Spiral Collectives
Published in

Spiral Collectives

Indigenous Literature in a Colonial Society, by Merata Mita

Book review: ‘The Bone People’. Keri Hulme. Spiral, 1984. First published in ‘The Republican’, November 1984, 4–7. Republished with kind permission from Merata Mita’s whānau.


If to choose a language is to choose a world, then being denied a language is being denied a world. The dearth of Maori writers writing in the Maori language today states how successfully British colonialism and continuing cultural imperialism have denied the Maori world. There is a comment, borne out by ‘The Bone People’, that the colonisers (British) are assassins of the psyche (Maori), and that New Zealand must therefore suffer the tragic consequences of its violent, fragmented and dispossessed collective consciousness. The book has this to say, and more.

‘The Bone People’ is without doubt an exciting and major literary work. It is the first real New Zealand novel written by a Maori woman, in that it truly represents New Zealand society with its schizophrenic oscillation between the obsessive individualism of the Pakeha world and the historical and spiritual consciousness of the Maori world. Certainly ‘The Bone People’ cannot be categorised as a Maori novel. In spite of the fact that only Maori writers reflect a true bi-culturalism in New Zealand literature, and that this has become a distinctive trait of Maori writing, any true Maori literature must be written in the Maori language. British colonialism has suppressed the Maori tongue, and therefore its writing hand and receiving eye; and as ‘The Bone People’ so eloquently points out, the strength of Maori writers writing in English today lies in their ability to articulate unique cultural perspectives with clarity and depth.

The resilience of the Maori people is sustained by the Maori writers who express their peculiarly Maori experience in the language of the oppressor. Their powerful combination of imagery and syntax generates an unconventional style — generally regarded as being ‘Maori’ — which belies the fact that English is not the chosen language of these Maori writers. So, neither is the world they write about their chosen world. Being forced to write in the English language, by the attitudes and institutions inherited from our colonial past, is being forced to confront our own destruction. ‘The Bone People’ and its characters continually remind us of that, as well as the fact that the cumulative effects of cultural imperialism have produced generations of Maori people permanently injured by feelings of inadequacy. The loss of Maori literature, disastrous as it has been for the Maori people and New Zealand, must be looked at in the positive light of its ultimate resurrection. Lately, Maori writers such as Ngoingoi Pewhairagi, Katarina Mataira, Selwyn Muru, Hone Tuwhare and Hirini Melbourne have expressed the mauri of the people in their works and are asserting themselves in the chosen language of their world — Maori.

It is ironic that the Maori writers writing in English have not only enriched New Zealand literature as a whole, but also that as a nation we are proffered valuable and vivid insights into the tragedy of dispossession. Both Pakeha and Maori, that is, because the more the Maori has become dispossessed by the Pakeha, the more the Pakeha has likewise alienated himself. Although much has been made of the ‘blending, melding and weaving together’ of disparate elements in ‘The Bone People’, little has been made of the discordancy and refusal of certain elements to fuse. There are huge rifts between Kerewin’s Maori world, Pakeha world and herself. Mostly they have become internalised schisms of the soul and psyche which she manifests externally and physically by her mode of existence — separate, anti-social, asexual and firmly entrnched on the island which is herself. For all the mystique such a notion engenders about the rugged individualist, when the veil of romance is lifted what is left is a microcosm of the colonial quarter acre, fenced-off syndrome. Kerewin lives in and cocoons herself with female rather than feminine forms. The tower, turret, spirals, circles and encapsulates the isolate figure of a solitary woman. Given the nature of survival alone, Kerewin comes across as an independent, gutsy creature somewhat idealised by all women, particularly because she does not need any man — she merely has the use of one if she so fancies. She is not only a woman to be admired but also one to be respected. The dark side of her reveals a selfish hedonistic being, cut off from family and peers by a past alluded to, and the conceit of being a cut above anyone else. Compared to the hapless Joe, she is.

Reading ‘The Bone People’ is at times exhilarating, at times profoundly disturbing. Especially where by design sadism is secreted in a subterranean consciousness or exposed as a form of the unconscious. It can be argued that for most New Zealanders this is typical of the way that violence is treated. The physical act becomes safely removed because it has been suppressed or ignored and then converted into a form of neurosis — which in the case of Joe Gillayly has turned him into a sociopath.

Joe has lost more than just Hana, his wife. With her passing he has lost part of his sanity and his raison d’etre. Kerewin is a person he can contend with only by feigning the wisdom of a simple man. trying to appear better than he is greatly adds to his confusion. He wants to be liked and accepted by Kerewin but knows he falls short of her expectation. Simon bears the brunt of Joe’s bewilderment and Kerewin’s uncompromising stance with a silence borne as a martyr with a burden too heavy for one so small to carry. Kerewin and Joe are at once victims and protagonists in the demise and resurrection of the christ-like child figure of Simon, who is the ultimate victim of all. That the catalyst and trigger to the upheaval in the lives of two adult people is a retarded mute child, whose love for them almost destroys him, is comment on its own.

This is the most disturbing aspect of ‘The Bone People’; at times it is terrifying, not by exposition but by suggestion. New Zealand’s deepest darkest secret is its history of violence, subsequent repression and the damage it is doing to us as a nation. Joe’s demeanour gives nothing away — just like the face of New Zealand; Kerewin discovers his terrible secret but keeps it to herself — conscience denied; Simon suffers Joe’s beatings in silence — love and violence are inseparable. Kerewin’s and Joe’s search for redemption is bound to living and dying on all levels of their existence, but what happens to Simon unwittingly pushes them beyond the bounds of their existence together and blows them apart.

