Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, by Tina Makereti (Random House, 2014), 280 pp., $37.99
Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings is a fascinating and revealing novel by Tina Makereti, who is ‘of Ngāti Tāwharetoa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā, and in all probability Moriori descent’, says the book’s introduction. The emotional trajectory of the narrative certainly reads as though Makereti has a great deal personally invested in this story.
The substance of the book is thematically three-fold: firstly, what is identity; secondly, what is the truth about the history of the Moriori people; and lastly, what do ‘we’ do with our shame? Fundamentally this is a work of clear, concise and unfussy fiction, but the real-world debates it stirs up are its most potent legacy.
The book begins in the late 1800s in Waimua in Queen Charlotte Sound with Mere, a strong-willed and strident Māori girl, and her family’s mokai (slave) Iraia, who is Moriori. Theirs is a simmering and quite beautiful love story. If Mere and Iraia want to be together, they cannot stay in her father’s house so they run away, in 1882, and head for Picton and on to Wellington, where their happiness is short but sweet before Iraia suffers fever in a typhoid or cholera epidemic. A baby is born which Mere calls Te Kaha, and history is made …
Interlaced with the nineteenth-century love story is the story of current-day twins who don’t look like twins; Lula is pale and Bigs is dark. They were born to a Pākehā father and a Māori (and Moriori) mother. The twins encapsulate two different ways of coping with issues of identity: as an adult, Bigs chooses to lean into his Māori heritage more than his ‘Pākehā’, and even when he learns about it, he chooses to resist his Moriori heritage. Lula, on the other hand, feels intrigued and conflicted when she learns about her Moriori side and the secrets her mother kept. She is captivated by the stories she hears at her mother’s tangi in Queen Charlotte Sound (where Mere came from), and she becomes like a ‘blank slate’ into which she will re-assemble the three ethnic parts of herself in a way that might one day make sense. Of course hers will be a lifelong journey of discovery, but one thinks that she might have an easier psychological life than Bigs.
Further interlacing within the narrative occurs with various short passages of exposition by a spirit voice or ‘Imi’ (Iwi in Māori). This spirit voice narrates what are the most fascinating and absorbing passages in the book. These reveal the history of Rekohu/Wharekauri/Chatham Islands and its people, of whom the spirit is one. The sad story he unfolds, and even his own horrendous slaughter, is captivating and moving to the extreme.
Using this spirit voice is a successful device because it allows Makereti to slip out of the relatively straight-forward love story of Mere and Iraia and the present day realism of Lula and Bigs, and into a pure and essential re-telling of a terrible drama. The only weakness to this, though I’m not sure it is entirely weak, is that the spirit begins each time with his unique pidgen diction created by Makereti to set him apart, but as his narrative becomes loaded and emotional, the author slips into her own voice and ‘pummels the lectern’ for a while, until Imi comes back when things get quieter. I don’t really mind this authorial interference; as a reader, I like that the author is so caught up with this story – it adds another and more urgent layer to the narrative.
Imi, the Moriori spirit, has a strong connection to both Iraia and Lula. The potency of his voice is not diluted by ethnic interference in the bloodline over time. This offers an essential element of hope in the story. On page 21, Iraia says, ‘silence was the key to survival’. This becomes a significant observation and resonates throughout the book, turning into irony as we begin to see that silence is not helpful at all for the survival of a people.
Michael King’s Moriori: a People Rediscovered was a key source of information for Makereti in her research. An excerpt from a review of that book by Lt Gen Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, Governor-General of New Zealand, is useful in highlighting the important issue of shame that is raised in Makereti’s book a propos the invasion of Rekohu in 1835, the subsequent slaughter on its beach at Waitangi, and issues that may remain today:
Morioris still feel strongly about the events of 1835 and the subsequent decisions of the Land Court. Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga may feel defensive about a story being told in which they were the aggressors. And on a wider front, there may be another group of people only too willing to allow the story to feed their own prejudices about Maoris or anyone whose skin is brown.
