• Marian Evans
  • Keri Hulme's Booker Prize-winning novel "the bone people"
Keri Hulme's Booker Prize-winning novel "the bone people"
Written by
Marian Evans
September 2011
Written by
Marian Evans
September 2011

1. Sometimes, it’s hard to resist. I’ve got lots to do, but something else clamors for attention. Today, it’s the bone people (always lower case), the only New Zealand novel to win the Booker Prize.


First, I had a big cleanup and found a newspaper clipping from 1 November 1985. Here it is—the late Irihapeti Ramsden, me, and Miriama Evans, shortly after we received the Booker Prize on Keri’s behalf. Irihapeti and Miriama wearing korowai lent by George (Geordie) Fergusson, the son of a former New Zealand Governor-General. Me in my Moss Bros tuxedo (and white leather sneakers with pink satin laces, best pair of sneakers I ever had). And a tiki that Irihapeti asked me to wear. If you slide the clipping onto your desktop and zoom in, you can read the text. My main memory of the photograph is that the photographer suggested that we stick our tongues out. I think he wanted us to pukana (stare wildly and dilate our eyes, as is sometimes done in performance).



It was a strange night. No-one knew what to make of Miriama's and Irihapeti's karanga (a formal call of welcome, made by older women) and we were described as 'keening harpies' later, in one newspaper. We wanted to talk about the generosity and love that had brought the bone people and us to the Booker ceremony, but we were not permitted to speak (perhaps a time thing: it was televised and Keri was on the line to speak, from the States). And it was surprising and weird to hold the leather-bound copy of the bone people they gave us, but wonderful later to pack it into a kete (woven basket) for Keri. I think we were also handed a cheque. Did we tuck it inside the book, along with the piece of heather a gypsy gave me, when Miriama and I were coming back from Moss Bros?


Then, the other day, I posted about Keri Kaa and remembered her work for the bone people launch. Then, I had a request from American student Jessica Brandi through LinkedIn: would I answer some questions about the bone people, from a publishing viewpoint?


And then, last week, Keri Hulme and I fell over each other at the Public Address Hobbit party. Inevitable that there were a few accidents there, with that slap slap slap of comments down the page (where I lurked now and then to read what other writers and filmmakers were saying). And inevitable because New Zealand is soooo small.


I didn’t recognize Keri at first, because she wasn’t there as Keri Hulme. She thought I might be me; I wasn’t there as Wellywoodwoman. And the way we confirmed who we were was with dates. A quarter century since the bone people won the Booker Prize (me); more than a quarter century since Spiral published it, on 18 February 1984 (Keri). And Keri told me that although her American publisher had put out a celebratory edition last year, there’d been no celebration in New Zealand.


So, by way of celebration, here’s a story, addressing Jessica’s questions. From my perspective only of course. Keri’s story is different. Irihapeti told her story in Chapter 3 of her PhD thesis. Miriama has her story. There are many related documents in the Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand’s national research library; collectively they tell another story, too.


Jessica, there are a LOT of names in this post. You, and others, may feel that they’re unnecessary. But, because I don’t want to write about the bone people again, I want to be sure to acknowledge everyone I can remember. (Any other readers: please feel free to ask questions too, and to add information in the comments.)


2. As you might imagine after all this time, there are more dates involved than those that Keri and I recalled the other night. So here's some backstory, before I address Jessica's questions.


Back in the late 70s, I was involved with Kidsarus 2, looking for New Zealand stories with women as central characters (surprise!), to publish as picture books. Our first book, in dual Maori English editions, was The Kuia & the Spider, by Patricia Grace, a novelist and later a winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Robyn Kahukiwa illustrated the story.


Someone suggested I get in touch with Keri Hulme. So I wrote, and eventually got a lovely letter back, about a story Keri had written called (I think) “The woman, the watcher, & the whale”. (Never got to read the story.) About the same time, the other Keri—Keri Kaa—introduced me to Miriama Evans.


