Ali Ikram’s picaresque account of his assignment to interview Keri Hulme.
Volume two of Tell You What, the new compendium of New Zealand non-fiction writing selected by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, and published by Auckland University Press, features the usual suspects – Naomi Arnold, Ashleigh Young, Steve Braunias, and other assorted experienced litterateurs. There’s Elizabeth Knox. There’s Giovanni Tiso. There’s John Campbell, being uncharacteristically enthusiastic and generous with his praise in the introduction.
There’s also a stand-out piece by Ali Ikram, the former TV funnyman – TV3’s version of TVNZ’s Tim Wilson, that sort of thing – who in recent months has reinvented himself as an admirable writer and columnist with a beautifully modulated voice.
His inclusion in Tell You What was originally published on The Ruminator, and charmingly tells the non-story of his brief encounter with Keri Hulme.
Out beyond the headland, the strait is grey-black. The rolling swell hits the bow of the ferry, each time producing a towering cascade of salt water. The Santa Regina is nearing the end of her service life. A steady ship – ideal for traversing back and forth between Wellington and Picton. This is mild. It gets much worse. Sometimes you can’t stand up. ‘I’ve seen three hundred people all lying on the floor clutching sick bags,’ the woman from the ferry company’s marketing department says. The words offer only a mild form of reassurance. Either way, I would still quite like to vomit. I turn off my microphone, retreat to the bridge’s small office and begin clearing a box of paper in preparation. A series of folk cures are offered including sucking an ice cube, all to no avail.
Tangaroa, the sea, is not my element, though my travelling companion on this northward odyssey is quite taken with it. Keri Hulme lives six months of the year by the ocean at Ōkārito on the West Coast in an octagonal house; the rest of the year she is based in Ōamaru to be close to her mother. A fifth of a life spent watching the Tasman roll in. That is, if it’s not between September and mid-November, when the 67-year-old will be in the surf holding a long-handled net scooping up inspiration. For whitebait holds a cherished place in her oeuvre: the thousands of juvenile galaxiids are a wriggling, translucent, ink-eyed muse.
An hour below decks honking your stomach contents into small bags in a ferry cafeteria reserved for long-haul truck drivers gives you time to think. Between the violent convulsions, there is an impossible stillness as unexpectedly sudden as the bile. Enough time to wonder – if this isn’t your element, what is?
‘Keri says this is going to be her last public appearance and her last TV interview. It’s a major. I think it would be great for John Campbell to do it. It really requires someone of his stature. I think Keri would feel better about doing it if he was involved,’ said the book festival publicist. Unfortunately – for everyone – he was not available and so the task fell to me. Two days prior to the blighted crossing I had thrust the copy of the bone people purchased at the university bookshop at Canterbury 20 years ago into my pack and boarded a flight from Auckland to Christchurch. There I was joined by camera operator Jabulani Ndebele for the drive south to Ōamaru. Keri Hulme does not travel by plane; she does not fear flying, but avoids this mode of transport because of lung infections picked up mid-air. The idea was that we would accompany her on parts of the 1324-kilometre journey by land and sea to attend the 2014 Auckland Writer’s Festival, while interviewing her along the way.
‘You have been recognised by one of the staff behind the bar,’ said the waitress at Robbie’s Bar and Bistro in Ashburton, where Jabulani and I had broken the drive south to have dinner. ‘Can you please sign the menu?’ Now it hangs next to a picture of my beaming face, beside other luminaries who have passed through town and stopped there, including the World Champions of Robotic Milking. ‘Going to Oamaru to interview Keri Hulme,’ I wrote next to the signature, hoping it might prop up any claim to notoriety. ‘Who is she?’ enquired the waitress.
That night when we pulled into Ōamaru, the grand limestone buildings glistened like teeth, white and wet. Little blue penguins scuttled away from our headlights as the car drove over the cobbles in the historic quarter. In many ways, my journalism career had begun on the main street, with a horrendous two-week secondment to the local paper. It all started promisingly with the front-page lead on an accident with a hedge-trimming machine which flung a large macrocarpa branch through a family’s front window. A photo of the lank-haired son holding the offending chunk of wood and looking mournful heralded my arrival as a coming man. But my later mishandling of another big story (on the opening of a second-hand electronic goods store) led the editor to dub the fortnight a bit of a disaster. ‘Normally, when students do work experience with us we take their names and call them if a job comes up. I don’t know whether we should do that with you,’ said the paper’s manager. ‘It will be interesting to see where you turn up,’ were his words in parting.
Fifteen years later, I had returned.
Television is my element, if it may be classed as one. It is highly unnatural, though. Neither water, air, fire nor earth, but as ubiquitous – a layer superimposed on the physical world. We take existence, cut out the pauses, stillness, and frequent boredom, and sell advertising in the spaces left behind. It is easy to forget how turbulent this flow of life can be until it mingles with another more rarefied current.
So it was on a Wednesday morning in Ōamaru, I – a denizen of this fallen world – came face to face with a true artist. So bold and uncompromising is Hulme’s vision that the author took sixteen years to write her first novel and so far three decades completing the next. The yeti has made more media appearances.
If you are going to conduct a rare interview with a notoriously reclusive famously cantankerous writer my advice is: don’t be late. And, if you are late: don’t be 16 minutes late. There was a legitimate excuse. The railway crossing in Ōamaru had malfunctioned, causing a traffic jam that we eventually avoided only by driving on the wrong side of the road around the barrier arm while I stood on the tracks watching for signs of an oncoming train. The excuse, however, cut no ice.
