Two great women at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Sunday – Keri Hulme and Patricia Grace

A follow-on from the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Sunday 18 May, by Gillian Whalley Torckler

Next on the agenda was an event described Hulme_Keri_from_webas the largest book club discussion
ever. It was a celebration of “The Great Kiwi Classic” − The Bone People by Keri Hulme.
There was some discussion at the start about the definition of a classic. What defines a classic? Does everyone have to like it? Can it be a classic if some people are offended by it?

Peter Biggs chaired the session, which included a reading by Keri Hulme and commentary from Eimear McBride (a novelist from Ireland) and Reina Whaitiri (a NZ academic). The hour started with a ten-minute reading by Hulme herself. She read from a copy she had presented to her uncle who upon hearing she was writing a book, advised her to write in the style of Wilbur Smith. Thankfully she ignored him. The Bone People is a very kiwi book, set on the rugged west coast of New Zealand. It is interesting to note that both of our Booker prize-winning books were set in this wild landscape, that some might even describe as a savage landscape.cv_the_bone_people

But this book had an inauspicious start – Hulme says that every publisher in Australia and New Zealand turned it down. That’s music to every author’s ears. From the envelopes of rejection come the … well, let’s be realistic, it won’t be the Booker every time.

The audience participation in this session was a more significant component than many. There were accolades – some glowing, some not so. There were tears from the audience when more than once victims of abuse thanked Keri for writing the book, for lifting the lid. Despite it being a violent, savage book, it was deemed positive because it has reached so many people. One person admitted it took him three reads to finally “get” this book – the first time he hated it but now it’s his favourite book.

In writing the book, Hulme loved the characters but made them do some heinous things in order to show how much damage we do to each other and how much damage we do to the earth.


Keri Hulme, about to read from The Bone People

And if you were wondering, there will never be a film made of The Bone People because Keri doesn’t want one. And after all these years, one is left feeling very much like Keri is still calling the shots. And it seems, from the sign on her gate, which reads “Unknown cats and dogs will be shot on sight. Unless I know you or you have contacted me first, do not come in,” she always will.

The end of the day was here. Grace_Patricia_2The last session – Patricia Grace in conversation with her long-time publisher Geoff Walker (formerly of Penguin Books). Patricia Grace (right) grew up reading books about other places, other places that were not New Zealand, well not her New Zealand anyway. She wanted to write about the people she knew, and the communities she grew up in, and in so doing she pioneered Maori writing.

Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson were early role models, but although she appreciated Mansfield’s way with words, the settings and stories were far removed from her own world. She didn’t recognise Mansfield’s voice, whereas she did hear an authentic kiwi voice in Sargeson’s writing. She realised this was important and started to seek out kiwi voices. Soon realising she had her own voice, she began to write. At first, on the kitchen table, after she had got her seven children into bed at 8 o’clock each night.

Although many of Grace’s books have political undertones (and maybe even overtones) she says the characters always come first. Once they are invented, then their behaviour comes from who they are. Grace showed in a quiet and confident way that she more than deserved to be the 2014 Honored New Zealand Writer.


A waiata for Patricia Grace

The final curtain has been closed and the Festival was declared over for another year. But it was the biggest yet – over 50,000 tickets and a whopping 45% increase from 2013. The Aotea Centre was buzzing all day. And from what I saw, Sarah-Kate Lynch would have been happy to see lots and lots of readers buying books.

Events attended and reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler, on behalf of Booksellers NZ. 

Great Kiwi Classic Nomination: We Will Not Cease, by Archibald Baxter

This is available in selected bookstores.

Tcv_we_will_not_ceasehis is the sombre and disturbing memoir of Archibald Baxter, a conscientious objector from New Zealand during the first World War. It tells of his forced conscription into the New Zealand army and the barbaric and inhumane way he was treated when he stood steadfastly by his belief that killing was wrong and refused to carry out any military duties.

While people belonging to religious organisations whose beliefs forbade the bearing of arms were exempted from conscription, people who objected on purely moral and ethical grounds were not. Baxter and thirteen other conscientious objectors were subjected to barbaric treatments in an effort to break their will and force them to submit to serving in the armed forces. Of those fourteen, only two, Baxter and Mark Briggs, managed to hold out until the end, but they both did so at great personal cost.

Initial imprisonment in New Zealand was followed by their forced dispatchment to the other side of the world, where they were sent initially to England and then to the trenches in the front lines in France. As Baxter persisted in his resistance, refusing to wear a uniform, obey any orders or carry a weapon he was abused, starved, tortured and sadistically mistreated. The physical and mental abuses he endured almost killed him and left him a such a fragile mental state that he ended up in a mental hospital in England.

This is a very powerful book that tells a very shameful chapter in New Zealand’s history. It also gives us an insight into the dreadful effects the war had on so many of the men who served in the trenches. The fact that Baxter was treated with virtually nothing but kindness from the men in the ranks suggesting that many soldiers shared his views but did not have his courage to stand up to the government and the army. Baxter’s courage almost killed him and he suffered for his stand for many years after the war ended.

We should be very grateful to Archibald’s wife Millicent who persuaded him to dictate these recollections to her. This is a very important slice of history from a voice that the authorities tried to silence.

