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John Puhiatau Pule


John Pule’s Epic of Migration

Peter Simpson

First published in Landfall 196 (Spring 1998): 316-19


I was tempted to describe John Pule’s new novel Burn My Head in Heaven[1] as part of a diptych—together with his earlier novel The Shark that Ate the Sun (1992)[2]—until in a casual conversation with the author at the opening of a recent exhibition of his paintings in Auckland Pule mentioned his wish to add a third book to the sequence. Obviously any talk of a diptych is premature. What I had in mind in applying a term derived from painting to works of fiction was, first, to draw attention to the fact that Pule unusually sustains a double career as both a visual artist and a writer; second, to propose that in his fiction he adopts techniques which are loosely but suggestively analogous to his painting; and, third, to attest that Pule’s work in whatever medium contributes to a multiple but unified project: to tell the story of a people—colonised, Christianised, dislocated, relocated—which it is his impassioned vocation to record.

As a painter Pule’s practice (at least since about 1991, when he began painting in the manner which has brought him wide recognition) involves a skilful fusion of traditional Pacific elements and contemporary western art practices. One starting point for his art is the Pacific-wide practice of barkcloth decoration, usually known by the generic term tapa.[3] In Niue where Pule was born in 1962 (he emigrated to New Zealand with his parents in 1964) barkcloth is known as hiapo. According to Nicholas Thomas: ‘ Niueans did not use block rubbing or other devices for the mass replication of motifs. Freehand painting gave the hiapo an open, experimental character; the combination of repetition and deliberate irregularity produces patterns that are dynamic rather then merely decorative.’[4] Elsewhere, Thomas remarks, ‘ Pule in no sense slavishly reproduces these designs, but draws more loosely on the structure of quadrilateral divisions, and combines grids, triangles and flowing patterns with figurative imagery’.[5] Pule utilises western art materials—oil paints and canvas—though he generally confines himself to one or two dark colours which increases the visual similarity of his paintings to tapa.

The characteristic of Pule’s art of which I am most reminded by his fiction is its juxtaposition of numerous different kinds of imagery, some abstract, some representational, with many variants which fall somewhere between these two extremes. As I wrote in a review of his latest exhibition: ‘The images range from abstract patterns to simple depictions of people, creatures and objects, the most prominent effect being a promiscuous mixing of styles of representation and imaging—some familiar and immediately recognisable . . . some traditional, others private and unreadable.’[6]

The equivalent effect in the fiction is the juxtaposition within and between chapters and sections of different kinds and styles of writing. This collage-like effect of discontinuity and abrupt transition is especially noticeable in the early chapters of The Shark though it is also present in the second novel. The Shark begins with a prologue written in a kind of Rimbaud-like, rhapsodic surreal prose-poetry. For example:

‘The black god tore my chest open as lovers do, and the first thing he grabbed hold of was the state house he tore from the earth, and blew the windows out, opened the door and sucked out the sad mothers of Polynesia, the sad men, the sad children’ (p. 9)

From this febrile intensity we pass to several low-key chapters made up of letters dating from the early 1940s passing back and forth between family members in Niue and New Zealand, introducing the theme of migration, of going or staying, which is central to both novels and paintings[7], as it is to Niuean experience in general. The letters between children and parents, brother and sister, are affectingly simple and direct. In Chapter Two, which reverts to a mode of personal lyricism, verse is introduced for the first time. (Later in The Shark a whole section of the novel consists of thirty poems purporting to be written by a nineteenth century Niuean poet.)

After several chapters alternating between the ‘letters home’ mode and the more personal and lyrical mode, comes a chapter which summarises in discursive style the history of contacts between Europeans and Niueans from Cook’s brief visit to what he called ‘Savage Island’ in 1774 to an account of the arrival of the first white missionary on Niue in 1861.

