Friday, April 30, 2010

The Good Word on Owls Do Cry



The Good Word is a current New Zealand series about books, produced by 3rd Party Productions.

This excellent show is screened on New Zealand's free to air Freeview Channel 7 and on the pay TV Sky Channel 97.

Episodes are available online at this link: http://tvnz.co.nz/the-good-word

As part of The Good Word show, journalist Finlay McDonald presents a regular ten minute mini documentary called "Under the Covers" in which he takes a closer look at the story behind one of the most famous and influential 'iconic' New Zealand books.

In Series 2 Episode 10, the classic New Zealand book under consideration was Janet Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry, published in 1957 and still selling strongly today.

I was initially dismayed to note that once again the two 'experts' to be interviewed for the segment were elderly men, ex-professors of English, and I was ready to ask why on earth we must still canvass the opinions of "last season's men" - after all don't we have a more up to date opinion on Frame and her work to air, from some of our contemporary Frame scholars?

Was this overview going to push that predictable old chestnut the biographical fallacy, or would any of the usual suspects manage to slip in some patronising innuendo about Frame being "strange" and that her work was the unwitting outpouring of an untutored and naive genius?

But I was pleasantly surprised. The footage we were shown from the interviews was interesting and enlightening. There had clearly been a careful effort on the part of the production team, to provide a balanced picture of the topic.

There was, in the composition of the segment, I felt, an unfortunate over-emphasis on Janet Frame's psychiatric history (for the sake of the 'visuals' we were forced to visit Seacliff hospital to see where she spent about three of her 80 years of productive life), when there are so many oft neglected aspects both of the novel and of Janet Frame's life.

Of course the amazing "save" from a lobotomy is worth telling - but did we have to be subjected to an illustrative clip from Jane Campion's movie, in which the actor playing Janet Frame shakes like a scared puppy when the doctor tells her she has won a literary prize and will not be having a brain operation. Seriously folks, if Janet Frame was really that quivering jelly, could she have written Owls Do Cry?

The caricature is disappointing to anyone who actually knew Janet Frame well, as is the fact that clips from the fictionalised film adaptation of Frame's autobiography seem to stand in as documentary evidence for Frame's state of mind and physical demeanour at a time in her life when the only cameras that were actually present, captured a shy but determined, and always-smiling Frame, launching out onto her artistic destiny with great resolve and courage - and backbone.

The slippage between the film Janet and the real Janet has been an unintended consequence of what was really a beautiful art movie - one artist's interpretation of another artist's story; who could have known that 20 years after its release, the film Janet has (for many - not all!) superseded the real Janet?

Actually Janet Frame did predict this, as her biographer Michael King reports that she wrote to Lindsay Shelton of her regret that "things that happened in the film that did not happen in her life" would eventually become part of the "authorised version" of her life. And so the Myth becomes an unstoppable tsunami...

The programme screens on NZ's Freeview digital channel TVNZ 7, and archived episodes can be viewed online at this link:

Memoir Seminar

Distinguished New Zealand author and literary activist Dame Fiona Kidman visited Oamaru recently at the invitation of the Friends of the Janet Frame House, and gave a seminar on the writing of memoir. I attended the seminar myself and found it inspiring and informative. There was a full house for the first part of the workshop at the "Janet Frame Room" at Waitaki Girls' High School, and then later we had a light lunch at the former Frame family home at 56 Eden Street. It was a beautiful day and the participants then found private spaces around the grounds of the house to carry out a writing exercise, afterwards coming back to the sitting room, to share their written passages if they felt like it. There were some excellent pieces read out, indicating that many of the workshop participants were already very talented writers. We all agreed it had been a very worthwhile time, another of the excellent literary events organised by the "Janet Frame Eden Street Trust" ably led by their chairperson Carol Berry.

Labour of love


I'm eagerly awaiting the publication later this year of the Korean edition of Janet Frame's autobiography, published by the SIGONGSA company. This title will be followed in 2011 by the publication of the Korean translation of the Commonwealth Prize winner THE CARPATHIANS.


I have lived in South Korea (teaching English at a provincial university) and have a great fondness for the language and the people and the country, so it will be a special pleasure for me to have been part of making Janet Frame's work available there in translation.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

For Sale


Another of Janet Frame's childhood homes, this time at 13 Ferry Street, Wyndham, Southland, New Zealand.

NZ $45,000. My mother June Frame was born in this house. Here are the details:


I don't personally recommend that anybody attempt to buy up every house that Janet Frame ever lived in. There is a wonderful place to visit at 56 Eden Street Oamaru that is a fine tribute to Janet Frame, and the Trust that cares for that house has no major sponsor at all - they have to beg for small grants to keep their house maintained and open to the public.

The "Friends of Janet Frame House" PO Box 180 OAMARU would welcome your support.

Autumn in Oamaru


"The leaves fall as if from far away" (Rilke, 'Autumn')

The old pear tree in the back yard of 56 Eden Street is as lovely in 2010 autumn colours as it was in Janet Frame's childhood. This tree is believed to have been the inspiration for the pear tree in Janet Frame's magnificent three-part novel Intensive Care.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lest we forget

1916, Dunedin Railway Station. Two of Janet Frame's uncles head off from New Zealand to the War in Europe.

