Friday, December 23, 2011

Woman's Weekly article now online

NZWW photograph by Jane Dawber

For those who missed the feature article on Janet Frame in the NZ Woman's Weekly of 17 December 2011, it is now online at this link:

I was interviewed by journalist Amie Richardson about my life as Janet's niece, friend, and literary executor. Jane Dawber took the photo of me sitting below my favourite portrait of Janet Frame, a painting by Jerrold Davis, one of Janet's American friends.

The first of several rose garden postcards Janet sent me.
The photo on the other side of this one is of the rose garden at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs New York

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Educating a Prime Minister

To the Is-Land
The first volume of Janet Frame's autobiography
available in NZ as a Vintage paperback edition from Random House NZ
also available as an omnibus edition
in NZ and in the USA titled: An Autobiography
in Australia (Vintage) and the UK/Commonwealth (Virago)
under the title: An Angel at My Table

In the spirit of Christmas, New Zealand's union for Post Primary Teachers, the PPTA, is gifting our Prime Minister John Key a book a day for twelve days, accompanied by a public letter letting him know the enlightening social and economic lessons he might learn if he reads those books over his Christmas break.

The teachers have chosen To the Is-Land - the first volume of Janet Frame's autobiography as their gift for day nine of the twelve days of Christmas, and done a good job of explaining how important the educational reforms were than enabled a talented working class girl like Janet Frame to get a secondary school education when most others from her social class had formerly been denied that opportunity. Janet Frame went on to become a great and successful Kiwi icon world famous for her writing that never pulled its punches in criticising social injustices.

The lessons continue, and I know that Janet Frame would have applauded the message:

"This book is a reminder of our enlightened forebears for whom education was not only a right but a public good. Every New Zealander was guaranteed a world-class education at their local school, followed by low cost tertiary education or the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship nationally. Rather than being left to the whims of employers, apprenticeships were managed nationally and supported by a web of training through night classes and polytechnics."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Foreign Faces

Polish edition of Faces in the Water - Twarze w wodzie Publisher: Poznań : Zysk i S-ka, 2000.

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame is a novel significant enough on the world stage to have been included in the work 1001 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE, which describes Faces in the Water as "one of the most powerful descriptions of mental illness ever written":

"This book is a biting critique of the gross power differential between medical 'professional' and patient. While the skilful way in which the novel makes this point is enough to make it memorable, the prose's striking quality elevates it to a truly great novel."

As I said in an earlier post, 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Faces in the Water (1961).

Here are some more of the translations of this wonderful piece of writing:

French: Visages Noyes JoĆ«lle Losfeld/Gallimard (cover above) also published in a Rivages Poche edition.

Swedish: Ansikten i vattnett

A new Swedish edition will be released from Modernista on the 30 May 2012
(No cover image yet)

Faces in the Water has also been translated into:


and ~

First edition Volti Nell'Acqua
Later editions Dentro il Muro


Ansikter i vannet  

and ~
Schimmen in het water

and ~

Gesichter im Wasser

FACES IN THE WATER: 50th Anniversary

"Frame's best book" ~ Joyce Carol Oates

"A masterpiece" ~ Anita Brookner

Janet Frame published her influential novel Faces in the Water in 1961 - fifty years ago this year.

Time Magazine said:

"Janet Frame's evocation of madness is unforgettable... Faces in the Water is especially brilliant in its description of what happens inside the patient's mind"... "[Frame] writes with a cool eye, a detached sympathy, and a warm but unsloppy love of sane and insane alike."

In several parts of the newly released book Janet Frame In Her Own Words, Frame talks about Faces in the Water. She calls it an "exploration", then a "documentary" but also points out that "Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented."

Frame drew from her experiences in New Zealand psychiatric hospitals of the 1940s, but she made it very clear that it wasn't until she wrote her autobiography An Angel at My Table (1984) that she had told "the true story". When she was writing Faces In The Water, she tells a confidant in a letter, she realised that her readers "would wonder what on earth a person thinking and observing so ordinarily and usually, was doing in a mental hospital". So Frame says she deliberately invented a fictional narrator and gave her what she "imagined might seem a 'madder' interior".

Even so, I have often times seen this baffled question expressed in reviews of Faces in the Water: How did we get this lucid view of such torment if this eyewitness is so disturbed herself?

In fact Frame's scorchingly critical picture of the mental institutions of the day, and some of the brutality and negligence of the staff, was one of the factors in NZ (and elsewhere) that led to a soul searching on the part of mental health professionals.

The immeasurable consequences of Frame's courage and honesty in her writings about her experiences as a misdiagnosed mental patient, is surely one of the reasons she is remembered, for instance, as one of the 60 Makers of Modern New Zealand (1930-1990) in an exhibition currently showing at New Zealand's Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

Faces in the Water has been used as a text for medical students and nurses, giving a salutary fly-on-the-wall view of life in an institution. Her empathy and ability to describe the intricate social interactions between patients, staff and family, give tremendous insights to the thoughtful reader.

In her autobiography Frame says that she wanted to speak for those who had no voice. That was one of the things that kept her going in the years she found herself with a label that seemed to mean there was no escape for her from an institutional fate.

(Anyone who tries to insist that Frame's New Zealand hospital admissions were 'voluntary' over the decade or so that she was mislabelled, is clearly ignorant of the power of the label over those who have been labelled, and of the coercive nature of hospital 'admissions' where the threat of being 'committed' into the care of the State, and its consequent loss of civil rights, was a weapon used to manipulate people into signing a 'voluntary' admission. Most if not all of Frame's multiple New Zealand hospital admissions were reluctant, as becomes clear on a careful reading of the evidence gathered by Michael King for his biography Wrestling with the Angel.)

