Tina Makereti, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, Penguin 2018
Tina Makereti, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi and Pākehā descent, writes fiction that has always captivated me and her most recent novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, is no exception. Published last year, and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, I am awarding it my 2018 Fiction Bouquet.
I have invented this award to underline the supreme reading pleasures Tina’s novel gifted me. I begin with the language and the way her sentences are so exquisitely crafted. They carry story, character, setting and significant issues with ease and fluidity, as though they work behind the scenes giving life to the narrative features. Yet I am acutely aware of the writing. The way a particular word choice makes a sentence sing, the way voice gives flesh and feeling to James to the point he is utterly real to me.
James Pōneke was orphaned as young boy. His mother and sister were killed in a massacre, his father, a chief, left him with missionaries and was later killed. James became fluent in English and hungered for books and knowledge, but the ways of his people became more and more distant as he became more and more uncomfortable living in the mission. The book starts with a life- and trauma-worn James in London, confined to bed and aching to tell his story, to the maid, to the Artist’s sister and upon the paper he was given.
Through James’s eyes and voice we travel along the arc from orphaned boy to bedridden man. He places himself on show just as the Artist who brought him to London placed him on a show; a curiosity, an exhibit to accompany the paintings of Māori that the unnamed Artist had produced in New Zealand. James was a spectacle for the curious and disdainful spectator in the great British museum, but he turns the viewfinder and scrutinises them; not just as they watch him in the museum setting but out in streets that bear riches alongside aching poverty.
One reading track is the abundance of wonder and awe as James absorbs London on diverse settings. He admits he watches like a wide-eyed child or a wiser elder but mainly from the pitfalls of youth. Questions abound and those questions then unsettle any possibility of a ‘tidy’ and misrepresented past, particularly colonial.
A second reading track is the prevalence of cages and containments. There are the animals in London Zoo, the way the Mission upbringing, despite little kindnesses, forced James to break away and travel with another tribe. The London houses felt like cages after the New Zealand landscape where the largest and most beautiful things were trees. There is also the self-containment that was dictated by London social mores, and the way a cultural stereotype is a form of imprisonment. Reading this book I was reminded of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s reception when she performed her poem, ‘Unity ‘ at Westminster Abbey for the Queen for the Commonwealth Observance Day (2016). The disdain and rudeness of the distinguished guest seated next to her reduced Selina to an object in my view rather than an honoured international poet. Selina wrote of this experience in ‘Pussy Cat’ (both poems appear in Tightrope, Auckland University Press, 2017).
Perhaps the most important track is the way the telling becomes a remembering, the way the lost and faded self comes to light as James speaks to the past, the present and the future, to his imagined mokopuna. For me imagination, these imaginary stories, becomes a way of adjusting the viewfinder so that we may unsettle master narratives and engage with a different point of view. We get to see James as an acutely intelligent person who struggles with his own crises and trauma and who experiences his own joy and epiphanies. The book is a timely read. As we learn to make connections with respect and empathy, in a world that has privileged hierarchies and conflict, Tina’s novel is a welcome handbook on how to listen. It affected me deeply, at the level of both heart and mind.
Tina, please accept my 2018 Fiction Bouquet, with love, Paula.
Penguin author page