Keri Hulme Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.