We conclude our week-long examination of the poet James K Baxter, and a new book of his letters, with an essay by the poet’s great-grandson Jack McDonald about his Nana, Baxter’s wife, the author and Māori leader Jacquie Sturm.
“I was minding a four-year-old great-grandson, and we went down to the beach. We made a castle and we made a cave in the castle and we had banners, gates and tunnels – I’m making it sound better than it was. But I’m saying this is what we were doing in our heads. The reality was much smaller, simpler arrangement. But at the end it was finished, and it was time to go home and he said, ‘Nana, will this be here tomorrow? If we come back tomorrow, will it be here?’ Because he asked me, I think he knew it wasn’t going to be. I said, ‘No, it won’t be’. ‘Why won’t it be Nana?’ I said, ‘Well, someone might knock it down, the wind might blow it away, or the sea will come and wash it away.’ He said, ‘No, Nana, no! I know the sea won’t come and wash it away.’ I said, ‘But the tide’s coming in, and then the tide will go out.’ He said, ‘No, Nana. The tide is not coming in today, I heard it on the news.'” Jacqueline Cecelia Sturm, 1997.
I am that mokopuna.
When I was young my dad worked full time as a librarian and my mum studied te reo Māori as an adult student at high school, and later university. While I have memories of being with my dad in his office, and of sitting in one of my mum’s te reo Māori lectures fascinated by what was going on, I was often left in the care of my grandmothers, both Nana and also my dearly loved Granny, my dad’s mother, Patricia McDonald.
When I found this quote in the transcript of an interview with Heeni Collins in 1997, during research I’ve been doing on my Nana in recent months, I was vividly shot back to my childhood with her; it felt like I could actually remember that conversation.
What I definitely do remember, was always being at the beach with Nana. She taught me to swim, and sternly told me “never swim out to sea, only swim across in line with the beach.” I paid the price for not heeding her advice when I was older (and not with her), when I swam out too far, got caught in a rip, and nearly drowned.
From the earliest of ages, I received my most valuable education from her. Without me realising at the time, she instilled in me huge amounts of knowledge. My family and friends have always called me an old soul, but how could I not be when I grew up around my grandmothers and their friends talking about literature, art, classical music, politics, and their exotic travels around the world? I mean, my comfort blanket as a toddler, affectionately known as “woolly”, was knitted by Janet Frame. She and Nana were best friends from when they first met in Dunedin in the 1950s.
I always knew my whakapapa, and was proud to be a descendant of people who had shaped New Zealand history. Growing up, everyone above a certain age would tell me their individual story or opinion of my great-grandfather, James K Baxter.
In recent years when I worked as an advisor at Parliament, I met Chris Finlayson in a meeting that was supposed to be about a particular issue the Greens had with Treaty settlements. A great deal of our precious time with the Minister was spent with him fondly recalling his memories of Baxter running down Lambton Quay barefoot, and my Nana in the New Zealand Room at the Wellington Public Library, where she worked for many years.
I grew up during the time when Nana’s literary career was at its peak; and she was fully liberated to write. Earlier in 1983 the Spiral Collective had published her seminal House of the Talking Cat collection of short stories. She followed that with two collections of poems, Dedications and Postscripts and a collection of both short stories and poems, The Glass House.
I was so proud to attend her capping ceremony when she was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Victoria University. And I was honoured to be asked by Nana to read a poem at the launch of the The Glass House at Paraparaumu Library in 2006.
She helped inspire my politics, when as a whānau in 2004 we marched through Wellington on the foreshore and seabed hīkoi in opposition to a Government she would usually support. It was probably one of the only demonstrations she ever went on.
Jacquie Baxter wasn’t just a renowned writer and academic, a historical figure I’d never met, she was my Nana.
She was one of the most defining influences on my early life. And there is no one I look up to more than her.
This week James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet was released by Victoria University Press, a huge two-volume collection covering 1939-1972. It’s edited by John Weir, who compiled the earlier Collected Poems and Complete Prose.
Our whānau have always had to deal with some of our family history being out in the public domain. But there’s something very different about this – the publication of Baxter’s letters gives considerable insight into his private life and therefore our whānau.
The Letters cast light on the deeply patriarchal and misogynistic reality that Nana lived, and give more context to her work, particularly her early short stories in The House of the Talking Cat.
