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.)