“It’s always a projection back into the past, the idea that there was a single moment when you decided to become a writer, or the idea that a writer is in a position to know how or why she became a writer, if it makes sense to think of it as a decision at all, but that’s why the question can be interesting, because it’s a way of asking a writer to write the fiction of her origins, of asking the poet to sing the song of the origins of song, which is one of the poet’s oldest tasks. The first poet in English whose name is known learned the art of song in a dream: Bede says that a god appeared to Caedmon and told him to sing ‘the beginning of created things.’ So while I assume I was asked to talk about how I became a writer with the idea that my experience might be of some practical use to the students here, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer in that regard. But I can tell you how, from my current vantage, I have constructed the fiction about the origins of my writing, such as it is.
—Ben Lerner, 10:04
SIR: Why is Karl Stead so narked by The Bone People? His letter (Letters, 5 December 1985) reads strangely from this side of the world, where many, perhaps most, reviews of Keri Hulme’s novel have been unenthusiastic. The story of its publishing history has, of course, raised interest, and several reviewers have hinted that the book’s reputation rests on extra-literary factors. Private Eye offered the most reductive account of this kind. Stead’s letter is a subtler, sometimes contradictory version of this response. He seems to imply that some of the book’s success lies in its ‘fashionable’ association with feminism and ‘Maori-ism’. Feminism, he then concedes, is hardly an issue. The only obvious sense in which The Bone People is feminist is that it has a strong, active heroine. This, however, would also make Pride and Prejudice a feminist novel. In fact, The Bone People is conspicuously empty of women. Its ‘Maoriness’, however, is central. Stead describes one distinctively Maori section late in the novel as ‘spurious’, and more generally seems to imply there is something opportunist in its use of Maori elements. This is neither fair nor accurate. New Zealand is a mixed society, Maori and European. Keri Hulme has written a novel in which one of the central characters is mainly Maori but part-European, a second is mainly European but part-Maori, and the third, the child Simon, is a strange kind of European immigrant. This configuration is used to explore tensions in New Zealand’s mixed, and mixed-up culture. There can obviously be disagreement as to whether or not Joe’s rescue and redemption by the Kaumatua works. But the Maori-European theme is neither spurious nor opportunist. It is very serious, and toughly presented. There is no idealisation of the central Maori character. Joe Gillayley is responsible for repeated violence and the eventual maiming of the European child. One could imagine a hostile Maori reaction to this depiction.
Stead’s long account of the Pegasus award is puzzling. Most readers in this country will never have heard of this award let alone know that Keri Hulme has won it. I can only assume, given the timing of Stead’s letter, that it is offered as an analogy: for Pegasus, read Booker. Perhaps ‘affirmative action’ has been at work again – such hints have been made in this country. Literary prizes are aunt sallies. They are barely respectable, and the wrong work is always selected. Many regard the Booker Prize as a confirmation of mediocrity. Anthony Burgess remarked recently that John Fowles’s latest novel, A Maggot, was too good to be on the Booker shortlist, and Fowles had already asked his publisher not to enter it. Prizes do, however, bring contemporary writing to public notice. The success of The Bone People has contributed to the growing awareness of contemporary New Zealand writing in Britain. Janet Frame is belatedly being discovered. New Zealand poetry is regularly, if uninformedly, reviewed in the TLS. Karl Stead’s last novel was reviewed in the Guardian. This ‘affirmative action’ should be welcomed by all New Zealand writers.
I described Stead’s letter as contradictory because, having suggested there is something meretricious about the novel’s success, he then offers an interesting, often sympathetic reading, pointing, for example, to its careful patterning, something most reviews I’ve seen have missed. But then, in his final paragraph, he buries the novel. There is ‘something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric’, and this is because it ‘presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it’. Understanding is one thing and sympathy another. I learnt something about the intertwining of love and violence from this novel, but it certainly did not make me come to love violence. For all its violence, I find something hopeful, even pacific, ingrained in its imaginative fabric, and this seems to me a measure of its extraordinary power. There is a lot ‘wrong’ with The Bone People, as analysis of the kind Stead performs in the middle sections of his letter can show, but in the end this hardly seems to matter. I’m fascinated by the way that, for me, its flaws make no difference to its overall effect. I can think of very few novels of which this is true. Perhaps it is here, rather than with paranoia about its feminist and Maori credentials, that serious discussion of The Bone People should continue.
University of Kent, Canterbury
SIR: Criticism is always a dialogue. One seldom has the chance to speak first, and what the critic says is always partly in answer to what has been said already. In the case of Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People ‘what has been said’ is largely a babble of excited voices in public places. The novel touches a number of currently, or fashionably, sensitive nerves. New Zealand intellectual life, limping along in the wake of the world, has been lately lacerating itself into consciousness that racism and sexism exist. Where they don’t exist, zealots nonetheless find them. Keri Hulme, a woman and, let’s say for the moment, a Maori, her novel published in New Zealand by Spiral, a ‘feminist collective’, after being ‘turned down’ by four publishers – this is the stuff for those zealots! As in the case of most books which take off publicly like rockets, a lot of the energy has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It is, however, the quality of the work that will determine what future the book is to have.
