My introduction to Keri Hulme came in my sixth form year.
Her Booker prize winning novel – the bone people – has recently been added to the curriculum and my English class had been assigned it. It was a hard ask for a group of unsophisticated teenagers to read and understand, but we gave it a go.
The book itself seemed unusual – its first published version had no capitalisations on the title, or on keri hulme’s name itself. The prose, from the opening page, seemed more like poetry, or an incantation, and although I didn’t really understand all the layered complexity of the work, I was immediately hooked. Much like the fishhook embedded in Simon’s thumb in the story.
It took me several attempts to really read the book. To be able to soak up the language and absorb the meaning. I must have read the book seven times in about four years, every time discovering something new, and it remains one of my favourite books of all time.
Keri Hulme did not give many interviews, she didn’t feel a pressing need to explain her work or her process, and because we didn’t see her appearing on television or hear her voice on our radios all the time, she was often referred to as a recluse. However, you only had to read the tributes pouring out on social media after her death to see that wasn’t the case at all.
Recollections rolled out about her generosity to other writers, to strangers; the beautiful poem she wrote to the people of Ōtautahi – her hometown – after it fell in the earthquake; stories of the way she inspired people, her humour, her salty language, and her grace spoke of a writer who was anything but reclusive.
As a young journalist, I desperately wanted to interview her. After all, the bone people, had pride of place in my bookcase and so it was natural that when I was asked to come up with a subject for a profile piece, I would immediately thought of Keri Hulme.
At the time she lived in Ōkārito on the West Coast and did not appear to have a telephone. The only way I could contact her was by fax machine. I duly typed up a very polite request for an interview and sent it off, not really expecting a reply.
A day or two later, a fax rolled off the machine into our newsroom. It was addressed to me and from Keri Hulme. I read her reply with a mixture of elation and disappointment.
She had, of course, declined the interview but in the most disarming way. I was charmed by her complimenting me on my name: “..a beautiful name that should be given to a character in a book..” She invited me to call in (minus camera and microphone, of course) if I was ever passing her way.
I was thrilled to think that a writer – a Booker Prize winner no less – who I had so admired had taken the time to respond, even if it was just to swat me away.
I learned an important lesson from Keri Hulme that day – you can say no. But more importantly, I learnt that you can say no in such a way that feels like you’ve said yes.
I still have that fax. I still have my copy of the bone people and I still have Keri Hulme’s beautiful words every time I open her book.
Moe mai rā e Rangatira.
~ Zara Potts