Keri Hulme Criticism

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Elizabeth Webby (essay date March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 Conversations), recently published by Auckland University Press, and the news that her novel, The Bone People, was having trouble finding a publisher because of its length and unconventionality. A small but striking extract from this work had appeared in Into The World of Light. I was very keen to read more of it.

About a year later I was excited to hear that Keri Hulme had been invited to the 1984 Adelaide Festival. As always, teaching commitments kept me in Sydney, where I attentively scanned the media for news of her. 1984 was one of those rare years when there were no international dropouts from Writers' Week; an unknown New Zealander attracted little attention. There was a brief report of consternation in the audience when she began her talk in Maori and then the news that Keri Hulme would give one reading in Sydney before returning home. Disappointingly few turned up to hear her; she had a heavy cold as a legacy of Adelaide; the good news was that The Bone People had at last been published by Spiral.

A few weeks later I had a ring from Marian Evans, one of the three women who had produced the novel. From her, and from the copy of The Bone People she brought me, I learnt of the novel's long gestation, its rejection by commercial publishers, the support given by Hulme's family, friends and, finally and successfully, the Spiral Collective. In her preface, ‘Standards in a non-standard Book’, Hulme tells how the work, begun as a short story, gradually warped into a novel:

The characters wouldn't go away. They took 12 years to reach this shape. To me, it's a finished shape, so finished that I don't want to have anything to do with any alteration of it. Which is why I was going to embalm the whole thing in a block of perspex when the first three publishers turned it down on the grounds, among others, that it was too large, to unwieldy, too different when compared with the normal shape of novel.

Enter, to sound of trumpets and cowrieshell rattles, the Spiral Collective.

Spiral, actually not one but a series of non-profitmaking feminist publishing collectives, had begun in 1976 when a Christchurch group produced the first issue of Spiral, a magazine for women's art, writing and criticism. Marian Evans was one of the Wellington collective producing Spiral 5. She had met Keri Hulme at the opening of Wellington's Women's Gallery in 1980 and read the manuscript of The Bone People the following year. Deeply moved by it, she made a further fruitless search for a publisher. Again the book's length and, one suspects, its feminism as well as its Maoriness, went against it. So a Spiral Collective was formed—Marian,...

(The entire section is 24,582 words.)