Here is an earlier blog post about Janet Frame's groundbreaking novel Faces in the Water detailing some of its publication history and featuring a few of the covers:

"A shrewd and clever book" ~ Hilary Mantel

Friday, December 16, 2011

A strong independent influential woman

Janet Frame appears as one of the 60 Makers of Modern New Zealand in a exhibtion at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, curated by prominent economist and commentator Brian Easton.

The 1989 photograph of Janet Frame was taken by the superbly talented photographer the late Robin Morrison.

I've only just noticed that this exhibition is on - it certainly looks worth visiting Wellington just to catch up with it! (It will be on show until the 12th February 2012.)

It was a bit disappointing to notice some errors in the short biographical sketch of Janet Frame that has been composed for the exhibition. Unusually for Wellington, which it seems these days is pretty much the home of preferring fiction about Frame to fact, this short bio is not a particularly toxic summary of Frame's life and work - it really does seem to try to be fair to her and to avoid pathologising, unlike the egregious 'official' government biography on the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand website.

But in spite of the obvious good will, Frame's middle name Paterson is misspelled and there is the usual condescending claim that Frame was in need of a string of male patrons who "supported her" (some of them are even named, causing guffaws to anyone who is aware of the real story behind some of those relationships).

The misogynistic characterisation of Frame as dependent on strong male guardians was propagated early in her career and it was used at times to justify a fair bit of behind-the-scenes meddling as well as some overt attempts to bully her. The thesis of the Frame who didn't really know what was best for herself, was unfortunately embraced by Frame's biographer Michael King who shaped his biography with that pervading attitude. Maria Wikse in her monograph on 'Janet Frame's biographical legend', identifies the conceit of "a woman writer who has her career (and life) taken over by several men, without protest" as "the dominant narrative" of the King biography, and I, along with many other commentators on Frame, agree with her analysis in that case. Michael King seems to have adopted this patronising attitude towards Frame uncritically from his idol Frank Sargeson, whose biography King wrote first. As just an example, wherever King refers to a friend of Frame's whom Frame first met while she was staying with Frank Sargeson, that person is later always referred to as "Frank's friend". So even though Janet developed strong independent friendships, for instance, with Elizabeth Dawson and Jess Whitworth, King will subsequently refer to Dawson or Whitworth as "Frank's friends'. Frame it seems, only has 'patrons' not 'friends', and if she has friends, they are really borrowed from someone else.

Ironically, the effect of Sargeson's successful legend building of Frame as hopeless and dependent on male patronage, and King's popularisation of it, is shown in the fact that in the 250 word portrait exhibition biography of Janet Frame, Michael King's own name has now appeared on the fantastical list of the men who "supported" the "peripatetic" Frame. (If Michael were here, he would surely protest himself, at seeing his name on the list - and he'd protest at some of the other names too, for instance Denis Glover, whose alcoholic incompetence led to a five year delay in the publication of Frame's first book!) If anyone benefited professionally and personally from their collaboration, it was Michael.

These are but minor quibbles of course. So what if it's so hard to eradicate the sexist agenda? Frame triumphed anyway, and in this exhibition she is given fitting recognition for her achievements and for her influence.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Birthday Michael

Michael King, Opoutere
February 2004

Janet Frame's friend and biographer, and my friend and colleague, Michael King would have turned 66 today. I took the above snapshot at his bush clad Coromandel home just weeks before his untimely death.

Over the several years that Michael King was writing and researching Janet Frame's biography, he was accepted by her and the rest of her close family and friends, a regular visitor to her home and to our homes, becoming so familiar that the members of her circle treated him almost like "one of the family" and we were devastated when he and his wife Maria were killed in a horrific car crash only two months after Janet Frame's death.

Michael & Janet 1998
They shared a wicked sense of humour

Despite some public misconception about the status of Michael King's biography of Janet Frame, it was not strictly an 'authorised biography' and it was certainly not controlled or manipulated by her; it was more, as he admitted himself, 'tolerated'. She did agree to cooperate with his research and gave him unprecedented access to her inner circle and to her archives and her papers. She was exceedingly unstinting with her time, having almost daily contact with Michael for several years as he wrote the biography (either face to face, by phone, fax, email or snail mail). Then he curated and toured an exhibition based on her life and work, and he followed that by publishing An Inward Sun: The World of Janet Frame (2002) a book of photographs of the exhibition also drawing from the photo albums of Frame and her friends.

Over the years Michael was engaged in his biographical work on Frame (with her generous patronage and assistance), Michael held numerous prestigious well-funded fellowships and scholarships and major residencies (at Auckland University, Waikato University, Otago University and at Georgetown University, Washington DC) and he also received some major grants, and the Prime Minister's Award for Non-Fiction  ($60,000) in 2003. His biography Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000) won the Wattie NZ Book of the Year Award. Perhaps for the first time in his career he was earning enough over those years (including advances and royalties from his prolific publishing, and his sizeable share of the NZ Library Fund) to keep his chronic severe anxiety about money (as he often mentioned) at bay. It was a terrible irony that it was right at the end of his life that his last book, A Penguin History of New Zealand, became a rampant bestseller and would have afforded him even more material comfort into his old age than he had ever enjoyed. And he had so many more plans. But as fate had it, among his last published works were the obituaries he wrote for Janet Frame.

A group of Michael's friends and associates have founded the Michael King Writer's Centre in Devonport Auckland as a very fitting memorial tribute to Michael King, that in his spirit will advocate for writers and provide the resources and the community for them to be able to do their work.

