Paperback: 256pp

Published: Lightning Books (September 2019)

ISBN: 9781785631528

The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke

Tina Makereti


‘A historical love letter to London, a coming-of-age story, a love story’ – Stella Duffy

SHORTLISTED: New Zealand Heritage Book Awards

LONGLISTED: Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

LONGLISTED: International Dublin Literary Award

James Poneke is a young Māori orphan, raised by missionaries, with a burning desire to travel and explore the world. When an English artist on a tour of New Zealand invites James to return home with him, the boy eagerly accepts and agrees to become a living exhibit at the artist’s London show.

By day, James dresses in full tribal outfit, being stared at, prodded and examined by paying visitors. By night, he is free to explore the city, but anything can happen to a young New Zealander on the savage streets of Victorian London and James is unprepared for the wonders, dangers and unearthed secrets that await.

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is an unforgettable work of historical fiction in the spirit of Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry.


He speaks English so well, that at first we took him to be some English boy dressed in savage costume — some intruder from a masquerade. We were, however, mistaken. He reads and writes English as well as any boy his age, and is particularly fond of joking. In fact, we have seen many English boys much more stupid, more ignorant, than this specimen of the New Zealanders.

Daily News, London, 6 April 1846



Listen, miracle of the future. You strange possibility, my descendant. I know you are embroiled in your own concerns, but hear me. I’ve seen so many miracles in my short life, things I never dared imagine possible, and just as much pain. Here, in this place and this time, I am nothing but what I can conceive, what I can imagine. Why shouldn’t I make a message for you and you receive it? You use machines I cannot even imagine, I know, since even in my time there are machines I once could not have imagined. So think of me with you now, as I think you. Perhaps you are a mix of all the different peoples I have seen. Perhaps you are even something new. You are magnificent; I can sense it. For all I know you might wear a coat woven from insect wings and draw energy from the sun. So listen. You are my greatest imagining.

I have a story for you. It will seem, as you read, that it is a story about me, but the more I write the more I think it is not about my life or my time at all. Mr Antrobus told me so often of progress and emancipation and the evolution of humanity, but some small voice inside me wondered, what if progress is an illusion, alongside these other great Imperial illusions I have come to love and hate in equal measure? What if, in the end, all that exists is the show and the cost of a ticket? No. Let me take you behind the curtain.

I apologise. I grow tired and distracted and abstract. The hour is late. The candle is low. Tomorrow I will see whether it is my friends or a ship homewards I meet. But I must finish my story for you first. My future, my descendant, my mokopuna. Listen.


‘A historical love letter to London, a coming-of-age story, a love story… do yourself a favour, read it’

Stella Duffy

‘A riveting vision of the world seen from the inside out. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke is a gutsy, searing and totally absorbing read. I loved it all the way’

Fiona Kidman

‘Made streets I’ve walked a thousand times seem new and strange’

Damian Barr


‘Hemi has a voice that redresses some of the air-brushed history of empire but more than anything his novel is a fascinating coming of age’

NB magazine

The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke is many things: part unsparing colonial reckoning; part fraught coming-of-age memoir; part PT Barnum-inflected tale of spectacle, showmanship and the picaresque’

NZ Listener

‘Suggestive and thoughtful as well as being a very compelling story’

Louise O’Brien, Radio New Zealand

‘Makereti cleverly inverts the colonial adventure novel, but also shows, poignantly, how a subject can be reconfigured by trauma or power. I read it in almost one go, and it left me heartbroken’

Brannavan Gnanalingam, Stuff

‘Like her previous Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, this novel relies on scrupulous research. It, too, revives the dry bones of history and turns it into a living and fascinating story’

Sunday Star-Times

‘Tina Makereti explores questions of identity, cultural collisions and Victorian attitudes to race, colonialism and prejudice... Fascinating reading’

Australian Woman’s Weekly

‘In a world that has privileged hierarchies and conflict, Tina’s novel is a welcome handbook on how to listen. It affected me deeply, at the level of both heart and mind. I am awarding it my 2018 Fiction Bouquet’

NZ Poetry Shelf

‘Beautifully written, gripping, it takes you somewhere new and different, and it’s just so readable. It’s brilliant’

Antonia Honeywell, Booktime Brunch


The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke has been signed up for a film adaptation by the Oscar-nominated writer/director Taika Waititi and his company Piki Films. Here’s how The Guardian and Variety reported the story.


Tina Makereti

Tina Makereti’s first collection of stories, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, won the inaugural Fiction Award at Nga Kupu Ora, the Maori Book Awards, in 2011. Her debut novel, Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, won the same award in 2014, and was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award. In 2016 she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Pacific Region) for her story Black Milk.

Her second novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke, was first published in New Zealand in 2018 and was longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

She has a PhD in creative writing and teaches at Massey University in New Zealand.

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