I want to say two things. One is that as the Waitangi Tribunal stated in its report of the Manukau Harbour, the starting point for any reconciliation must be an acknowledgement of what actually happened even if to make that acknowledgement is painful. Secondly, once the story has been told, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama need feel no shame about what happened in 1835/36. As the book and the evidence make clear, what they did was tikanga or custom at that time, in those circumstances. On the other hand, it was not tikanga according to the custom of the Moriori as spelt out by Nunuku. That is the source of frustration and hurt.*
The notion of shame is an interesting one, and underpins much of Makereti’s book. It is at its strongest amidst Lula and Bigs’ estranged whanau at Tui’s tangi. Shame is the antonym of pride, and if perpetrators (and their descendants) do not accept and acknowledge a travesty and feel the shame that should naturally accompany such knowledge, then there can be no true empathy, remorse, pride or recompense. Without shame in these contexts, there is only politicking, lies, fear and lip-service.
If it was tikanga or custom to brutally murder, and according to Makereti’s research (and Michael King’s book) even eat their unarmed victims and enslave their women and children, then one might assume that future generations would be ashamed of those customs – particularly, as the Governor-General points out, because none of that aggression was tikanga for the peaceable Moriori who did not believe in fighting to the death. And if committing brutalities was tikanga for Māori, then one might extend that and say it was also custom for Pākehā to commit brutalities on Māori too. Custom is not an excuse and does not make it right.
‘We cannot eat their tchap** the way they eat ours,’ says Imi (p. 47), and ‘What kind of man comes upon another with arms open and still attacks?’ (p. 225). Imi also tells how the Māori eat the flesh and ‘sing songs of insult to their dead hosts’ (p. 232) ‘… Our shame is as much a part of our legacy to future generations as our pride. How can it be otherwise?’
One of the most humane and appealing events in this story is the tangi of Lula and Bigs’ mother, Tui. Makereti shows how elegant and reverential the Māori tangi process can be. Over the course of the tangi, discoveries are made, relationships are changed, friendships formed, identity developed, and grief expressed and shared. It is here that Lula learns about the dark prejudice that besmeared her part-Moriori mother’s life. Apologies are offered and later, land is given to Lula and Bigs on Rekohu/Wharekauri/Chatham Islands. It is here that identity issues come to a head for Lula and Bigs, who have very different perspectives on their Moriori connection.
The New Zealand Herald reviewer wrote that Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings has ‘happy or at least reconciled and fulfilled endings.’ I disagree with the ‘happy’ bit; ‘reconciled’, yes, to some extent, but ‘fulfilled’? I doubt it. Makereti gracefully leaves the ‘ugly’ truths exposed and her characters enlightened, but not happy or fulfilled. Trouble for the absent and belligerent Bigs is only just beginning: ‘The only thing I believe in is the mana of our Tūpuna,’# Bigs says (p. 259), while ‘ “You were real Iraia, and you are still,” she thinks. “We will keep you alive,” ’ says Mere (p. 70), where she has settled for a Pākehā man who tries to be good. It is a statement made on the novel’s final page and establishes a distinctive atmosphere of both continuity and restlessness.
Various rabid online reviews, responding to the ‘shocking’ information given in Michael King’s book, call for a re-interpretation of the idea of ‘Waitangi Day’ to incorporate a remembrance of what is commonly called the ‘holocaust’ at Waitangi, Chatham Islands. While never overtly that hard-core, Tina Makereti shows that Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings does not have an ending per se, but it does indicate a new turn, as Lula’s search for knowledge and a re-configured identity is only just starting. Lula is glad to have discovered more about her mother and the ancestors she never knew about, but with knowledge comes responsibility and another kind of burden. Lula experiences a sense of belonging and reconciliation at the whare at Kopinga Marae, Rekohu, where Moriori ancestors are carved into the building and names are recorded. On page 265 the novel tells us:
The veil between the seen and unseen was thinner in this place, the sounds echoing beyond her hearing. She stood in the centre and looked through the windows, turning and seeing Rēkohu in every direction. Turning and being embraced on all sides by the world outside. The house did not separate her from the land. They were in her then. The ancestors whose memory was etched in the posts of the house. She saw as they did. The house embodied the living and the dead at the same time. The present and the absent. The visible and invisible.
I am pleased to have learnt a great deal through this gentle – yet never passive – novel, with its clear, clean, purposeful, highly personal prose, as well as through the groundswell of other reading material it offers connections to. Lest we forget.
** tchap = tapu, or sacred
# tūpuna = Māori ancestor
TASHA HAINES has a Master of Fine Arts from Elam at the University of Auckland. Formerly a lecturer in fine arts and design in Melbourne, she is now a writer, reviewer and tutor living in Wellington.