Then Kidsarus 2 found an office space in Wellington’s Harris Street, where the Wellington Central Police Station is now, just across the road from the old Circa Theatre. The space was too big for a single office, and artists Anna Keir (the very same Anna Keir who just featured in the Sunday Star Times short story awards) and Bridie Lonie (now teaching and writing at Otago Polytechnic’s art school) and I decided to start a national Women’s Gallery there. And we invited a group of artists and writers to come for an Opening Show, at the beginning of 1980. One of them was Keri, who draws and paints alongside all the other things she does. Here are most of us in a photograph by Fiona Clark. Left to right: me, Allie Eagle, Nancy Peterson, Juliet Batten, Anna Keir, Heather McPherson, Bridie Lonie, with Brigid Eyley and Claudia Pond Eyley in front. Joanna Margaret Paul, Carole Stewart and Tiffany Thornley were elsewhere that night) 


At the end of 1980, we had a show called Mothers—which later toured to public galleries round the country—and I met Irihapeti when she visited the Women’s Gallery to see it. Irihapeti had a lot to say about one of the images, Barbara Strathdee’s portrait of her (Barbara’s) mother, and after that we sometimes met at exhibition openings at other galleries.


The Women’s Gallery always had programmes for writers as well as artists, and we came to understand that women writers and artists were often facing similar difficulties in getting their work to readers and viewers. Women writers, for instance, didn’t tour, though men did. In 1981, Roma Potiki and I attempted to organise a women poets tour, including Keri, Kohine Ponika (in another bit of synchronicity, Ngahuia Wade recently told me that Kohine was her grandmother, and subject of a film Ngahuia has made), Heather McPherson, Mereana Pitman, Adrienne Dudley. Kohine called the group Matariki. We couldn’t get funding. I was bitterly disappointed, and Keri sent me the bone people to read, to cheer me up, a fat parcel of a manuscript she planned to encase in resin and use as a door stop.


I was working in a women’s refuge at the time—just before the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour (Nzonscreen)—and very tired, but once I started reading I couldn’t stop: I lay in bed making my way through the loose pages as fast as I could, dropping each one over the side of the bed after I read it. I think now that the bone people engaged me so strongly because of its violence: it spoke to me about behaviour that was then part of my day-and-night working life.


Later that year, thanks to Bridie’s Women & the Environment exhibition, I was able to make a huge mural of texts from Keri, Sappho, Eileen Duggan, Heather, and Mereana, with a dedication to Kohine, Matariki's 'mother'. After that, I was over the Matariki disappointment.



But the bone people niggled at me.


Jessica, now I've reached your questions.


3. Heather McPherson founded Spiral, as a literary and arts journal for women, in 1976. Herself a poet, she was galvanized when she attended a Christchurch festival poetry reading and counted 13 men and no women poets on the stage. A lesbian feminist, when she came to Wellington for the Women’s Gallery Opening Show, she had been unable to find a publisher for her volume of poems, A figurehead: A face. Also at the Women’s Gallery Opening Show, we’d heard J C Sturm (the late Jacquie Baxter) read some wonderful stories she wrote in the 1950s and 1960s, and learned that she too had been unable to find a publisher for her collection, The house of the talking cat. Early in 1981 Anna Keir and I decided to publish A figurehead: A face, using the Spiral imprint, which then became a floating imprint, moving from collective to collective. A figurehead: A face sold out. With Heather’s book, and then with Jacquie’s book, and the bone people, Spiral became a publisher of last resort.


I hoped for a long time that another publisher would take the bone people, because it was so long, and therefore expensive to produce. I remember using the phone box near the Women's Gallery to talk with one of our Kidsarus co-publishers, who was adamant that the bone people needed to be edited, though he hadn't read it. He didn't want to see it unless Keri had changed her mind about working with an editor.


But because we’d had success with Maori/English editions of the Kidsarus children's picture books and with selling women’s art works, I'd come to understand that some decision makers didn’t want to take risks with writing and images that were too ‘different’ in some way: their view of ‘literature’ and ‘readership’ was limited and problematic. At the Women’s Gallery and as a publisher of last resort I trusted, we trusted, the eye of the artist and the voice of the writer. I knew that, as Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story” for public audiences, whether in words or pictures. Sometimes some of our stories and images were going to look and sound different, odd, sometimes when they explored experiences about which there is often silence. But something very special can come out of apparent awkwardness.


And I was intrigued to experiment with ways to make change. The starting point was to trust my own judgment that The house of the talking cat and the bone people had potential audiences (just as the Women's Gallery collective trusted our judgment daily, about art works); and I decided to invite Maori women to be part of the collective for Jacquie’s and Keri’s books. I thought that as publishers they would perceive and do things differently than those who had rejected the books and, who knows, there might be other books out there as well, that I didn't know about but they did. I passed the manuscript on to Irihapeti and to Miriama, not then realising that they knew each other and that they and Keri were related.


