Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings: a few thoughts

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, Tina Makereti
I just finished reading Tina Makereti’s novel Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014, Vintage). In a short twitter conversation with the author and another reader, I mentioned an intense passage late in the book featuring some graphic and unpleasant content. (I said I wasn’t sure I could recommend the book to my mother on account of this sequence – it was a flippant comment, but sincere nonetheless.) When I tried to go into further thoughts on this sequence I gave up, the Twitter format defeating me. They both suggested taking it to blog – so here we are.

Context, then. The novel follows two stories in parallel. First, in the 1880s, the forbidden love arising between Māori girl Mere and her family’s Moriori slave, Iraia. Second, in a contemporary setting, twins Lula and Bigs investigate the secrets of their own ancestry that leads them back to Mere and Iraia, and then to Rēkohu (Chatham Island). Woven through the narrative is another voice, the spirit of an ancestor even further back who accompanies Iraia, and then Lula, on their respective journeys.

(Some plot spoilers, inevitably, follow – but despite the name I don’t think knowing the things I’m about to discuss will spoil the book for you at all.)

Late in the book, Lula and Bigs return to Rēkohu and for the spirit this is an awakening of unpleasant memories, recounted in two powerful sequences. First, we relive with him his death at the hands of invading Māori, an intense build-up to a battle that ends almost immediately in his death. The second section is the one that gave me pause. Here, we stay with the spirit as he finds he does not move on into the afterlife, but instead lingers, attached to his body. And the narrative follows what happens to that body, in careful detail, as it is cooked and eaten by the conquerers. The back cover describes the book as “quietly powerful and compelling”, and it mostly is, but this sequence is a clear violation of that tone. It is gruesome and confronting. I think it’s also important and valuable and probably crucial. Many reasons. Let me try and catch some of them.

The book is, in part, about the historical relationship (and conflict) between Māori and Moriori. This is, to put it lightly, poorly understood by New Zealand at large – this well-researched novel is certainly the most information I’ve ever encountered on the subject. But one thing that everyone knows – well, “knows” – is that Māori were the aggressors towards the Moriori, and killed and ate them. The reason everyone knows this is because many socially conservative voices try to invoke this historic injustice as a way of dodging the current inequality in NZ. If Māori were wicked to Moriori, then they can’t complain about Europeans turning up and being mean to them, and besides it’s not as if the Europeans ate the Māori, they aren’t barbarians, the Māori should be thankful for all the things we gave them… These sentiments are regularly expressed in the letters to the editor of every newspaper in the nation, not to mention in more than a few opinion columns and other venues. (Don’t even think about what gets said in comment sections. It isn’t good.)

In a sense this sequence was necessary – if you write a novel about the history between Māori and Moriori, I’d guess you can’t avoid this narrative. Not that I’m suggesting Makereti is obliged to address the social conservatives out there in NZ – far from it, no author owes anything to anyone – just that a novel on this subject would feel incomplete if it avoided addressing the best-known historical factoid about this relationship. Makereti in fact deftly structures the novel to exclude those grumpy old men entirely by locating the issues raised by this history in the relationship between twins Lula and Bigs, who share lineage from both sides of the historical conflict and each come to identify more with one side than the other.

So Makereti had to talk about the details of what happened somewhere. But the sequence she gives us is clearly far in excess of simply acknowledging this history. The intense dramatisation makes this a climactic moment of the entire novel, and a tonal disruption that colours everything around it. This serves her literary purpose well, because in historical terms that violence colours subsequent history right up to the present – the tone structure of the novel echoes the history that is its subject.

But the genius in this sequence, and why I think it’s so important, isn’t just that it presents this history so vividly and unforgettably. It’s that it contextualises these acts of, to my eyes, barbarism, with an anthropological eye filled with empathy. As the spirit becomes attuned to his new afterlife, his relationship to his body changes, and the perspective of the invaders slowly approaches knowability in his eyes. The crucial moment comes as he witnesses part of his body fed to an infant, and through this moment, leaves his body and moves perspective to hers. The description, unflinching in the detail of chewing and swallowing and digestion, is subsumed under the child’s innocence, and the spirit becomes able through her to perceive the other oppressors as people driven by their own fears and needs and loves. The sequence becomes, somehow, beautiful.

When I say, then, that this sequence of grotesque violence hangs over the rest of the novel, what I mean is the strangely comforting moment where the spirit allows himself to feed the child. It promises some redemption, someday, for conflicts that remain unresolved.

So, yeah. It’s structurally and thematically huge, and it works beautifully on many levels. That’s what I got out of this sequence, as best I can express it today anyway! The rest of the book of course is not full of violence. I should point out it’s a beautiful book and I love the characters and the storytelling and the whole thing. And in writing this I’ve talked myself around – the violence here shouldn’t dissuade anyone, my mum included, from reading this. It’s worth it.

No wonder I couldn’t fit all that into 140 characters…

(Edited to add: “Makereti” in this post feels wrong, but “Tina” would be even more wrong, and “Ms. Makereti” would be even even more more wrong. I dunno.)

