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Image: Tina Tiller
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BooksFebruary 25, 2024

An impressive debut that gets under the skin: a review of Checkerboard Hill by Jade Kake

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Natasha Lampard reviews the debut novel by Jade Kake.

In the olden days, back in the early 1990’s – before the internet got real big and the cellphones got real small – I whiled away many an hour at Upper Hutt’s Maidstone Mall with my gal-pals. There, we talked and walked and lolled and grazed and engaged in close study of boys and their doings, and of items that might now be considered antiquities such as cassette tapes and CDs at Whizz Records, and in London Bookshop: Dolly, Girlfriend and Cosmopolitan magazines. At one store – the name of which escapes me – we would stand at length, titling our heads and squinting our eyes in front of the many Magic Eye prints that adorned the walls. Apparently, so the google machine says, some folks know these as “autostereograms”. We would look hard at these prints in order to try to spot the illusive image hidden within the image. We’d step forward and step back an almost do-si-do, and we’d cross our eyes but not completely, all in the hope of catching sight, even just a glimpse, of what was not just directly in front of us, but of what lay beyond

Checkerboard Hill is the debut novel of Whangārei-based architectural designer, AUT lecturer and writer Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi – Ngāti Hau me Te Parawhau, Te Whakatōhea and Te Arawa). Born out of the author’s time in Te Papa Tupu, the coveted incubator for emerging kaituhi Māori run by the Māori Literature Trust, it is Kake’s first fiction release, but her second book to come out this past year – the first being her collaboration with Jeremy Hansen, Rewi: Ata haere, kia tere.

Kake’s other recent release, written with Jeremy Hansen, Rewi: Ata haere, kia tere. (Image: Tina Tiller)

The book begins here in Aotearoa, home to its protagonist, Ria – an Australian-born Māori artist who lives with son Ari, and husband James. From the story’s get-go, we are immersed in a continual stream of granular sensory description – of bodies of land, of water, of sky; of colour, shape, motion. We see the world with the keenness and immediacy of an artist’s eye. Vaughan Rapatahana wrote that Kake paints her novel, as much as she pens it. He’s bang on.

In their progression, these vivid descriptions affect in a bodily kind of way. The book has its own microclimate: I felt the scorch of bare feet on hot pavement; the sweat on the brow, the prickling of skin as cool night descends; I got the heat, the dust, the eddying winds, the squelch of grass wet with dew. And I felt the burn of the heated words and cold shoulders. The extremes and the extremities. 

Despite the cinematic specificity and its abundance, there is however a creeping feeling of obfuscation. Autostereogrammatic, if you will. There seems to be something beyond what we’re presented with. Of the visceral detail of the surroundings, of her own physicality – we have much. But of Ria’s emotional landscape? We have little.

When we meet Ria, she’s running. She runs a lot, up hills and down valleys, in places she shouldn’t be, ignoring the signs, running till she hurts. She runs to keep from thinking about what she has run and continues to run from, thoughts that hurt even more than that burn in the lungs and the burn in the legs. While we see so much up close, she keeps us at a distance: she’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. So while the descriptions are bodily, there is also a sense of disembodiment. And it all serves as avoidance. As distraction. Distracting her. Distracting us. We’re looking deeply at things, so as to not look deeply at her. She does not want us to see what lies beyond. 

Ka mutu, despite the intensity of her own observation, the keenness of her noticing, she is paradoxically unable to face things, to look at certain things and certain people. She “steals glances”.  Even of her doting husband, “she dares not look at him directly”. Nor does she want to be looked upon by others, “what does he see there? What dim shapes rise to the surface? He stares at her for a moment too long. She squirms and he looks away.” And thus, juxtaposing the sharp focus of her artist’s eye, she herself is out of focus. The story is centred around her yet she seems off-centre; off-kilter; a rock, an island. While set here and “across the ditch”, so much of Ria’s story takes place in a liminal space. She is an obscure presence in the home: apart, aloof, often abrupt. ”It’s unfair, their casual ease with each other”, she says of her husband and child. She seems neither fully actualised nor fully present: “The carved taiaha James received for his twenty-first birthday. A kete woven by James’s sister. A heru that belonged to James’s grandmother. A prized piece of pounamu gifted to Ari by James’s whānau. A piece of whalebone—half-carved, unfinished, unfinished, inherited from her koro—is Ria’s sole contribution, and the taonga feels lonely, out of place.” 

And so it goes for much of the first half of the book: this sense of disquieting separation, of her being both wound tight, and unravelled, ungrounded. Of obscurity. She is hidden, hiding, amongst the multi-coloured, mesmerising images, much like those Magic Eyes of my youth. Somewhere beyond. 

Jade Kake (Photo: Supplied)

“She’s a person without a past, bleached clean like coral.”

“Her mind is bleached clean, clear and bright.”

