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Sturm, Jacqueline Cecilia

1927–2009

Te Whakatōhea, Taranaki; short-story writer and poet

This biography, written by Paul Millar, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.

J.C. Sturm, also known as Te Kare Papuni and Jacquie Baxter, was a pioneering writer of poetry and short stories. Long overshadowed by her first husband, the poet James K. Baxter, Jacquie emerged in later life as a unique and important voice in New Zealand literature in her own right.

Early life

Jacquie was born Te Kare Papuni on 17 May 1927 in the Cottage Hospital, Ōpunake. Her father, John Raymond (Jack) Papuni, was of a senior line of Te Whakatōhea from Ōpōtiki in Bay of Plenty. Through her mother, Mary Kingsley Harrison, Jacquie’s whakapapa lines include prominent chiefs and an English literary dynasty. Her maternal grandmother Moewaka Tautokai (Mary Kingi), of Taranaki and Pakahohe, was the adopted daughter of the Taranaki warrior chief turned Parihaka pacifist, Wiremu Kingi Moki Te Matakatea. Her maternal grandfather, Whare Matangi Harrison, was the nephew of the English novelist Charles Kingsley.

Mary Kingsley Papuni died of septicaemia two weeks after Jacquie’s birth. Devastated, Jacquie’s father took her older sister Evadne home to be raised by his whānau. However, Moewaka insisted on raising Jacquie in Taranaki. When Jacquie was four, Moewaka fell ill. Fearing she was dying, and concerned for Jacquie’s future, she asked a nurse aid, Ethel Sturm, who had assisted with dressing the baby’s eczema, to foster the child. Ethel and her husband Bert – himself Ngāti Porou, and owner of a successful fruit and produce market – agreed, renaming the child Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm. When Moewaka’s health improved she did not ask for Jacquie back, perhaps because the Sturms offered greater security and opportunity than an impoverished rural iwi during the depression. Bert Sturm was, nevertheless, declared bankrupt near the end of the depression, and Jacquie recalled Ethel crying as the family’s furniture was taken to cover debt, and her particular sorrow at seeing the piano removed.

In 1932, when Jacquie was five, the Sturms left Taranaki, moving successively to Auckland, Hastings, Palmerston North, Pukerua Bay and Napier. At Pukerua Bay, aged eleven and undergoing a lengthy convalescence following rheumatic fever, Jacquie began writing to cope with boredom, discovering a love of words and the pleasure of using language to create and articulate experience. Always the single Māori child in class after class of Pākehā children, Jacquie paid the price of being different, particularly in Palmerston North, where she was severely and regularly bullied for being Māori. Through writing she tried to account for these experiences and understand her place in the world, eventually realising that being out of step with the mainstream can be a creative advantage for a writer. Much of her prose and poetry describes negotiating a place between worlds and managing uncomfortably overlapping cultural and personal identities.

Jacquie was formally adopted by the Sturms in 1941. A defining experience in her late teens was visiting Māori communities in the Urewera and Bay of Plenty. Discovering how disadvantaged other Māori were, and recognising she had enjoyed opportunities denied to most young Māori, she felt obligated to try to make a difference for her people.

Although Jacquie was naturally reticent and often felt an outsider, she loved school and excelled academically and at sport, becoming dux of Napier Girls’ High School and its swimming champion. Swimming remained a life-long passion, and she always preferred living close to the sea. Her success impressed Bishop Manu Bennett, who encouraged her to feel a sense of duty to her people, and persuaded the Sturms to allow her to attend the University of Otago in 1946 to study medicine on a Māori scholarship. Despite strong grades, her entry to medical school was blocked by an influx of returning soldiers who received preferential admission. Undeterred, Jacquie began studying for a BA, hoping that a good degree would provide an alternative pathway into medicine.

University, marriage and early writing career

Jacquie continued writing poetry; her first poem was published in the student magazine Critic, and she was a runner-up in the annual poetry competition behind a young poet making a big impression on the New Zealand literary scene, James K. Baxter. At meetings of the Literary Club she heard James read his work, and after meeting socially at a friend’s house they began seeing each other. However, she was still focused on her studies and on proving that a young Māori woman could succeed in the Pākehā world. In late 1947 she moved to Canterbury University College to study anthropology under the noted social psychologist Ivan Sutherland, a strong advocate for Māori health and welfare. James followed Jacquie to Christchurch and their relationship grew increasingly serious, although his influence was often disruptive.