Reviewed and recommended by Debbie Evans
This book is also ‘Kate’s Klassic’ on Radio NZ tomorrow, 15 February.

We Will Not Cease
by Archibald Baxter
Published by Cape Catley (most recently)

Great Kiwi Classic recommendation: Just One More by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop

Just One More was put together by Gecko Press in 2011, and comprises Joy Cowley’s cv_just_one_morebest short stories for children, mainly from educational publications such as the School Journal. It is one of the best books for children that I have had the joy of reading aloud to my 3-year-old.

This collection stories has witty takes on monsters, pirates, cowboys, trolls, grumpysauruses, and dragons. There is a grumpy king who steals smiles, and a tiger who eats cakes. The dragon lives in a library because he likes to read about his kin. There is even a ‘Gonna bird’ who reminds me of several people I know.

We are voracious book lovers in our household, but only the best books stand the test of time (ie. Beyond the week-long excitement of a new book) – and Dan has been asking for at least ‘one more’ from this book for two months solid, every single sleep time. He loves choosing his own, which he can do thanks to the images on the slipcover relating to each individual story  – thank you illustrator Gavin Bishop and designer Spencer Levine. Dan is quite sensitive, but faces his fears as he listens to stories about monsters and trolls, and well, that tiger.

The other important part of a book of short stories for young children is the length of the stories. As anybody with young children knows, if you are reading five stories a night, you have to be wily about how you let them select them or you can be there for hours. These stories are a perfect length to be read aloud, or for young readers to read to themselves. They are also as enjoyable to read as an adult, as they seem to be for Dan to hear.

I am so proud that we have storytellers and illustrators the calibre of Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop in New Zealand. It also bears mentioning that this collection was beautifully published and edited by Gekco Press.  We are very lucky.

Reviewed and recommended for anybody, by Sarah Forster

Just One More
by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781877467868 (HB)

Great Kiwi Classic Nomination: Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the End of the World, by Joan Druett

Available in bookstores now. ISLAND OF THE LOST.indd

Read the true story of a group of whalers shipwrecked on the remote Auckland Island in 1894 and marvel at their dramatic escape.

This book tells a phenomenal tale of survival on the barren island with year round freezing rain and howling winds, how the whalers worked together to build shelter, catch food, and eventually escape by building a boat to sail across the dangerous southern ocean to New Zealand. Little did they know that across the other side of the island, another group of 19 whalers were also shipwrecked and instead of working together, succumbed to chaos and only three survived.

This is still one of my favourite books of all time, the comparison between the two groups of whalers and how the right attitude and working together can make the difference between life and death – it’s still the theme that I remember, years after reading the book the first time.

Written by award-winning maritime historian Joan Druett from survivors’ journals and historical records, this is a captivating read and also makes a great present to the adventurers in your family.  Highly recommended.

Recommended and reviewed by Amie Lightbourne.

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the End of the World
by Joan Druett
Published by Allen & Unwin (2007)
ISBN 9781741753684

Great Kiwi Classic nomination: Cousins, by Patricia Grace

Available by order

On a miserable, cold, wet Sunday I sat down cv_cousinswith this book and became oblivious to the weather. This story captured me and transported me. The wonder of books and storytelling is that they allow us to not only see the world from another perspective, but also to feel the emotions of the characters as if you are walking in their shoes. Books take you to places that movies can’t reach because when watching a movie you are always a spectator, always on the outside looking in. A book allows you inside, looking out.

Patricia Grace’s books resonate with the pain of her people. Cousins tells the story of three female cousins who grow up in the period immediately after World War II when there was mass migration of Maori from rural areas into cities and towns and a huge loss of their culture and identity. Mata, Makareka and Missy have very different lives and upbringings but all three are shaped by being part of a culture of conquered peoples who have to fight to retain their own language, land and beliefs in their own homeland.

Missy grows up in a strong Maori family and community, but her life is blighted by poverty which affects her schooling. Part of the poverty is caused by her grandmother punishing her mother for marrying a man not deemed suitable. Her mother’s rejection of tradition and her grandmother’s refusal to change make for a harsh life for Missy and her siblings. Despite the poverty Missy has her language, her culture and strong family love and support but she is not equipped to live outside this small community.

Mata’s story is the saddest. Born to a European father she is left in a children’s home after her mother dies when she is only 5 years old. She is brought up with no knowledge of her people or culture or language and with a strong feeling of inferiority and shame for not being white. Mata fits in nowhere.

Makareta is Mata’s opposite. She is educated, cherished and nurtured by her grandmother and grows up with a strong understanding of her culture and is fluent in both Maori and English. She can straddle both worlds and becomes very influential in the burgeoning renaissance of Maori identity that takes place in the last decades of the twentieth century. But ironically Makareta is only able to succeed because she rejects an arranged marriage that her grandmother tries to ambush her into.

I became engrossed in the moving and compelling lives of these three main characters, as well as the minor family members whose lives intersect and connect with theirs. Patricia Grace is a wonderful writer and her prose is effortless and fluid.

Reviewed and nominated by Debbie Evans

by Patricia Grace
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780140168082