‘An Icon That Showed What Was Possible’: The Literary World’s Sadness Over Keri Hulme’s Death

Keri Hulme, who died on Monday, is remembered as a towering figure of New Zealand literature by her fellow writers.

David Alexander / Stuff

Keri Hulme, who died on Monday, is remembered as a towering figure of New Zealand literature by her fellow writers.

Keri Hulme proved the value of New Zealand’s stories on the global stage and paved the way for a new generation of writers, Kiwi literary figures said as they paid tribute to the author after her death.

The West Coast author and poet died just before noon Monday at his home in Waimate, South Canterbury, at the age of 74.

In 1985, she became the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature.

Kiwi writers have described her as “an icon” and one who will leave a lasting legacy.

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Fergus Barrowman has been a publisher at Victoria University of Wellington Press since 1985 and edited the Picador Book of Modern New Zealand fiction.

He worked with Hulme in 1985 and said it was a life-changing experience.

“Editing The Windeater: The Windeater taught me the patience, perseverance and openness it takes to be an editor, “he said.

“Keri also let me see what amazing writing costs a writer.”

Barrowman was 24 at the time and said he initially found her “guarded”.

Fergus Barrowman edited Hulme's short story collection Te Kaihau: The Windeater in 1985.

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Fergus Barrowman edited Hulme’s short story collection Te Kaihau: The Windeater in 1985.

“Or maybe I was scared of her, but when we got into the job, she was 100 percent present and engaged.”

Nic Low is a Ngāi Tahu writer and art organizer. He called Hulme “an icon” who “showed what was possible”.

“I think New Zealand has at times been exposed to a cultural crisis where we think our stories may not be on the world stage. She showed that they absolutely wanted to and that they could, “he said.

The Bone People is such a strong book. I remember reading it when I was a teenager, and I’ve read it several times since then. ”

Low is program director for the literary festival Word Christchurch and said Hulme would always be a “great inspiration” for New Zealand writers.

Award-winning author Nic Low was named Program Director of Word Christchurch in February 2021.

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Award-winning author Nic Low was named Program Director of Word Christchurch in February 2021.

“She urged writers not to be afraid to tackle the kinds of topics and stories that are personal to us.”

Hulme was part of a “long tradition” of great Ngāi Tahu storytellers, he said.

“She brings that tradition to the world stage, so for other Ngāi Tahu writers, like myself, she has always been a great inspiration.”

The Wellington-based author Isa Pearl Ritchie – whose novel Fishing to Māui was voted one of the best books of 2018 in The Listener Magazine – said The bone people paved the way for future generations of kiwis to “dare to bring creations into the world that are meaningful to them”.

Isa Pearl Ritchie is the author of several novels for adults and teens, including Fishing for Maui.

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Isa Pearl Ritchie is the author of several novels for adults and teens, including Fishing for Maui.

“Not only did she shape the landscape in New Zealand’s writing, she created a whole new terrain, the way in which the motion of tectonic plates and volcanoes can generate a whole new land mass.”

Sri Lanka-born Kiwi writer Brannavan Gnanalingam, whose debut novel Getting under sail was published in 2011, said that Hulme “would always be considered a giant in our literature because of the Booker victory”.

‘One of the things that has always struck me The bone people and her poetry is how ahead of their time and brilliant, they are to this day, ”he said.

Brannavan Gnanalingam is a writer and lawyer based in Wellington.  His novels include Sprigs and Sodden Downstream.

Robert Kitchin / Stuff

Brannavan Gnanalingam is a writer and lawyer based in Wellington. His novels include Sprigs and Sodden Downstream.

Gnanalingam, who grew up in Lower Hutt and also works as a lawyer, said Hulme’s death was a “huge loss”.

“I have recently seen how future writers and especially younger Maori writers have expressed a real affinity for her work, and I suppose her work will continue to resonate for a very, very long time.

“She was simply brilliant.”

New Zealand-Greek author Vana Manasiadis, one of the writers of the year at the University of Canterbury, said Hulme “disturbed dangerous and lazy binaries.”

“She was not looking for celebrity, practicing silence and expansive thinking without a microphone,” she said.

“She taught me what it is to be fearless.”

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