The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti
Auckland: Penguin Random House, Vintage (2018)
RRP: $38. Pb, 294pp
Reviewed by Rebecca Styles
Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (2018) is a rollicking tale that takes the reader from 1840s New Zealand to the streets of Victorian London, and expands into questions of representation, gender and sexual identity.
James is swept from his idyllic childhood into a Missionary House by his father, a chief, when his mother and sister are killed in inter-tribal warfare. At the Mission House he learns English, and falls in love with learning and Biblical stories. With this new focus on Mission knowledge and education, James’s life becomes liminal as European habits influence him, and his connection to his whakapapa is lost when his father dies.
Navigating the Pākehā and Māori worlds becomes fraught when James lives in a Pākehā village. When a stranger with facial tattoo and carrying a musket comes into the village asking for food in te reo, James cannot answer him. And when two of the Pākehā villagers attack and kill the visitor, James’s inaction shows us how he conforms to the dominant European culture in the village in order to survive, and the dangers that could lie in store for him if he were to speak up.
James’s next adventure starts when he meets an Englishman, referred to in the novel as the Artist. The Artist takes James to London to be educated in exchange for helping him with his exhibition there. In the exhibition, James will stand as a living object alongside the Artist’s drawings and artefacts.
Dressed in a cloak, and wearing a hei tiki, James holds a taiaha in the Exhibition Hall, and visitors stare at James ‘as if I were a painting’ (125). Guests to the exhibit are surprised and startled that James speaks English. The Artist explains to James: ‘Your particular charm lies in the unexpected, I think, James. They already have ideas about what a native person should be […] But you are an educated savage, the civilised’ (127).
While the Artist sees James as a civilised savage, James sees himself as an ambassador; however, there are some occasions when he wonders if he should be performing. During a wero, performed for two particularly arrogant guests, he says, “The truth was I really didn’t know what I was doing. If one of my own people had been there I wouldn’t have attempted a wero like this. It wasn’t what I was made for, with my English ways and my nose perpetually in a book” (129). While on the one hand James feels like an ambassador, on the other he feels the blurring of his identity between Māori and Pākehā cultures.
While this story might only be about James experiencing the colonial gaze, Makereti complicates this by having James gaze at the guests. The subjectivity of the visitors is also called into question as they find themselves viewed as objects. This is especially apparent when James speaks English, and he sees ‘the boundary between them and me blurred, and they did not feel so real themselves, and they were not quite so sure of the way of things anymore’ (151).
This blurring continues in the Exhibition Hall. It’s presented as a liminal space where both the genteel people of London, and the not so genteel, meet. It’s where James meets Billy Neptune who shows him the other side of London, a place of theatres, music, spectacle and public houses, and where the liminality of gender and sexuality opens up. The novel shifts from the colonial gaze, and objectivity and subjectivity, to the performance of sexuality and gender.
Like Makereti’s first novel, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014), this novel concerns belonging and representation and, similarly, the narrator speaks to future generations. While Makereti’s first novel was an intergenerational story, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke stays in the past yet its themes of cultural, gender and sexual identity resonate in the present. It shows us the past so that we can evaluate the present. It’s a riveting tale of a life that feels entirely real, rather than imaginary.
Rebecca Styles (PhD in creative writing at Massey University) has written a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She’s had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.