Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2016

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, by Tina Makereti

Where the Rekohu Bone SingsWhere the Rekohu Bone Sings is an impressive debut by New Zealand author Tina Makereti. It won the 2014 Nga Kupu Ora Maori Book Awards Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Prize.  It was a New Zealand best seller in the year of its release too…

It tells a story that I suspect is little known on our side of the ditch.  According to Wikipedia, the Moriori People of the Chatham Islands were once thought to have been pre-Māori settlers of New Zealand, but linguistic research has now shown them to be Māori people with a distinctive Polynesian culture.   It is believed that some time before 1500 they migrated from New Zealand to the Chatham archipelago, (nearly 700km southeast of mainland New Zealand) where (by contrast with the warlike Māori) they developed a uniquely peaceful culture:

A few thousand people on an island in the remotest part of the 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. (p. 266)

The Moriori, however, were almost exterminated by the arrival of Māori from the mainland in the 1830s, and Tina Makerita has created an intriguing story about the complex heritage of the Moriori descendants of today.

There are three interwoven narratives:

  • In the contemporary era, there is the story of fraternal twins of different ethnic appearance: Lula, who takes after her Pakeha father, and Bigs, who resembles his Māori mother.  Their mother, Tui, was estranged from her family for many years, but her daughter doesn’t discover the reason – that Tui was rejected by her own people because of her ancestry – until after her mother’s death.
  • In the late 19th century, the story of the forbidden love of Mere and Iraia who run away to be together.  Iraia is a slave, from the Moriori People whose lands had been invaded by the Māori, and he is not a suitable husband for Mere, whose father is a rangatira (chieftain).  The taboo is also possibly because they may be cousins, since no one knows if Iraia’s mother was already pregnant at the time she was captured as a concubine.
  • A restless spirit from the Moriori People, singing his stories from a bone fragment found on the beach.

The story of Lula and Bigs’ mixed heritage comes to light because Tui left instructions that her body is to be buried the Māori way with Māori mourning and burial rituals.  Although she was estranged from her family for decades, her husband and children are given a warm welcome and accepted as part of the large extended family.  And when Lula’s curiosity leads her to ask questions, her family admits that they were wrong to have rejected that branch of the family and they wish to make amends.

In the course of the story, several themes seemed to be in common with the fiction of Patricia Grace.  When Iraia and Mere run away to Wellington, they experience discrimination and they have a hard life as unskilled labourers did in those days.  But Iraia relishes the opportunity that city life offers.  On Rekohu his life was circumscribed by his slavery: the Māori held his people in contempt because they did not fight and he was considered to be a nothing.  But in Wellington he can reinvent himself.  As for the girls in Patricia Grace’s Cousins (see my review) city life is a chance to create a new life, a new family and to have hope.  But it is not the same for Mere, who finds herself drawn back to home when she needs a place of safety.

The importance of community solidarity is also important.  Lula is confused about her own identity and has difficulty reconciling the cruelty of the Māori with her Moriori ancestry.  (BTW some of the details about Māori cannibalism are quite gruesome).   Bigs tells Lula that it’s easier for her to interrogate her ancestry because with her fair skin she can fit into the dominant Pakeha society, but that having married a Māori and made his career as a teacher of the Māori language, he identifies with the Māori and doesn’t really want to know about the Moriori.  But Aunty Liz counsels Lula to be inclusive of all her heritage: she tells Lula that Pakeha use the history of Māori conquering the Moriori against them as if that cleans their own slate.  But in their family, we’ve got the Moriori, the Māori and the Pakeha.  Can’t have one side of yourself rejecting the other side.  She tells Lula to ignore that kind of ignorance in the paper and to rise above it. 

The importance of land is also a strong theme, and the novel explores the dilemma that confronts families when they have to submit to European systems of land ownership.  Land held communally for generations has to be parcelled out to individuals, and that leads to fragmentation of community and also to resentments because some land is less productive than others.  But having a place that belongs to all the family, a place that holds the family’s genealogy and memories, is vitally important.

In typing that last paragraph I could have used the Māori terms for family (whānau) or whakapapa (genealogy), and the book makes frequent use of these, and also words from the Moriori language (which is being revived in New Zealand).  In the Author’s Note at the back of the book there is a frustratingly scanty glossary, but Makereti says that it’s ‘inappropriate’ to translate Māori words which are in common usage in New Zealand English, and that she hopes her readers can infer the meanings of Moriori words from context.  And if not, we can look them up in a book or research them.  I am not sure how I feel about this.  I’m pretty good at working out words from context, but I was defeated on more than a few occasions and (not having the recommended book!) I did not want to stop reading to hunt out the meanings online.  Language difficulties may not be an issue in New Zealand, but if the book is to have a wider audience, I think that a more comprehensive glossary would be useful.

This quibble aside, Where the Rekohu Bone Sings is a wonderful story which deserves a wide readership.

Author: Tina Makereti
Title: Where the Rekohu Bone Sings
Publisher: Random House New Zealand, 2014
ISBN: 9781775535188
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond (which is the most affordable option for books from New Zealand, almost $10 cheaper than Readings, and postage free too).

Available from Fishpond: Where the Rekohu Bone Sings.


Responses

  1. I didn’t know there was a big island off the coast of ‘mainland’ NZ, let alone that it was home to a separate people. And it doesn’t necessarily put me off reading but I find it difficult when authors expect me to accept magic/spirits. Interesting (and enduring) problem of how a pacifist people repel, or in this case fail to repel, the advance of a warlike people.

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    • I’d never heard of them either. It’s high time I visited NZ, I think….
      Yes, not having so much as a shred of spiritual belief, I find it hard too, especially when I am predisposed to be interested in an indigenous culture. One wants to be respectful, but there’s a part of the brain that objects!
      (Mind you, I liked Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I felt that the reincarnated spirits were entirely appropriate in that one. But Morrison is a genius, she could make anything work).
      Yes, pacifism. A difficult position to sustain in the face of a greater force. It’s like a dream of what might be, that we would all love to have, but it creates vulnerability. After all, even India has nuclear weapons now…

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      • Politicians being prepared for war on our behalf is such a chest beating thing, and the main cause of war, getting in first. I have a couple of books on civil disobedience, including Thoreau, but nothing on pacifism that I can see. I used to have a good one about (maybe by) Bertrand Russell in WWI.

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  2. We’ve got most of Russell’s books… I’ll have a look to see if we’ve got the one you mean.

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  3. Fascinating. I hope I can get a copy.

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    • Let me know if you can’t and I’ll send you mine:)

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