Roast Busters: Two thoughts

Two small thoughts on this whole awful business, to clear my head:

* Because of our cultural distaste for direct expressions of what we want and don’t want, NZ youth find it very difficult to seek or express sexual consent. In consequence, NZ youth are predisposed to see hazy consent as commonplace and normal

* Because of our national reliance on alcohol in social situations, NZ youth are predisposed to see gross intoxication as commonplace and normal; even desirable.

* (The above two interact in a dangerous way – I would wager a fair percentage of Kiwi youth have at least once deliberately intoxicated themselves beyond the point where they could meaningfully consent, and done so to make a sexual experience more likely.)

* This means many of the sexual interactions of NZ youth float around in a murky fog of assumption, expectation, and impaired judgment.

* In sum: certain pervasive features of NZ youth culture mean that rape is easy here.

And – this is definitely a minor point, but:

* Among the comments and outrage, I’ve seen several commenters refuse to accept that a young woman would freely choose to participate in this kind of sexual activity, particularly if she knows she is likely to be subjected to online bullying afterwards.

* They’re quite wrong, as they would know if they honestly interrogated their memories of teenage life. Sometimes, young women can and do freely choose things that seem appalling to adults. (Often that’s part of the point.)

* Of course, it’s very clear that some (perhaps a majority?) of the Roast Busters’ sexual partners are correctly seen as victims. They did not, or could not, give consent; or they were unable or afraid to withdraw consent when the reality of what they had agreed to became clear; or they decided afterwards that they had given consent to resolve cognitive dissonance.

* But not all of them were victims. This overstatement is a minor point – but it does irritate me, and I think it’s important in the long run, because if you want to change things in our society you have to start by respecting the full range of behaviours and choices made by young women (and young men, but it’s young women whose volition is typically challenged).

And now that I’ve typed that out hopefully I can get back to work without thoughts buzzing circles in my head.

Make a Difference

makeadifference

No linky today, too much else on right now. Instead of that I’d just like to link to a short interview I did which is up at the Ruminator.

The interview is with my friend Karen, who is Good People. She came up with a way to do something worthwhile and a steadily increasing bunch of people are jumping on board. It involves sewing, so crafty people definitely want to read. More importantly it shows how she experienced the journey from idea to execution, and I think it’s pretty inspiring stuff.

Also, Karen is useless at self-promotion on account of being all humble and stuff, so do her a solid and read the interview. Maybe you know someone who’d like to help? 🙂

Phil Dick Movie Kickstarter

Also on this Friday I wanna draw your attention to the kickstarter for “Radio Free Albemuth”, a new film adaptation of a Philip K Dick story. It’s had great reviews at film fests etc, they’re fundraising to get it on cinema screens.

Among the perks: every single backer gets a special edition of LEFT COAST, the roleplaying game of reality-bent science fiction writers, by fellow Wellingtonian and smart dude Steve Hickey.

So if you are interested in Phil Dick, science fiction, RPGs, films, or Steve Hickey, then this is the opportunity for you!

Five days left. It’s currently at 72K against its 85K goal. SWEET.

Check it out

ANZAC DAY – Felix’s War Diary

Some excerpts from the War Diaries of my great-grandfather Felix Rooney. This is close to the start of his surviving diary – he did keep a diary of Egypt, Gallipoli and early time in France but it was destroyed in the attack that injured him and sent him to England to recover. The surviving diary begins when he arrives at Codford Camp in England after this recovery period (Codford hosts many ANZAC graves, and the locals mark 25 April with a dawn ceremony every year). He arrives in camp October 27, 1916, and is assessed as class B3 – he falls into a routine of drilling and marching as his health and fitness improve.

Tuesday 5 [December]
Up 6-30AM. Washed and breakfast 7-30. Parade 8AM. Inspected by the general. Dinner 12 noon. Medical inspection 1-30PM. Some of us put on guard. I expect to go into signalling section to-morrow. I met an old mate here, Mac Brosnan. He is sergeant instructor to the signallers. So I will be all right while I am here, but I hope that won’t be long. I would sooner be back in France than chased around here at drill. It is devilish cold here now. Keen frost, and the doors of the hut are kept open all day long. Fire must not be lit until 5PM. 17th Reinforcements back from leave to-night. Draft expected to leave Friday.

Wednesday 6
Another freezer of a morning. taken out on parade and transferred to signallers under my old mate Sergt Brosnan. On telephone work this afternoon. The company are out on the march to-night but I am exempt. Going out for a stroll and home again to bed.

Thursday 7
Up bright and early. There is no chance of laying in here. Cold and frosty. Out on signalling. I don’t think I will be going with the draft which leaves in a few days. If not I may have Christmas here. I am having a good time with these sigs here as I am the only one here who has been on active service and they don’t interfere with me. Out on station work this afternoon. Came on light shower of sleet and misty. Usual nightly shave and off to bed. Had a letter from old Lizzie.

