In November 2012, during our first year of publication, we published an interview with the literary hero of many, Keri Hulme. We were honoured she decided to speak with us – editor Michelle Elvy notes it was probably because they talked in their email exchange mainly about fishing and the sea.
Reading the interview ten years later, the editors were struck by Hulme’s characteristically unique approach to language. Even in a casual interview, her sharp turn of phrase, her intense wit and her dark humour shine through.
We were inspired to pay tribute to her with a set of micros written ourselves, each one giving a nod to one of the phrasings Hulme uttered in this 2012 interview (we note Hulme’s language with italics – sometimes making up the title, sometimes as part of the story). This is our way of honouring her particularity of voice and style, and conversing with her one last time.
Rest in peace, Keri Hulme, 09 March 1947 – 27 December 2021.
Interview with Keri Hulme
First published November 2012
This month, we caught up with novelist, poet and short story writer Keri Hulme. Readers will know her from her novel The Bone People, which won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Booker Prize in 1985. All of her work engages myth and dreams, violence and tenderness, the here and now and the other. But instead of discussing themes in her work, or style choices, or present work as a writer, we took a different turn with our interview series this month. We caught up with Hulme to talk not about writing but about everyday life in Okarito.
Keri Hulme: I’m not unique except as being an individual (as we all are.)
On place: the coast and the sea
KH: There are very very few people who write about the places that mean most to me — Okarito? Okarito! Baiting. Birds of all degree. The skid of flounders under your feet, the stab of spear, the taste of their meat. Bait! The total excitement of good catching, and the parties we used to have after.
Unfortunately, there are not many of us left in Okarito who did this kind of stuff.
Moeraki? Ditto. Far south (e.g. Colac Bay & Rakiura) — little stuff written that is anything other than local histories…! Hey I *collect* local histories! I cannot live away from a coastal place. I have tried but I just get depressed & sick, drink too much and don’t do anything creative.
On flavour: fishing and food
KH: O I could talk for hours about this — fish is best when tasting of fish: of course you can enhance that taste — but shit o dear! People who advocate eating pickled &%$!@@! onions with whitebait fried in BEEF FAT! A leetle egg goes well with ‘bait or blue cod the old flour & dip in beaten egg trick — great for a clean fry — but can I say I lurrrve sashimi? And ika ota? And that the best fish is that which you have caught yourself, filleted/cleaned almost immediately, and kept lightly chilled until you eat it (desirably, within a couple of hours).
On connections: history and family
KH: I’m southern (Kati Mamoe/Kai Tahu), bred & born in Otautahi, brought up there & in Oamaru/Moeraki. Have lived on the West Coast (Tai Poutini) since I was 23 (the last 40 years at Okarito.) While my greatgreatgrandmother, Piraurau, came from that area, I don’t want to die there. I’d prefer the south.
Other ancestry include Orkney Scots (which is important to me) and Lancashire English (which isn’t).
On disconnects: myth and reality
KH: There’s a disconnect? Really? Myth informs our realities, can make sense of our lives, teach us about the horrors that are part of our lives, and connect us to all the other beings that we share the Great Round Beast, our mother Earth, with.
On language: humour and horror
KH: Well, humour is the leaven, whether sly, snide, a bellylaugh or a giggle. Humans are unique in as much as we can laugh/interpret funny drawings and written/spoken/otherwise portrayed comedy — but we, sure as, are not unique in enjoying a humourous situation (I’ve experienced bonobo humour — and no, it didn’t involve shit (the youngster was a pickpocket)). Even cats have a sense of humour (and so definitely, do birds).
Horror — is everywhere: we come easily to the language of horror…
New stories – in honour of Keri Hulme
He rite tonu ngā pūrākau ki o mātou motuhenga
Myths are the same as our reality
It is a myth that myths inform our realities. The two are inseparable. For reality, whatever this may be, is surely also myth. Myth or myths are our realities. There is nothing in our reality that is not myth. They are one and the same.
The life of Keri Hulme is a myth, indeed it is one of this country’s more mighty myths. The heroine who prevailed in their steadfast battle against all manner of foe, and who triumphed. Who remained staunch and existentially serene. That was her reality and necessarily it remains our own myth.
