Tina Makereti’s 2018 novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke tells the story of a young Māori boy who travels to London to become part of an exhibition that displays Māori culture to an audience of Victorian England. It’s a book about identity, about belonging and unbelonging, about violence and humanity, and – what I want to focus on here – about gaze and desire.
The gaze is a motif that runs through the novel in a multitude of ways. The protagonist Hemi is confronted with being an outsider and Other throughout his childhood long before he even reaches London. His formative years are influenced by his experience of what it means to be looked at, to be studied closely, and to look at and actively perceive those around him in turn.
After arriving in London, Hemi soon becomes part of an exhibition arranged by his benefactor. He is the main spectacle, but he also always makes sure to watch and observe his audience. In London, he practises being both spectacle and spectator at zoos, in theatres and at shows (both high- and lowbrow), and in the streets. The centre of the Empire becomes the recipient of his gaze. The gaze can be understood as a form of colonial power, of violence and othering, and through Hemi we see a subversion of the power structure by altering the direction of looking.
It is only later when he meets his friend Billy, whom he regards as non-normative and – due to the relationship with his cross-dressing, perhaps trans-coded girlfriend Henry – as somewhat queer, that the gaze becomes loaded with desire and potential for Hemi. After he realises that Billy must have felt attracted to Henry when he still thought she was a boy, Hemi begins to question what he knows (and feels) about attraction and desire:
“It had been there from the start, I knew, but Henry’s story changed everything. Not everything I knew, but everything it was possible to feel. She had opened up a world in which Billy could look at a man and feel love, and act on it. A world in which I could do the same.”(p. 157)
What we see here is Hemi’s sexual awakening happening in two directions. It is the real, almost tangible prospect of queerness that is revealed to him through Billy and Henry’s complex relationship with heteronormativity – despite what he knows about the taboo nature of homosexuality in Christianity. This is the first time that this kind of desire becomes a real option in Hemi’s mind.
The other, much more present realisation is one specifically related to Billy as a person: Hemi wants to share at least part of the intimacy Billy has with Henry, wants to be desired in the same way he slowly comes to understand he himself desires Billy:
“I was still curious about one thing. I had seen Billy gazing on her with as much devotion as I think one person could ever bestow on anybody, and I had a sudden desire to be the recipient of that gaze. What was the thing that made her irresistible to him, even dressed as she was?”(154)
Perhaps for the first time, Hemi actively wants to be looked at, be perceived, because he wishes his desire to be reciprocated. Desire and gaze are related here, immediately, by Makereti’s word choice: Hemi thinks about Billy gazing at Henry, or alternatively looking at a man, and concludes that he wants to experience this as well, both actively and passively. Desire and gaze are intertwined for Hemi, to desire and want something means to see it, to experience it wholly through sight, through looking and examining it.
What starts as potential between Billy and Hemi and is ultimately left unrealised, is then further explored in Hemi’s relationship to sailor and former slave Ethan. The first time Hemi mentions Ethan, he says, “He saw me perhaps even before I saw myself. He knew me.” (p. 220), implicitly characterising their relationship as one filled with desire and longing because we have already encountered how Hemi expresses and understands (queer) desire through the gaze.
We are further made to understand that to Hemi, desire is still something (perhaps inherently) ineffable, something that is explored through sensual experience rather than words and reason: “I told him my own small story of adventure and woe. All but my feelings for Billy, which were something I had not the language to reveal.” (p. 225)
This also separates Hemi’s past experiences with his unfulfilled desire for Billy from the new reality aboard the ship. Although he followed Billy there, he doesn’t bring their history into the newly developing relationship with Ethan.
This relationship unfolds in a series of moments of direct looking, watching, observing, and most importantly, secretly longing for each other:
“I remember that deep voice. The sureness of it. The deep swell of it. I began seeking him out.(p. 226)
‘And what of women, Ethan? Have you a wife?’