They spend this time in a kind of purgatory. Joe connects his past to his future, foretold in dreams which present themselves as part of an inherited memory. Joe’s Maori heritage, overwhelmed by his sadism, his lack of self-worth and general uselessness, asserts itself separately and strongly. Kerewin’s continuing odyssey forces her to confront her psychological and emotional death with the threat of physically dying from cancer. At first she ignores it, but as the pain increases she accepts it as poetic justice for being what she is — and is not. Kerewin’s Maori heritage is engulfed by her own obsessive individualism. Both she and Joe are disconnected from the truth and their roots. Both are misfits traumatised by negative experiences in a threatening world of people. They are trapped in a state of siege mentality which neither can break out of. Kerewin has made a brave attempt to survive apart from the hostile world which surrounds her, only to find that she is of it and lives in it. Both are unable to accommodate their ties with family and community. In Kerewin’s case her rejection of both is a rejection of self. It is a wonderful allegory about Maori and Pakeha attempts to survive outside themselves and outside the colonised world they live in. It is a plea for liberation from a society they neither want nor fee responsible for. It is a cry for help from the dispossessed.

‘The Bone People’has had rave reviews. New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, have voraciously devoured it. We go to the cinema to see ourselves. We read the books that reveal ourselves.

The body of a country’s literature reflects the life of its people. It mirrors their tensions, conflicts, creativity, struggles, hopes, aspirations and dreams. Thus is reflected the collective consciousness of a nation, the people’s images of themselves. ‘The Bone People’ adds lustre to our literature if only because it dares to show us how fucked up we are through the characters of Kerewin, Joe and Simon. ‘The Bone People’ does more than superficially address personal relationships. On a deeper level it also addresses the cultural genocide of a colonised people. It is unfortunate that the catharsis through reawakening near the end of the book is not as integrated into the story as its other aspects. There is a feeling of contrivance which unfortunately borders on being insincere and sensational. A liberating sense of ecstasy, as Joe and Kerewin reach for their Maori soul, is missing. An elusive realm of embryonic dreamtime and unformed imagination tends to mystify Maori spirituality to the point of regression, especially in the case of Kerewin.

Maori spirituality is more concrete than that and the Maori soul is elusive only to those who seek it in the abstract. But perhaps Joe and Kerewin are already too colonised to recognise this. Nevertheless their search for redemption is rewarded through this journey in Maori time and symbols, for when they return Simon has painfully survived them. The re-uniting of the three after each time of trial and tribulation is almost a letdown because there is no indication of who or what they become. Real salvation can come to them only if they now have the courage to choose the world they want. This would mean overturning the world as seen, analyses, defined and imposed on them by the coloniser, the world in which they are all victims.

Stylistically, this is the most interesting novel since Witi Ihimaera’s ‘Tangi’. There is a woman’s rather than a feminist’s perspective in the writing, along with all the other insights indigenous writers in a colonised society give us. At times the story flows in a stream of consciousness, switches to poetry in structure and expression, becomes banal and conventional, but yet has moments where it reaches the most glorified heights of English prose. This produces a disjointed method of maintaining continuity reminiscent of musical patterns in jazz. The similarity does not end there, as much of the writing has a feel of improvisation, which could make difficult reading considering the parallel action, as well as the levels on which the author writes. The sentence or line may be staccato short or period-long, flowery complex, sometimes with no beginning, sometimes with no end, but rarely without substance. The interior language may be esoteric or crude, likewise the dialogue. It is the language of signposts, symbols and rich imagery, garnered from experience rather than learned from texts.

All the rules are broken, for this is a novel where words do not control the writer. The writer has control and uses words at will and however she chooses, to create word images that flood the mind with obtuse and explicit messages. These messages are read and are heard as seductive whispers, soothing lullabies, laments, cries of anguish, shouts of anger and embody the loving, living, hating and dying of a time, a place, a land, a people and a language — all Maori. These messages call us to our roots, to our culture, to our history, to our oral tradition, to our mother tongue — to choose our world and the language that defines it. ‘The Bone People’ is the finest example of several voices speaking at once, and among them is the plaintive voice of our tupuna, waiting to be heard again through the taonga they left in each of us — the Maori language. This is what the whaikorero which transcends the rest of ‘The Bone People’ finally concludes. If we revitalise our oral story telling and use this as the basis to create our own literature we will not only regain ourselves and our identity, but we will add greatly to the nation’s literary achievements and culture. That is the most valuable lesson gleaned from the indigenous literature in our colonised society.

POSTSCRIPT. Not all of us understand bi-culturalism, least of all the judges involved in judging the Watties book of the year awards. Surprising really since Watties has exploited thousands of Maori labourers over the years. ‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme was not sighted among the three top contenders, which just goes to show that the Watties book of the year awards are not worth a baked bean can full of shit.

Merata Mita (1942–2010) is one of New Zealand’s best-known and most-loved filmmakers and was the first Māori woman to write and direct a feature film, ‘Mauri’ (1988), available here. (Cushla Parekowhai’s interview with Merata, ‘Kōrero Ki Taku Tuakana: Conversation With My Big Sister’, just after ‘Mauri’ was filmed, illuminates her philosophy and practice.)

Merata also explored indigenous social justice issues in documentaries like ‘Bastion Point Day 507’ and ‘PATU!’ about the 1981 Springbok Tour.

‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen’ (2018), directed by Merata’s son Heperi Mita and produced by Chelsea Winstanley, premiered at Sundance and is available on Netflix. There is an annual Merata Mita Fellowship for indigenous filmmakers at Sundance and 2020’s recipient, Ley Hale, talks about Merata’s legacy here.

‘The Republican’ (1974–1995) was published by journalist Bruce Jesson (1944–1999).



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Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.