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Reworking New Zealand’s history: Where the Rekohu Bone Sings

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti is a beautifully told story set that traverses three different time periods in New Zealand and is conveyed through three different narratives. It’s one of the few fictional stories about the fate of the Moriori people (one of the others being David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) and despite tackling complex themes of identity, colonialism, racism and shame, it’s carried by a lightness of touch that makes it a pleasure to read.

Three different, interwoven stories might sound convoluted, but Tina Makereti works it seamlessly so that each strand adds a powerful layer to the overall narrative.

First we meet Mere, a young Maori woman living on Rekohu in the 1880s (renamed Chatham Islands by white settlers). Her mother died when she was a child and as she grows up, it’s increasingly her responsibility to keep her father and brothers fed and the household running. Her best friend is Iraia, a Moriori boy who has been enslaved to Mere’s family from when he was a small child. Mere considers Iraia: ‘Sometimes she looked at him and she could not understand this idea that he was their possession, their worker, without the freedom to make his own choices. He had begun to look like a man to her… She did not understand how he could be both’.

Naturally the two fall in love and, knowing that they can’t stay in Rekohu together, flee to Wellington to start a new life.

Interchanged with this plot, there is Lula and Bigs’ story –  twins from a Maori mother and Pakeha (white) father. Strangely, Lula is ‘pinkish-white and spotty, frizzy haired and stout’, while Bigs ‘is beer-bottle brown and smooth haired, dark eyed and lanky’. Their appearances influence how they negotiate living in contemporary New Zealand but until their mother dies, neither know much about their lineage.

Finally, there is Imi, a spirit who lives in ‘the place one step away from life, but not a place of peace or rest’. Although his character doesn’t occupy as much of the book as the others, his story is a powerful one: he was Moriori living in Rekohu when the Maori invaded his land.  He has continued through time to watch over his people, including Iraia, and his fragmented insights provide an important historical context to the journeys of the other characters.

I was keen to read this book because I know so little about New Zealand’s history. I hadn’t appreciated that there is another, largely untold history bound up in this British colonialist event – that of the Moriori. Over the course of the book, Makereti gently unwraps the layers of this history, mostly through the eyes of Lula – we learn this history as she does. As one of Lula’s kin explains to her:

People said Moriori were a lower caste that Maori, a lesser race or something. There was some ugly stuff out there about our people. Then there was all that raruraru that went on. Some Pakehas still like to bring it up when they want to have a go at Maori: Look what the Maoris did to the Morioris – still see it in the newspapers from time to time, even now. As if that cleans their own slate.

 

The full extent of the horrific injustices suffered by the Moriori, at the hands of both the British and the Maori, is more fully revealed when Lula and Bigs themselves voyage to Rekohu:

The story of Rekohu was the story of explorers and invaders, alliances and betrayals, ships that brought disease and new ways. Always the terrible, terrible fighting that infected everything. She watched Moriori beaten down, even as they tried to rise back up, even as they lifted their eyes to the horizon and spoke. First the patu and the tomahawk. Then, the word of law and legislation. White men looked away. Brown men looked away. Myths were made and spread and made strong by everyone pointing the finger. All this to deny the wondrous thing at the centre: a people who refused the temptations of war-lust. A people who had known no murder for five long centuries.

 

This 1991 stamp commemorates the ‘discovery’ of Chatham Islands, an interesting choice of language.

As Bigs in particular has to grapple with, the history of the Moriori people adds a different complexion to the usual tale of colonialism, making the Maoris both colonised and colonising. Bigs’ confusion around this is evidently shared by many Maori: ‘Sometimes I feel like our culture is under attack here. I’m Maori first Lula. I’m sorry, but I am…. And now this place wants me to feel guilty about what our Ngati Mutunga ancestors did to the Moriori? No.’

Negotiating their racial identity is something all characters do in different ways throughout the book, but Makereti’s writing style deals with this lightly. For instance, when Mere and Iraia arrive in Wellington, she paints perfectly their bewilderment as they step from their boat into the city with its new smells ‘(horse dung and natural gas’), sights (‘open drains and fresh-treated wood’) and sounds (‘great wheels banging’). While the white men won’t let the couple stay in their hotels, Mere and Iraia find them equally odd:  ‘Pakeha could be so strange – the man’s nose was so long and narrow that the glasses perched quite a distance from his eyes.  Iraia doubted he or Mere could even fit such a contraption of the bridge of their own broad nose’.

As you’ll have read in these quotes, Makereti weaves Moriori and Maori language through her writing. She has explained that was a deliberate choice; using language in this way ‘enriches us, rather than constrains us’, she says.

This approach of enrichment through unconventional story-telling is what makes Where the Rekohu Bone Sings such a remarkable first novel. Makereti has written expertly about the personal consequences of colonialism poignantly and in a compelling way. She has given voice to a group of people whose experiences are rarely the subject of fiction, and in doing so, has admirably helped to adjust our understanding of the historical record.

 

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

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