In Janet Frame In Her Own Words we have published for the first time the transcript of Janet Frame's opinions about the Michael King biography as given in a radio interview with Elizabeth Alley on the occasion of the Dunedin launch of the biography. At one stage Janet laughs and says:

"I believe that Michael King has done a wonderful job of work . . . if I forget that I’m the subject!"

Best Bookshops: vicbooks

Another of my favourite bookshops is a must visit when I'm in Wellington. It's the bookshop at Victoria University, and the bonus is you get to ride the cable car up to the campus.

Like the magnificent Dunedin University Book Shop, vicbooks is that rare beast, an independent store, and they take care to stock a wide range of high quality NZ and overseas titles. Not just text books. It's always a delight to browse there and as with the other uni book shops you know that there has been great care taken in the selection and ordering of the volumes on offer. Or if they have run out they'll get it in for you.

Vicbooks have a blog, and they've recommended Janet Frame In Her Own Words as one of their 'Ideas for Christmas Reading':

"Can’t think of what to read over the break or in need of some gift inspiration?"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"very readable and entertaining"

A new review of Janet Frame In Her Own Words calls it "very readable and entertaining".

The review is on the educational resource website Tomorrow's Schools Today.
The review states that this collection:
"gives great insight into the many different sides of Janet Frame and also challenges some long-standing myths about her. It is a great way to find out more about this extraordinary New Zealander. It reveals a woman who is sharp, affectionate, shy, mischievous, intelligent, and with a great sense of humour."
We're glad they feel that way. The book contains a varied mix of autobiography, memoir, essays, reviews, obituaries, interviews, letters to the editor, personal and work correspondence, meditations and jokes, and more, all in Janet Frame's own voice.

And of course from the point of view of a secondary school the hardback Penguin volume is also the authoritative collection of all of Janet Frame's published short non-fiction, a very useful resource.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"meticulously selected and edited"

There's another very appreciative notice for Janet Frame In her Own Words in the University Book Shop Newsletter The Book Window (December 2011):

"This stunning collection has been meticulously selected and edited by Denis Harold and Pamela Gordon."

"Harold suggests in his introduction that the book may be seen as a writer's handbook and indeed there is a wealth of insight to be found in Frame's reflections on writing, language and the imagination."

"A volume of lasting pleasure, a must for your book shelf." 

The lovely little hardback book, so beautifully designed and produced by Penguin NZ, has also charmed its way onto the UBS list of

Monday, December 12, 2011

Janet Frame in the Woman's Weekly

There's a feature article on 'Janet Frame's Private Life' in the New Zealand Woman's Weekly this week (December 19, 2011).

I spoke to journalist Amie Richardson about growing up with a famous aunty, and how Janet Frame's close family learnt to help protect her privacy, and about how the revealing new book Janet Frame In Her Own Words sheds new light on the author's life and work.

For instance, among the 35 interviews that we quote from in Janet Frame In Her Own Words, are two interviews Janet Frame herself did with the NZ Woman's Weekly. In 1963 she told the NZWW that she had taken a copy of Aunt Daisy's cookbook with her when she went to live in Europe:

"I am very interested in food, but don’t seem to have time to indulge my interest. I do like to think I can make a good Christmas cake, but if I had to I could exist cheerfully on just cheese and apples — New Zealand grown for preference."

And twenty years later in 1983, Janet Frame again spoke to the NZWW, saying that her mother had faithfully read the Woman's Weekly - a New Zealand institution - and so did she, making a point of collecting the hints: "They're very useful". By 1983 Frame was well aware of the errors of the 'Janet Frame Myth' and found it necessary to say:

"I really had quite an ordinary, quite happy childhood — certainly no worse than many others during those years."

An image of my aunt hovering over my shoulder

POSTSCRIPT: This article is now online:

Friday, December 9, 2011

"I want to send a special thought to all writers in New Zealand"

Janet Frame shared a joke with the University Chancellor after she received the Massey University Medal, 1993 (Manawatu Standard, Photo Dionne Ward)

Janet Frame received one of Massey University’s most prestigious awards, the Massey Medal, in 1993 in recognition of her extraordinary and outstanding contribution to New Zealand literature. In her acceptance speech Janet Frame said:

"... In my mind I see the map of New Zealand and during the grim, rewarding and often lonely pursuit of words to match the vision, I am always inspired and encouraged by the inward view of the map of New Zealand (and the world too of course) and my being able to think — Ah, there, by that cape or mountain, so and so is writing poems, and there — by the snowgrass, so and so concludes a novel, and there, in the city of sails and fury, so and so begins a new novel. And these writers inspire by their very being and their act of writing, of beginning, continuing, and concluding their projected work..."

Janet Frame's speech notes are published for the first time in Janet Frame In Her Own Words (Penguin NZ, 2001) selected & edited by Denis Harold & Pamela Gordon.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sunday Star-Times Review

There was a very good notice in the Sunday Star-Times (Sunday 4 December 2011, page F16) finding the new collection of Janet Frame's short non-fiction 'welcome', as well as 'illuminating':

'Frame's intelligence and humour come through loud and clear. She is, particularly in personal letters, delightfully scathing of unintelligent questions, particularly around her autobiography ("narrow-minded people of the narrow-minded world".)'

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Best Bookshops: Parsons

There is the Parsons Bookshop on Wellesley Street in Auckland, specialising in Fine Art Books: Art, Photography, Architecture, Fashion, Design books and Exhibition catalogues - and also with a reliably excellent supply of NZ, Maori and Pacific books.

There is also the Parsons Bookshop on Lambton Quay in Wellington, specialising in Music - and again, with a great range of the best books available.