When I arrived on the doorstep, one I had travelled quite a long way to stand on, I felt as dejected, lost and initially unwelcome as Simon Gillayley, the mute, tousled boy who washes up at the tower of one Kerewin Holmes in the author’s magnum opus. The door was thrown open by an unseen hand to reveal Hulme on the phone, remonstrating with the director of the writer’s festival, adamant the interview with me was not going to happen. ‘She’s pissed off,’ observed Jabulani as Hulme stormed up the garden path towards the road where she carried on loading her van. In her defence, the writer did say she had emailed the festival to cancel the interview the night before. Perhaps the message hadn’t made it through, or perhaps the wheels were so well in motion by that stage it was thought best just to allow us to work it out face to face. It is beyond question that we were late, and because of her poor eyesight Hulme must drive during the hours of daylight, which would have added to the anxiety caused by our tardiness. Either way, psychically, I rolled into a ball and began deodorising the air with an apology every ten seconds.
Then Keri stopped dead – it felt like a final line was about to be delivered, before we were left standing on a damp pavement watching the van drive away. ‘Do you realise you have arrived among a family of cannibals?’ she demanded. ‘We were famous for eating each other during feuds!’
We all have ancestors squatting on our shoulders and in that moment of challenge I felt one of mine stirring. It was my late paternal grandmother, a Rajput from the warlike clans of northern India. ‘Come home with your opponent on your shield or dead on your opponent’s shield,’ was the way their women would farewell their men in wartime, and when the battle was lost those men would take off their armour and charge to meet death wearing only saffron shirts, and those women would throw themselves from the battlements.
‘Well,’ I replied. ‘I am Pakistani, and we know a thing or two about feuds. A relative once spilled acid on my grandmother’s face during a feud over money. She spent years undergoing plastic surgery – when the science was in its infancy – to restore her appearance. This was after she killed a cobra with the single blow of a broom.’ Perhaps it was thanks to this tale of a formidable matriarch, but somehow I found myself in the van with the author and we were on our way.
From the doorstep, as Keri had paced about, I caught a glimpse of her own mother in the background. Mary is one of the unsung heroes of New Zealand literature. She raised six children alone after her husband died when Keri, the eldest, was aged eleven. Mary refused to believe there was anything wrong with her child when teachers judged Keri to have a learning disability; indeed, the problem was an inability to read the blackboard due to problems seeing it. Mary nurtured her daughter, who was obviously different – as a 12-year-old, retreating to bed to read Kipling with a candle under the blanket. Mary was the only person allowed to suggest changes to the bone people after it had been rejected by every publisher in Australasia. When Keri won the Booker Prize, she sent the cheque to Mary. And it is Mary who has been promised that Bait, the long-awaited manuscript, will be finished by the end of the whitebaiting season.
It is a little-known fact that before becoming the country’s best-known literary recluse, Keri was a director on Country Calendar. So she is well versed in the technical requirements of a TV crew. Even accounting for this, and the thaw in relations, interviewing her was a cross-country scramble. Jabulani managed to mount a GoPro on the dashboard at the petrol station in Ōamaru, but before he could strap his camera into the back seat to record the audio of our conversation, she drove off with only me on board. I had to do my best to capture what was said on a cellphone. At one point Hulme explained that the reason she did not pursue a longer career in television came down to the fact she found many of the people involved in making it to be fake. Only by Waimate did she remain stationary long enough for us to be wired for sound.
In Timaru, we parted company, the first leg of the journey complete, with a plan to meet again the next day in Picton before boarding the ferry. I had asked to be dropped off in Christchurch, but Keri is reluctant to go back to her home town after the earthquakes. I unburdened myself to my producer, Pip Keane, who consoled me that at least it went better than when John Sellwood interviewed Janet Frame: ‘At first she wouldn’t let him in the house and spoke through a crack in the door.’ In fact, Frame wouldn’t come out till John played the bagpipes outside her window. But such an initial reception from a brilliant loner doesn’t mean they don’t like you. John ended up playing the pipes again, this time at the literary great’s funeral. A character in her final scene.
The next morning a panicked call came through from the festival publicist asking if I knew where the great author was, as that night she had not slept in the Picton hotel the festival organisers had arranged. The news that Keri Hulme had been spotted at a fish and chip shop in town prompted jubilation. Good camera operators have a set of instincts that are honed around the timely delivery of a quality finished product. On news of the sighting Jabulani erected his tripod down the other end of the street from the chippie and set the camera to a long lens. The question: would our unpredictable subject cooperate today, or would the only thing we salvaged be the blurry sequence of a Booker Prize winner striding purposefully towards us with a couple of pieces of blue cod and half a scoop under her arm?
Believe it or not, though, even journalists on the hunt have a conscience. I recall asking myself in that precise instant the one question reporters in my field ask most often but seldom aloud: ‘Why are we doing this, again?’ Television crews only set up a shot like this for two reasons: when the subject is under surveillance and has done something wrong, or when making a nature documentary on an endangered species. While in this case our quarry was certainly not the former, it is quite possible she was – in a way – the latter, the possessor of original thought.
Eventually, Jabulani took down his tripod and packed up the camera.
Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-Fiction, edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood (Auckland University Press, $29.99) is available at Unity Books.