Saturday, February 28, 2009

Get Out of Jail Free

In his indispensable roundup of NZ international literary news and reviews, Beattie's Book Blog, Graham Beattie has reported today on an article in the New York Times which discusses Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program in the USA in which offenders get to choose between doing time or joining a book club.

Changing Lives Through Literature also has a blog at http://cltlblog.wordpress.com/.

While I don't think there is any similar scheme currently active in New Zealand, apparently Kiwi prisons are by no means a literary wasteland. Wellington author Maggie Rainey-Smith posted this response on Beattie's Blog:
I run a book group at Arohata Prison every Thursday with a group of ever changing (nature of the business), but always engaging, intelligent, and interesting women, who love to read out loud short stories by: Owen Marshall, Roald Dahl, Alice Tawhai, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, A.L. Kennedy, Janet Frame, Frank Sargeson, Sue McCauley, Katherine Mansfield.. and the list goes on...
I was reminded that when Janet Frame lived in Wanganui in the 1980s, she had herself visited Kaitoke Prison and read her poetry to the inmates. (Michael King reports on one of her visits in his biography Wrestling With the Angel: A life of Janet Frame, 2000:432)

Janet's friend Piki Takiari and her family had drawn Janet into the life of the local marae at Wanganui, and especially the activities of a community work skills group called Mahi Tahi.

It wasn't until Janet enrolled in a Maori Culture course at a local school that her identity was revealed as the internationally famous author.

This was a very typical experience for Janet, who preferred not to have a fuss made of her, and tried to live a relatively "normal" life under her pseudonym "Janet Clutha". Sometimes she was recognised, and her privacy was respected, but often she was not recognised. As she used to say, she was "hid in plain sight". The people who were looking for a Frame who was a social misfit just wouldn't have recognised her in the real Janet.

This was perhaps one of the reasons why the toxic myth of Frame as a maladjusted recluse manages to persist: the "Janet Frame" who was never seen in public and was thus assumed to have been hiding away, wasn't hiding away - she simply didn't exist! Meanwhile "Janet Clutha" was living her ordinary but extraordinary life full of activity, travel, work, and relationship, as much out of the limelight as she could.

She certainly rejected all attempts to turn her into a performing seal, or as she called it, when she could tell that she was being treated patronisingly, make her into "a freak show".

Once Janet was "sprung" by her new Mahi Tahi friends as a famous author, she did agree to join in on the prison visits and do a special performance of her work. Apparently the men cat-called and wolf-whistled at first but then settled to listen to her reading her poems.

2 comments:

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

Hi Pamela - the book group that I run as a volunteer, is because of the efforts of the Books in Prison Trust - I felt I should acknowledge this and not take all the credit!

Pamela Gordon said...

Thanks for that Maggie - I hadn't heard of that Trust but it sounds like they do a great job.