Irihapeti and Miriama read the manuscripts and wanted to help, and from then on we were a collective of three who visited potential funders and made decisions together. And Anna and I organized the making of the physical objects: the paperwork involved in applying for grants, the proof-reading (oh yes, it was uneven, dependent on the skills of various helpers), the paste-up, with help from Lynne Ciochetto (Jacquie’s when Anna and I were heavily pregnant, Keri’s with the two babies under the light table). Some of the work at 323 Willis Street, the Women’s Gallery’s new home, some of it in the room where I’m writing this. Irihapeti and Miriama were then students with families and other commitments, with little spare time.


Here’s the list of supporters of the bone people and The house of the talking cat, from the back of the bone people's original title page:

Amster Reedy; Bill MacKay; Joy Cowley, whose generous help was given “in gratitude for over twenty years of support for women writers”; Juliet Krautschun [now Juliet Raven]; Kathleen Johnson; Keri Kaa and the Maori students at Wellington Teachers College; Maori Writers Read participants and the series organizers Janet [Roma] Potiki and Patricia Grace; [the late] Pauline Neale; and Commission for Evangelisation, Justice and Development (Wellington Diocese) [thank you, Manuka Henare]; Kidsarus; Maori Education Foundation [thank you, Sir John Bennett]; New Zealand Literary Fund [thank you Pat Stuart, especially]; Willi Fels Trust.

In retrospect, I think that David Burger and Andrew Evans could, should, have been added to this list. They were always quietly there, helping.


Huirangi Waikerepuru deserved a paragraph of his own. Here it is, with deep appreciation.


In the process of finding these supporters we learned that we often encountered generosity when and where we least expected it, that supporters within institutions were especially valuable, and that almost all the support came with love attached (which was pretty special).


Then there were the production credits, and the people within some of the organisations involved. Keri provided the cover illustration. Basia Smolnicki designed the cover. The Victoria University Students Association gave us a really cheap rate for the typesetting: thanks especially to Margie Thomson and Deanna McKevitt, and to Vanessa Jones and Victoria Hardy there. Thanks also to the printer, Bryce Francis (and to the printer of A figurehead: a face, whose shoddy work helped us learn a lot). And thanks to the Government Printer, and to Daphne Brasell who worked there then and negotiated a heavily subsidised price for beautifully sewn books. (Or did she persuade the Government Printer to donate all the binding costs?) I have only one enduring gripe about the bone people: one of the Watties Book Award judges claimed on national radio that his copy of the bone people came apart in his hand, and when I tracked this information back to the chair of the judging committee I found that it was not true. There was plenty about the production that was problematic (that proofing, the way some of the paste-up faded in the light because we didn’t know we had to protect it, the cut marks on some pages). But the binding wasn’t.


Like me, Irihapeti and Miriama trusted the bone people as it was; we knew Keri had tested it thoroughly and that her mother, particularly, had been a rigorous reader. For me, the structure felt ‘right’, and I thought that if I—not a ‘serious’ reader—could read it through the night without pause, others would be drawn in too. There was only one little bit towards the end that I didn’t get. At the beginning of 1983 (a date again!) I went down to Okarito and talked with Keri. Went to bed, and in the morning, there was a new page or three that fixed the problem. (I think the change involved Li the cat.) And then Keri taught me to clean a gun and to shoot. Keri’s “Standards in a non-standard book” preface puts the rest of it well:

The exigencies of collective publishing demand that individuals work in an individual way. Communication with me was difficult —I live five hundred miles away, don’t have a telephone, and receive only intermittent mail delivery, — so consensus on small points of punctuation never was reached. I like the diversity.

And then Keri wrote about her feelings about...oddities, the shape of words, how "OK" studs a sentence and "okay" is more mellow, and so on. Finally, "Great! the voice of the writer won through". Keri wrote further on in her preface: "To those used to one standard, this book may offer a taste passing strange, like the original mouthful of kina roe. Persist. Kina can become a favorite food".


Jessica, you asked about the marketing challenges. There weren’t any. By then, we were reasonably media savvy and Keri was anyway very attractive to interviewers. I think the big launch at the Teachers College in Wellington helped, thanks to Keri Kaa. And thanks to help I remember from Bridie Lonie as we made many many filled rolls from baguettes and ham and tomatoes and cheese. And with support from many guests: Keri’s family, the collective’s families and friends, from Ngai Tahu and elsewhere, Wellington artists and writers. We sold lots of books as cheaply as possible ($12.50), having by then learned that it helps to sell books at a launch or directly, to receive all that income rather than to share it with sales reps etc. We also delivered many cartons of books to Unity Books, a Wellington bookseller which then—as now—was immensely supportive of New Zealand writers.


