Obituary — J C Sturm

J C Sturm (1927-2009)

In 1927 a daughter was born at Opunake in Taranaki to a young Maori couple named Mary and Jack Papuni. They named their baby Te Kare, but the little girl would never know her mother, who died of septicæmia a fortnight later. Te Kare Papuni was fostered, and eventually adopted, by Bert Sturm (Ngati Porou) and his Pakeha wife Ethel, who re-christened her Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm. The sense of having overlapping cultural and personal identities would strongly influence Jacquie’s life and writing.

Raised predominately in a Pakeha world, Jacquie was usually the single brown face in her class and she recalled feeling “a bit of a freak”. But she excelled academically and, at 11, began writing verse while convalescing from a serious illness. In 1946 Bishop Vercoe, alert to representatives of Maori aspiration, supported Jacquie’s enrolment at the University of Otago to study medicine. She performed superbly in her first year but narrowly missed entry to medical school due to quotas favouring returned servicemen.

Turning instead to anthropology, she moved to Canterbury University College in 1947, with her boyfriend, the young poet James K Baxter, following her. In December 1948 they married and settled in Wellington, where their daughter Hillary was born in June 1949. Jacquie completed her BA, but found married life hard as their cottage received no winter sun and she developed rheumatics in her hands, while Baxter developed a drinking problem. Despite these difficulties she completed an MA in philosophy – the first Maori woman to do so – with her dissertation on “New Zealand National Character as Exemplified in Three New Zealand Novelists”, commended for exceptional merit and awarded first class honours.

Jacquie’s poetry suffered through marriage to Baxter, and when an editor offended her by suggesting her husband assisted her writing, she turned to prose, using J C Sturm as her pen name to avoid all association with Baxter. In 1954 her story “The Old Coat” appeared in Numbers. A year later “For All the Saints” became the first story in English by a Maori writer to appear in Te Ao Hou. When C K Stead included “For All the Saints” in New Zealand Short Stories (1966), she became the first Maori writer selected for a New Zealand anthology. The society her stories depict fosters inequality, and her work conveys a strong and poignant sense of alienation.

Through the 1950s home-life deteriorated; Baxter’s drinking was already a serious problem by the time their son John arrived in October 1952. His involvement with AA dried him out, but paradoxically created a new allegiance that left Jacquie feeling abandoned. When he made an unheralded decision in 1957 to convert to Roman Catholicism, they separated, reuniting in 1958 to live for some months in India after Baxter received a UNESCO fellowship. Separation became permanent in 1969 when Baxter left to found a commune at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. He died in late 1972.

After Baxter’s departure, Jacquie focused on her children. In 1970 she found work at the Wellington Public Library, a position she held for many years while also raising Hillary’s daughter Stephanie. Her collected stories, ready for book publication since 1966, languished, and she didn’t write more for over a decade. Then in 1983 the women’s publishing collective Spiral produced her stories as The House of the Talking Cat (reprinted by Steele Roberts, 2003), with reviewers praising the collection and Witi Ihimaera hailing her as a “pivotal presence in the Maori literary tradition”.

Jacquie returned to her first love, poetry, and in 1996 Steele Roberts published her inaugural collection, Dedications, which earned the honour award for poetry in the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Postscripts followed in 2000, and a mixed selection of poetry and prose, The Glass House, in 2006. Jacquie’s role as a pioneering Maori literary figure was recognised in 2003 when Victoria University made her an honorary doctor of literature.

Life delivered Jacquie a final cruel blow in 2009 when Stephanie, her much loved granddaughter and primary caregiver, died suddenly in her early 40s of an infection. Weeks later Jacquie was dead also. She was farewelled in a memorable tangi at Orimupiko Marae in the presence of her mountain, Taranaki, and buried in her whanau’s beautiful coastal urupa at the foot of her mother Mary’s grave.

Paul Millar


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