Where the Rekohu Bone Sings
Twentieth- and 21st-century New Zealand literature contains two utterly different narratives, each incorporating an almost diametrically opposed world view. On the one hand, there is the Pakeha narrative of radical bourgeois individualism which demonstrates the necessity of disassociating oneself from family and society, both seen as disabling and repressive. The past is rejected and the future self-fashioned. On the other hand, there is the indigenous narrative, where the past is configured as being one of collectivity and wholeness that has been lost. This past – or the values of this past – must be located and absorbed in order that the subject can themselves become whole. Frank Sargeson, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Janet Frame, Fiona Kidman, Maurice Shadbolt and many other Pakeha writers inhabit the first narrative; the bone people, Once Were Warriors, Cousins and the Huia short story anthologies the second. New Zealand writing is split between leaving the repressive home and seeking the lost home, and the choice of which narrative to follow is predicated on the cultural identity of the writer.
In Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, Tina Makereti’s take on this choice is complex, because one of her premises is that notions of identity of any kind, and especially cultural identity, are not straightforward. One strand in the novel, Mere’s story, set in the 1880s, is framed as a “leaving the repressive home” narrative, and is a romance of a very traditional, almost fairy-story kind: poor boy falls in love with the boss’s daughter; the disapproval of the father means the lovers must flee to where the father’s authority has no sway. In Shakespeare, defiant lovers flee to the forest; in Makereti’s novel, they catch a boat to the city. By contrast, the novel’s other strand, Lula’s 21st-century story, seems to enact the indigenous narrative. She “had gone out into the world looking and come back empty”. She finds identity and meaning firstly in reconnecting with her mother’s whanau at her tangi in the Marlborough Sounds, and later in dealing with Koro Eddie’s ambiguous bequest on Rekohu/the Chatham Islands.
But neither journey is straightforward. The home Mere leaves is dominated by her father, Tu, who bullies Mere and despises Iraia. The whanau is riddled with secrets, centring on the suppressed history of what happened to Iraia’s ancestors, and thus those of Lula and Bigs, on Rekohu where, in 1835, Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga subjugated the Pacifist Moriori, killing or enslaving them. And yet Tu’s household and their way of life, under threat from a settler society hungry for land, are described in terms that are lyrical and replete with nostalgic longing. Lula may discover a way of defining herself in terms of her origins, but those origins are distressingly less clear-cut than she first believes: “take a breath and be ready for the words that come, which might feel like the pain of your bones being re-set or your heart made to beat again after a fall”, she is warned.
Whakapapa is crucial to the narrative structure, shaping each person’s story, giving context to each successive event. But the reader is forced to acknowledge that it might be a more complex issue – indeed, that there might be some element of willed performativity surrounding identity, not to mention willed forgetting. When Bigs is forced to confront his Moriori ancestry, he is unwilling to forgo his painfully achieved Maori identity: “I don’t know how to be both,” he says. Being Maori has been his remedy against alienation and despair: “You know the trouble I got into before that,” he tells his sister. “I almost dropped out of it all. All of it, Lula. Not just school. Life.”
Makereti continually makes us feel unable to hold a simplistic position on these issues. Appearance is an obvious, but disconcertingly unstable, marker: Bigs and Lula are twins, their father is Pakeha and their mother Maori. But Bigs is “beer-bottle brown and smooth haired, dark eyed and lanky”, while Lula is “pinkish-white and spotty, frizzy haired and stout”. Iraia, descendent of Moriori slaves, his mother “a shadow person”, “alive but not alive”, is darker skinned than Tu’s whanau and thus despised. Colonial Wellington does not register the fine discriminations of Tu’s household – both the lovers obviously, visibly, do not fit into the Pakeha world.
The novel’s narration moves between Mere and Lula, its tone sympathetically and appropriately adjusted and exact, not first person but a closely aligned third which conveys both the formal dignity of Mere in the 1880s and the more scattered, uncertain, contemporary voice of Lula. And there is a third voice, in the first person, from “on the other side of the leaping world” who also, in a fashion, narrates:
We call me Imi … Bones, that is. Bones and people. That’s the name I go by now. In the no-time, only some things remain. Body? No. Think-mind? Not a lot. Remember-mind? Some. Seems I remember what I need to know to pass the story on. But some things went with the body. Name is one of them. Name plundered with eating. Eating will always steal something sacred from a somebody.
Imi is an extraordinary exercise in voicing outside the normal registers of fictional narration, fractured and approximate and only intermittently focused. His voice is that of a ghost that must be laid to rest; he is also the conduit by which the past leaks into the narrative of the present, despite its inchoate nature, giving meaning to the stories of Lula, Bigs, their parents and especially that of their mother, Tui, and her suppressed history. As their ancestor, the voice is connected to them all, but especially to Lula whom he describes as his “Manawa-girl”. But the voice is also actively dead – not just dead but eaten – and is in a continual achronic state of experiencing both the killing and the consumption as he narrates his own extinction.
In contrast with the emphasis on land in much indigenous fiction, this novel is full of made spaces, farms, cities and especially haunted houses, which contain and enact memories of their past – from the Victorian expansiveness of Mere’s original home, to the lovers’ marginal lodgings in an unwelcoming Wellington, to the decay and dereliction of the Rekohu house, despoiled, desecrated, but perhaps redeemable.
Where the Rekohu Bone Sings presents the reader with uncomfortable questions. What do we do with the horrors of the past? Does historical trauma leave a genetic imprint, a kind of ancestral memory – both on the victims but just as strongly on the perpetrators? If there is inherited injury, is there also inherited guilt? Perhaps, as Lula tells Bigs, “the real question is, what do we do about it now?” Makereti suggests that the danger of pre-existing narratives is the difficulty of putting history at its most murky and compromised into a story. Talking to Lula, Moriori elder Molly compares the Once Were Warriors schema to that of Rekohu’s Moriori: “Once Were Peaceful People Wiped Out by Tribal Invaders, Slavery, Disease and Native Land Court Rulings,” she wryly acknowledges, “isn’t quite as catchy.” Principle, rather than narrative, is perhaps the better way to memorialise the lost culture of Rekohu, and principles are more difficult to fix into cultural memory although Makereti, through Lula, has a good try:
It was simple really. A few thousand people on an island in the remotest Pacific knew this. Don’t kill, they said. Maybe you fight until someone draws blood, but let that settle it. Go easy on your part of the world. Look around you. Don’t kill.
Jane Stafford is co-editor of the Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature.