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Keri Hulme Biography

Keri Hulme comments:

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Christchurch, 1947. Education: North Beach primary school; Aranui High School; Canterbury University, Christchurch. Career: Formerly, senior postwoman, Greymouth, and director for New Zealand television; writer-in-residence, Canterbury University, 1985. Awards: New Zealand Literary Fund grant, 1975, 1977, 1979, and scholarship in letters, 1990; Katherine Mansfield Memorial award, for short story, 1975; Maori Trust Fund prize, 1978; East-West Centre award, 1979; ICI bursary, 1982; New Zealand writing bursary, 1984; Book of the Year award, 1984; Mobil Pegasus prize, 1985; Booker prize, 1985; Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattor award, 1987.



The Bone People. Wellington, Spiral, 1983; London, Hodder andStoughton, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Lost Possessions (novella). Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1985.

Short Stories

The Windeater/Te Kaihau. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1986; London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Braziller, 1987.

Uncollected Short Stories

"See Me, I Am Kei," in Spiral 5 (Wellington), 1982.

"Floating Words," in Prize Writing, edited by Martyn Goff. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

"The Plu-perfect Pawa," in Sport 1 (Wellington), 1989.

"Hinekaro Goes on a Picnic and Blows Up Another Obelisk," inSubversive Acts, edited by Cathie Dunsford. Auckland, New Women's Press, 1991.


The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations). Auckland, AucklandUniversity Press-Oxford University Press, 1982.

Strands. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1991.


Homeplaces: Three Coasts of the South Island of New Zealand, with photographs by Robin Morrison. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.


Critical Studies:

"In My Spiral Fashion" by Peter Simpson, in Australian Book Review (Kensington Park), August 1984; "Spiraling to Success" by Elizabeth Webby, in Meanjin (Melbourne), January 1985; "Keri Hulme: Breaking Ground" by Shona Smith, in Untold 2 (Christchurch); Leaving the Highway: Six Contemporary New Zealand Novelists by Mark Williams, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1990; Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction by Otto Heim. Auckland, New Zealand, Auckland University Press, 1998.

I have a grave suspicion that Life is a vast joke: we are unwitting elements of the joke.

It is not a nice or kind joke, either.

I write about people who are in pain because they can't see the joke, see the point of the joke.

What I write is fantasy-solidly-based-in-reality, everyday myths.

I rarely write out of a New Zealand context and, because I am lucky enough to be a mongrel, draw extensively from my ancestral cultural heritages—Maori (Kai Tahu, the South Island tribe), Scots (the Orkneys), and English (Lancashire). (Remember that the Pakeha elements of my ancestry predominate, but they have been well-sieved by Aotearoa.) I want to touch the raw nerves in NZ—the violence we largely cover up; the racism we don't acknowledge; the spoliation of land & sea that has been smiled at for the past 150 years—and explore why we (Maori & Pakeha) have developed a very curious type of humor which not many other people in the world understand, like, or appreciate and which is a steel-sheathed nerve I want to hide inside.

I'm not particularly serious about anything except whitebaiting. (Whitebait are the fry of NZ galaxids: they are a greatly relished and very expensive-about $75NZ a kilo—delicacy. I whitebait every season.)

* * *

Keri Hulme comes from the heartland of New Zealand—the South Island's west coast—and, perhaps as a consequence, she has developed an idiom which remains distinctively New Zealand even when it is feeding on the great traditions of English, Irish, American, and other (notably sufic) literature. This New Zealandness is the most immediately striking feature of the work for which she is best know, The Bone People.

The Maori phrases which permeate the text immediately proclaim its provenance. But the texture of the English which she writes is also unmistakably New Zealand. Many writers before her have managed a passable imitation of Kiwi pub argot, but Hulme is one of the first to have succeeded in giving a characteristic account of the speech and thoughts of New Zealanders as educated and intelligent as her protagonist, Kerewin Holmes. In passages like the following one can sense the typical rhythms and accents ("thunk"), the half-suppressed obscenities ("whateffers"), the gentle ironies and not-so-gentle prejudices ("Poms" are Englishmen) of New Zealand's more articulate denizens. (Kerewin has just discovered that her young protégé, Simon Gillayley, may have aristocratic Irish blood):

Ah hell, urchin, it doesn't matter, you can't help who your forbears were, and I realized as I thunk it, that I was reveling in the knowledge of my whakapapa and solid Lancashire and Hebridean ancestry. Stout commoners on the left side, and real rangatira on the right distaff side. A New Zealander through and through. Moanawhenua bones and heart and blood and brain. None of your (retch) import Poms or whateffers.

