Digging deep for a yarn

LIFE STORIES: Hinemoana Baker is dredging up some painful personal stories as part of her stint as Victoria University's writer in residence.
LIFE STORIES: Hinemoana Baker is dredging up some painful personal stories as part of her stint as Victoria University's writer in residence.

Hinemoana Baker's career was written in stone from an early age. "My accountant told me that you should do for a living whatever you were doing at age 8. He was counting money. I was writing.

"I was writing a novel on my sister's typewriter. All I can remember is that there was a shipwreck in every chapter, possibly metaphorical."

All these years later, Baker's writing can't be defined by one genre. And shipwrecks don't get a look in, though the metaphorical ones might.

As a singer-songwriter she has put out five albums. She has published several books of poetry, including her most recent - waha/mouth.

The 46-year-old Wellingtonian has been a self-employed musician, writer, editor and broadcaster for 20 years, juggling lots of small and medium-sized contracts, so this year, as the Victoria University writer in residence, she has 12 months to focus her energies on one project. "Knowing you're not going to starve is the main thing. But it's a real luxury this year to say I'm just going to do one thing and that one thing is writing. And this project is probably some of the hardest work I've ever done."

The subject matter is deeply personal.

One aspect deals with her father's traumatic experiences at Sunnybank children's home, a Catholic institution in Nelson that took in boys aged between 5 and 15, often from broken or troubled homes. Her father, Valentine Rangiwaititi Baker, 76, was at the home with his four brothers for three years between the late 1940s and early 1950s, says Baker, who is descended from Ngai Tahu, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Toa and Te Ati Awa. The boys' mother had died and their father couldn't look after them. He didn't want them split up, so put them all in the institution.

Valentine and his brothers had it rough at the home. "There were two nuns at Sunnybank who were particularly cruel and vicious. Imaginatively cruel. I think their punishments were extreme. They involved not just beatings, as if they weren't bad enough - and for Dad that was almost daily - the kids would get into bed at night and compare welts. But when they tried to run away, they would be thrown into the duck pond. This happened even in winter. The pond was filthy and deep and Dad was only about 8 years old at the time. The nuns would get the other boys to hold them down. It was ugly."

Her father remembers a time when a child did something that was perceived to be bad behaviour and no-one was owning up to it. "At the time the boys were digging the foundations for a meat safe, so the nuns took the toys that had been donated by the community for Christmas and made the boys put the toys one by one into the foundations and cement them in."

The second aspect to her story is Baker's own experience trying unsuccessfully to have a child.

Because she was in a same-sex relationship, that meant organising donors. With one miscarriage and many disappointments, it was a rough road to travel, she says.

Each month, when she discovered she was not pregnant, it felt like a death, but an invisible one and one she couldn't talk about.

"I couldn't stop trying. I felt like it was such an obsession, an almost pathological obsession. It was really hard to connect with people who were not either doing it at the same time or had been through it. It was especially hard when everyone around me was getting pregnant.

"It was terrible for my partner at the time and it had a massive effect on our relationship. It would have been like being with a crazy person."

After seven years of trying, Baker called it a day. She had no emotional headroom left to keep trying. Baker had depression in the past and this relentless pursuit was making her ill again.

"I was becoming not such a great prospect for motherhood. [Giving up] destroyed me. It was gutting. I was really dysfunctional for about 18 months."

Baker says she learnt a hell of a lot from her ordeal about grief, not to mention anatomy and biology. Her sense of humour has taken a step towards the dark and inappropriate.

She has reframed her life towards things she can do without children. "I have slowly let other things in my life blossom. Being Maori, it's such a whakapapa-based culture, everything is about genealogy. Even as a queer woman you sometimes wonder how you fit in to that. I have not felt alienated on that level, but I have really had to let go of another preconception of who I am as Maori and what that means."

There are strong connections between her father's story and her own, she says. At the beginning of the year she didn't know how they were connected. But she knew they both had the same energy, a sort of twin impulse.

"Now I know why I want to tell those stories together. It's to do with children and loss and burial."

The Dominion Post