Claire Mabey praises a breathtaking new novel by Tina Makereti (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi).
It’s hard to conjure a concept more offensive than the ethnological expositions, or human zoos, of the 19th and 20th centuries. A few years ago in Edinburgh, I saw the controversial installation Exhibit B by artist Brett Bailey. Black actors were displayed on plinths in various tableaux depicting scenes from atrocities of the colonial period. The experience was demanding, excruciating – designed to pin you bodily into a reluctant voyeur’s nightmare and fully feel the shame and revulsion of past and present trauma. And that in itself reflects, I think, the white privilege that the artist was attempting to highlight.
Tina Makereti’s new novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke pulls a similar trick in that the reader is invited very close to a live exhibit. But in the hands of one of Aotearoa’s best writers, the perspective is flipped around, the gaze reversed.
Hemi Pōneke’s story as told in his own voice tips the Victorian curiosity box over and re-fills it with the artefacts of colonialism. Starting with his young self, Hemi is orphaned, wandering hungry and alone, relying on his intelligence and natural charm to stay alive. The son of a fallen chief (apparently eaten by cannibal enemies), Hemi is able “to speak with both sides”; he was taught English and Christianity by missionaries in colonial New Zealand. This duality defines Hemi’s story.
A short distance into the book, Hemi is witness to a brutal and unjust murder. A Māori man enters the Pākehā settlement where Hemi is temporarily staying and asks Hemi in te reo about buying some supplies. The Pākehā men around Hemi move quickly into battle mode and the man is eventually shot. This episode highlights Hemi’s predicament – because he can speak English and wears Pākehā clothing, he’s accepted by Europeans. But his people, culture and whakapapa are not. The murder fills him with guilt – he was too stunned and afraid to translate and intervene – and he journeys alone, trying to avoid Māori and Pākehā settlements.
Enter, The Artist. Hemi meets a never-named artist who is on a mission to capture the flora, fauna and native peoples of this new land, and agrees to sail to London to provide The Artist with the live element of his exhibition: “What a crowd we will draw!”
London itself becomes a central character in the novel. Makereti shows us its hellish stench, grime and poverty, as Hemi explores the setting of his big OE: “The clamouring shapes of things, the lovely roar of London talking and walking and wheeling past – the horses’ footfalls, ragwomen, Oranges, 2 a penny, pot-repairmen, costers with their wheel- and donkey-barrows, Buy a pound of crab, cheap, voices rising up from all over the world…”
Hemi spends his days standing on a plinth, in his role as a “living Maori boy”, observing all manner of London society. At night, he explores the wrong side of London with his friends Billy and Henry. The three view the city “with as much fascination as a child at a magic-lantern show.” Billy becomes a catalyst for revelations about Hemi’s sexuality, while Henry is, in fact, a woman dressing as a man in order to survive in London without having to resort to prostitution.
Hemi’s passion for storytelling pulls us along with an affecting optimism. Makereti has created a character that we learn from instead of pity. He’s a natural storyteller, charming and enthused to engage his listeners or readers from wherever they encounter his tale. And this is what makes this novel so compelling – the voice of our hero transcends his immediate surroundings and asks big questions of contemporary society. Has humankind become more enlightened, or any kinder? Is the colonial period really over? How do we treat indigenous culture, how is it displayed, learned from, engaged with and viewed? Are all voices heard and all stories able to be told?
Makereti deftly makes history speak to the future and manages to provoke discussion about women’s suffrage, LGBTQ+ equality, the damage and trauma of colonialism, and the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) through the journey of a 16-year-old boy and his ragtag bunch of mates.
This is historical fiction at its truthful best. Hemi’s curiosity box is filled with the bizarre rituals of Victorians, the hidden lights of a London street at night, life aboard a ship and its brutal hierarchies, Dickensian friends, and taonga from home.
His relationship with The Artist, meanwhile, is subtle and profound. At first, The Artist is an inspiration, a source of momentum and opportunity. But gradually the important capitals fall away and he’s simply a man, a son, a struggle. It’s actually Hemi who is the true artist: he’s a writer, an orator, a philosopher too.
The final pages of the novel capture and deliver his message to the future as he issues it from his sick bed, uncertain of whether he’ll live past his teenage years. The unfailing quality of his imagination allows him to have high hopes for humanity and his vision for us conjures a challenge to all. Makereti has created a character to live and work by – if he could only see us now.
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti (Vintage, $38) is available at Unity Books.