‘James Pōneke is my full name, but people in these parts prefer Hemi.’
‘Well, I shall call you James, for I am not from these parts, and James is a very fine English name to have.’ [the artist]
Hemi Pōneke is an explorer venturing far from home, he is exiled from his Maori family by tragedy early in life. Hemi is intelligent enough to realise that he will never be fully accepted in the ‘white’ world he is thrown into, by necessity he becomes a traveller, something inside him drives him also, he is curious, bitten by wanderlust and a thirst for learning. Hemi is always seeking to find a place to fit in, in an often unfriendly world. Makereti has woven a life from a brief newspaper article in The Times in the 1840s about a Maori prince visiting England, then nothing more than a ‘curio’, Hemi is now a person again and a damned interesting one at that.
This is a coming-of-age story, a harsh one. Hemi is a young child when his mother is murdered before his eyes. His father thinks the best thing for the boy is to grow up safe from violence with the missionaries. Now he is estranged from Maori traditions and culture, something he was just beginning to be aware of. Hemi is raised as a Christian, told that his former life is not just the past but that it was wrong. He learns to speak like the missionaries, dress like them, eat after their fashion, worship with them. He will never become one of them and now he can never be what he was before. He is caught between worlds. Eventually he will go to London.
At seventeen James Pōneke is in London. Hemi wakes in his bed, fevered, haunted by dreams and visions, unwell but there is no cure for his malady, it is not a sickness but a longing, a disturbance. Miss Herring, the maid, fusses around his attic room, he calls her ‘miss’ and addresses her as an equal, she is a kind of companion. The family have not rebuked him but they don’t approve. Later, James regales Miss Angus, the artist’s sister, with stories of things she can’t imagine from her limited experience of the world and it’s pain, she has no reference point. He upsets her with his honesty and so is encouraged to write his story down, perhaps share less troubled events. He remembers playing with his sister Nu:
[she] “. . . Was my constant companion; I couldn’t tell you her proper name now. If I was hungry she found a morsel for me to eat, some dried fish or meat from the night before, fern root to chew. She never let me out of her sight.”
Raiders arrive, he doesn’t grasp what is going on, his mother screams, she grabs him and stuffs him under a bush to hide. The next time he sees his mother her eyes cloud over as she dies in front of him. His sister is killed too.
Hemi was too young to know that his father was a Chief. The men returned three days after the massacre and find him, for safety his papa takes him to the ‘pale’ missionaries leaving him with them. When he returns to visit Hemi he tells him of the tattoos, the sacred knowledge – Hemi missed him. When his father is murdered too, eaten by cannibals, he assumes he is a Chief, but of what, of who?
The minister instructs Hemi in Christianity, the word of the Lord:
“. . . The death of our parents made it possible for the rest of us to be saved. For each time one of the heathens fell, their children were welcomed into the bosom of the Mission and the grace of our Saviour. . .”
Hemi stays long enough to be better versed in English than his own language but he is unhappy with these stories. How can the death of his parents be a good thing? He begins to misbehave, eventually deciding that to leave.
At a settlement, Hollycross, James, as he has been christened, is offered a bath and a meal in return for completing chores. Mrs Jenkins refers to him as the “little black boy”, but after a bath she calls him brownie and it sticks. Brownie runs errands and writes letters (he suspects that Mr Jenkins charges for this but he gets nothing more than food and board). The irony is that Hemi is the one to communicate for the settlers in their own language in letters. One day a Maori warrior arrives perhaps emboldened to approach the settlement because he has seen the Maori boy, he wants to buy provisions, he has money. Before Hemi can explain a fight ensues and the warrior is killed. The settlers are now suspicious of Hemi/James. He knows it is time to leave.
“But I wondered if that was the first time I really saw the darkness that sits in the hearts of men and is so beyond us to control.’
After walking for three days he comes across a hapu, a group of wanderers, weary/wary Maori people. He joins them and they feed him, the murdered warrior was one of them. When they reach Port Nicholson a stranger comes to the village, James translates for the artist. He has always been fascinated by science and by the age of enlightenment, he is ready to see London, the centre of the scientific universe, so Hemi jumps at the chance to accompany the artist’s return home. He lives with the Angus family but becomes a living exhibit at the exhibition of the artist’s work at the Egyptian hall – an amusement and curiosity. Hemi/James eventually makes his own friends, they are also outsiders. The streets are not shiny, the city is dirty and dark and yet strangely beguiling. James confronts racism, falls in love for the first time, discovering things about himself but this is not a happy ending the trials of James Poneke have just begun. . .
Hemi is a strong voice, a picaresque hero with a survivors instinct, he is an intriguing storyteller. The novel touches on racism, colonial attitudes and empire, characters portray the attitudes of the time – it is for the reader to draw their own conclusions.
‘His manners! You wouldn’t know you he was a native if you didn’t see his face. And from the Antipodes!.’
Hemi Pōneke has a voice that redresses some of the air brushed history of empire but more than anything his novel is a fascinating coming of age.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti
Lightning Books 9781785631528 pbk Aug 2019