I first started learning about just how hard my Nana’s life was when she went into hospital for heart problems while I was teenager. Her elder sister Evadne was down to visit, and as her and I walked around the hospital gardens I remember she told me how Nana would find out about Baxter’s illegitimate children in the press.
But it wasn’t until late last year, with the publication of the Letters imminent, that I had any clue of just how hard it really was. Any idea of the pain she lived through.
His first-hand accounts of his behaviour as a rapist in his marriage are sickening and have deeply affected me on an emotional level. As I was flicking through the Letters this week I couldn’t get far without having to put the book down again. I believe that Nana would never have wanted these brutal details made public.
There’s no doubt they were different times. As Weir notes, there was “a social pattern of patriarchal society and a convention of ‘rights and duties’ in marriage”, and many women of the time suffered similarly and worse, and some still do. It will shock many, as it did me, that marital rape was not criminalised in this country until 1985.
But rape is rape. It wasn’t acceptable then, or now. The Letters confirm Baxter as a deeply sexist and patriarchal figure, which can now no longer be ignored or brushed off in deference to his reputation or his literature. As well as that, they contribute to a one-sided portrayal of his relationship with Nana. Her voice remains silent, as others attempt to define her and their marriage.
In the years since his death in 1972, there have been numerous biographies, poetry and prose collections, eulogies and tributes to Baxter, many of them written by his close friends and associates.
Nana’s life story has not been comprehensively told.
Some of these Baxter scholars, have portrayed Nana subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, as the bitter grieving widow, or a biased literary executor, or that their initial separation was her fault because she couldn’t accept his conversion to Catholicism.
This has distorted the truth.
She never revealed his worst qualities or sought to damage his reputation, and after his death she painstakingly worked over decades to publish all of his work, including the love poems about other women – all of it. Their first separation was due to a loss of trust, which was only in part a result of his secretly taking instruction as a Catholic.
In his introduction to Letters of a Poet John Weir suggests that Nana may have destroyed some letters from her husband. There is no evidence for this and I very much doubt it is correct. She kept his letters from after he left for Jerusalem, so why would she dispose of earlier ones? It’s far more likely that Baxter saw no need to write to someone in the same house.
While in recent times she has received a lot more credit for her own work, she is very rarely credited for what she gave him.
People have often seen Baxter as our whānau connection to Te Ao Māori.
Weir also states “Hemi was Pākehā-Māori”. While this claim is not without merit, in my view it doesn’t really hold up. His community at Jerusalem among the Ngāti Hau people was a genuine, and one of the earliest, attempt at Pākehā living in Te Ao Māori in modern New Zealand.
He was a radical, was good friends with Syd and Hana Jackson and was with them at the first Waitangi protest in 1971, one of the only Pākehā. They and Ngā Tamatoa would later honour him by transporting his tūpāpaku, Nana, and our whānau to his tangihanga in Hiruharama from Auckland.
Rev Māori Marsden once said that “only a few foreigners alien to a culture, men like James K Baxter with the soul of a poet, can enter the existential dimension of Maori life”. But he also was only active in Māori communities for a relatively short time, his use of te reo and tikanga Māori was often wrong and terribly appropriative, and his letters prove he claimed far greater knowledge than he had.
What is usually lost is that it was Nana who was his connection to the Māori world.
As Paul Millar, the best of the Baxter scholars, succinctly puts it, “perhaps the greatest irony of Jim’s final years is that to many he came to represent Māoritanga more strongly than Jacquie”. The reality is that Nana had introduced Baxter to everything he knew about Māoritanga. She was “the Māori heart at the centre of the Baxter household that had been beating strongly since the 1950s”.
In the 1950s Nana joined Ngāti Pōneke cultural club in its early years. In her words she “just wanted to learn the action songs”, an early and pivotal point in her embrace of her Māoritanga.
She was soon more heavily involved, and also joined the Māori Women’s Welfare League. As a university-educated Māori woman, she was asked to be Secretary of the Wellington branch. When Mira Szászy was due to retire as the League’s representative on the Māori Education Foundation she asked Nana to replace her. She held this role for many years.
Nana would occasionally take Baxter along to Ngāti Pōneke practices and it was his first real exposure to Māoritanga. But as Nana would tell Heeni Collins years later “he wasn’t ready for it yet”.
“Jim getting involved in Māori things later on at Jerusalem? I felt quite bitter about that because he didn’t try like that when he was with me. And I thought for all those years he lived with a Māori, if he wanted to become more involved, he could have.”
