Keri Hulme 1947-
New Zealand novelist, poet, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Hulme's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 39.
Hulme came to international fame in 1984 when her novel The Bone People (1983) won the New Zealand Book of the Year Award, the Mobil Corporation Pegasus Award, and the 1985 Booker McConnell Prize. Set in Hulme's native New Zealand, the novel explores gender, ethnicity, and estrangement, particularly between native Maori beliefs and Western culture. Hulme, who is one-eighth Maori, explores similar themes in her short story collection Te Kaihau/The Windeater (1986) and her poetry collections The Silences Between (1982) and Strands (1991).
Hulme was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 9 March 1947. Her maternal grandfather was Maori, the Polynesian racial group indigenous to New Zealand. Hulme credits the time she spent with her Maori relatives, which she recalls fondly, with her close identification with the Maori ethnicity as an adult. The importance of family, the primacy of traditional Maori teachings, and the need to find balance are common themes in her poetry, short stories, and novel and can be traced to her youthful experiences in a close-knit family. When she was eighteen Hulme wrote a story about the three characters whom she resurrected over a decade later, creating the four hundred plus page manuscript The Bone People in the late 1970s. She attended Canterbury University, Christchurch, and pursued various occupations while concurrently writing. Although she successfully published her first collection of poetry in 1982, she was unable to find a publisher for her novel because of the unusual subject matter and her unwillingness to alter or edit the manuscript. A New Zealand feminist collective, Spiral, provided the funding for four thousand copies of The Bone People to be published. The novel achieved popular success in New Zealand before winning audiences in the United States and England. In 1986 she published her first collection of short stories, many of which expound upon the themes raised in The Bone People. Hulme lives in isolation in rural New Zealand and continues to write.
Similar themes recur in Hulme's work despite the fact that she has published in many genres. Her poetry, short stories, novel, and novella all center on issues of Maori culture and identity, the importance of family, and the conflict between identities. Hulme is known for merging genres; her poetry is prose-like while her novel and stories feature poem excerpts. In fact, critics called her novel The Bone People a prose-poem. She infuses her writing with Maori words and her English prose is influenced by Maori cadence and structure. In addition, the theme of violence features in her work prominently, most notably in The Bone People and in short stories such as “While My Guitar Gently Sings” and “Hooks and Feelers.” In her poetry and fiction Hulme does not advocate feminist ideology as much as she features strong women's voices. Her novel The Bone People centers around such a voice, the character Kerewin Holmes, based loosely upon Hulme. Holmes is a one-eighth Maori artist living in a spiral house that she built for herself in an isolated region of New Zealand. A gender neutral character, Holmes befriends Goe Gillaylay, a Maori laborer, and his ward Simon, a mute boy of unknown parentage. Each character must overcome obstacles to restore harmony in their lives before they can unite as an unusual, but functional, family.
When Hulme published The Bone People she was met by almost universal praise in New Zealand. Although she had earned attention for her poetry collection and short stories printed in periodicals, she had not established herself as a major writer until the publication of her novel. Reviewers praise Hulme for her imaginative and powerful style that blends reality and myth in a simple, yet serious, narrative; her fine ear for New Zealand vernacular and dialogue; and her unusual yet compelling structure. Elizabeth Ward describes the novel as “a work of immense literary and intellectual ambition, that rare thing, a novel of ideas which is also dramatically very strong.” However, some critics, such as C. K. Stead and Michiko Kakutani, took issue with Hulme for refusing to edit The Bone People. They argue that she is too verbose, unfocused, and self-indulgent. Other critics bemoan the lack of development in the characters Joe and Simon. The issues of child-abuse and questions about the authenticity of Hulme's description of the Maori bother other reviewers. Stead foreshadows critics of Hulme's short story collection Te Kaihau/The Windeater, published in1986, by criticizing the violence and bitterness in her writing. Many critics were silent or gave negative reviews of her short stories. However, both Tim Armstrong and Robert Ross argue that in these stories Hulme addresses many of the weaknesses found in her novel. Susan Ash writes, “I believe that Hulme's ambiguous attitude to individualism and to violence accounts for both the critical dissent regarding The Bone People and the relative silence regarding Te Kaihau.” Hulme has continued to gain attention as a New Zealand poet; reviewers cite Strands as an example of work emerging from an up-and-coming voice of New Zealand.
SOURCE: “Spiralling to Success,” in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 14-23.
[Webby is an associate professor at Sydney University. In the following essay, she traces the themes in Hulme's writing, focusing in particular on Hulme's novel The Bone People.]
Aue, te aroha me te mamae
The title of one of Keri Hulme's poems seemed an appropriate epigraph for this introductory account of her work. ‘Ah, the love and the pain’ is one's immediate response to her poems, stories and, in particular, her major novel, The Bone People. Pain and love are also abundant in the story of how the novel eventually came to be published.
