FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Sturm, J.C. (Jacqueline Cecilia) (1927– 2009), Maori, of Taranaki, born in Opunake, is a writer of short stories and poetry. In the late 1940s her poetry was published in student newspapers and the Review. She married the poet James K. Baxter in 1948, and in 1949 became one of the first Māori women to obtain a university degree when she completed her BA at Canterbury University.
The following year she began an MA in Philosophy at Victoria University, writing a dissertation on ‘New Zealand National Character as Exemplified in Three New Zealand Novelists’, which was commended as being of exceptional merit and awarded first class honours.
Early in the 1950s she began writing short fiction: in 1954 her first story ‘The Old Coat’ appeared in Numbers 1 and a year later ‘For All the Saints’ became the first story written in English by a Maori writer to appear in Te Ao Hou. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s she featured regularly in Numbers and Te Ao Hou, both writing and reviewing. C.K. Stead included ‘For All the Saints’ in New Zealand Short Stories: Second Series (Oxford University Press, 1966), making her the first Maori writer selected for a New Zealand anthology. Sturm’s writing, influenced by Mansfield and by Sargesonian realism, is finely crafted and has been compared favourably to others writing at that time, such as Noel Hilliard and Maurice Gee.
The stories are succinct and lucid and on first reading they appear to embrace the era’s dominant ethos—that New Zealanders were one nation—by avoiding specific reference to Maori. However, read against the grain of thought that expected, in Sturm’s words, all Maori ‘to become respectable middle-class citizens, a lighter shade of brown, as it were’, it becomes clear that the society she depicts fosters inequality, and her work conveys a strong and poignant sense of alienation.
Her female narrators, although rarely defined by their race, are marginalised figures that give a vivid sense of the constriction and restrictions of a young woman’s life in Wellington in the 1950s. Lydia Wevers notes that by supplying ‘the missing term "Māori" Sturm’s stories fall horrifyingly into place’. Sturm herself commented that ‘whether my work has any [overt] Māori content or not we’re talking about a way of looking, a way of feeling and a way of being’.
By 1966 Sturm had a collection of stories ready for publication, but no publisher. In 1969 she became a solo parent and the pressures of earning a living left her little time for further writing for over 20 years. In 1982 ‘First Native and Pink Pig’ and ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ were featured in the anthology of Maori writing Into the World of Light (ed. Ihimaera and Long), but it took her first public reading—in 1980 with, among others, Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme—to get the entire collection published. The women’s publishing collective Spiral printed her stories in 1983 as The House of the Talking Cat, which was shortlisted in the New Zealand Book Awards and reprinted in 1986 by Hodder & Stoughton.
Reviewers, while commenting that stylistically the stories were of an earlier era, praised the collection, with Witi Ihimaera calling her a ‘pivotal presence in the Maori literary tradition’ and speculating on the course Maori literature might have taken had ‘J.C. Sturm and Cat achieved success and publication in their time, rather than twenty years later’ (NZ Listener, 17 Mar. 1984).
In the decade following the publication of The House of the Talking Cat Sturm returned to writing poetry. Her recent poems are dedicated to family and friends (including Janet Frame, Jean Watson and Peter Alcock) with the poems to her late husband having a particular poignancy: ‘None will ever know where / Those years of exploration / And discovery took us / And what we found there’ (‘P.S. 22/10/91 (for Jim)’).
Published as Dedications (1996) which received the Honour Award for Poetry in the Montana Book Awards for 1997, her poetry was an immediate success. By commingling experiences of loss and love, youth and age, and Maori and Pakeha, Sturm’s verse conveys a sense of tranquillity through acceptance of the dualities inherent in her own eventful life.
Her poems have been published in Landfall 183 (1992), 186 (1993) and 194 (1997); Kapiti Poems 6 (1992) and 7 (1994); and Te Ao Marama Vol. 1. In addition there is an interview and series of poems in Hecate (20.2, 1994). Twelve of her poems are collected in How Things Are (1996).
J. C. Sturm received the Honour Award for Poetry for Dedications at the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Sturm's collection of poetry Postscripts was published in 2000. She wrote, 'When I had finished Dedications I still hadnt finished what I had to say. Thats why I've called the second book Postscripts... sometimes when you write a letter the thing you really want to say you add as a postscript.'
In May 2003, Jacquie Baxter (also known as J.C. Sturm) received an Honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Victoria University of Wellington. A new edition of House of the Talking Cat was published in 2003.
J.C. Sturm passed away on December 30, 2009, in Paekakariki.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- J. C. Sturm’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File.