Nana’s literary career was not only overshadowed by Baxter, so was her Māoritanga.
Nana was born Te Kare Jack Papuni on 17 May 1927 at Ōpunake in Taranaki. She was a descendant of rangatira lines; on her father’s side, Te Whakatōhea from Ōpōtiki Mai Tawhiti, and on her mother’s side, Taranaki Iwi, Te Pakakohi and Te Ātiawa.
Her mother died as result of her birth, and it was agreed her elder sister Evadne would go with their father back to Ōpotiki, while their Taranaki grandmother Moewaka Tautokai would keep Te Kare. Four or five years later her kuia fell ill and fearing that she would die, arranged for the local Sturm whānau to adopt her, and she took the name Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm.
She was identified at Napier Girls High School by Bishop Manuhia Bennett as a future Māori leader. She would go on to medical school in Otago in 1945, later shifting to anthropology which she completed her undergraduate degree in.
On her first day of anthropology, she went and sat at a desk at the back of the lecture theatre. “Whose initials should I see carved into the desk, whose name, Te Rangihiroa, Sir Peter Buck! So that spurred me on a bit. To think someone Māori had been there before me and how well he had done! … it turned out to be my best subject.”
When I found this quote I imagined Nana’s pride and her youthful excited face as she looked down and saw the name of a Taranaki Māori trailblazer who had been there before her.
But it also gave some small insight into what the loneliness of being one of the only Māori students on campus must have been like. Inspiration was to be found not in what was taught, or what was happening on campus, but in the desk graffiti of the first cohort of Māori students who had been there more than 50 years before.
She would go on to complete a dissertation on the national character of literature which was commended with exceptional merit and she was awarded an MA in Philosophy with first-class honours. She is thought to be one of the first Māori women to have graduated with a master’s degree, following earlier wāhine such as Bessie Te Wenerau Grace.
From her early years at Otago she had work published, and she was one of the first Māori women to have literature in English published.
Last week I spoke before Te Whare Rūnanga at Waitangi on behalf of the Green Party about how in 1940, on the 100th anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti, Sir Apirana Ngata spoke in the same place on behalf of te iwi Māori, about how “the power of the chiefs has been humbled in the dust” and that “Māori culture” was “scattered, broke”.
There had been some demographic recovery, but the prospects for the survival of Te Ao Māori was still not assured.
In 1949, he famously wrote in a young student’s autograph book:
Ko tō ringa ki ngā rākau ā te Pakeha
Hei ara mō tō tinana
Ko tō ngākau ki ngā tāonga a ō tīpuna Māori
Hei tikitiki mō tō māhuna
Your hands to the tools of the Pakeha to provide physical sustenance
Your heart to the treasures of your Māori ancestors as a diadem for your brow
The kōrero encapsulates the essence of a generation of tangata whenua.
While she hadn’t heard Ngata’s kōrero at the time, my grandmother was of that generation of humble and fiercely resilient Māori, often wāhine Māori, leaders who bridged the gap between the first and second Māori renaissance.
Following the leadership of pioneers such as Ngata and her idol Buck, they enabled the extraordinary revival of her children and grandchildren’s generations.
She directly contributed to that through her literature, academic work and service to urban Māori organisations. But for much of her life she was very private about her Māoritanga, and perhaps her greatest contribution was keeping Māoritanga alive in her whānau and mokopuna.
In 1968, the year before Baxter left for Jerusalem, she adopted her new-born granddaughter, my mum Stephanie, and got a job to provide for her and the rest of the whānau.
She remained a pillar of strength, held our whānau together, and was there to support any of us with whatever it was we needed. In our urban setting she grounded us in our whakapapa and culture. We knew who we were. It didn’t matter if others didn’t.
She was, and still is, our matriarch. As she said in her own words: “It is probably a bit unorthodox to say this, but my whānau, in a way, is my iwi. My whānau is my iwi. So my friends are my mokopuna. Yes, there is one place where I will try to meet the expectations of others – I did it yesterday and I will do it again tomorrow. And that is from my mokopuna.”
Without her generation our culture and communities wouldn’t have survived. Without her, our whānau, Te Whānau o Te Kare, would not have survived. And like so many of that generation, her story still needs to be told.
I intend to tell it.
James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet edited by John Weir (Victoria University Press, $100) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.