Of the four who were offered the novel before Spiral saw it, one was a feminist publisher who thought it insufficiently feminist for her list; another was a woman publisher who thought the book needed more work before it was ready for publication; and the remaining two were commercial publishers who were anxious about the novel’s length and its prospects in the marketplace. The latter two deny having ‘turned it down’. They wanted more work done on it. From a purely commercial point of view, it could be said they made a mistake in not accepting the book as it was when the author declined to make cuts and revisions. From a literary point of view, I think the author made a mistake in rejecting all advice about how the typescript might be edited and improved. Spiral received a government grant which made the publication possible; it was given on the recommendation of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee, consisting of five men and one woman. Spiral then produced a book as badly edited, printed and proof-read as any I have seen, mismanaged its finances, and had to ask for a further grant before a reprint could be done. The Literary Fund Advisory Committee, which had never been in doubt about Keri Hulme’s talent, or that her book deserved support, bent its rules a little to make a second grant possible.
If The Bone People is not in any very obvious way a ‘feminist’ novel, in what sense is it a Maori novel? The question arises especially because of the Pegasus award, one of the prizes it has received. Every year (or second year?) the Mobil company chooses a country to which this literary award shall be made. The prize on this occasion was to be 4000 US dollars, a visit to the United States valued at $6000, and a guarantee of publication there. For 1984 the company chose New Zealand and decided, after consultation with government and other officials, that the prize should be offered for a novel or autobiography by a Maori, written in the past decade, in English or in Maori. It is hard to see the inclusion of the Maori language as much more than a gesture (at least one of the judges knew no Maori). If any modern literary writing has been done in the Maori language, none has been published, and that is likely to continue to be the case. For the present, anyway, all Maori writers of any consequence write in English; and probably few of them know more than a little of the Maori language. The works entered had thus to be considered ‘Maori’ not in language, or in form, but by virtue of the racial antecedents of the authors.
The award raises the question of the usefulness and even the honesty, of what is called ‘affirmative action’ in favour of groups disadvantaged by history. Maori writers now sell at least as well as, often better than, the most successful Pakeha – i.e. European – writers. They compete successfully for government grants and literary awards. Why then a special award for a Maori writer? If the intention had been to promote traditional Maori culture, surely the language ought to have been Maori. And if not Maori language, then at least the form required would need to have been one of those belonging to an oral tradition – poetry, songs, laments, or some re-telling of local myth or legend. If the intention was simply to help a Maori writer, even then it is hard to see why poetry should have been excluded, since poetry is something which exists in the Maori tradition, while the novel, obviously, is not. And finally, what is ‘a Maori writer’? Of Keri Hulme’s eight great-grandparents one only was Maori. Hulme was not brought up speaking Maori, though like many Pakeha New Zealanders she has acquired some in adult life. She claims to identify with the Maori part of her inheritance – not a disadvantageous identification at the present time: but it seems to me that some essential Maori elements in her novel are unconvincing. Her uses of Maori language and mythology strike me as willed, self-conscious, not inevitable, not entirely authentic. Insofar as she is an observer of things outside herself, Hulme has observed Maoris and identified with them. If that is what constitutes a ‘Maori’ writer, then Pakeha writers like James K. Baxter and Roderick Finlayson (to name two obvious cases) could be said to have been more successfully ‘Maori’ than Keri Hulme. The Bone People, I would be inclined to argue, is a novel by a Pakeha which has won an award intended for a Maori. The fault is not Keri Hulme’s. It is in the conception of such an award, which is thoroughly confused, and is in any case patronising, suggesting that Maori writers can’t compete openly with Europeans. It doesn’t surprise me that Witi Ihimaera refused to enter his work for the Pegasus award.
The Bone People is a novel about violence. It is also about love and about identity. The love and the violence have a common source. All three of the main characters, a woman, a man and a child, could be described as violent, though the propensity exhibits itself in different ways. All three are strong characters. All three, but especially the woman and the child, are sharply portrayed. They form a close unit. What is interesting about the novel is that their bonds exist outside biology. It is the biological pattern imitated. The man’s own wife and child have died. The boy he acts as father to comes as from nowhere, born out of the sea. And although a bond like sexual love grows between the man and the woman, there is no physical contact. That, I think, is the imaginative strength of the work: that it creates a sexual union where no sex occurs, creates a parental love where there are no physical parents, creates the stress and fusion of a family where there is no actual family.
Interviews with Keri Hulme have shown how closely her central character, Kerewin Holmes, is based on herself.
