This year, for the first time, the Māori Literature Trust is offering a Keri Hulme Award for a mid-career Māori writer who “represents the value of perseverance against the odds”.
The new award is named for Keri Hulme (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe), who won the Booker Prize in 1985 for The Bone People. Hulme, who passed away in December 2021, was the first New Zealander to win the Booker and the first person ever to win with a debut novel.
In a statement announcing the award, the Māori Literature Trust said Hulme’s whānau had sold the original manuscript of The Bone People at a rare books auction and the proceeds of the sale had been gifted to the trust.
Three writers have been shortlisted for the inaugural award: poet essa may ranapiri, novelist Monty Soutar and writer Rachel Buchanan.
Here’s Rachel reflecting on overcoming shame and embracing the honour.
When I found out that I’d been nominated for the Keri Hulme Award, I burst into tears and called my husband, Mike.
“I’m in shock,” I told him, sobbing, trying to explain.
“What? You’ve been shot! What?”
In the weeks since, I’ve found it hard to accept this significant honour. The fact that I live in Te Ao Moemoeā has added to the disconnect. Shame job! Wrong address. Pale skin. Poor/no reo. Too old. Not a novelist. Even wear shoes inside sometimes. And on and on.
No matter what my achievements, whakamā can bubble up and drown out healthier feelings of satisfaction, pride, fulfilment, pleasure and pure joy. It’s quite tedious.
Tina Makareti talks about this damaging pattern in “Lumpectomy”, winner of the 2022 Landfall essay competition. Tina is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer and esssayist. She is at the top of her game but is plagued by the droning voice that says to her: “Who are you to do so well when so many do not?” Tina writes: “The shame says I am not worthy. The shame says I am not ‘Māori enough’ even though I tell others, constantly, that the only thing that defines us as Māori is whakapapa.”
I first thought about how shame operates within individuals, whānau and wider Māori communities when I was researching Crown apologies for historical injustices in Taranaki, specifically for muru me te raupatu. My essay, “Beating Shame: Parihaka and the Very Long Sorry”, was published in Te Pouhere Kōrero 6 (the Journal of the Māori Historians Association) and is now taught in universities. My third book, Ko Taranaki Te Maunga, expands on this kōrero and offers some remedies.
In the preface to Te Motunui Epa, whakamā appears again but I stare it down. We uri of Taranaki lost so much because of 19th-century colonial violence and the more insidious confiscations of the 20th century and beyond. My mentor, Matua Mahara Okeroa, calls the more recent taking the “raupatu of the hinengaro”.
I no longer wish to let whakamā taint once-in-a-lifetime events, such as being a finalist for an award. The judges have decided my work is worthy of being on the shortlist. So be it.
Now I want to party like a writer — celebrate this special moment by reading The Bone People again.
I found my copy, a small Picador paperback from 1986. My mother had written her name and address on the title page, a bittersweet reminder of times and lives lost. Mary, who was just a few years older than Keri Hulme, passed away on Christmas Eve 2022.
It was so good to revisit this masterpiece as a mature-aged woman, a mother of three, rather than the more innocent teenager I was the first time round. The deeply spiritual aspects of the story had made me uneasy then but not anymore. Dreams, instincts, tohu, karakia, serendipity — I pay attention to all these things in my life and my writing. Mum did too. She was a religious woman, Pākehā, Catholic, but her faith veered towards the mystic and she had a notable affinity with birds. What had Mum made of The Bone People? I’d love to know.
The main character is Kerewin Holmes, a tall, strong, fair-skinned Māori woman, an artist, who wears double-denim and silk shirts and adorns her fingers with knuckledusters made from gold and silver and set with pounamu, opals, garnets, turquoise and other precious things. The character, Kerewin, has won the lottery, so no longer has to do hated money work, such as labouring in the Motueka tobacco fields.
