Keri Hulme, New Zealand’s First Booker Prize Winner, Dies at 74

The power Ms. Hulme drew from her Maori heritage shone through in her work, especially in “The Bone People,” which won the literary prize in 1985.

The power Ms. Hulme drew from her Maori heritage shone through in her work, especially in “The Bone People,” which won the literary prize in 1985.

Keri Hulme, the Maori writer who became the first New Zealander to win the prestigious Booker Prize with her luminous debut novel, “The Bone People,” securing her place in the country’s literary canon, died on Monday at a residential care home in Waimate, New Zealand. She was 74.

The cause of death was complications from dementia, said Bruce Harding, her friend and literary biographer.

When a British literary critic phoned her about her prize in 1985 from the award ceremony in London, which she did not attend, Ms. Hulme responded over a crackly connection. “You are pulling my leg, aren’t you?” she said. Then she concluded, “Oh — bloody hell.”

Published in 1984, “The Bone People” is the brutal, lyrical story of the friendship among a mute child, his abusive foster father and the Maori hermit and lapsed painter Kerewin Holmes, who is often taken to be loosely autobiographical.

Inspired by a series of dreams, the novel took 17 years to write, and it was rejected by multiple publishers. After a frenzied rewrite, it was ultimately published by the Spiral Collective, a feminist group that had never published a novel before. It sold more than 1.2 million copies.

The novel’s themes spoke to Ms. Hulme’s interest in New Zealand’s development as a bicultural society, Dr. Harding said. “She told me she wanted to create a bridge for Pakeha,” the Maori word for non-Maori, “into a Maori way of thinking.”

At the time of the novel’s publication, Ms. Hulme (pronounced HEW-m) was a relatively unknown writer even in her native New Zealand. But the book’s surprise win over shortlisted titles by Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing vaulted her into the literary spotlight, prompting brutal criticism from New Zealand’s established, and mostly male, literary elite.

In a letter published in The London Review of Books in 1985, the New Zealand writer C.K. Stead cast aspersions on Ms. Hulme’s Maori heritage and cultural familiarity, and on the novel’s having been awarded the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature. “Her uses of Maori language and mythology strike me as willed, self-conscious, not inevitable, not entirely authentic,” he wrote.

Of the sudden media attention, Patrick Evans, a professor emeritus of New Zealand literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said: “There was just that one moment of eruption. She was nobody, and then everybody wanted her, and I thought it was a bit much for her, really.”

The fierceness of the backlash, along with the pressure of winning such a prestigious award for an early novel she often described as an “apprentice” work, appears to have pushed Ms. Hulme into a more solitary life and discouraged her from publishing further work, said Dr. Harding.

The oldest of six children, she was born Kerry Ann Hulme in Christchurch, New Zealand, to John William Hulme, a painter and carpenter of British descent and a prominent figure in their suburb’s business community, and Mary Ann Lilian Miller. Her father occasionally described her mother as a Maori princess, Ms. Hulme recalled in a 2011 radio interview.

The family lived in New Brighton, a working-class coastal suburb of Christchurch. But when Mr. Hulme died suddenly at 42, Ms. Hulme, then 11, became her mother’s principal helper.

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Ms. Hulme, second from right, with members of the Spiral Publishing collective in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1984.Credit…NZME, via AP

The two had a close-knit, “symbiotic,” relationship, Dr. Harding said, traveling around the world together, playing ferocious games of Scrabble and calling each other daily until her mother’s death from an accident in 2019.

It was perhaps because of their closeness that Ms. Hulme became interested in her mother’s Maori heritage as a child, opting to use Keri, the Maori version of her name, compiling a bilingual Maori-English dictionary and later learning the language. “Of all my family, I look the least Maori,” she often told Dr. Harding, “but feel the most Maori.”

The power Ms. Hulme drew from her heritage shone through in her work, said Dr. Evans. “Writing as a Maori, for Keri, was the only way she could have written at all.”

After attending North New Brighton Primary School and Aranui High School in Christchurch, Ms. Hulme worked for a season picking hops and tobacco in the Tasman region before briefly studying law at the University of Canterbury.

She then took odd jobs across the country before working at the post office in the rural town of Greymouth on the remote West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. She believed it would give her time and space to write.

It was there that she learned to whitebait, or catch tiny, transparent juvenile fish. It was an “obsession,” as she put it, that sustained her for the rest of her life. Dr. Evans described her regularly absconding from one writing residency with a net for catching whitebait strapped to the roof of her car.

“You’d see this whitebaiting net, sort of moving out through the car park, and you knew she was getting away,” he said.

Ms. Hulme continued to live mostly on the West Coast, including for more than four decades in the small New Zealand settlement of Okarito, a former gold-mining village, on a plot she won in a lottery in 1973. When she had lived farther inland, she told the magazine Flash Frontier in 2012, “I get depressed and sick, drink too much and don’t do anything creative.”

At once shy with strangers and a generous, gregarious host to those she loved, Ms. Hulme was uninterested in romantic or sexual relationships, referring to herself as “neuter.” She never married or had children and is survived by two sisters, Kate Salmons and Diane McAuliffe, and a brother, John Hulme, in addition to many nieces and nephews.

“If you knew her, if she knew you, she would make time and move heaven and earth to make time for you and spend that time well,” said Matthew Salmons, her nephew. “The family she was born into and the family that she made was the utmost of importance to her,” he added.

Ms. Hulme lived alone in a home she helped to build that had about 12,000 books and smelled strongly of sweet tobacco smoke, Mr. Salmons said. She spent much of her time smoking a pipe or cigarillos, playing the guitar, painting, fishing, eating, drinking and cooking. Two unfinished novels, each running to hundreds of pages, were never published despite significant advances from publishers.

“It might seem that I’m low in the productive stakes,” she told Radio New Zealand in 2011. “But I don’t think the writing game is about being productive. I don’t think it’s about being a celebrity at all. It’s about creating stories and songs that will last. Otherwise, it’s not worthwhile.”

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