prizes. Too late for Keri, though I suspect she would be grateful for that small mercy, because all she really wanted was to live her life entirely on her own terms at her beloved Ōkārito, with the sound of the surf on her doorstep, doing the things she loved; ‘committing hubris’ as she called her writing and painting, and ‘family, friends, fishing and food’.

 

Sculpture on Ōkārito beach. Photo credit Harley Hern.

 

 

 

'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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