Saturday, February 26, 2022

"War comes whatever you sing" ~ Janet Frame


By Janet Frame
(First published in The Lagoon and other Stories, 1952)

The sunflowers got us, the black seeds stuck in our hair, my mother went about saying in a high voice like the wind sunflowers kiddies, ah sunflowers.

We lived on the Steppes, my mother and the rest of my family and I, but mostly my mother because she was bigger than the rest. She stood outside in the sun. She held a sunflower in her hand. It was the biggest, blackest sunflower in Russia, and my mother said over and over again ah sunflowers.

I shall never forget being in Russia. We wore big high boots in the winter, and in the summer we went barefoot and wriggled our toes in the mud whenever it rained, and when there was snow on the ground we went outside under the trees to sing a Russian song, it went like this, I'm singing it to myself so you can't hear, tra-tra-tra, something about sunflowers and a tall sky and the war rolling through the grass, tra-tra-tra, it was a very nice song that we sang.

In space and time.

There are no lands outside, they are fenced inside us, a fence of being and we are the world my mother told us ⁰we are Russian because we have this sunflower in our garden.

It grew in those days near the cow-byre and the potato patch. It was a little plant with a few little black seeds sometimes, and a scraggy flower with a black heart, like a big daisy only yellow and black, but it was too tall for us to see properly, the daisies were nearer our size.

All day on the lawn we made daisy chains and buttercup chains, sticking our teeth through the bitter stems.

All day on the lawn, don't you remember the smell of them, the new white daisies, you stuff your face amongst them and you put the buttercups under your chin to see if you love butter, and you do love butter anyway so what's the use, but the yellow shadow is Real Proof, Oh you love early, sitting amongst the wet painted buttercups.

And then out of the spring and summer days the War came. An ordinary war like the Hundred Years or the Wars of the Roses or the Great War where my father went and sang Tipperary. All of the soldiers on my father's side sang Tipperary, it was to show they were getting somewhere, and the louder they sang it the more sure they felt about getting there.

And the louder they sang it the more scared they felt inside.

Well in the Russian War we didn't sing Tipperary or Pack up your Troubles or There's a Long Long Trail A-Winding.

We had sunflowers by the fence near where the fat white cow got milked. We had big high boots in winter.

We were just Russian children on the Steppes, singing tra-tra-tra, quietly with our mother and father, but war comes whatever you sing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

60th Anniversary of FACES IN THE WATER by Janet Frame

Faces in the Water by Janet  Frame was first published in September 1961. 

Sixty years later, it is as well appreciated and as relevant as ever.

FACES IN THE WATER was published in the UK (WH Allen) the USA (George Braziller) and New Zealand (Pegasus Press)

Current editions of Faces in the Water are available from Virago Modern Classics and Penguin Books. Ebooks also available in most territories.

Virago Modern Classic:

Penguin Books Australia: 

Here are some of the covers of the many English language editions and translations of FACES IN THE WATER:

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Remembering Erica van Acker, WTC 9/11

Remembering Erica van Acker who died at the World Trade Center 20 years ago today, on September 11, 2001. Erica was a close friend of Janet Frame's friend Barbara Wersba who lived in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York.
 When Janet Frame and I visited the Hamptons in late 2000, Barbara introduced us to Erica and her partner, and we enjoyed several dinner parties and outings in their company during our stay. Erica was an excellent chef and a stimulating conversationalist. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. Janet was always much more relaxed when she was away from New Zealand where so many people unfortunately treated her like a 'freak' (her own words). New York is anything but narrow-minded, and Janet loved it there.


Erica had told me she worked part time at the WTC and so at first I hoped that she hadn't been there on the day of the attacks. Sadly, we soon heard from Barbara that Erica had lost her life there.

The injustice of this sentence in Erica's NYT obituary (below) is heartbreaking: 
"She has no immediate survivors." In that era same-sex partners of victims were seldom officially acknowledged.

In 2012 while on a trip to New York I made a pilgrimage to the memorial at Ground Zero and paid my respects to Erica. 
(Photo: Christine White)

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

From the Archives: Burns Fellowship Reunion 2018

TODAY IN HISTORY: The Robert Burns Fellowship 60th Reunion 


Tributes to Absent Fellows

At the 2018 Burns reunion I appeared on Janet Frame's behalf at an event honouring the deceased Fellows. It was a pleasure and privilege to appear with the other friends and family members who took part in this moving tribute. Each of the representatives of absent fellows gave a short speech and read an example of the author's work. I read Janet Frame's short story 'Between my Father and the King.'

"It was such a treat to have these lovely souls read at our Tribute to Absent Fellows event on Sunday at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. They did the 17 absent Burns Fellows right proud..." (Dunedin Writers & Reader Festival).
Here is a list of the deceased fellows and those who saluted them. Publisher Rachel Scott was the MC:
40th Reunion 1998
I also attended some of the events at an earlier Burns reunion, this time with Janet Frame herself, when Janet joined the other former Burns Fellows at the 40th Reunion in Dunedin in 1998. 
(Photo: Reg Graham)

What is the Burns Fellowship?

The Burns Fellowship is alive and well and as relevant and prestigious as ever. The current 2021 Burns Fellow is Becky Manawatu whose 2019 novel Auē  Makaro Press) won the 2020 Hubert Church Award prize for Best First Book and was also the overall winner of the 2020 Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand book Awards.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Siobhan Harvey receives 2021 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award

Saturday 28 August 2021
2021 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award for Poetry goes to Siobhan Harvey

Gift for Auckland Poet on Janet Frame’s Birthday 

The Janet Frame Literary Trust is delighted to announce the recipient

of the 2021 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award for Poetry.  Auckland

poet Siobhan Harvey will receive $5,000 from a fund set up by Janet

Frame for the purpose of encouraging New Zealand authors “of poetry

and imaginative prose”. The biennial award is timed to commemorate

Janet Frame’s birth date on the 28th of August. Janet Frame was

famously saved from an imminent lobotomy when a doctor noticed that

she had won a literary prize. She received many grants and prizes over

her long career and wanted to give back to her fellow writers.