Instead, Kerewin has built her own house, with spiral staircase, “handrails dophin-headed, saluting the air”, leading to a tower-room lined with books. She has a cellar, “naturally well stocked with wines, home brewed and imported vintage; lined with Chinese ginger jars, and wooden boxes of dates”. She smokes cigars, plays guitar, drinks what she wants when she wants, catches fish, knows Aikido (after studying it for a year in Japan), reads tarot, cooks, sculpts, writes, paints and has a large stash of taonga. She owns her own fishing boat — repairs are no problem for Kerewin — and has access to a couple of whānau baches on a wild West Coast beach, and there’s another boat down there too. Kerewin knows the tides, the reefs, the cycles of the moon. She speaks Māori, English, some French, undoubtedly knows a smattering of Latin too.
In one scene, Kerewin is a bit worse for wear after a big night on the whiskey and has to scramble about in her uncharacteristically bare cupboards for a snack. Luckily, there is a tin of caviar waiting.
I mean, yeah, this woman has a few issues but she is also totally awesome.
Kerewin has even invented her own pronouns to describe a complicated and unique sense of self. “Yer got yer own great invention, remember Holmes? The neuter personal pronoun; ve/ver/vis, I am not his, vis/ve/ver, nor am I for her, ver/vis/ve, a pronoun for me . . .” Hulme was seriously ahead of her time.
Yet when the character she created goes to the pub to meet the relatives of her new friend, Joseph Ngākaukawa Gillayley, up comes the whakamā.
Tena koutou, tena koutou, she says, tena koutou katoa. As always she wants to whip out a certified copy of her whakapapa, preferably with illustrated photographs (most of her brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins on her mother’s side are much more Maori looking than she is). Look! I am really one of you, she could say. Well at least some of me is …
Others judge Kerewin but not as much as she judges herself.
Dark spiral. Wordplayer. Mere quoter. A tongue-locked mind. The neuter human. Dead inside. Stony lady. The cold-forged lady. Lady troubadour. Round and round in my worry trench.
I’ve taken all these words and phrases from the novel.
Kerewin cannot paint anymore. Her creativity is ash and, in one scene, she lacerates herself.
- “You are nothing,” says Kerewin coldly. “You are nobody, and will never be anything, anyone.”
- And her inner voice, the snark, which comes into its own during depressions like this, says,
- And you have never been anything at anytime, remember?
- And the next line is . . .
Although I returned to The Bone People with a kaupapa of celebration, I met the same old feelings of worthlessness there on the page.
I realised that these feelings go far beyond whakamā about the colour of your skin or your skill with te reo. Doubt, self-hatred, the voice that says “Why bother?” and “Who do you think you are?” and “Nobody cares”. These feelings come up every time I write, even now. They are feelings that will be familiar to many other writers and artists, a wall we must walk through to do our work.
The Bone People is magic.
The book is both a testament to this massive struggle against yourself (“You are nobody”) and evidence that the struggle can be won. Hulme won. As she wrote in the preface to the first edition, the book took 12 years to write. Multiple publishers rejected it. Eventually, Spiral Collective (Marion Evans, Miriama Evans and Irihapeti Ramsden) took the manuscript on, printing 2,000 copies. More than 1.2 million have since sold.
Well before the internet existed, the editing process was unorthodox and loose. Hulme had no telephone and received only intermittent mail delivery — so consensus on small points of punctuation was never reached. Oh the glory of non-conformity, of standards that are soft and loose, informed by ideas about the shape of words and the responses shapes and patterns may evoke in readers. As Hulme said: “The voice of the writer won through.”
And so it is for me, essa and Monty, the three finalists. Our voices win through in our work.
No matter which of us ultimately takes home the award, I fully embrace the honour that has been bestowed on my work. As the character of Joe says to the kaumātua who heals him, right towards the end of the book: “Ka maharatia tenei i ahau e ora ana . . . e pai ana.”
I shall remember it as long as I live . . . it is good.
Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Atiawa) is the author of Te Motunui Epa (BWB Books, 2022), Ko Taranaki Te Maunga (BWB Texts, 2018) and The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget (Huia, 2009). Te Motunui Epa was a co-winner of the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize for History and was a finalist in the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Rachel is based in Naarm/Melbourne.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.