Friday, December 10, 2010

Reading Janet Frame

Storms Will Tell Bloodaxe (UK and USA)
contains The Goose Bath and a selection from The Pocket Mirror

Here is a link to a poem called "Reading Janet Frame" written by New Zealand poet and anthologist Harvey McQueen and posted on his blog stoatspring.

The list of poems about Janet Frame just gets longer and longer. So many other poets have been inspired by her triumphant life and by her inimitable and exceptional writing. I guess that someone one day will set about compiling an anthology of them!

Perhaps among the earliest poems written about Frame were written for her by a friend in London, poet Jon Silkin. Silkin was the boyfriend of a nurse at the Maudsley Institute where Frame spent some time under investigation, until she was famously freed from the Dunedin Hospital misdiagnosis that had dogged her until then.

Janet Frame spent several years in psychiatric wards when she was in her twenties. (The cycle was only broken when the mistaken diagnosis was recognised by the London medical team). During the years that she was in and out of hospitals, however, Frame made the best of her experiences and developed many friendships with staff as well as with the other patients. One of her relationships with a staff member was with Jon Silkin's girlfriend.

Jon Silkin visited New Zealand many years later and Janet Frame used to tell her own amusing anecdote about how when he was being entertained by the glitterati associated with Auckland University, he asked for the whereabouts of Janet Frame as he wanted to catch up with her after all those years.

Janet was well aware of the mythmaking response such a request would elicit, something like: Oh heavens, nobody sees her, she's a recluse don't you know.

"A prophet isn't known in their own country" was never more aptly applied to a misunderstood contemporary celebrity than to Janet Frame, who continues to be shamefully misrepresented by her own country's patriarchalist institutions to this very day.

If you want to see one example of an inaccurate and patronisingly misogynistic portrayal of Frame, see the freshly erected biographical essay commissioned by New Zealand's Ministry of Culture and Heritage for the official NZ online "encyclopedia" Te Ara. Frame is glossed as "schoolteacher, writer" and the infelicities don't by any means stop there.

The essay was constructed by Frame's nemesis, school teacher and lecturer Patrick Evans. One may as well have asked Lex Luthor to write a bio of Superman. The fact that Evans has recently, with dubious ethics, published a novel inventing a completely non-historically accurate Frame but exploiting her real name and reputation to publicise his book, means that the timing of his essay serves as no more than a crass blurb for the novel.

Yes I have protested at the clear conflict of interest, and I have criticised the masculinist bias of the essay which also has a heavy psychological bias, ignoring much of Frame's successful career in favour of an obsessive focus on her family; it portrays the independent and highly achieving Frame as largely dependant on a series of so-called male "mentors" that the essayist seems to be more interested in, actually. (International Frame scholars have already pointed out this bizarre fixation of 'masculinist' NZ commentators, on Frame's male friendships to the exclusion of her other vital relationships, and in fact, to the detriment of a recognition of her stubborn independence and fierce agency.)

When I complained about the poor quality of the bio, I was accused of "attempting to censor reliable history", although one or two of my corrections (including to Frame's birth date!) were taken in.

We'll see who history mocks. Probably we don't need to wait long before somebody outside New Zealand reads the Te Ara bio and raises an eyebrow at the condescension, and the sexism, of the impenetrable "official narrative" about Frame. There are plenty of remaining errors that I couldn't be bothered pointing out.

But I digress. Shall we go back to the academically-imposed blocks put in the way of Jon Silkin attempting to track down an old friend? This was typical. A few of the illustrious overseas visitors, famously, have retorted to this kind of self-important gate-keeping of the NZ literary gods and goddesses, "Don't you people ever read Janet Frame?" when they hear what to their ears is clearly provincial scuttlebutt.

Fortunately Silkin didn't take the nonsense either, and insisted that he had known Janet in London and was quite sure she'd be happy to see him again (as she indeed was). Janet reported that they had a lovely reunion at her home in Whangaparaoa. It turned out that her whereabouts were known after all.

I noted recently that Harvey McQueen has recently published an anthology of his 100 favourite New Zealand poems, titled These I Have Loved, and that he has included several poems by Janet Frame, from The Pocket Mirror (1967) and The Goose Bath (2006).

Harvey McQueen would likely know about the ingrained derogatory attitude towards Janet Frame and her work that was - and it seems, is - to be found within certain circles in New Zealand. His introduction retells how when he included Frame's poetry in an earlier landmark anthology, apparently some academic or other was quite snide about Frame having been added merely to make up the numbers of the female variety. McQueen protested that this was not so, and one would imagine that a little time has vindicated his stance. Certainly as I've pointed out before, the consistently healthy sales figures do indicate that despite what Mr Evans seems to think, an awful lot of people have been, and are, reading Janet Frame.

Current NZ edition of The Pocket Mirror is found in Stories and Poems (Vintage NZ)

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