You'll always find a good selection of Janet Frame books at both these CBD independent bookshops, and many other worthy finds besides.

I am on the mailing list of the Auckland store and was delighted a few days ago to see in their latest newsletter that they were featuring Janet Frame in Her Own Words on their list of CHRISTMAS BOOKS. Yay!

The founder of the original Parsons Bookshop in Wellington, Roy Parsons, was a generous and influential advocate of  Janet Frame's work. She was deeply grateful for his support and of course she wasn't alone in appreciating his enormous contribution to the literary and cultural life of New Zealand.

NZ's Bookman Graham Beattie recently blogged a heartwarming and informative post in memory of Roy Parsons, that tells his story well.

Graham mentions the periodical Parsons Packet (1947-1955) for which Roy and Nan Parsons commissioned reviews and articles from writers.

One of those writers was Janet Frame, who wrote a review of a William Faulkner novel for the Oct-Dec 1955 issue of Parsons Packet. Her review 'Choked with Characters' is reprinted for the first time in Janet Frame In Her Own Words!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

NZ Listener Best Books 2011

Delighted to see that the current NZ Listener (December 10-16 2011) has named Janet Frame in Her Own Words (edited by Denis Harold & Pamela Gordon) one of their The 100 Best Books of 2011 since our book has only been out for a few weeks.

We are thrilled to see that our audacious attempt at revisionism in the face of some very hardened - even institutionalised - attitudes, is already winning hearts, and JFIHOW is certainly in some wonderful company in this list of 100 books.

See the Listener review by academic Kim Worthington, published 23 November 2011, now archived online:

'The voice we hear in the non-fiction, interviews, speeches and letters of this collection is a far cry from the "stubborn myth" of a reclusive, socially uncomfortable genius tinged with madness: Frame is self-deprecating, anxious and sometimes hurt by misunderstandings, yes, but also self-assured, passionate, driven, and most clearly, given to sly wit and generous humour.'

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Best Bookshops: The Women's Bookshop

Another excellent New Zealand bookshop, found on the pleasantly strollable Ponsonby Road in gloriously subtropical Auckland (where I grew up):

The Women's Bookshop

Penguin Group NZ "Independent Bookseller of the Year 2011"

Their Christmas Catalogue is out now and it has a nice little notice for Janet Frame in Her Own Words:

"A lovely little hardback book to cherish. Included are essays, reviews, letters & speeches. Fittingly identified & carefully edited, they offer a new view of the intelligent, fascinating life & work of our most internationally acclaimed author."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Art Award for Mona Minim illustrator

The Arts Foundation of New Zealand this week announced a new series of National Art Awards, and one of the first recipients was artist David Elliot, who illustrated the 2005 New Zealand edition of Janet Frame's Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun.

David Elliot received the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award.

In 2003 Janet Frame received an inaugural Arts Foundation New Zealand Icon Award.

David Elliot is also no stranger to prizes. The Random House New Zealand edition of Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun beautifully illustrated by him, won the title of  'Best Children's Book' in the 2006 Spectrum Print Book Design Awards, and was also named Runner-up to the 2006 Best Book overall.

See more of David Elliot's illustrations, publications and achievements at his website:

The other winners of New Zealand Arts Foundation awards and honours named in this week's announcement were: Whirimako Black, Ben Cauchi, Sam Hamilton, Eli Kent, Fiona Pardington, Neil Pardington, Emily Perkins, Lemi Ponifasio and Leanne Pooley.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christ's right-hand woman

"I went recently into Takapuna to see Frank and we had dinner at the
Chinese restaurant and he spent all dinnertime telling me what is
wrong with my writing. I was furious. He wouldn’t shut up. Perhaps
I invite that kind of treatment. I would never dream of trying to tell
him how to write. I guess I just have to be tolerant and do as my
mother taught me, find excuses for the behaviour of people. She used
to call it ‘charity’. Be charitable, she said. (She had the idea she was
Christ’s right-hand woman.)" 

~ Janet Frame to Bill Brown, 1973

From Janet Frame in Her Own Words (Penguin 2011)

(In memory of Janet's mother Lottie C. Frame who died on the 2nd December 1955.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Delve in and enjoy"

Another wonderful review of Janet Frame in her own words in today's Fairfax newspaper Dscene (Wednesday 30 November 2011, page 20):

"Delve in - and enjoy the insights" 

"The joy of this volume is every reader will discover different points of interest."

One of the reviewer's personal highlights was "the inclusion of Frame's notes alongside some of her interviews, as well as letters that recount her impression of specific interviews. This reminds readers interviews are not a transparent source revealing the 'real' Janet Frame."

‎"Keep it by your bedside, allow its pages to fall open randomly, delve in and enjoy an artist of the written word".

You can read this newspaper online at

The review is on page 20.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"It's an utter gem"

Radio NZ Afternoons With Jim Mora
Book Review with Vanda Symon
Tuesday 22 November 2011
"I loved this book."

Here's the review I've been waiting for, of Janet Frame in her own words - a review from the perspective of the general reader, an openhearted generous response to what is actually on offer in this book, without any of the professional agendas that can hamper the genuineness of the pontifications of some 'experts', especially if they have territory to defend or scores to settle.

"It's an utter gem."

This is the sort of overwhelming feedback we have been getting from readers - the book is wonderful, it is fascinating. It's readable, consisting of such a wide variety of short pieces, ranging from witty, mischievous, moving, thoughtful, that you can dip into it as you will, and always find something interesting.

It is not just for the pointy-heads, and it is certainly not just for the "Janet Frame completists" (unless you define 'Janet Frame completists' as the tens of thousands of readers in NZ alone who are eager to see new work by Janet Frame and to hear what she has to say for herself.)