‘I’ve had women, but not a wife. I don’t know there is one for me, to tell the truth of it.’ He looked at me then, too long. Just a moment too long.”
It is of course no accident that Ethan looks at Hemi and Hemi recognises this look immediately after Ethan admits to being a bachelor, possibly uninterested in women. The gaze doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is employed as a deliberate tool of communication, an encoded expression of desire.
When Hemi starts to look back at Ethan, he tells the reader explicitly what he sees, inviting us to witness his perception of Ethan, taking us with him on the road to desire:
“Ethan […] began climbing the rigging, his muscles working under a sheen of sweat, the evening light glancing off just so.(p. 226)
I became his disciple, watching my new friend far too often and at too much length. And when I saw him look back I didn’t trust it for a long time – I thought it might be my own feelings clouding my perception. A look that lingers too long is not enough to mean anything, and yet I wanted it to.”
Hemi still hesitates because although he knows how to read a gaze as a deliberate expression of desire, he has no way of knowing if it was intended this way. The uncertainty and anxiety over his own feelings and whether they may be reciprocated mirrors his past with Billy, but this time they culminate in a scene charged with anticipation and, for the first time, certainty of mutuality:
“As was my custom, I stole glances, reminding myself not to stare too long. We talked to the other men at the table, laughed a bit, chewed and drank, and looked. I watched his lips as he chewed, the way his throat flexed to swallow. And that was when I saw it: his eyes ran slowly down the length of my face, lingered at my neck, and rose to meet my own again. It was a caress, the way that look played over me. And I knew. What had seemed an impossibility slowly became imaginable, probable even, if only I could cross that space between us.”(p. 227)
Again, Hemi lets us take part in what he sees, his desire becomes palpable for the reader – and finally he realises with certainty that his feelings are returned. It is still only through recognition of the gaze (rather than an explicit exchange of words or more obvious signs) that he understands what he hoped for has become reality. He is the recipient of Ethan’s gaze.
This becomes even more tangible in the next line: “I came to know my own desire in my recognition of his. Ethan looked at me like a cold and thirsty sailor might look at a long hot mug of coffee spiked with whiskey.” (p. 227) The state of being both active and passive in the act of gazing makes Hemi fully understand his own desire, the reflection of the gaze makes the act of gazing an unquestionable reality. The way that Ethan looks at him tells him all he needs to know; he is desired, he is wanted.
This sentiment is mirrored once the two of them actually have sex and Hemi thinks: “I felt his need as if it were my own, but then it was my own.” (p. 228) Reciprocation and reflection is what characterises their relationship more than anything else, starting with the gaze and ending in a fulfilled physical relationship.
Eventually though, Hemi and Ethan are found out because someone saw them having sex. Their punishment is harsh and violent. What brought them together in one way – beeing seen – is ultimately also what tears their brief relationship apart. We are reminded that the act of seeing, observing and watching is still also a tool of power, both colonial and heteronormative. To be hidden from the gaze is a privilege the two of them are not afforded.
This is made even clearer after Hemi survives the shipwreck and eventually goes to inspect the dead bodies of those who didn’t:
“On the final day I went down to greet my brothers out of some sense of duty. I shouldn’t have. Ethan was grey and blue and bloated, only half of his face and one of his arms intact, but I knew it was him.”(p. 241)
To see, to know, to experience is not always preferable to being in the dark about something. On the contrary, it can be traumatic and horrifying. Seeing, experiencing and knowing are all in themselves ambivalent and not just expressions of desire as they were for Hemi and Ethan before, they can also be acts of violence, both implicit and explicit.
In sum, Tina Makereti constructs desire almost exclusively through the act of gazing, exploring the relationship between the two and where they intersect in the characters to whom Hemi is closest. The gaze is a tool of colonial power, of othering and of violence, but it also serves as a unique encoded love language that develops alongside Hemi’s coming-of-age.
Makereti, Tina. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. Hertfordshire, Lightning Books Ltd, 2019.