Elizabeth Webby (essay date March 1985)
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, Miriama Evans, Irihapeti Ramsden and another search, for funds, began. Ironically, one of the first groups approached, the Advisory Committee on Women, thought the novel did not give a positive enough image of women, especially Maori women, and turned it down. But, as one sees from the acknowledgments at the front of the novel, help did come from some Maori organisations, from women writers, both Maori and Pakeha, from a Catholic Church Commission and from the New Zealand Literary Fund. The latter offered two thousand dollars, higher than any previous subsidy for a novel, but the novel had first to be in print. The collective now searched for the cheapest quotes on typesetting, printing and binding. Typesetting was done by the Victoria University Students Association; proofreading and pasting-up by the members of the collective, often at night when their other commitments were over. While obvious misprints are surprisingly rare, the book that resulted has an engaging or annoying, depending on one's perspective, lack of uniformity. Inking and margins are uneven; page numbers go in and out of italics; occasionally the type goes up or down a point for a few pages. I was reminded of early issues of the Sydney Gazette and it's likely that first editions of The Bone People will become collector's pieces. (My two copies also have variant bindings.) But the eager buyers of the four thousand copies printed were clearly not all bibliomaniacs. The novel was very favourably reviewed and rapidly sold out. It has since won the three thousand dollar New Zealand Book Award for fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature. Hodder and Stoughton have joined with Spiral to produce a reset second edition; Louisiana State University Press are to be the American publishers.
If the story that I've just told was fiction, it would probably be dismissed as too romantic, too Hollywoody. The happy coincidences between the novel's themes and structure and its eventual publishers might seem beyond even Hollywood. Three women, Maori and Pakeha, publish a novel which argues that biculturalism is fundamental to the future of New Zealand. The novel, rejected by monocultural publishers, is a huge success. For the reasons outlined above, the women call themselves Spiral. And, as Peter Simpson noted in an excellent review of The Bone People in the Australian Book Review for August 1984, ‘the spiral form is central to the novel's meaning and design; it is in effect the code of the work informing every aspect from innumerable local details to the overall structure’.
Though The Bone People has a fairly simple plot—three characters meet, separate and are reunited—its structure is, indeed, that of the double spiral, where beginning and ending are in perpetual interchange. The first section, entitled ‘The End at the Beginning’, offers brief glimpses of three unnamed characters, two male, one female, before concluding
They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growling and great.
Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.
Next come three brief flashback sections, one for each of the still unnamed central characters. The first two, beginning ‘In the beginning’, and focusing on the male characters, are filled with images of terror and shipwreck, death and despair. The third opens with a marked change of tone:
She had debated, in the frivolity of the beginning, whether to build a hole or a tower; a hole, because she was fond of hobbits, or a tower—well, a tower for many reasons, but chiefly because she liked spiral stairways.
As time went on, and she thought over the pros and cons of each, the idea of a tower became increasingly exciting; a star-gazing platform on top; a quiet library, book-lined, with a ring of swords on the nether wall; a bedroom, mediaeval style, with massive roof-beams and a plain hewn bed; there'd be a living room with a huge fireplace, and rows of spicejars on one wall, and underneath, on the ground level, an entrance hall hung with tapestries, and the beginnings of the spiral stairway, handrails dolphin-headed, saluting the air.
There'd be a cellar, naturally, well stocked with wines, homebrewed and imported vintage; lined with Chinese ginger jars, and wooden boxes of dates. Barrels round the walls, and shadowed chests in corners.
All through the summer sun she laboured, alone with the...
(The entire section is 3747 words.)