“Wanderer, freak, sailor, philosopher, Native boy in English costume, English boy in native costume. Exhibitionist, lover, clown, Maori boy, Man of the world.” – Hemi (James) Pōneke is recuperating in a house in Victorian London – and recording his story for “My future, my descendant, my mokopuna”. A future that must be better than what he has experienced – as appearing at first to be aged, we discover Hemi is young and has spent all his short eventful life looking at the world through the eyes of ‘the other’.
Hemi is the son of a Māori chief, placed with missionaries as a child when his mother and sister are killed, and his father is leading men into battle. Hemi becomes used to putting on an act to survive – moving from place to place, always managing to escape being treated as completely ‘other’ by dint of his understanding, intelligence and education. But Hemi witnesses what might happen to him if he does fall into that dangerous category, and latches onto a visiting artist, hoping to go to the golden city of London. He wants to learn and be accepted, but also to stay true to himself: “I had not the spiral markings that my father had worn, but I am sure the same ink runs through my veins”.
In London he sees both sides of society: The gentile home of the artist, with the sister who “was unfailingly kind to me, but was tied to the house”, the supportive father who is quietly disapproving of his son, and the artist for whom Hemi is a project more than a friend. And he also gets to know the demi-monde of ‘freaks’, misfits and performers. Hemi belongs in both worlds “the right side of the city and the wrong side of the river” and in neither. Placed (willingly) on display as part of the artist’s exhibit on New Zealand in the Egyptian Hall, Hemi is both the object of the gaze of privilege, and in a position to watch and wonder at the people who come to gawp. People who maybe think the same of him as he did of the animals he had seen on display at the London Zoological Gardens: “I did my best not to think what it must be like for them if they had any measure of intelligent perception”.
Hemi is well looked after in the artist’s family yet is free to follow his own path. He is befriended by the beguiling Billy Neptune and Billy’s male-dressing girlfriend, Henry. He becomes acquainted with other ‘exhibits’, both genuine and bogus, and with the range of individuals who accept each other as who they are, not by to which group they belong. For this is Victorian London, and theories of classification and progress are flourishing. And all categories and sub-categories are ranked according to an ascendancy that culminates in the ‘white heterosexual male’. A fortuitous schema in an age of colonial consolidation and an ongoing having to deal with ‘the other’.
Hemi still maintains “a mix of admiration and horror” for the world he has found himself in, and values above all his education, but increasingly he realises the depth of prejudice and blackness in the hearts of men – after all slavery is a recent memory, and “Slave labour is still slavery”. Hemi is a blank canvas: “To be orphaned is to wear a plain cloak”, and as he is working out the world and discovering himself and his desires, he gets into more and more dangerous territory. Finally, a sequence of terrible events leads to him setting out to sea, the third section of his tale – where on board there are more opportunities to explore the power plays among men, and the heartbreak of regret.
The imaginary lives of James Pōneke is a tender look at human potential and the prejudices by which it is thwarted. It discusses how we see each other: so rarely as who we are, but almost always as what we are. How we approach each other seeking how useful the other can be and knowing what we already know about the other ‘type’, never in the spirit of discovering what might be wonderfully unique about the other person. On an individual level this is a tragedy, on a societal level it is a catastrophe: it is “the darkness that sits in the hearts of men and is so beyond us to control.”
This novel really moved me, from its cover of a Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities to its sad ending, including the understanding that “We’re all of us deviants” and the incomprehension of how often we might look “into another man’s eyes and don’t see nothing there.” Hemi is narrating to a better, kinder future – a non-existent future – one even he doesn’t believe in, so touchingly betrayed by the repetition: “that we are better now, that we are better now.” Highly, highly recommended.