Happy Birthday Keri Hulme

Although for New Zealanders and those in Australia like me, it’s already nearly half-way through March 10th, in parts of the world it’s still the 9th, and therefore kiwi author and Booker Prize winner, Keri Hulme’s birthday.

Keri Hulme“You want to know about anybody? See what books they read, and how they’ve been read…”
Keri Hulme, The Bone People

Showing my age, I have to admit that when first faced with reading The Bone People, it wasn’t a wholly enjoyable task for me. The book was pushed on me by an English teacher as an extended book to contemplate for my final Secondary School exams. I don’t remember her name anymore. And she didn’t do much else than give me a copy of her book.

As it was, the exams didn’t include any questions that allowed me to really wax lyrical and prove how damned good I was. Not on that book, anyway.

I read the book (and took my exam) in the year it was first published – 1984. The book was, at the time my teacher pushed it into my hands, already heading towards the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction. But neither of us knew (nor did the examiners, I suspect) that The Bone People would win the Booker Prize in 1985.

I remember finding some of the passages somewhat poignant, reading them as a teenager contemplating her own part-Maori ethnicity, and living on the coast of the South Island (in a much less harsher environment than painted as a setting in the novel). Hulme and I have much in common, including the small town I was brought up in, our ethnicity and also our parental history of losing a father at an early age. But at the time I read her book as a teenager, I felt there was a huge gap between the world she painted in her novel, and myself, that it made reading the book awkward, not helped by the poetic punctuation and huge rambling text.

I do know that reading a New Zealand award-winning author was my first reckoning that writing books – and good stories at that – was something available to all of us. Previously all our English teachers and exams had us reading American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, and a lot of Steinbeck and Shakespeare.

Yes, it may be Keri Hulme’s birthday this week and her book is well worth celebrating in a very personal way for me. But really, I’d like to express a huge thank you for the gift embarked on me by that now nameless English teacher, who pushed a local novel outside of the cirriculum on me, and gave me my desire to write.

To all the teachers who take the time to spot a possibility and push a child towards it, my utmost gratitude.

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Keri Hulme

  1. I don’t know what Hulme is doing these days. Presumably still living down in Okarito. Great that your English teacher inspired you to write. Mine, also the product of the NZ system, did his level best to kill my enthusiasms for reading and for writing. I became a writer in spite of my high school, in fact…So it’s nice to hear there is one good news story from the systen!

    1. Matthew, I can only hope that my eleven year old daughter one day finds a teacher who takes a little time outside of the curriculum and many exams they have nowadays. But if she doesn’t, I know that she will probably do what you did – and get doing it anyway (whilst doing her best to never do what her Mum suggests).

      1. Writing is a wonderful occupation! The school thing was also in spite of my parents’ wishes. I was always urged by my Mum to write imaginatively, and I was caught up in the idea well before my English teacher took my mother aside and told her that no matter what I did, I would fail at it. Especially at anything to do with English. My parents made sure I had proper tuition in how to write by sending me to a polytechnic which taught it, despite the high school. One of the polytech classes clashed by about 10 minutes with the end of the school day. The headmaster refused my father’s request to release me early. Dad went to the polytech and asked the tutor there to delay the start – which he did. So I am where I am today in spite of the active obstruction of my school. Not because of their competence or actual interest in my future. It was Tamatea High School, in Napier. Just saying…

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