I first read Keri Hulme's work in 1982 when Heinemann sent me a copy of an excellent new anthology of Maori writing, Into the World of Light, edited by Witi Ihimaera and D. S. Long. This confirmed what I had suspected from reading stories by Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Rowley Habib in other anthologies. In a country famous for its short fiction, the best was now coming from Maori writers. I was particularly impressed by stories by two writers new to me: Bruce Stewart and Keri Hulme. Since it was then impossible to buy copies of New Zealand books in Australia, I wrote to a friend in Auckland asking if any titles by them were available. In return I received Hulme's first collection of poems, The Silences Between (Moeraki...
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SOURCE: “Roots and Sinew,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXIII, No. 6, 28 March 28, 1986, pp. 186-88.
[In the following review, Miller praises The Bone People.]
Once upon a time a female Maori tobacco field worker who owned a portable typewriter started writing a story about a magic child washed up on a New Zealand beach. The tobacco field worker spent twelve years writing the story in her spare time. Now that she is done with it, she takes it to three major publishers down under. They all hate it. So she bundles up the manuscript, mixes a bucket of quick-setting resin, and prepares to embed twelve years of work in a commemorative block of solid plastic, when—ta-ra! ta-ra!—three angels swing down from the skies on god-hoisting tackle. These lovely deae ex machina start a feminist collective which publishes the fieldhand's book.
And lo, it comes to pass that Keri Hulme wins the prize for Maori Literature and the Pegasus prize as well, the latter bringing with it publication in the United States. That's not the plot of The Bone People, that's the plot of how it came to exist. But there's not a happy ending yet. The happy ending is when all you who wish a taste of Maori fiction turn out to buy a copy of her book so that she will have a chance to write another one for us. Buy it now. Hollywood will never show it to you—it has no sex scenes, and the wrong kind of violence....
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SOURCE: “Fiction from the World's Edge,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 94, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. xlv-xlvii.
[In the following review of The Bone People, King examines the feminist aspects of the novel, praising Hulme for her skill and innovations.]
That Keri Hulme's only previous book is a good volume of poems published in New Zealand may explain why the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement complained about the nomination of The Bone People for the Booker Prize—or why the Sunday Times claimed that the nomination was reward enough. The award of England's prestigious literary prize is only the latest episode in the unusual history of this unusual novel. Rejected by New Zealand commercial and small presses, it was eventually published by Spiral, a feminist collective; and it became a local sensation, winning the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and, later, the Mobil Corporation Pegasus Prize for Literature, “to introduce American readers to distinguished works of fiction” from abroad. Penguin plans a paperback edition.
A strange powerful novel in subject, form, and style, The Bone People focuses intensely and obsessively on the relations among three characters. The woman has rejected her family and has withdrawn from society to become an artist, but, living alone in a tower she has built for herself on the sea-coast, she no longer creates....
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SOURCE: A review of The Bone People, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring, 1986, p. 363.
[In the following review, Ross, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, argues that The Bone Peopleis too long and overwritten, but finds that it has merits despite its weaknesses.]
Much honored by literary prizes, The Bone People supposedly challenges the conventions that govern the novel. Keri Hulme in a preface announces to prospective readers that her book, like exotic food, will offer satisfaction once such taste develops. Modern literature, however, has produced any number of pretentious, tedious, overwritten, and undisciplined works posing as forerunners of strikingly original forms. So, in truth, The Bone People fails to contain much that startles anew, only familiar excesses that too often hide the abundant talent lurking within. Hulme's writing at its self-conscious worst emerges as thoroughly unpleasant, but when natural and unforced, it is altogether brilliant.
For one thing, the book records vividly a side of life largely ignored in New Zealand literature. The courage and tenacity of early white settlers any number of novels has documented; and Janet Frame and Joy Cowley have denuded the smug descendants of those pioneers. Sylvia Ashton-Warner provided some insight into Maori culture, but only from a white perspective. Hulme, a Maori...
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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1986)
SOURCE: A review of The Bone People, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1986, p. 91.
[In the following review, the critic contends that aspects of The Bone People's unique New Zealand cultural setting are sacrificed for a more universal tale.]
This startling first novel [The Bone People] by a 38-year-old Maori woman from New Zealand has already won the New Zealand Book Award, England's Booker Prize for fiction, and Mobil Corporation's Pegasus Prize for foreign literature—plus extravagant praise from the critics. Hulme's story is simple, perhaps shockingly plain, yet almost bottomless in its emotional depth. A reclusive Maori woman (a somewhat autobiographical figure), bitter at the world yet ironically made wealthy by a lottery, has her steely exterior pierced by an orphaned, psychologically-disturbed boy who, though of normal intelligence, refuses to speak for some mysterious reason in his past. The boy's foster father, a rough-hewn Maori widower, is alternately protective and physically abusive of the boy. These three characters, and the way their love for each other develops, describe the limits of the story; but the author's concern for the characters' emotional life, as shown through the use of multiple point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness, is so obsessive in its purity that...
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SOURCE: A review of Te Kaihau/The Windeater, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 3, Summer, 1987, p. 494.
[In the following review, Ross claims that Hulme has created honest, evocative images of the human condition in Te Kaihau/The Windeater and predicts important writing from her in the future.]
That the author of the much-praised novel The Bone People should make violence, despair, maiming, drunkenness, and such other human weakness and misfortune subjects for a volume of short stories should not be surprising. After all, The Bone People must have been the first international best seller to chronicle child-beating.