Christchurch had a thriving literary and artistic scene, into which James fitted as New Zealand writing’s inebriated enfant terrible, editing the literary pages of the student magazine Canta and publishing his second book of poems to acclaim. Jacquie had poetry published in Canta, but only after James left town to visit family and editor Bill Pearson discovered that poems which James had rejected had considerable merit. Pearson published three of her poems alongside one of James’s in Canta’s September 1948 issue – the only time during their lives together that they shared a page as poets. The contrast between the two styles is striking, and suggests James was not treating Jacquie badly, so much as seeing her as out of step with current trends. Ironically, James’s poem, a grandiose Miltonic oration, has not lasted well, whereas Jacquie’s delicate and lyrical poems, utilising a personal and introspective voice, are more enduring. That her early poetry was unlike anything James was writing at the time is evidence that her style was always her own.

Jacquie and James married on 9 December 1948 at Napier, then moved to Wellington, where she completed her BA in 1949. Alongside her studies she gave birth to a daughter, Hilary Ann, on 18 June 1949. Marriage was at times difficult; money was tight, she suffered a devastating late-term miscarriage in 1950, and James’s alcoholism was worsening. His drunkenness and erratic behaviour lasted until 1957, when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stopped drinking.

Despite these setbacks, and, more positively, the birth of a son, John McColl, on 29 October 1952, Jacquie continued pursuing her academic ambitions. In 1952 she received a masters’ degree, thought to be the first awarded to a Māori woman. Her dissertation on ‘New Zealand national character as exemplified in three New Zealand novelists’ (Frank Sargeson, John Mulgan and Dan Davin) was commended as being of exceptional merit and she was awarded an MA in Philosophy with first-class honours.

Alongside everything else, Jacquie was active in the local cultural club for young Māori, Ngati Poneke, and the Maori Women’s Welfare League, from the early 1950s. She represented the league on the Maori Education Foundation during the 1960s. She attended Māori activities with her children, nurturing in them a sense of their heritage and whakapapa. From time to time, James also attended, gaining through Jacquie some of the insights into the Māori world that would inform his later writing.

Early in the 1950s Jacquie turned from poetry to short fiction. This change in genre was partly in response to the editor of a New Zealand literary magazine asking her if James had helped her with one of her poems (something he never did). As a writer she was determined to make her own way – hence the use of J.C. Sturm as her pen name – and prose was a genre she made successfully her own. In 1954 her first story, ‘The old coat’, appeared in the journal Numbers. The following year, ‘For all the Saints’ became the first story written in English by a Māori writer to appear in the Department of Maori Affairs’ journal, 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 Māori writer selected for a New Zealand anthology.

Jacquie’s writing, influenced by Katherine Mansfield and by the three authors she studied for her thesis, 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 Māori. However, read against the grain of thought that expected, in Jacquie’s words, Māori ‘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.1 Her female narrators, although rarely specifically defined by their race, are marginalised figures who give a vivid sense of the constriction of and restrictions on a young woman’s life in Wellington in the 1950s.

In 1957, without consulting Jacquie, James embarked on a course of instruction which led to his conversion to Catholicism. This unilateral decision so shocked Jacquie that she questioned the honesty of their relationship, and they separated. A year later they reunited after James accepted a UNESCO posting in India and asked Jacquie to join him there with the children. In what was a defining experience for both of them, Jacquie felt for the first time part of the mainstream, while James’s experience of being the single white face in a crowd gave him first-hand understanding of how it felt to be in the minority.

By 1966 Jacquie had a collection of stories ready for publication, but no publisher. She soon became a solo parent, adopting and taking responsibility for raising Hilary’s daughter Stephanie, who was born on 29 September 1968. James, meanwhile, had left her, and eventually founded a commune at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. The pressures of child-rearing and earning a living gave her little time for further writing for the next two decades, although in her own words she ‘continued writing inside [her] head’.2 Jacquie trained to be a librarian at the New Zealand Library School, and in 1969 she joined Wellington Public Library, where she remained for 27 years and eventually took charge of its New Zealand collection.