In the Māori Dictionary, one translation of whakamā is to whiten, to make white. Another definition offers that the kupu whakamā, comprises “white” and “clean”, and together literally means to be whitened clean; to be bleached. I grew up with both cultural disconnect and with bleach. My mum’s signature scent was Janola. Our ties to our iwi, our hapū, our marae, were long severed. I often consider the above definitions in the context of assimilation. 

In her piece Bone Shame, Anahera Gildea wrote that the “English word for shame is about self-stigmatisation, about humiliation, but in Māori, the word whakamā is different. It is a collective shame, where you realise that you have made choices that have separated you from the collective. And you have become visible to that collective because you are outside of it. Like in a corridor of a hospital. Like on an island. This surely is what it means to be lost.

She adds that the definition of shame in te reo Pākehā that seems to resonate most with whakamā, is from psychologist Jeffrey Kauffman: “shame is a pervasive feature of the human response to death and other loss…. Shame prompts disconnection; and disconnection is, itself, experienced as shameful.”

It is beyond our shores that so much of this story takes place: in Te Ao Moemoea, The Land of the Dreaming – Australia. In the hometown Ria left as a teenager, with the family from whom she is estranged. Having received news of the death of a whānau member, it is a forced and fraught return to her birthplace. 

Among so many threads woven together, Kake deftly weaves and prompts whakaaro on indigeneity in the diaspora. Recent figures say that over 170,000 – one in five – Māori now live in Australia. It is where the author herself was born. If we, as an indigenous people, are living on the land of another, it is the case for many that there is a certain sensitivity to empire, to continued acts of colonisation as well as to the insidious nature of racism affecting any marginalised group, not just that to which we belong. Racism looms throughout the story, in the overt and the casual – in ways glaringly subtle and subtlety glaring, it is always near the surface. And like instances of racism, some readers may feel this acutely, unmistakably; others may not feel or see it much at all, the privilege of racism being that for some, it’s a purely theoretical phenomenon. 

We are all products of our environments. Of intergenerational knowledge transfer. And in some cases, of intergenerational cultural disconnect. The ways of our language; our traditions; our stories; our lands and waters and all the many creatures we share it with. Our songs and poems and our spirituality and art; our protocols and values – our tikanga. All things we uphold and hold dear – how do we learn these if we are not where that knowledge is known and taught? If bonds have been severed? If those from whom you learn did not have a chance to learn it themselves? 

In our pepeha, we speak of those from whom we descend. We recite the names of our māmā, our mātua, our maunga, our awa and iwi. Many of us may use the possessive pronoun “tōku” – ie ‘o category’ – denoting the speaker is in a subordinate position to that being spoken of: we sit in deference to our ancestors, be their bodily form, human or land. We are tangata whenua, people indelibly linked to the land, from which we take strength, our sense of self, of place, of meaning. So what does it mean for tangata whenua to be born not on the whenua of our tīpuna? What does it mean to be indigenous on the land of another indigenous people, one whose whenua was never ceded. 

“What if we think about the Māori diaspora as the kite flying?….I would think about the idea of distance and closeness and how the manu aute, despite its distance, its trajectory and its ability to move is shaped by its relationship to the ground, and who is holding on to it, and the strength of the rope.” (Alice Te Punga Somerville, RNZ )

For that manu aute to fly, the line must be strong and must be held tight; both ends must be connected. It is that connection which is the fundamental essence of home, which is the fundamental essence of who we are. 

It ends well, you know. There is, at a certain point, an altering. A change in tempo; a whakatau: the pace both picks up and settles; there’s a thawing and warming of what was frozen. Out of the truth comes tenderness, transformation. What’s that James Baldwin quote? “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And she does: face it, I mean. Ria wills herself to not look away at the most difficult of times, and in her ability to do so, “…her own face looks back at her” – she sees herself, whole, actualised, for the first time. The pervading unease has dissipated, and those ties that connect and bind us, once fragile and frayed, are rewoven strong. 

Checkerboard Hill is an impressive debut that gets under the skin, and only gets better and better in the re-read. I love the untranslated reo and its increase as Ria becomes more defined, more whole. I appreciate the trust the author puts in the reader: that if we don’t know the kupu, we’re capable of finding out. 

This is a story like an onion – many-layered, and able to make you cry – by an author of great talent and vast breadth. I can not wait to read more of Kake’s work. Her voice is wise, her perspective astute and rooted in a deep and profound understanding – much needed in this world right now – of home, of whānau, of the collective, of forgiveness, and of our ability to transform and transcend, beyond shame, beyond trauma, beyond, beyond, so we too, like the manu aute, can be both grounded, and able to soar. 

Checkerboard Hill by Jade Kake (Huia Publishers, $35) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Jade Kake is speaking about her novel at the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ writers programme on Saturday 24 Feb. Kake is also speaking about Rewi on 24 Feb at the same festival.

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