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Hulme was born in Christchurch, in New Zealand's South Island. The daughter of a carpenter and a credit manager, she was the eldest of six children. Her parents were of English, Scottish, and Māori (Kai Tahu) descent. "Our family comes from diverse people: Kai Tahu, Kāti Mamoe (South Island Maori iwi); Orkney islanders; Lancashire folk; Faroese and/or Norwegian migrants," Hulme told Contemporary Women Poets Her early education was at North New Brighton Primary School and Aranui High School. Her father died when she was 11 years old.
Hulme worked as a tobacco picker in Motueka after leaving school. She began studying for an honours law degree at the University of Canterbury in 1967, but left after four terms and returned to tobacco picking.
By 1972, she decided to begin writing full-time, but, despite family support, was forced to go back to work nine months later. She continued writing, some of her work appearing under the pseudonym Kai Tainui. During this time, she continued working on her novel, The Bone People, ultimately published in February 1984. The novel was returned by several publishers before being accepted by the Spiral Collective. It won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Booker Prize in 1985. Hulme was the first New Zealander to win the Booker.
Hulme was a writer-in-residence at the University of Otago in 1978, and at the University of Canterbury in 1985. She lives in Oamaru, in North Otago. Hulme has been the Patron of New Zealand Republic since 1996. She is an aromantic asexual and an atheist.
- Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award, 1975;
- New Zealand Literary Fund grant, 1975, 1977, 1979,
- Maori Trust Fund Prize, 1978
- East-West Centre Award, 1979;
- Book of the Year Award', 1984
- Mobil Pegasus Prize, 1985
- Booker Prize, 1985
- Scholarship in Letters, 1990;
- The Bone People (Louisiana State University Press, 1984)
- Bait and On the Shadow Side (in progress; referred to by Hulme as "twinned novels")
- The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations) (Auckland University Press, 1982)
- Lost Possessions (Victoria University Press, 1985)
- Strands (Auckland University Press, 1992)
- Te Kaihau: The Windeater (George Braziller, 1986), short story collection
- Te Whenua, Te Iwi/The Land and The People ed. Jock Philips (Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1987) includes Hulme's short autobiografical piece "Okatiro and Moeraki"
- Homeplaces: Three Coasts of the South Island of New Zealand (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), autobiography with photographs by Robin Morrison
- Stonefish (Huia Publishers, 2004) short stories and poems
- "Keri Hulme." Contemporary Women Poets. St. James Press, 1998
- Keri Hulme." Contemporary Poets, 7th ed. St. James Press, 2001
- "Hulme, Keri (biography)". New Zealand Book Council.
- "People Involved". New Zealand Republic. Retrieved 2008-01-24.
- Bridgeman, Shelley (5 August 2007). "No sex please, we're asexual". New Zealand Herald (APN Holdings NZ). Retrieved 2007-08-31.