A few days after the launch, Keri and I drove from Christchurch to Dunedin, approaching booksellers along the way. When we reached a little Dunedin bookshop, I went in with my sample copy. The book seller was saying “I suppose I could try a couple” when we were interrupted by a customer, who said she’d heard about a book on the radio (did she refer to a Sharon Crosbie interview with Keri?), and started to describe what I knew must be the bone people. I held up the book and said “This one?” So I sold five there. Later, Arapera Blank—Keri Kaa's sister—and Joy Cowley wrote wonderful parallel reviews for the Listener (12 May 1984) that were influential. But before then there was a New Zealand-based viral effect. And all without the internet. Or mobile phones. Or personal computers: we had one typewriter at the Women's Gallery, which we shared. For instance, at the Opening Show, Anna and I typed up the catalogue with help from some of the visitors, and Keri used it to write her He Hoha poem. When I first wrote this post, I wasn't sure if there were photocopiers then. But Anna can remember constantly using one, in the old public library which is now the City Art Gallery, in the big downstairs room to the left of the foyer. She recalls being in there with me and Pauline, and often on her own.


We sold out the first printing of the bone people very fast, and had to do another. But we hadn’t taken into account that some of the reprint costs wouldn’t be covered by the income from the books we'd sold. Again, the Literary Fund helped. And again, we sold out. Rather than attempt another reprint, we invited commercial publishers to propose co-publication. I think three publishers made formal proposals and eventually Keri chose Hodder & Stoughton, with full support from the rest of us. Hodder & Stoughton in New Zealand was then run by a very lovely man called Bert Hingley, and we all felt very safe and happy with him. He also reprinted The house of the talking cat.


I learned recently that when the bone people was first published Joy Cowley sent a copy to Bert Hingley, then her publisher. He was not sure about it. But his wife, who I think was called Cheryl, insisted that it was the best thing ever. Bert later wrote a nice letter about that to Joy; the letter is stored with her papers in the Mugar Collection at the Boston University. So, as Joy says: Cheryl was “part of the powerful impetus of Keri's great book”. Several times, I've tried to find Bert, who went to Australia. I think Keri has too. If you or Cheryl read this Bert, we'd love to hear from you.


I don’t know why the bone people was so successful. People enjoy it (and strongly dislike it) for different reasons. It spoke to some people’s Maori-ness. I think that its compassion for deeply damaged people is important; it gives space for readers to reflect on the pain in their own lives, including the pain they’ve caused, and to imagine what might bring healing. I like it that it probably can’t be adapted for film, that the story stops there in the novel. I like the place of food in it. I’ve read it right through only twice, that first time, and when there was a seminar five years ago. I discovered at the second reading that I appreciated the structure better than I used to; I always found it seductive and satisfying, but now I understand how it works.


The Spiral imprint is still there for anyone who wants to use it. I know women writers have problems in the States, but most New Zealand women writers can find publishers and many do well in awards. I think the bone people helped make some changes here, within a literary context that includes other significant women writers: Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, and Patricia Grace among others, and because of the institutional support associated with the International Institute of Modern Letters, which I wrote about a while ago.


In many ways, the bone people and those other projects provide the model we’re now using for Development, a feature film They were all non-profit projects, funded by charitable organizations, individuals, and (sometimes) by the state. The people who managed the projects took women writers and artists seriously, took account of their diversity, and usually worked without payment. They also paid attention to audiences that the ‘mainstream’ tended to ignore. I used Spiral as the charitable umbrella for my Sister Galvan film, and we’re in the process of establishing Spiral Screen Media as a non-profit of last resort for women who want to make feature films.


Whew. This has been harder than I thought. May have to change it later on. I hope you feel that this celebrates your wonderful work, Keri. I hope the information is useful for you, Jessica. I hope that the people who helped Spiral will see this and take a moment to congratulate themselves for the glorious outcome of their loving generosity a quarter of a century ago: Aotearoa New Zealand's only Booker Prize. And thank you all from me, for your contributions to what I learned and can now use.


Note: An earlier version of this post appeared in my Wellywood Woman blog.


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  • Marian Evans

    Thanks, Claire. It does seem to be one of those books that people re-read, if they get through it the first time. Lovely to hear from an NZer in France, and now I'm off to read your blog!

  • Claire McAlpine

    A fabulous book and a very talented writer. Must read it again.