I spent a considerable amount of time when I was adolescent, wondering why I was different, whether there were other people like me. Why, when everyone else was fascinated by their developing sexual nature, I couldn’t give a damn. I’ve never been attracted to men. Or women. Or anything else. It’s difficult to explain, and nobody has ever believed it when I have tried to explain, but while I have an apparently normal female body, I don’t have any sexual urge or appetite. I think I am a neuter.
This is Kerewin Holmes speaking. Most of it, almost word for word, Keri Hulme has said of herself in a television interview. Many – perhaps most – works of fiction are fuelled by sexual energy. Here is a novel fuelled by its lack. What for most of us would be merely the domestic subject is for Keri Hulme, I think, the equivalent of romance – the realm of the unattainable. I mean this in no derogatory sense. Whatever confusions of motive and propulsion there may have been in responses to this book, it is not for nothing that there has been so much excitement. The Bone People is at the core a work of great simplicity and power.
The narrative creates a simple pattern. The three principal characters are drawn slowly together to form a strong unit, though one in which negative forces are working. A catastrophe occurs which blows them apart. Each, alone, is driven by circumstances, through pain and suffering, to the edge of destruction. Each of the two adults has been partly to blame for the catastrophe, and each is saved from death by the intervention of what appears to be a force from the lower echelons of the Divine. At the end the three come together again, purged, and certain of their need for one another. To recognise this pattern, in which is mixed, not always successfully, a remorseless realism with elements of the mythical, the magical and the mystical, one must stand at some distance from the novel. Seen from a nearer point of focus, it is likely to be described in sociological terms.
Joe Gillayley loves his adopted child dearly, but is subject to pressures he cannot quite recognise or control. He drinks, beats the child, and finally very nearly kills him. Simon, the child of unknown parentage, survivor of a wreck, with the marks still on him of beatings previous to those inflicted by Joe, never speaks, but is able to write and signal messages, and to communicate his love, his rages and his intelligence. His love for Joe is almost unwavering. Simon is a major fictional character, the most complete, convincing and fascinating of the three, and all the more remarkable in that his personality has to be conveyed to us without spoken language.
Kerewin is the isolated artist who has run out of inspiration. She lives, literally, in a tower of her own making, which (again quite literally) has to be broken down before she can paint again. The obviousness of the symbolism doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the portrait. Kerewin, one feels, is bold enough and innocent enough to live by her symbols, as Yeats did when he bought a tower from Ireland’s Congested Roads Board for £35 and restored it so he could write of himself ‘pacing upon the battlements’. In fact, Kerewin strikes me as more Irish than Maori, word-obsessed, imaginative, musical, unstable, something of a mystic, full of bluster and swagger, charm and self-assertion. All this is shown, not from the outside, but from within, so the novel partakes of Kerewin’s strengths but is not detached from her weaknesses. Like its central character, The Bone People seems at times disarmingly, at times alarmingly, naive.
The novel is successful from the start in portraying the character of Simon and the way he insinuates himself into Kerewin’s isolated life. Joe, on the other hand, strikes me as a character who is never quite perfectly formed in the novelist’s imagination, and there are times when his cast of mind and turn of phrase seem to belong to Kerewin rather than to himself. The relationship between the two is less than convincing in its early stages; and this reader, at least, never felt entirely secure in his ‘suspension of disbelief’. To give one example: Joe is represented as physically powerful, a fairly traditional Maori male, though with more education than most. He is kind, affectionate, but with a dangerously short fuse, precarious pride, and a propensity for violence. Yet when an argument between him and Kerewin turns into a fight, Kerewin, who has learned something like kung fu during a visit to Japan, beats him effortlessly, a beating which he accepts with great good humour and with no apparent damage to his ego. That is not the only point at which the reader is likely to feel the novel has taken a dive from reality into wishful daydream.
Worse is the sequence in which Joe comes close to death and then is rescued by an old Maori man who has waited his whole lifetime under semi-divine instruction to perform just this rescue, so he can pass on to the man he saves proprietorial rights over a piece of land and the talisman in which its spirit is preserved. I found the physical and mystical experiences which make up this section of the novel, read either as Maori lore or as fiction, almost totally spurious. A parallel set of events has Kerewin, who appears to be dying of cancer, saved by the intervention of an old woman and a magical, or simply herbal, potion.
I’m glad The Bone People has been written and published. But when I stand back from it and reflect there is, in addition to the sense of its power, a bitter aftertaste, something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric, which no amount of revision or editing could have eliminated, and which, for me at least, qualifies the feeling that the publication of this book is an occasion for celebration. I’m not sure whether I should even attempt to explain to myself what it is that constitutes this negative element, or whether it should simply be mentioned and left for other readers to confirm or deny. I suspect it has its location in the central subject-matter, and that this is something it shares with Benjamin Britten’s operaPeter Grimes, a work which also presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it. In principle, such charity is admirable. In fact, the line between charity and imaginative complicity is very fine indeed.
University of Auckland