The uncovering of Simon's background constitutes one strand of the plot of The Bone People, but ultimately—like the plots of many of Hulme's short stories—it turns out to be an inconclusive strand. All we can be sure of is that he comes from a background of violence and drug-dealing. The more detailed clues lead nowhere, and it seems that Hulme intended merely to tease her readers with these elements of a "well-made" plot, and that her real interest lay elsewhere. As Kerewin begins to check out Simon's Irish background she apologizes for "dragging" the reader "out of the cobweb pile, self-odyssey." The phrase highlights not only the book's principal concern (Kerewin's mental and spiritual progress) but also one of its dominant images (the spider's web, which at different times represents entanglement and intricate harmony).

Even more prominent than the spider and its web is the traditional Maori (and sufic) motif of the spiral. Kerewin lives in a tower full of spirals, notably a spiral staircase and a double spiral engraved on the floor: "one of the kind that wound your eyes round and round into the center where surprise you found the beginning of another spiral that led your eyes out again to the nothingness of the outside … it was an old symbol of rebirth, and the outward-inward nature of things…." At the beginning of the book Kerewin has clearly begun a downward spiral into "nothingness." Her Tower, conceived as a "hermitage," "a glimmering retreat," has become an "abyss," a "prison," She is entangled in a web of self-absorption and materialism.

Into her life walks Simon, who is her opposite in almost every respect. She is dark (though only one-eighth Maori); he is fair. She is "heavy shouldered, heavy-hammed, heavy-haired"; he is lithe, almost skeletal. She is wonderfully articulate; he is a mute. (Again Hulme teases our expectations of a "well-made" plot by holding out the promise that he will eventually learn to speak. He does not.) She is obsessed by her possessions, and fears as a consequence that she has "lost the main part" of life; he is "rough on possessions," but has a sense of the deeper aura of things. She shrinks from touching others; he and his adoptive father (Joe) are, as Hulme has subsequently put it, "huggers and kissers deluxe." She is clever; he is trusting—two terms which are juxtaposed in the book. She is associated with the moon; he is a "sunchild." She is an introvert; he and Joe are extroverts.

Symbol-hunters have been quick to latch on to Simon's character, but they have so far been baffled by the diffuseness of the portrait. Hulme herself claims that she writes "from a visual base and a gut base rather than sieving it through the mind," and so it is probably futile to search for any conscious allegorical design in the book. A psycho-analytical approach offers greater rewards. Many aspects of The Bone People—notably the dreams (which often foretell the future), the paintings, the search for "wholeness" (and the dance imagery which accompanies it), the emphasis on myth, the eclectic attitude to religion, the disdainful attitude towards sex, and the mandala-like tricephalos which anticipates the asexual harmony ("commensalism") achieved by the principal characters at the end—suggest the influence of Jung. Jung also provides as good an explanation as any of Simon's relationship with Kerewin.

The book is full of projections and personifications of deviant aspects of the characters' personalities. Kerewin's more cynical thoughts are attributed to an inner voice labeled "the snark"; her violent tendencies turn at length into a palpable cancer; and the mysterious character who helps her to grapple with this cancer ("a thin wiry person of indeterminate age. Of indeterminate sex. Of indeterminate race") appears to be a projection of her own enfeebled self. Similarly Simon (who was originally conceived as a figment of Kerewin's dreams and not as an independent character) may be seen as her "shadow"—the embodiment of everything she has lost by withdrawing from society. This includes not only positive factors like trust and responsiveness to touch but also negative ones, especially violence.

Simon brings with him a long history of violence, culminating in the savage beatings inflicted on him by Joe. Kerewin's spiraling descent is accompanied and to a large extent occasioned by her recognition of this violence, and the nadir of her "self-odyssey" comes when she gives way to violence herself. At the same time an orgy of violence (effectively amplified by the recurrent images of knives and splintered glass) erupts among the other characters, so that at the end of the third part of the novel Simon is hospitalized, Joe (wounded) is in jail, one minor character is dead, another seriously ill, and Kerewin's Tower has been reduced to a single story.

Many readers feel that Hulme should have left the book there—that, as in much of her other fiction (of which the fine story "Hooks and Feelers" and the novella Lost Possessions are the most accessible examples) it is the violence, and especially the violence that wells out of love, which is the most compelling element. But Hulme added a fourth section and an epilogue in which the principals, aided by a set of unorthodox assistants and (except in Simon's case) by a deep draught of Maori culture, spiral back towards "rebirth," "wholeness," and harmony.

In a recent interview Hulme has acknowledged that the ending owes something to Jung, which encourages the notion advanced here that the whole novel is susceptible to a Jungian interpretation. Just who is really the focus of this interpretation—Kerewin Holmes or her virtual namesake, Keri Hulme—is a question difficult to resolve. Hulme concedes that the three protagonists emerged from her dreams. (She keeps a dream diary, and at least one of the dreams in The Bone People—Kerewin's at Moerangi—is lifted straight from it.) Much of the material also seems quasi-autobiographical. Time will tell if she can write effectively on less personal subjects.

—Richard Corballis

Additional topics

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