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.
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.