Born in Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, Keri Hulme identifies not with her primarily “Pakeha” (European) family, but with the Maori, the culture of her maternal grandfather, Tommy Rakakino Mira. The Maori, a Polynesian racial group indigenous to New Zealand, figure prominently in all Hulme’s writings, both poetry and prose. Reticent in discussing many of the details of her early life, Hulme has said that she was raised with a strong sense of her Maori cultural background and that she developed a keen interest in their language and stories. It is this cultural background that gives her writing its sense of foreign mythos.
After having lived exclusively with her parents and having grown up comparing the radically different cultures of her Christchurch relatives and her Oamaru, Moeraki, and Purakanui family, Hulme left home and moved to Motueka in 1965 to work picking tobacco. It was at that time that the eighteen-year-old Hulme heard colloquial Maori for the first time and met North Island Maori, whom she had previously thought to have existed only in stories. Inspired by her contacts with the native populace, Hulme proceeded to write a short story which would form the nucleus of her best-known work, The Bone People.
Keri Hulme held a number of menial jobs (including fishing and cooking) until, at twenty-five, she settled down exclusively as a writer in Cobden, Greymouth. In 1982 she published her first book of poetry, The Silences Between: Moeraki Conversations, exploring the unique rhythms and concepts within the Maori tongue. She was, and continues to be, impressed by the delicate shadings of meaning inherent in the understanding of her grandfather’s language; she finds words in themselves to be powerful and emotionally stirring. Poetry came naturally to Hulme both as a child and as an adult, so it is appropriate that her works celebrate the languages of both the Maori and the Pakeha.
After a few years’ storage in her desk drawer, the story she had written at eighteen began to stir her imagination again. Expanding it, through seven drafts, into a novel, Hulme began to seek a publisher. She was turned down by three publishers, two of them major feminist publications, because she refused to accept any of their suggested changes to her work. Spiral Collective Number Five, a publishing company, was formed by Miriama Evans, professor at Victoria University, Marian Evans, a freelance editor, and Irihapeti Ramsden to publish three books rejected by others: A Figurehead, a Face (1982) by Heather McPherson, The House of the Talking Cat (1983) by Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm, and Hulme’s The Bone People.
In The Bone People the three characters in Hulme’s earlier story–Kerewin Holmes, an artist living in self-imposed exile, Simon Peter, a dreamlike mute boy, and Joe Gillaley, Simon’s abusive foster father–find themselves becoming a family battered by the internal pressures of their relationships and the external pressures of the world that seeks to separate Joe from Simon. The novel describes, in bitter detail, the terrible physical abuse to which Joe subjects his foster son, only to seek the same child’s love and loyalty: It is both a portrait of a mystical culture foreign to American readers and a realistic picture of the strains inherent in an abusive family.
Since she expected only a few hundred New Zealanders to read her privately published work, Hulme was astonished at the immense popular acceptance her novel achieved. In 1984 the book won the New Zealand Book Award for fiction, the Pegasus Award for Maori literature from Mobile Oil and, in 1985, the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize. Critics described the book as being similar to those written by Lawrence Sterne and James Joyce, acknowledging it as an innovative work derived from the intimate fusing of style and content.
Keri Hulme’s second novel, Lost Possessions, appeared in 1985; she has also published collections of short stories, including Te Kaihau/The Windeater (which was well received in the United States), and a second volume of poetry called Strands. All these works, in one way or another, seem to reflect the passions of the Maori culture as well as the rhythms of the Maori language. Hulme describes herself as an artist, fisher, writer, and Maori woman; her isolated life in Okarito Private Bag, Westland, reinforces her desire to keep her family as the most important facet of her life.