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BooksMarch 17, 2024

Seven objects that inspired The Space Between

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Author Lauren Keenan (Te Āti Awa ki Taranaki) on what went into the writing of a new historical novel set amid the New Zealand Wars.

History is everywhere. Sure, it doesn’t always feel that way, not when we look around at our motorways, synthetic fabrics and suburban jungles. Not to mention technology that would have made our forebearers wonder if they’d accidentally wandered into a strange dream: one filled with instant music, bizarre linguistic shorthand and cute cat pictures. Technology that, it seems, makes life both easier and more complicated all at once. 

Yet old objects so often remain in the world, long after those who originally used them are gone. Other things are more modern, but inspired by people and events from before your ancestors had ever seen a flushing toilet. And it was a few of these object that inspired me to write my first historical fiction novel, The Space Between

A spiral-bound document 

Like so many Te Ātiawa, I grew up in the shadow of a loss that occurred many generations before I was born. What was known as “the claim” in our whānau – attempts to seek redress for historical confiscations – became a defining feature of who we were for over 20 years. As a kid, I didn’t pay too much attention. “The claim” was grown-up stuff, like drinking coffee and staying awake after Goodnight Kiwi had snuggled up in his television satellite. However, when I was in my late teens, I came across a spiral-bound document of transcribed evidence heard by the Waitangi Tribunal about the Taranaki claim in April 1991 – the very hearing I’d heard my family members talking about all those years earlier. The evidence contained within later formed the basis of my Master of Arts thesis. And, while knee-deep in historical scholarship, I also couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there could be another medium to capture the essence of these stories: historical fiction. 

A memorial plaque 

I once found myself in the North England city of York for their yearly Viking festival. Why? Because it sounded cool. And, cool it was – as in, freezing. We ended up inside the warmth of York Minster cathedral, a giant church so epic no photos could possibly do it justice. So much history! So much beauty! But inside the cathedral, up on one wall, was a plaque that stopped me in my tracks: a golden commemoration to men of the 65th (North Yorkshire) regiment who had fought and died during the New Zealand Wars. This was the very same regiment that had fought Te Ātiawa in 1860. It had never previously occurred to me to wonder who those men actually were – before seeing the plaque they were nothing but nameless, faceless baddies. I decided to read more about these men, which laid the foundations in my mind for what later became a novel. 

Inside York Minster (Photo: Mattana, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A corset 

Wearing a corset was the sort of thing I thought would be good for a laugh. And, by “wear”, I always meant putting it on properly – no decorative bodice for me, thank you very much. I was talking tight-ties and tiny-waisted corsetry, in manner of a Victorian lady. So, I did put one on, under a 1890s leg-o-mutton blouse and skirt for a dress-up event. Sure, I’d heard the stories about the perils of shrinking one’s waist: shortness of breath; compression of organs; struggles with digestion. Apparently, over time, corsets could also create back problems and various other deformities. Eek! I couldn’t breathe deeply, and, because of that, couldn’t move quickly either. I felt restricted, both  physically and mentally, because everything felt further away and harder to reach. Ever since, I have been so much more curious about the women who wore such a thing every day yet still managed to go about their lives. It made me respect them all the more, and fuelled the fire I’ve always had about wanting to tell their stories. And, I suppose, wearing a corset was good for a laugh in the end. Just a breathless, shallow laugh while feeling like my innards were being trampled by a herd of elephants. 

A pair of genuine historical lady underthings 

Of course, my leg-o-mutton historical dress and corset combo required proper historical underthings. They were made of stiff white cotton and were apparently the genuine article – or so promised my best friend, who had procured them from God only knows where. I certainly can’t have imagined them being sold in Bendon or the Farmers underwear department, that’s for sure. Imagine giant puffy trousers that pinch your ankle, tie at the waist, and mildly resemble clown plants. Oh, and have no crotch whatsoever, because they weren’t easy to remove, and one must continue to do one’s business, amiright? 

You know that feeling you get sometimes at night when you have accidentally made a sheet-burrito with yourself as the filling, and wake in a tangle of blankets? It was like that – all day. And wearing those obscene things, combined with the corset, made me think of the women of yesteryear. Both for the reasons I mention above in the corset section, but also because, when your clothes aren’t comfortable, life is harder. It also got me wondering about my Te Ātiawa tūpuna who would have been raised in much more comfortable attire, and found themselves living in a world where crotchless cotton clown pants and corsets were considered to be modest when their own traditional garments were not. I wanted to explore this idea a little more in my novel (noting, however, that I did this while writing from the privileged position of being a 21st century woman wearing Athleisure.)  

Author Lauren Keenan (right) with her brilliant new novel, inspired by history.

A balloon-back chair with feet that look like dog paws 

Every now and again I see something so ridiculous, I just have to add it in a book. Without giving any spoilers, I did just that. 

A patu 

Have you ever seen a patu (the traditional Māori weapon) up close? If you have, you’d be familiar with how they are cleverly carved to inflict maximum injury during battle. A kaumatua once told me exactly where and how it ought to be used to crack a person’s ribs – a mental image I can never unsee. All I can say is that those men memorialised in York Minster Cathedral wouldn’t have known what had hit them. 

Some paper 

In this case, some important paper. In 2014, I was lucky to join my aunt, Wikitoria Keenan (a Te Ātiawa negotiator) for the June 2014 initialing of the Te Ātiawa Deed of Settlement in parliament. She died a few months later, so never saw the legislation pass in parliament. The Te Ātiawa Claims Settlement Act 2016, now enshrined in legislation, contains the following words: “The Crown unreservedly apologises for its actions during the Taranaki Wars which resulted in the destruction of Te Ātiawa property, hardship, and the loss of life of your people.” Underneath these words sit so many layers of feeling – a tangled knot of complicated emotions – some of which I channeled into writing this book. At the start, this was a means to unpick things within myself. But, eventually, it was this feeling, along with all of those other fragmented thoughts triggered by objects from the past, that morphed into something that others would hopefully want to read as well. 

 The Space Between by Lauren Keenan (Penguin, $37) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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