You're so vain, I bet you think this story is about you

British satirical magazine Private Eye recently lampooned CK Stead in reporting a NZ brouhaha concerning his recent prizewinning "revenge fantasy" short story

A storm in a literary small pond

Link: "A man for all seasons?" by Guy Somerset, NZ LISTENER May 1-7 2010 pp 28-31

(This article is an excellent piece of journalism, and in my opinion is a fair summing up of the controversy.)

There is an extensive discussion on the "stoush" on Stephen Stratford's QUOTE UNQUOTE blog.


The amber jelly bowl


"a golden cut glass dish where Mother used to make the Christmas and New Year jellies that we would hold up to the light and look through, to see the gold"

(Chapter 24, The Envoy From Mirror City)

After my Frame grandparents had both died, my mother and her sister Janet Frame forfeited their share of the family house and land at "Willowglen" in Oamaru, in favour of their one remaining sibling my uncle George Frame. George kept most of the furniture and chattels, but Janet writes, towards the end of her third volume of autobiography, of choosing just a few keepsakes and bringing them north to my family home in Northcote, Auckland.

And so she did - I remember it well. In fact in the last chapter of that book I get a walk-on part myself: because I "played" with some of the inherited treasures, in a way that she initially perceived as disrespectful. My innocent co-opting of some of the keepsakes for my play house, is used as a metaphor for Janet's own literary use of treasures from other people's life for her fiction. (She asked and received my permission to write about that, by the way!)

The jelly bowl wasn't a play thing though. It became for a time the Gordon family jelly bowl too, and then, a fruit bowl. I always loved it, even though it had sustained a few chips over the years, and eventually Mum handed it on to my care.

Last year I took the bowl and some other significant family heirlooms and lent them to the North Otago Museum at Oamaru, where they are now on view as part of the Janet Frame display.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Strained relations

Me and George
Willowglen, Oamaru 1980s

My birthday book tells me that today is the birthday of my uncle George Frame, Janet Frame's only brother (apart from her un-named stillborn brother, and perhaps her own twin of unknown gender, who also died in utero).

Uncle George, or "Geordie" as he was commonly known, was born in 1922 and died in 1989. Today he would have been 88.

I was fascinated by this man, who seemed to have alienated so many other members of my family, some of whom had even taken formal measures to disown him or keep him at a distance.

When I came to live in Dunedin in the mid-1980s I took every opportunity to meet him and try to get to know him. He visited Dunedin often, and liked to drink at my favourite coffee bar, Stuarts, downstairs in the Octagon. When I saw him there I would go and sit with him. He was quite deaf and he used to shout quite loud, and it's true that in order to be heard one had to shout back.

Uncle George was a bitter, angry and resentful man. He couldn't understand why his sister was so famous, and believed that he was also entitled to such fame, and steadfastly refused to understand that one doesn't earn accolades just by having lived through similar experiences; that the actual effort Janet had put in was what earned her the prizes and the respect. He behaved as though he thought he was a member of some sort of royal family, and that his blood relationship entitled him to a share of the glory his sister had earned.

I knew from early childhood that my mother was terrified of her brother George, and I understood her fear when I was told many years later that when she was a young woman he had once held her hostage at gunpoint. (The Oamaru newspapers at the time recorded the incident.)

In fact it surprises me that it wasn't until the last ten years of his life that my mother, under the influence of his manipulations and emotional blackmail, finally said, enough is enough, and took out a police protection order against him. Until then, motivated by a strong sense of family duty and full of pity for his difficult past, she had always tried to keep in touch, offer hospitality, and help out where she could.

One of the NZ Janet Frame scholars, spurned by Janet Frame herself because of his insistence on trying to read Frame's life through her work, or her work through her life, developed what seemed like an obsession with my uncle George, as a "second best" source to shore up his speculative approaches to the Frame myth. So George did in a way manage to fool at least one person that he was the one who deserved the fame.

Like my mother before me, I reached a breaking point concerning my uncle George. One day in the late 1980s I met him on Dunedin's Princes Street. He was wearing his notorious kilt that often had led to his photograph being featured in the newspapers. The accompanying caption always mentioned that he was "Janet Frame's brother" - that's the first thing he would tell the reporter, after next asserting that it was unfair that she was famous and not him, because he could write too.

On this particular day he looked at me sideways with his sly, mean expression, and said "You're the one that got Isy's engagement ring, aren't you?" (it's a long story, but yes, my Great Aunt Isy had given me a ring, out of gratitude for kindnesses rendered). I was wearing the ring that day; to me it was a treasured family heirloom. Family myth held that it was priceless, but this wasn't true. It was pretty though.

He went on, "You've had a hard life haven't you?" I couldn't disagree that over the years I have had a few challenges to deal with. "You know why?" he continued.

He didn't stop for my answer before he declared, "Because I put a curse on that ring!"

When I told my mother later, she said, what a liar he was, and how typical. The ring he was referring to (from years beforehand) wasn't even the same ring I had been given, because there had been a second marriage before I even met the old lady.

Maybe true, but I never wore the ring again.

This is part of the dark side of fame... but then I guess almost every family has a troublesome member, at least one of them. You don't have to be famous, or even slightly famous!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New Yorker Q & A

Gary Baseman illustration for Janet Frame's short story "Gavin Highly"


New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman recently interviewed me by email about Janet Frame's new story "Gavin Highly" published in this week's New Yorker.

The resulting "Q & A" was posted this week on the New Yorker website's blog 'The Book Bench":