Re-emergence as a writer

In 1972 James died suddenly, aged just 46, and was buried at Jerusalem beside the Whanganui River after a full tangi. Jacquie found herself literary executor for her prolific husband. An advocate, like her husband, for the artist’s right to be compensated for use of their work, she scrupulously and forthrightly managed James’s literary estate, unhesitatingly taking legal action against unauthorised use. Never one to explain herself for doing what she believed to be right, Jacquie ignored those who implied she was a self-interested widow profiting from her famous husband’s work. In fact, proud and self-sufficient, she refused to take a cent of royalties from James’s estate, channelling all proceeds into the James K. Baxter Charitable Trust, which supported causes James had espoused, such as prison reform and rehabilitation programmes for drug addicts.

In 1982, two of Jacquie’s stories were selected by Witi Ihimaera for his anthology of Māori writing, Into the world of light, but it took her first public reading in 1980 with, among others, Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme, to get the entire collection published.3 The women’s publishing collective Spiral printed her stories in 1983 as The house of the talking cat. Ihimaera reviewed the book, noting that though, stylistically, the stories were of an earlier era, he praised the collection and called Sturm a ‘pivotal presence in the Maori literary tradition’.4 He speculated on the different course Māori literature might have taken had the book been published in the 1960s. The stories were translated into several languages, including German and Japanese.

In the decade following the publication of The house of the talking cat, Jacquie returned to writing poetry. In 1996 she published her first collection of poetry, Dedications. It was an immediate success, with poet Robert Sullivan calling it ‘a defining moment in New Zealand poetry’.5 By commingling experiences of loss and love, youth and age, and Māori and Pākehā, her verse conveys a sense of tranquillity through acceptance of the dualities inherent in her own eventful life. Dedications earned Jacquie an Honour Award for Poetry in the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. It was followed by a second collection of poetry, Postscripts (2000) and, finally, a collection of poetry and prose, The glass house (2006).

Jacquie retired to Paekākāriki where she lived beside her beloved ocean, swimming regularly until near the end of her life. In 2000, she was honoured with the Kapiti Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2003 she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature by Victoria University of Wellington. The citation described her experiences as ‘emblematic of the difficulties Māori writers of the period faced in their efforts to be taken seriously’; the successes of her later years represented ‘an extraordinary record of achievement and perseverance in the face of considerable odds’.6

Later years

On 21 June 1998, in Paekākāriki, Jacquie married university lecturer Peter Clement Molony Alcock, who died in 2007. After losing Peter she continued living in Paekākāriki, surrounded by her growing whānau and actively involved in their lives. As she aged and became more dependent, Stephanie and her family moved into Jacquie’s home to care for her. Sadly, life dealt one final cruel blow on 31 October 2009, when Stephanie died suddenly of septicaemia, the infection that had claimed the life of Jacquie’s mother and from which her daughter Hilary would die in November 2013. To lose the granddaughter she had raised as her own child was a blow from which Jacquie never recovered. She was already unwell, and her health declined dramatically. She died in Wellington on 30 December 2009, aged 82.

Whānau and friends travelled from all over New Zealand to farewell her in a memorable tangi at Orimupiko marae. She is buried at Ōpunake alongside her mother and great-grandmother and surrounded by whānau, with her mountain, Taranaki, commanding the eastern horizon and the song of Tangaroa breaking endlessly on the nearby beach.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie, eds. The Oxford companion to New Zealand literature. Melbourne, 1998, p.518. Back
  2. Citation for Victoria University honorary doctorate. Back
  3. Witi Ihimaera and D.S. Long, eds. Into the world of light: an anthology of Maori writing. Auckland, 1982, pp.69-89. Back
  4. New Zealand Listener, 17 March 1984, p.91. Back
  5. New Zealand Listener, 1 March 1997, p.49. Back
  6. Citation for Victoria University honorary doctorate. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Millar. 'Sturm, Jacqueline Cecilia', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6s1/sturm-jacqueline-cecilia (accessed 22 October 2018)