Tēnā koe a Keri.
Tēnā koe mō tāu pukapuka.
Tēnā koe mō tāu ora whai hua.
Tēnā koe mō tēnei pūrākau.
He kōtuku rerenga tahi koe.
The literal translation of the original whakataukī (which I adjusted slightly) is ‘The white heron is a bird of one flight’ – that is, a rare visitor. Of course, the kōtuku is this precious white bird that returns each year to nest in one place in Aotearoa, on the West Coast of Te Waipounamu, namely Okarito.
Saturday afternoon at the beach
skid of flounder under my feet
Step careful, you warn me, watch for stonefish. You tell me you will be back soon, promise cray as fat as my arm for dinner, and then you are gone, out where blue becomes black. I move with cautious feet along the shoreline, look for fish-faced stones, back and forth along the same stretch of water until the reef is a rim of white in the darkened sky. And there are things you did not warn me of, so many things it seems. You did not tell me of currents and waves and sharp-teethed reef, how a moment of pause is the same as a decision. You did not tell me of the step between water and beach, skid of flounder under my feet, how all that seems solid and sure is not.
We come easily to the language of horror
Ramshackle, your dilapidated house of lies. Your method so insidious: say something perverse and call it wisdom. Your piles lean drunkenly, your soffits rotten, your lath and plaster held together by scrim. Then go to the market, find a beautiful bowl, hand-crafted, salt-glazed, as glassy-green as envy. Place the vase on a polished table. Walnut. Cabriole legs. Silk crocheted doily. Fill the bowl with clear water and daffodils, bright yellow trumpets singing of spring. Their perfume will smother the stench of corruption, the leaky cistern, the foul drains. Don’t call it perverse: call it wisdom. See, it works.
Anywhere on Earth
the Great Round Beast, our mother Earth
Round as a wave bent over the chair. Round as the egg that started it all. Round as the belly with thin white scars. Round as the pill you could have swallowed. Round as the bald sun bearing down. Round as a bomb that falls. Round as fast as legs along a path. Round as an eye of storm – the gush and swirl of waters. Round as moons on fingers in the dark. Round as a bleat escaped from the mouth. Round as the curl of a midwife’s arms. Round and smooth as a stone on your breast. Boom. Boom. Boom. The Great Round Beast, our mother Earth.
For the mothers and children of Ukraine
Not much stuff written that is anything other than local histories
Yet she is writing more than local histories about the special places. Always has. Writing like talking and the pauses in between. She is writing the stories, dark and otherwise, of people who speak in her dreams. She is also writing the fishing stories and the guitar party stories. Stories that rise like mist from the river on an early tide. Stories swimming along with the inanga and the legendary runs, long boasted.
You can’t go past blue cod and ota ika for a good feed. Stonefish dreams. Moeraki conversations, Ōkārito chat, bone silence.
And the old folk sing: When we get married, we’ll have whitebait for tea.
Even cats have a sense of humour
whisk butter, chop shallots / muscadet / a glass for me / beurre blanc, how mother taught me / open paper folds, tucked at each end / fillets unfurl
he’ll be late / he’s always late
all this time
old habits / mother’s voice / hands rippling over fish, snipping parsley from talavera pot / memory of mexico
all this time
bracelet jingles / cat springs, levitates, purrs by my elbow / doorbell
drat, bastard’s early
naughty cat nabs cod / quick as lightning dashes into sun / looks back, beautiful meat in her mouth: fish is best when tasting of fish
i slink out, back door, float behind / i hear the sea, smell salt air
disappear / elated
There is a time to learn what isn’t sky
Birds of all degree
Birds of all degree fly into the glass at her new stepfather’s house – so while her mother is experimenting with the freshly moved-in furniture, she is bracing at the wide-angle windows, waiting for the next featherweight crunch. Even the clouds look hair-trigger. There are zero curtains on her new bedroom, so blueness stretches a trap, and quavers. The birds close their eyes above their high-speed bones – though some do wake.