Beginning with Chapter Seven, which describes the arrival in Auckland in 1964 of Puhia (a character based on the author’s father), a more conventional narrative mode is adopted, describing the harsh and passionate lives of Niuean immigrants living in Auckland’s inner suburbs. These parts of the novel make compelling if somewhat painful reading. As an account of urban experience at the bottom of the social and economic heap there is nothing remotely comparable in New Zealand writing; even Once Were Warriors pales by comparison. In selecting The Shark as his book of the year in 1992 Geoff Chapple wrote: ‘It unreels the dark history of Puhia, immigrant to New Zealand, worker, boozer, and the Niueans of Karangahape Road pubs who still hold onto the gods of the sea and the stones. Their peeling-paint houses in Grey Lynn and Otara.’[8] In her review Keri Hulme praised its linguistic vibrancy: ‘his language shimmers and dances, he does not fall into the trap of using an impoverished vocabulary to portray impoverished people and circumstances’.[9]

In Burn My Head in Heaven the discontinuities, though present, are somewhat less extreme than in The Shark. The relationship between the two novels is quite unusual. It is not like a conventional family saga in which there is a sequential chronology between one book and the next. The second book tells essentially the same broad story as the first, and though the names are different the central characters are easily identifiable as the same. Potau, the father figure, in the second novel is clearly the same person as Puhia in the first. Nogi, the matriarchal aunt in Burn My Head is different only in name from Mocca in The Shark, the woman whose house bought with the proceeds of betting at the Ellerslie racecourse becomes the nerve centre of the Niuean community, and first point of call for all new migrants from The Rock. Fisi in the first book (evidently a kind of autobiographical self-portrait) becomes Fati (or more usually Tu) in the second.

Both novels centre on the story of a family, clearly based on the author’s own. At the centre is the autobiographical figure of Fisi/Tu, and his parents and close relatives. Beyond them are other members of the extended family and the wider Niuean and Pacific Island communities. Many episodes are repeated but in general the emphasis falls in a different place second time round. Events which are treated cursorily in one book are worked up much more fully in the second. For instance, there are passing references in The Shark to entertainments got up to accompany hair-cutting ceremonies and the like, but in Burn My Head one such episode—a narrative tour de force—is given extended treatment lasting for several chapters. (After rehearsals in Parnell the performers are invariably hassled by the police on their way home to Newmarket or Kingsland; the casual racism of their treatment is told with a lack of rhetorical inflation which is truly chilling.)

A major difference between the two books is that life in Niue is treated much more extensively in Burn My Head than in The Shark. Since Pule was only two when he left Niue, the presentation of life on the island of his parents and grandparents in the village of Liku is an act of remarkable fictional reconstruction. Family stories, historical events, legends and myths are tangled together with extraordinary complexity, highly reminiscent of the crowded imagery of Pule’s paintings in which the real and the legendary indiscriminately cohabit the same space. The density of the multiple narratives—shifting without transition from one level of reality to another—makes for sometimes arduous reading, but the rewards for perseverance are considerable. Some reviews of Burn My Head which measure the book against the example of standard commercial fiction and find it wanting, are depressingly wide of the mark.

The Shark brought the story of the autobiographical hero up to the point of his emergence from the mean streets of Auckland as a wild young poet; Burn My Head brings his story forward a further decade or so to his discovery of painting as a vocation and encompasses his first return visit to his homeland. Even if no further volumes eventuate John Pule has done much more than tell the story of his life. He has made of his and his family’s story an epic of migration which—together with the paintings which draw from the same rich matrix of experience and story and legend—articulates the history and consciousness of a people. It is an achievement the scale of which, especially in the literary world, has hardly begun to be recognised.



1. John Pule, Burn My Head in Heaven: Tugi e Ulu haaku he Langi Auckland , Penguin Books, 1998, pb, 279pp.

2. John Puhiatau Pule, The Shark that Ate the Sun: Ko e Maago ne Kai e Laa, Auckland, Penguin Books, 1992, pb 294pp.

3. See Nicholas Thomas, Oceanic Art, London, Thames and Hudson, 1995, especially Chapter 6, ‘ Barkcloth, Exchange and Sanctity’, pp. 131-50.

4. Nicholas Thomas, ‘Born in Paradise: Place and Desire in John Pule’s Paintings’, exhibition catalogue, Auckland, Gow Langsford Gallery, 1996

5. Nicholas Thomas, ‘Lost Gods: The Paintings of John Pule’, Art and Asia Pacific, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1994, p. 100

6. Peter Simpson, ‘ Niue at Heart of Artist’s Work’, Sunday Star-Times, July 19, 1998, p. F3

7. See, for example, Nofo a Koe Ka fano a au (You stay, I go), oil on canvas, 1996 ( Tamaki Campus, University of Auckland)

8. Geoff Chapple in New Zealand Books 7, December 1992, p.1.

9. Keri Hulme, ibid., p. 4

Peter Simpson

Last updated 25 September, 2005