As Vanda Symon says, you don't need to have even read any of Janet Frame to enjoy this book - anyone who likes reading biography will find "It's a fascinating insight into a person".

Among other things, "It gave a glimpse of her own personal frustration at the way she was portrayed in the media."

And of course 'It's a gorgeous little hardback and  it's really tactile and nice to hold."


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tim Curnow on his father's centenary

Lovely to hear Tim Curnow's voice on Radio New Zealand Arts on Sunday the other day (20 November 2011). The son of poet Allen Curnow, Tim was his father's literary agent for decades, and he was Janet Frame's friend and literary agent for over 25 years as well.

Tim gave a short interview with Lynn Freeman which you can listen to here, in which he talks about his input into gathering the tribute poems for Allen Curnow's centenary that have been published in Landfall 222Tim says his favourite of the poems is the one by Janet Frame, which I had sent to him several years ago and he has always loved it, but it is only published for the first time in the Landfall centenary tribute.

Janet Frame, who had a great admiration for Curnow's poetry and also of course knew him socially, wrote the poem in 1987 and after Allen Curnow's death she decided to use it as her memorial to him. She recorded the poem in 2002 for the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive which is lodged in Auckland University Library.

It's fascinating to hear Tim talk about his father the great poet, and also to hear his perspective as a New Zealander who has lived in Australia for many years, on his view of "the three most significant cultural figures" in the New Zealand landscape - judging by their substantive body of work and the influence they have had on so many people internationally - and they are: Allen Curnow for his poetry, Janet Frame for her fiction, and Colin McCahon for his art. Tim was lucky enough to have grown up among and known all three of those great creative New Zealanders.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A tribute to Allen Curnow

LANDFALL 222 is out this week, and it contains a tribute section for New Zealand's greatest poet, Allen Curnow, on the year of his 100th birthday.

As part of this tribute to Curnow a new poem of Janet Frame's is published for the first time. Frame wrote the poem in 1987 while she was in Auckland living in Albert Park as the inaugural Frank Sargeson Fellow. The poem describes a party at Karl and Kay Stead's place, with Allen Curnow one of the other guests. Allen tosses off a comment: 'Auckland is wonderful in March', and with her typical wry humour and acute observation, Frame describes the ripples that this casual statement sent through the literary gathering:

The poet in his seventy-plus body
he's a great poet
long live his heartfelt asides
extracted wih precision and power
toned and tuned as the brilliant harmonious gift,

that in secret, away from the party, makes his poem.

As well as the section commemorating Allen Curnow, this issue of Landfall also devotes a section to work arising from the shock waves of the Christchurch earthquake.

Listener review

There's a review of Janet Frame in her own words in the NZ Listener (26 November - December 2), on newsstands currently but it's not online yet.

The full text of the review will be archived on the NZ Listener website on the 5th Dcember2011.

Considering the literary and historical significance to New Zealand of a new work of non-fiction by arguably its greatest writer and certainly one of its most famous cultural 'icons' Janet Frame, the space given to the Listener review is fairly ungenerous. Reviewer academic Kim Worthington perhaps reflects a little frustration by saying:
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the sheer force and power of Janet Frame's many writings, or her often incisive and insightful comments, especially when she discusses her own work
The issue of shrinking space allocation for literary features and reviews is of course one that breaks the hearts of book page editors and their readers in this day and age, not just the reviewers. But the watchful reader might note that the Listener has found plenty of room in the recent past to squander on squalid appropriations of Janet Frame, and in association with that, on critiques of the Frame estate that appeared quite unfair to many readers (as I have been told privately), so much so that a prominent literary figure was prompted to write a letter to the Editor in our and in Frame's defence.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent review and it lays out the relevant points, especially that in this groundbreaking collection Frame is allowed to "speak for herself" and to "challenge the stubborn myths" that have "built up around her". Worthington is simplistic in identifying what she understands those "myths" to be, confining them to the realm of the mad genius and the social recluse, and overlooking the many other common misconceptions about Janet Frame that this book disproves.

FYI these other 'myths' would include: that Frame didn't have a sense of humour, that she was depressing and depressive; that she never spoke in public; that she never spoke about her work; that she only did a handful of interviews with the success of those attributable only to the exceptional sensitivity of the interviewers, without whom Frame would have been unable to utter any coherent thoughts; that she was incapable of appearing at festivals and socialising with other author and industry personnel; that she consistently refused to and was unable to promote her work; that she was a weak, lost, passive person always under the care of some guardian or mentor; that her books didn't sell well in NZ,  when in terms of literary fiction she was one of the highest earners in NZ; or that her books didn't sell well overseas when she was one of the few NZ authors who could even get published internationally, and her works were widely translated; that she wasn't well known here in NZ, or that she was little known 'overseas'; that she moved restlessly from place to place with no reason; that she only wrote about a limited range of subjects and that those were all concerned her own tragic life; that she was a 'primitive', uneducated, who stumbled upon the great themes of the twentieth century only through contemplating her own misery; that she had fled teaching because she was too afraid of the inspector, that she had 'fled' teaching because she was incapable of functioning in the real world; that she constructed reality only through language (a particularly toxic myth rampant currently); and I haven't scratched the surface of the myths, here are more: it is commonly said that Frame only came to prominence because a movie was made of her autobiography, when the genre of autobiography is the province of the already prominent person; that the reading public are more interested in her life than in her work; that she had an unhappy childhood; that she never had sexual or love relationships; that she was 'pathologically' or 'cripplingly' shy, when in fact she was just [no modifier] shy, and she wasn't always shy, she was 'shy' only when people were being jerks. And she was not, by her own declaration, 'fragile', but she was in fact of a strong and cheerful disposition, opinionated and didactic. Etc. These kinds of myths are even harder to fight because the public don't even know they are myths. The "mad genius" legend is easy enough to ridicule, but these others that derogate Frame's professionalism, belittle her career successes, call into question her vocation, her dedication and her ambition, are more insidious.