Friday 8th
Up usual time and out to drill. Just before dinner I got orders to go with the draft to France to-night. Went down and passed the doctor and went on parade where Bill Massy and Joe Ward inspected us. Busy packing up now. We leave somewhere about mid-night.

Saturday 9th
We paraded last night at 11PM and moved off at mid-night. The train left at 1AM. Raining all the time. Arrived Shorncliff 7AM and marched to camp where we had breakfast and lunch. Left there and marched into Folkestone where we went aboard the “Princess Louise” and left about 2PM. Arriving Boulogne abut 4PM. After waiting about an hour in the rain with full packs up we moved off to a rest camp for the night. Got there 6-30PM and later had some tea. I am going to turn in soon, as we will most likely continue our journey to-morrow. Weary and wet to the skin I am off to sleep, that is if I can, as it is on the boards and they are hard, and my greatcoat is wet.

Sunday 10th
Up, washed and shaved. Still raining. We are on the old bully beef now for tucker. Medicinal inspection 10AM. Raining of course. Fell in 3-30PM and marched off in the rain. Entrained 4-45 and reached Etaples Camp about 7PM. Were served out with rifles and bayonets. Had tea and blankets served out. Twelve men to a tent. Turned in and fairly comfortable only wet.

Monday 11th
Up at 6AM and oh but it is cold. Had a wash and breakfast. Another medical inspection. Alotted new tents. Still raining. Had a shave after tea. I suppose we will start drilling to-morrow. I hope we go up to the trenches soon and get amongst my mates again. This is a miserable time of the year to be here. Met a few old hands I knew. Turned in 9PM.

Felix returned to the trenches in late January.

Some Things To Support

Three worthy crowdfundy things, to which I draw your attention:

Conquering Corsairs: Pirates of the Silver Sea! A card game designed by a couple of Kiwi lads, about pirates vying for gold and prestige and generally being piratical. Just hit its target! Well done guys. Only a few days left on this one!

Send speedstacker Ahlani to the USA: this 12-year-old girl lives around the corner from us. She’s globally ranked in the niche sport of Speed Stacking. She’s fundraising to get her and her mum across to the worlds. (Speed Stacking is pretty amazing to watch. And check out the reward levels – they include “we will bake you a banana cake” and “we will send Ahlani’s brother around to your place to do odd jobs”. This is good stuff guys!)

Liam Barrington-Bush (friend of a friend) is crowdfunding to publish his book “Anarchists in the Boardroom”, which is the fascinating culmination of years of work and thought looking into how organisations work and how people experience the workplace. It’s about taking lessons from social media and social movements to find new ways to structure your organisation, to make it “more like people”. Really interesting stuff! He’s hit his tipping point target, so the book is definitely going to happen – congrats Liam!

Hobbit Premiere Day

My city is going bananas today. There’s a frenzy of excitement around the premiere of the first Hobbit movie, with the red carpet TV coverage due to begin in an hour or so. There’s also a frenzy of grump as long-simmering negativity finally boils up around such issues as the cultural worth of the movie, the government’s priorities, our tourism branding and sense of identity, and Peter Jackson’s reputation as a nice guy.

There’s also a lot of people who aren’t fussed either way, but you don’t hear much from them.

Me, I’m happy to sit with the positives. I have time for many of the grumpy-type issues (apparently there’s gonna be a book on the Hobbit labour dispute? would be good to read that and try and figure out if I had it right or if I was a victim of an effective spin machine) – but when I think about the Hobbit, mostly I think about the people I know who worked on it. There’s a lot of them. It’s a rare Wellingtonian who doesn’t know any, in fact, and that’s exactly the point. This is a creative cultural product that’s come out of our local film setup, drawing on the expertise of many friends and countless friends-of-friends. I like it when my friends and my community do cool stuff.

So bring it on. I’ll have the telly on for the coverage. I’ll be particularly looking forward to Sylvester McCoy’s jaunt down the red carpet, and Barry Humphries. And I’ll raise a glass in respect to my friends who’ve put love and labour into this project. Nice work, folks. I look forward to seeing the result.

Kiwi Trick or Treat

Halloween in New Zealand has a patchy history. Apart from it being completely the wrong time of year, our migrants pretty much shed all the old traditions for All Hallow’s Eve – Scottish guising, for example, didn’t survive over here with our Scottish migrants. Nevertheless Halloween, and trick or treating in particular, has crept upwards in popularity since everyone went to see E.T. in 1982. It’s still an uncommon pursuit over here, though, and lots of people really don’t like it for all sorts of reasons (which is completely fine of course).

I do like it, though. Kids in costumes is just fun. It can be a lovely, lightweight way to build community, if the conditions are right. And I happen to live in a place where the conditions are right – lots of children in a very walkable suburb with quiet, safe streets.

So for the second year in a row we’re welcoming trick or treaters. If I had my way, shops in NZ would sell “Trick or treaters are welcome here” signs so that people who want the visit can let it be known, and everyone else can happily be left alone. In the absence of that – I’ve made my own.

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Looking forward to tonight!