John Pule is a poet and artist born in Liku, Niue. His work explores the history, mythology and make-up of his country of origin, often in parallel with experience of life and culture in New Zealand. His painting and poetry inform each other and narratives in his work span the historical, mythical, genealogical and autobiographical. Pule, who arrived in New Zealand in 1964, weaves together these elements to raise questions about cultural belonging and the nature of storytelling.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Pule, John Puhiatau (1962– ), was born in Liku, Niue, and arrived in New Zealand in 1964. He began writing in 1980 after reading the work of Hone Tuwhare, and has published poetry including Sonnets to Van Gogh and Providence (1982), Flowers after the Sun (1984) and Bond of Time (1985). He took up painting in 1987 with the encouragement of artist Tony Fomison, his dual interests coming together in the late 1980s in a series of paintings of texts in Nuiean which confronted his audience with evidence of his cultural difference. Since his first return trip to Niue in 1991, Pule has taken increased interest in the history, mythology and make-up of his country of origin. This is registered in his painting, which now typically takes the form and employs the colour range of Nuiean tapa, and in his novel, The Shark That Ate the Sun: Ko E Mago Ne Kai E La (1992), one of the most significant texts of the immigrant Pacific community.
This combines sequences of historical, mythical, genealogical and autobiographical narrative. The varied languages of these entangled stories are frequently visionary and poetic as they describe the journeying, survival under difficulty, and the alofa among a migrant Niuean family. A prologue takes the reader into an ecstatic present, releasing images of loss and rebirth, city and village, and introducing the novel’s themes of anti-colonialism, anti-nuclear protest, desire, family ties and violence. The first of the novel’s three main sections comprises letters between family members, with prose and poetic pieces that contrast life in Niue and New Zealand. Part Two is a lush, lyrical and erotic thirty-poem sequence set on nineteenth-century Niue. The narrator of the third section describes his home, school, work and prison experiences in various suburbs of Auckland, interspersed with a chapter of legends which emphasises the disjunction between migrant life and the mythical Pacific and reconnects the characters to that past. A spiritual poem combining Christian and Niuean symbols forms the epilogue.
Burn My Head in Heaven (Penguin, 1998) is a novel tracing the story of Niuean family and their burning desire to leave their island homes, discarding the traditional ways for the streets of Auckland. (From cover blurb.)
John Pule was the 1996 Waikato University Writer-in-Residence, and in 2000, he was awarded the Auckland University Literary Fellowship. He was also honoured the 2004 Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate, a career award which aims to ensure recipients' talents are celebrated both nationally and internationally.
Pule's Hiapo: Past and Present in Niuean Barkcloth (University of Otago Press, 2005), is co-authored with Australian writer and anthropologist Nicholas Thomas. This is the first book to be published about hiapo, the barkcloth or tapa of Niue. This neglected art form was produced in the mid to late nineteenth century and surviving pieces are now dispersed, largely in museum collections in North America, the Pacific and throughout Europe. Pule and Thomas spent ten years combing through these museums searching for surviving hiapo.
Pule was a co-recipient of the Ursula Bethell Residency in Creative Writing at the University of Canterbury in 2013.
A new edition of The Bond of Time: An Epic Love Poem was published by Canterbury University Press in 2014 and includes an introduction by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- John Pule’s Arts Foundation Laureate profile
Updated January 2017.