I guess time will tell whether this volume really manages to slay any of these myths - the response to Frame's own attempts to "set the record straight" through her three volumes of autobiography was for some Frame 'scholars', such as Patrick Evans, to claim that Frame was a liar and couldn't be taken at face value in her non-fiction, that you really need to look into her fiction to find the 'truth' about her (his truth, that is, his patronising biographical speculations that had Frame close to suing Evans: "I resent this myth", she says in this new book, and "I have even contemplated legal action to subdue it.").

But now of course, Evans would rather you eschew Frame's work altogether and instead read his novel about 'Janet' and become acquainted with a completely false Frame - a cuckoo of his own invention that he has laid in a nest he seems to have assumed was by now up for grabs.

As Worthington says, there's a lot in Janet Frame In Her Own Words, a lot to absorb; so I am predicting it will take a while for the aficionados to digest, and even to comprehend the ramifications of this massive amount of new information, and of the old information stripped of its cottonwool wrapping, for the future shape of the Frame Legend.

Meanwhile, please enjoy "the sheer force and power", the "sly wit and generous humour", and so much else.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking for Janet in all the wrong places

The latest newsletter from the Victoria University writing academy IIML has this quirky little item:

A possible Janet Frame sighting?

Literary spies of our acquaintance recently visited the St James Station woolshed, a huge 1870s structure, pit-sawn timbers, on the banks of the Clarence River, North Canterbury. The interior is full of shearers' graffiti - names carved, stencilled and written, dating from 1877 to 2008. Writes our correspondent:

'Among the shearers' stencilled graffiti, by a ladder leading to the loft, I found "J. Frame. 1940 41". This was written in red sheep raddle in a cursive style, below it in capital letters was "J. FRAME. 1940" and below that also in the red sheep raddle which is unique in the graffiti, "Pte Adams 1940 OAMARU" and below that deeply carved in half inch letters was "J. FRAME. 1940". Could this be Janet Frame at 16?'

 Our verdict? Could be.

This isn't the first time somebody has assumed Janet Frame is the only J. Frame in the known and unknown universe, despite the fact that Janet Frame had a sister J. Frame (my mother, who more than once found her work reproduced based on the misunderstanding that her poem signed "J. Frame" was actually written by her sister). Janet's father was one of twelve siblings and the aspiring poet JF likely had a brace of uncles and first cousins with the same first initial and surname, let alone second cousins, not to mention the pool of unrelated Frame families that also settled in the South Island.

Why anyone would even speculate that the teenage Frame would spend two years in a sheep shed in Northern Canterbury in the company of an Oamaru soldier beggars belief, especially when at the time she was busy being a prefect of her college, excelling at her school work and being a key member of the debating team.

Oh and by the way, what is "red sheep raddle"? According to Google it's a red pigment used for marking sheep.

This is the kind of "make-a-wild-guess based on the slimmest of coincidences, and that will be good enough" that has characterised the decades-long patronising biographical guesswork made by Patrick Evans in his obsessive search for "clues" to the "riddle" of Janet Frame.

The riddle, or the raddle?

I must say this 'sighting' is at about the level of accuracy that I have come to expect from much of the 'citing' emerging from English Departments of Universities.

This anecdote fits in nicely with the Evans-led current backlash against the historical Frame. Evans (along with, it seems, the Wellington School whose darling he now appears to be despite the fact that he has been their most acerbic critic in the past, deriding them for their churning out of mediocre Manhire-lite overly workshopped monotonous pap), rejects the fact that Frame was a sophisticated, highly educated, self-directed, well-read, intellectual, strong, independent, determined and ambitious author. Evans in his notoriously eccentric academic work and in his demeaningly sexist appropriation of Frame in his fan fiction, attempts to annihilate the real Janet and and replaces her with a monstrous cuckoo: a waif that comes from nowhere, knows nothing and nobody, and invents modern Western philosophy and cutting edge literary movements in her head. She dwells in an unreal world and constructs reality only through language. Accidentally she taps into the avant garde from a rural shed, or an urban one, because she's a bit 'gifted' (and a bit touched too, one infers).

Frame is no threat to the men then, because it all pours out of her without touching the sides, while the boys can pride themselves on their craft. What's more Frame's chief genius appears to consist of ridiculous word games and pathetic puzzles - and Evans really has hit a nerve with this misrepresentation. Because then Frame is no threat to anyone, least of all the kiddies young and old who are fantasising that they will be the next great thing. No wonder they've embraced the fake Frame, you don't even have to read her to claim to have an insight into her....

Let's just make a joke of her instead, and that has long been Evans's chief stance. As far as I know he's still compiling an album of the off-the-wall anecdotes that people tell about Frame ("no need for it to be true").

Do you detect a snide undertone in the IIML newsletter item? Maybe I'm being too sensitive? But you can look back over time and find that this newsletter (and the IIML Twitter account) do occasionally throw in a bit of a Janet Frame snigger. I've noticed from time to time they source something they can have a giggle at from my blog - it seems to interest them more than the serious literary news concerning her work. I can't remember the last time they had a positive spin. Meanwhile on the whole the Wellyterati social network has been furiously promoting the demeaning novelisation of Janet Frame by Patrick Evans that was published by their pet University Press, and the sneering subtext of that novel seems to have infected their attitude to Frame in general.