Siobhan Harvey is originally from England and made New Zealand her

home 20 years ago. She is the author of eight books of poetry and non-fiction.

Her latest volume of poetry and creative non-fiction, ‘Ghosts’ (Otago

University Press 2021), explores themes of migration, homelessness and

family trauma. The UK Poetry Archive describes her poetry as “that of

a quester – a voyager — meditating on separation and discovery, on

time lost and time regained, on the tug of distant familial

connections, and the new global connectivity which means never being

out-of-touch.” Harvey is a lecturer in creative writing at the

Auckland University of Technology and her work is published widely in

New Zealand and international journals and anthologies.


Siobhan Harvey said that she was humbled “to be honoured in a legacy

left by New Zealand's foremost author” as well as finding herself the

recipient of an award given previously to writers whose work she

admires, such as Peter Olds, Tusiata Avia, David Eggleton, Catherine

Chidgey and Alison Wong.


 “In this fraught time of a global pandemic and in an era in which the

financial earnings of writers in New Zealand are below the minimum

wage, this bequest allows me to fund writing time I would not have

been able to afford otherwise.”


Authorised by Pamela Gordon, Chair, Janet Frame Literary Trust


More Info on Siobhan Harvey:

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Planting a tree at Janet Frame House

Chloe Searle (Chair of the Janet Frame House Trust), Alison Albiston (founding house trustee and expert gardener), Pamela Gordon (Chair of the Janet Frame Literary Trust).

It's winter and the Janet Frame House is closed to the public until spring. A great time to plant trees though! I was honoured to be invited to help plant a cherry tree at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru which was Janet Frame's childhood home.
My late mother June had left a list of the trees that used to be in the backyard of the house. Thanks to a generous gift the house trust is able this year to plant a cherry, an apple and an apricot tree. 
Planting the heritage cherry was poignant for me as it is the 13th anniversary this week of Mum's death.
While in Oamaru I also visited the Frame family grave where Mum and Janet are both buried, and left flowers.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

'Meeting a Character': a short story by Janet Frame

Meeting a Character

A short story by Janet Frame

First published in JANET FRAME IN HER OWN WORDS (Penguin Books, 2011)

I was drinking coffee in a place in downtown Whanganui when I was approached by a middle-aged man who insisted that we knew each other. He sat opposite me without even a polite, May I sit here? and when I denied knowing him he smiled,
‘Of course you do. Remember Maniototo?’
He was referring to a novel I’d written. I wondered if perhaps he had written to me about the book and perhaps I had mislaid the letter and not answered it.
‘I’m not very good at answering letters, I’m afraid.’
‘You don’t remember, then?’
He said his name.
I repeated it. Certainly it was familiar. Then I remembered,
‘You mean you’re . . .’
‘Of course. I don’t know why novelists imagine that as soon as they finish with a character and the book is written and published, that character vanishes or dies. It was fashionable, once, to quote “In dreams begin responsibilities”.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘Everyone quoted that vogue phrase. But what do you expect me to do now you’re in Whanganui?’
‘Nothing at all. It was by chance I saw you. But aren’t you curious to find out what I’ve been doing since you last thought and wrote about me?’
‘Of course I’m curious.’
‘Then let me satisfy your curiosity,’ he said, ‘in a way that I know would suit you.’
I looked questioningly at him.
‘Yes. I observed and knew you, also, and I’ve known that you’ve been longing to write one of those stories where the author meets a narrator who then takes over, and day by day (in a long train journey, or over a season of several days as guest in a house — I admit that in the modern age there are fewer opportunities for prolonged narration — perhaps even during a walk of the Milford Track or a Christmas holiday by the beach — O well, however it may arise), the story is told, the mystery solved, whereupon the author and the narrator part company and most likely neither sees the other again until, just by chance, a similar incident of meeting is repeated, where once again the author, curious to know of events since the last meeting, conducive to storytelling, listens once again — in a train, around a fire, on the sundeck of an evening overlooking the beach — perhaps that is the setting you would choose? There’s no escaping a story, you know . . .’
I agreed. The time was between Christmas and New Year, with Victoria Street a waste of tinsel and unbought Christmas gifts gathering dust and insect spray in the shop windows. I had no train journey in mind, nor had I planned to walk the Milford Track, nor was I cut off by storms, nor had I a bach by the sea where I could sit on the sundeck of an evening, looking out over the bay, and listening to the narrator.
‘Perhaps you’d like to come to my place for the weekend?’ I suggested. ‘I’ve a spare room. And perhaps one evening we can go to the pavilion on the beach at Castlecliff and sit watching the sea while you continue the story? It’s the nearest I have to that train journey across the Steppes or even across the Central Australian Desert or even the fourteen-hour journey between Auckland and Wellington.’
He accepted my invitation. He did know as well as I did, how I had dreamed of writing the kind of story he described, the story with the classic treatment and theme, the set piece, like a dance or movement of music.
There was one difficulty, however. Although I did recall his name, I had no idea of his character and actions. I therefore gave him my address, suggesting that he arrive about half-past five that evening (Friday), and everything would be ready for his stay. I then finished my coffee and hurried to the bus-stop in Ridgway Street just in time to catch a Castlecliff bus on the Alma Road or A route, and half an hour later I was home where my first action was to find a copy of Maniototo and look it up — so that later when he knocked on the door I at least knew something about him.