On Wednesday the 7th of March I celebrated New Zealand Book Month 2012 by giving a talk at Takapuna Public Library on the process of co-editing Janet Frame In Her Own Words.
The event was kindly hosted by the Friends of the Takapuna Library and Penguin Books NZ, and there was a fantastic supper and drinks on offer.
There was a large crowd at the event - we needed to find more chairs, which is always a good sign! The audience was warm and receptive and responsive, and included several of my family and friends and colleagues and numbered some well known library and literary and political and media figures too. Even some promising young Frame scholars.
I was still a little jet lagged from the exciting New York trip, having only returned to NZ the day before, but the necessary adrenaline and passion kicked in and I felt I was able to connect with the listeners and tell a coherent story of some key aspects of the journey of that particular book.
The experience was a warm and affirming one for me and I'd like to thank everyone involved, again, for helping to organise the event, for supporting me, for appreciating Janet Frame, and for coming along! And it was great to see Tom Beran and Helen Drummond of excellent independent book store The Book Lover being kept busy selling books.
It was a special privilege to have Cath Tizard speak up and tell us a personal anecdote of an occasion when she had met Janet Frame and of how that meeting contrasted with the persistent 'myth' that one still hears. Having had that experience, Dame Cath was particularly interested in why and how the 'Janet' myth has taken such a deep root in the Kiwi consciousness.
For me, returning to the North Shore of Auckland is a return home for several reasons - I was born in Devonport, raised in Northcote, and my very first full time job was as a Library Assistant at the Takapuna Library. That was in 1972, and Frank Sargeson - who I knew well because he was of course a family friend - was in that era a frequent visitor to the library, where his sharp-featured bust still takes pride of place. While I worked at the Library my famous aunt Janet was living not too far north, at Whangaparaoa Peninsula, and she was a regular visitor to Takapuna also, and used to call into the library to see me.
Thinking back to my younger days on the Shore, I still remember the awe with which onlookers reacted when they realised they were in the presence of the brilliant and successful author Janet Frame.
My personal lifelong experience of observing Janet's international reputation is one of the reasons I guffaw when I encounter the nonsensical claim that Janet Frame was unheard of until she featured in Jane Campion's 1990 film. In the same year that gorgeous film was released, Janet received New Zealand's highest civil honour, the Order of New Zealand, for what had already been a lifetime of distinguished service to literature.
Why on earth this new myth has taken such a hold that Frame scholars are now repeating it, it's hard to say. These are the kinds of things I talked about that night. Some of the processes of myth making can be deconstructed and it can be quite amusing once you analyse what is going on. I showed the audience a typical newspaper report of one of Janet Frame's public appearances - the one I chose was from Palmerston North, and was an article with several photographs of Frame attending a Mike Moore book signing. Frame met Mike Moore and his wife Yvonne, and exchanged banter and pleasantries. All this was covered by the text and the photographs but right at the end of the piece, the journalist has called the event a notable occasion on account of the fact that the rarely seen author is usually reclusive. There is no evidence within the article to support this proposition. The reporter (or subeditor) has clearly fallen back on culturally acquired 'knowledge' which has not only survived, it has trumped the counter-evidence.
Some newspapers have several reports, just a few months apart, by different journalists, of various public events at which Frame happily interacted and was quoted making an off the cuff comment, and on each occasion similarly the claim is made that this is the only time the reclusive Frame has been spotted in public for years.
As I told the audience, I was aware of this ongoing problem of the myth getting in the way of an observer's own eyes, because I had witnessed it over and over, because I often lived in the same town as my aunt and I had been in the habit of keeping the newspaper clippings if I had seen them. I was also of course, in a privileged position of knowing all too well that Janet Frame was not by any definition of the word, a recluse. She was fussy about how she spent her time, which is a different thing. I had lent Michael King my large file box of provincial newspaper clippings when he was researching his biography of Janet Frame, and he assured me that it had definitely saved him a lot of research.
When Denis Harold and I were doing the research for Janet Frame In Her Own Words, we were determined to try to find some more of the missing interviews that I was aware that Janet Frame had done in small town New Zealand. So, we decided to do a road trip around all those locations to consult the local libraries to try to track down more of the interviews. Consequently we have located quite a few more of Frame's interviews and news reports than Michael King (or any academic) had previously managed to unearth. (We have quoted fully from Frame's direct speech in 35 substantial interviews, while King cites only 22 interviews.)
I believe that the myth of the reclusive Frame has acted as an obstacle to even looking out for evidence of her engagement with the world, just as when the evidence is in front of someone's eyes, they report it, but simultaneously explain it away as some sort of anomaly. Once the myth begins to melt away, perhaps there will be some further effort to locate even more of her interviews - in New Zealand and elsewhere - that undoubtedly still remain to be found. As it is, the commentaries in many of the 35 substantial interviews we found, trotted out the tired old myth in some form or another, over and over. Which is the reason we made the important decision to cut out all the commentary around what Frame was saying, and probably for the first time ever, to allow her to speak without the contrary narrative shouting her down.
It is not so unusual to remove the surrounding narrative from an interview or news report, and let the words of a famous person or celebrity stand on their own, but there has been a particularly strong resistance to this action of ours in the case of Janet Frame's interviews.
It has been gratifying to have the response from careful and open-minded readers of the interviews, that they feel Janet Frame is talking directly to them, that they are hearing her voice, sometimes for the first time. They understand that it doesn't really matter what question she was asked, or what the journalist's opinion was of her demeanour, or what preconceptions the reporter brought to the meeting. They want to know what Janet Frame said, especially because they have been told over and over again that she never did speak publicly (much, if at all).
It has not been surprising to note that those who will not let go their preconceptions, find themselves confused that in this new book, Frame is to be permitted to tell her own story without being interpreted in the light of previous culturally acquired opinion about her. Most of the rest of us find it a reason for rejoicing.