What a shame the literary spies of the IIML aren't alert enough to have noted the recent publication of a lifetime of Janet Frame's writings and speech about her life and her work. Instead of tweeting another of their bizarre snippets about Frame, they might like to as eagerly tweet about her new book Janet Frame in her own words. It's been disillusioning to observe the eagerness with which the IIML coterie has accepted and promoted a despicable distortion of Frame's theories of writing, but when the aspiring authors have a chance to celebrate the real thing they would rather indulge in a piece of pseudo-biographical trivia.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Scottish Diaspora

Janet Frame's father, son of 19thC Scottish immigrants to NZ

There's a Scottish Festival on currently in Janet Frame's city of birth Dunedin - 'the Edinburgh of the South'.

Dunedin New Zealand today still retains strong characteristics of its role as one of the settling places of "the Scottish Diaspora".

Festival events will include a Ceilidh, unveilings of memorials, St Andrew's Day celebrations, the crowning of a Queen O' The Heather, a Robert Burns Poetry Competition, Scottish Dancing, bagpiping, Scottish Highland Games (caber tossing etc), films showings and Scottish literature. 

Scottish historian Tom Devine will give several addresses on such topics as : The "Death" and Reinvention of Scotland; The Lowland Clearances and the Scottish Exodus to New Zealand; and The Puzzle of Scottish Sectarianism. He will also promote his new book To The Ends of the Earth: Scotland's Global Diaspora.

Janet Frame was a typical product of the Scottish immigration to New Zealand. Janet Frame's grandparents Mary Paterson and Alexander Frame travelled to Dunedin, New Zealand, married here and had twelve children, one of whom was George Samuel Frame, Janet Frame's father, who was a dedicated player of the bagpipes (as you can see in the photograph above).

Mary Paterson had worked in a Paisley cotton mill from the age of eight and in 1874 she made the journey to New Zealand as a domestic servant on the Mairi Bhan. Three years later, at the age of twenty-one, she married Alexander Frame who originated from Hamilton in the Clyde valley in Scotland. (His four older brothers also left Scotland, but they all settled in North America, three in the US and the fourth in Canada.) Mary was illiterate when she arrived in New Zealand but by the end of her life she had learned to read and write and had worked as a midwife in Port Chalmers, Dunedin. Alexander worked as a blacksmith. (For more details see chapter 1 of Wrestling with the angel: a life of Janet Frame by Michael King.)

The Mairi Bhan (image courtesy National Library NZ)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Best Bookshops - Dunedin

There's a marvellous bookshop in Dunedin, situated on the edge of the Otago University Campus: The University Book Shop (fondly known as 'The UBS'). It's one of the best bookshops in New Zealand actually, and frequently wins prizes for that. I'm a frequent visitor and frequent purchaser too. They always have some new release that is just too tempting. They generously host book launches for the many excellent authors who live in Dunedin. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and love books, and if they don't have what you're after then they'll get it for you. They have a good stock of Janet Frame In Her Own Words located on NZ books new releases table near the front door!

But the Paper Plus in the heart of town, in the Golden Centre Mall also has an excellent selection of New Zealand books for sale, and with a strong fiction and poetry section. In fact they have all Janet Frame's New Zealand editions on their shelves. There are seventeen Janet Frame titles in print in New Zealand currently, so that's a remarkably well-stocked shelf, and Paper Plus Dunedin provides a much better turnout of Frame's books than many an independent bookshop that might normally think they were entitled to look down their noses on such a mainstream franchise store. Not this one though! Go Golden Centre Mall Paper Plus! I hope you have lots of literate and discerning customers who will appreciate the service you offer!

Paper Plus Dunedin (Golden Centre Mall) finds space on their NZ non-fiction new release table for Janet Frame In Her Own Words, among the cookbooks, earthquake mementos, and rugby albums. Bravo for a chain store to extend themselves beyond the blatantly commercial! 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Writing advice from Janet Frame

Ruth Dallas and Janet Frame, NZ delegates to the 42nd International PEN Congress
Photographed at the conference, Sydney Australia 1977

One of the many gems from Janet Frame in her own words:

I just would like to say that a writer can’t choose her characters. Someone says, ‘Why don’t you write about this, why don’t you write about that, why don’t you write about these people?’ A character chooses a writer, a writer doesn’t choose a character, and there must be, before the writing, a feeling of haunting by this character, a deep feeling of being haunted. I think that is the only basis for writing. It may not emerge worthwhile, but anyone who sits down and says, ‘I think I’ll write a poem’, is to my mind, well — I don’t think that’s a favourable beginning for a writer. ‘I must write a poem', yes, but not 'I think it would be a good idea to write a poem'.

(This quote is from a recorded interview with Janet Frame in Australia in 1977, made when Janet Frame was a NZ delegate to the 42nd International PEN Congress in Sydney. The transcript of the interview is published for the first time in Janet Frame in her own words.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The ODT's 150th birthday

Arts Philanthropist Fred Turnovsky and Janet Frame at a Wellington Award Ceremony, 1984

'The ODT' - The Otago Daily Times - is frequently referred to as "The Oddity" by those familiar with it.

New Zealand's oldest daily newspaper celebrates 150 years of publication this very day, and there have been festivities and commemorations in the weeks leading up to this milestone.

When she was a little girl my mother June misheard the name Otago Daily Times and thought it was the "Tiger Daily Times" (a linguistic phenomenon now referred to as a mondegreen).