In Te Kaihau/The Windeater, as in the novel, Hulme sidesteps the pitfalls of sensationalism and constructs instead a compelling image of humankind's state, first on the level of the Maoris in New Zealand, then on a universal scale. “While My Guitar Gently Sings,” for example, re-creates a Maori family and follows its dissolution, the narrator mourning her mother's death while sitting amid the aftermath of a drunken brawl. She cries too over the loss of the old ways and the vacuum created. Attempts at recovery fail, however, as illustrated in another of the stories, “He Tauware Kawa, He Kawa Tauware,” which records a pathetic attempt to rediscover and revive Maori tradition.
The vision bleak, the landscape dark...
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SOURCE: “The Bone People after Te Kaihau,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1989, pp. 123-35.
[In the essay below, Ash reinterprets The Bone People after reading Hulme's short story collection Te Kaihau, arguing that neither work emerges favorably.]
Does a Booker Prize ensure wide and critical attention for the winner's subsequent publication? Expecting to satisfy a “pent-up demand,” retailers in New Zealand “ordered up heavily” when 1985 recipient Keri Hulme smartly released a volume of short fiction, Te Kaihau/The Windeater, in 1986. However, as one area book manager has said, her company “took a big punt” with Te Kaihau and “just did a nose dive” (Parker 70), Te Kaihau has been a publishing non-event; the book has not sold well and no one has much to say about the stories. The fiction elicits only brief and oblique mention in Ian Wedde's review which focuses on the prefatory poetry.1 Was Wedde off on a linguistic tangent close to his own heart, or did he consciously avoid engaging with the actual fiction? Much of Te Kaihau was written contemporaneously with The Bone People; stylistically and thematically the two books have much in common. Why then has one book attracted wide acclaim while the second has received relatively little attention despite the propitious circumstances of its...
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SOURCE: “The Reawakening of the Gods: Realism and the Supernatural in Silko and Hulme,” in Critique, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 121-31.
[In the essay below, Benediktsson compares the treatment of realism and indigenous myth in Leslie Silko's Ceremony and Hulme's The Bone People.]
Realism in the contemporary novel depends on two contradictory claims. The first one is that the narrative is not literally true. The familiar statement in the frontispiece that “the characters and incidents portrayed herein are entirely imaginary and bear no resemblance to real persons, living or dead” is not only a protection against lawsuit but also a statement of the conscious fictionality of realistic narrative. Of course, that statement is duplicitous if viewed in the light of realism's second claim, that the work bears a resemblance to social and psychological reality, that in important ways it tells us the truth about “the effect of experience on individuals” if not about “the nature of experience itself.” The distinction is Edward Eigner's, who argues that the attempt in the nineteenth-century novel to reconcile scientific truth with metaphysical truth was initiated to discredit the empirical, not to validate it. In this paper I am taking a similar position: attempts to reconcile realism with the supernatural in the contemporary postcolonial novel are undertaken in an effort to...
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SOURCE: “Keri Hulme's The Bone People: A Critique of Gender,” in Imagination and the Creative Impulse in the New Literatures in English, edited by M.-T. Bindella and G. V. Davis, Rodopi, 1993, pp. 219-31.
[Covi is a PhD. candidate at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In the following essay, she discusses Hulme's unconventional treatment of gender and ethnicity in The Bone People.]
When Keri Hulme's first novel, The Bone People, was finally published in 1984, it quickly attracted both passionate fans and hostile detractors. This polarized response focused almost entirely on extra-textual considerations.
The novel was initially rejected by three established New Zealand publishers before Spiral, a small feminist collective formed specifically for the purpose, published it. Promoted as a feminist text by a Maori writer, the book enjoyed surprising commercial success. It was first reprinted and then issued in a second edition, this time with the cooperation of a mainstream publisher; it was subsequently published in the United States and Great Britain.1 Along the way, Hulme's novel was honored with several literary prizes.2
However, this attention was short-lived, and six years after its publication, the responses to The Bone People still amount to little more than a handful of reviews. In order to understand...
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SOURCE: A review of Strands, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, p. 452.
[In the following review, Gadd praises the poems in Strands.]
Keri Hulme is internationally better known for her Booker Prize-winning novel The Bone People (1983) and for her short stories than for her poetry. Strands, a collection of work of the past decade, seems intended to present her also as a poet worth noting—and it succeeds.
The sustained major work in the volume is “Fishing the Olearia Tree,” followed by a group of substantial poems, “Against the Small Evil Voices.” (The title “Deity Considered as Mother Death” captures some of her concerns here.) The collection ends with “Some Wine Songs,” considerably lighter and indeed so far out of kilter with the major poetry as to suggest that the publishers wanted to bulk up the collection.
Hulme employs an array of familiar contemporary techniques of impressionistic linguistic collage: the swift glides from place to place, time to time, register to register, language to language (Maori to English), focus to focus, source to source of imagery, allusion, and symbolism. She says in a prologue note: “Words mean / precisely what you want to hear them say / exactly / what you see in them.” Nevertheless, this is not poststructural, postmodernist, and certainly not “language” poetry....
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