The Otago Daily Times was an important part of the Frame family life - in fact as far as I know Janet Frame's first published writings appeared in the pages of that paper - by the time she was ten years old old she was regularly sending letters and poems to "Dot" of Dot's Page. Along with her four siblings, Janet was one of 'Dot's Little Folk' or DLF for short.

The Frame family also had a tradition of writing letters to the editors of newspapers and Janet's mother Lottie used to fire off stern letters whenever an occasion demanded it. Janet Frame herself took up this practice as is so well attested in the new book Janet Frame In Her Own Words which includes a selection of Janet Frame's letters to the editors of publications, written over fifty years of her life (from the age of 10 to the age of 60).

So Janet Frame, probably the greatest writer so far to emerge from New Zealand, who was born in Dunedin and died here too, had a long a fruitful relationship with the local newspaper the OTAGO DAILY TIMES, the first publication where she saw her name (as well as her pseudonym AMBER BUTTERFLY!) in print.

For the 150th anniversary the ODT has raked through the 150 years of issues of the paper to pick out some representative and notable news items and today the paper was bulging with a commemorative edition: a varied and rich smorgasbord of reprints of significant stories from throughout those 150 years.

News isn't just about war and sport and disasters and new buildings and commerce; arts and education and cultural pursuits must figure too, so I was curious to see what the journalists would choose to include from the many dozens of reports about Janet Frame over the years (if indeed they chose to recognise her at all - which was always a possibility - we all know the saying that "a prophet isn't recognised in their own hometown"!)

Reporters would have had to select a Janet Frame-related item from an awful lot of material: from her childhood correspondence to 'Dot's Page'; to her first notice in 1952 that her book THE LAGOON had won the Hubert Church Award for prose; to the notices about and reviews of her twelve novels and her five books of stories, her two books of poetry, her children's book and her three books of autobiography, as well as the film adaptation made of her autobiography. Then there were the conferences and books published about her writing, and the celebrated biography by Michael King, launched in Dunedin at a party attended by Janet Frame and by the Prime Minister Helen Clark. Also there were the documentaries made about Frame, and the prizewinning Vincent Ward film and the Globe Theatre dramatic production, both based on her novel A State of Siege. And many classical musical adaptations of her poetry and a couple of documentaries were made about her life and work, all rating notices and reviews.

Then there were the interviews and reports: her triumphant return to NZ in 1963 after 'becoming famous' overseas - or her return to live in Dunedin a couple of years later to take up the Burns Fellowship - or the various other literary and civil honours and prizes and awards and fellowships she picked up over the years. There was of course the CBE investiture and later the Order of New Zealand bestowed by the Queen. Each notable event in Janet Frame's stellar career merited a bit of a write-up in the ODT - as well as other NZ newspapers too of course. A highlight for Janet Frame - and Dunedin - would have been the bestowal of the honorary doctorate from Otago University in 1978. Frame later was awarded another doctorate and a medal from two other universities, but the prestigious honour must have been especially sweet coming from her home town university - the one where as a young woman she had studied English, Education, Philosophy and French.

There were overseas fellowships too, and the Commonwealth Literary Prize for Best Book in the late 1980s. Appearances at Festivals, and overseas honours as well as the constant stream of prizes for her books. All would have their notice, and often a photo, in the ODT.

And then in her later years Janet Frame returned to live in her home town of Dunedin and was frequently snapped around town for the pages of the ODT - attending a Mayor's reception, attending the ceremonies for writer's walk plaques of her old friends including Charles Brasch, Ruth Dallas and Hone Tuwhare. Then she attended the Burns Fellow reunion in the late 1990s and was snapped with all the other old Fellows - she was the esteemed elder of the tribe as one of the younger ones put it. And she attended book launches and art gallery openings in Dunedin, and in Gore, with her photo taken or a few words spoken to a reporter frequently making the pages of the ODT. And she was in the news again whenever it was rumoured she was on a "short list" for the Nobel Prize in Literature, there being a particular fuss about that in 2003.

And then she fell ill and died in the arms of her family, at Dunedin Hospital. Being widely accepted as one of the great writers of the 20th Century, the news of her death flashed around the world and obituaries appeared in every major paper from the New York Times to the Guardian to the Sydney Morning Herald. Then there was her state memorial in 2004 held at the Dunedin Town Hall, attended by the Dunedin mayor, the Prime Minister and the Governor General, and televised live for the rest of the nation with a live satellite feed overseas picked up by the BBC and other news organisations. That was big news locally, nationally, and internationally, but in the way of a great writer, whose words are their legacy and so they never really die, it wasn't the last the ODT had heard of Janet Frame, because there's been a steady stream of posthumous publishing, of news from the estate and from awards given by the charitable trust Janet Frame set up. Her significant archive of papers and correspondence was bequeathed to the Hocken Library. And in the town where she grew up, Oamaru, her childhood home has been rescued and has become a cultural tourist attraction visited by fans from all around the world, and news of which frequently features in the regional pages of the Otago Daily Times, its geographical reach still encompassing Oamaru as it did when Janet Frame was a child writing to its children's page.

The item chosen by the ODT to appear in their birthday edition today was suitably representative - it was a report from June 9, 1984, of Janet Frame winning a major prize for "Outstanding Achievement in the Arts", endowed by philanthropist Fred Turnovsky

In the ODT's quirky fashion the item referred to Janet Frame as "Miss Janet Frame" - an anachronism by 1984, and it seems a patronising way to refer to such a renowned author, but the conservative and fiercely provincial and independent ODT was the last newspaper in NZ to adopt the "Ms" usage and it was not their policy to attribute Janet Frame with the title "Dr" despite her several honorary doctorates.

(The photo above is from Wellington's Evening Post , taken at the award ceremony held later that year.)