Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The most wonderful moment of her life

As a young woman Janet Frame walked out of the classroom, ending her teaching career:

"It was the most wonderful moment of my life. I’ve only had one other moment to equal it. That was when I arrived in Paris on my first voyage to Europe. I had boxes and boxes, all the stuff people at home had told me I should need. I saw a sign in the station saying Consigne. I put them all under it and went to Ibiza with nothing. I watched the people struggling with their luggage and felt marvellous. I missed it later. I thought the word meant what it said and that I had consigned my luggage to Spain. Life is full of surprises. Auden said poetry couldn’t make things happen. I don’t agree."

~ Janet Frame, Interview with Harpers & Queen, London March 1985 (In Janet Frame In Her Own Words, Penguin NZ 2011)

Monday, March 26, 2012

NZ Book Month Talk

On Wednesday the 7th of March I celebrated New Zealand Book Month 2012 by giving a talk at Takapuna Public Library on the process of co-editing Janet Frame In Her Own Words.

The event was kindly hosted by the Friends of the Takapuna Library and Penguin Books NZ, and there was a fantastic supper and drinks on offer.

There was a large crowd at the event - we needed to find more chairs, which is always a good sign! The audience was warm and receptive and responsive, and included several of my family and friends and colleagues and numbered some well known library and literary and political and media figures too. Even some promising young Frame scholars.

I was still a little jet lagged from the exciting New York trip, having only returned to NZ the day before, but the necessary adrenaline and passion kicked in and I felt I was able to connect with the listeners and tell a coherent story of some key aspects of the journey of that particular book.

The experience was a warm and affirming one for me and I'd like to thank everyone involved, again, for helping to organise the event, for supporting me, for appreciating Janet Frame, and for coming along! And it was great to see Tom Beran and Helen Drummond of excellent independent book store The Book Lover being kept busy selling books.

It was a special privilege to have Cath Tizard speak up and tell us a personal anecdote of an occasion when she had met Janet Frame and of how that meeting contrasted with the persistent 'myth' that one still hears. Having had that experience, Dame Cath was particularly interested in why and how the 'Janet' myth has taken such a deep root in the Kiwi consciousness.

For me, returning to the North Shore of Auckland is a return home for several reasons - I was born in Devonport, raised in Northcote, and my very first full time job was as a Library Assistant at the Takapuna Library. That was in 1972, and Frank Sargeson - who I knew well because he was of course a family friend - was in that era a frequent visitor to the library, where his sharp-featured bust still takes pride of place. While I worked at the Library my famous aunt Janet was living not too far north, at Whangaparaoa Peninsula, and she was a regular visitor to Takapuna also, and used to call into the library to see me.

Thinking back to my younger days on the Shore, I still remember the awe with which onlookers reacted when they realised they were in the presence of the brilliant and successful author Janet Frame.

My personal lifelong experience of observing Janet's international reputation is one of the reasons I guffaw when I encounter the nonsensical claim that Janet Frame was unheard of until she featured in Jane Campion's 1990 film. In the same year that gorgeous film was released, Janet received New Zealand's highest civil honour, the Order of New Zealand, for what had already been a lifetime of distinguished service to literature.

Why on earth this new myth has taken such a hold that Frame scholars are now repeating it, it's hard to say. These are the kinds of things I talked about that night. Some of the processes of myth making can be deconstructed and it can be quite amusing once you analyse what is going on. I showed the audience a typical newspaper report of one of Janet Frame's public appearances - the one I chose was from Palmerston North, and was an article with several photographs of Frame attending a Mike Moore book signing. Frame met Mike Moore and his wife Yvonne, and exchanged banter and pleasantries. All this was covered by the text and the photographs but right at the end of the piece, the journalist has called the event a notable occasion on account of the fact that the rarely seen author is usually reclusive. There is no evidence within the article to support this proposition. The reporter (or subeditor) has clearly fallen back on culturally acquired 'knowledge' which has not only survived, it has trumped the counter-evidence.

Some newspapers have several reports, just a few months apart, by different journalists, of various public events at which Frame happily interacted and was quoted making an off the cuff comment, and on each occasion similarly the claim is made that this is the only time the reclusive Frame has been spotted in public for years.

As I told the audience, I was aware of this ongoing problem of the myth getting in the way of an observer's own eyes, because I had witnessed it over and over, because I often lived in the same town as my aunt and I had been in the habit of keeping the newspaper clippings if I had seen them. I was also of course, in a privileged position of knowing all too well that Janet Frame was not by any definition of the word, a recluse. She was fussy about how she spent her time, which is a different thing. I had lent Michael King my large file box of provincial newspaper clippings when he was researching his biography of Janet Frame, and he assured me that it had definitely saved him a lot of research.

When Denis Harold and I were doing the research for Janet Frame In Her Own Words, we were determined to try to find some more of the missing interviews that I was aware that Janet Frame had done in small town New Zealand. So, we decided to do a road trip around all those locations to consult the local libraries to try to track down more of the interviews. Consequently we have located quite a few more of Frame's interviews and news reports than Michael King (or any academic) had previously managed to unearth. (We have quoted fully from Frame's direct speech in 35 substantial interviews, while King cites only 22 interviews.)

I believe that the myth of the reclusive Frame has acted as an obstacle to even looking out for evidence of her engagement with the world, just as when the evidence is in front of someone's eyes, they report it, but simultaneously explain it away as some sort of anomaly. Once the myth begins to melt away, perhaps there will be some further effort to locate even more of her interviews - in New Zealand and elsewhere - that undoubtedly still remain to be found. As it is, the commentaries in many of the 35 substantial interviews we found, trotted out the tired old myth in some form or another, over and over. Which is the reason we made the important decision to cut out all the commentary around what Frame was saying, and probably for the first time ever, to allow her to speak without the contrary narrative shouting her down.

It is not so unusual to remove the surrounding narrative from an interview or news report, and let the words of a famous person or celebrity stand on their own, but there has been a particularly strong resistance to this action of ours in the case of Janet Frame's interviews.

It has been gratifying to have the response from careful and open-minded readers of the interviews, that they feel Janet Frame is talking directly to them, that they are hearing her voice, sometimes for the first time. They understand that it doesn't really matter what question she was asked, or what the journalist's opinion was of her demeanour, or what preconceptions the reporter brought to the meeting. They want to know what Janet Frame said, especially because they have been told over and over again that she never did speak publicly (much, if at all).

It has not been surprising to note that those who will not let go their preconceptions, find themselves confused that in this new book, Frame is to be permitted to tell her own story without being interpreted in the light of previous culturally acquired opinion about her. Most of the rest of us find it a reason for rejoicing.

And yet, it moves

A cropped image from a beautiful portrait of Janet Frame by the great New Zealand photographer Robin Morrison graces the front of this British schoolbook about Janet Frame written by French academic Claire Bazin. A print of the Robin Morrison portrait has been gifted to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington by an 'anonymous donor'. The portrait was recently on display in the Gallery in an exhibition called "Makers of Modern New Zealand". There is a snapshot of the uncropped portrait here.

I have found copyright information for the use of this portrait on a website dedicated to Robin Morrison:

The entire collection of Robin Morrison's photography was bequeathed to the Auckland Museum. Archival quality prints are available on request - limited to an edition of three per image.
Enquries to:
Reproduction rights on request. Permission to use: Dinah Morrison:

As for the text book, as I have noted with some amusement before, it purports to be written from an "autobiographical perspective". Droll as it is, this howler is a signal that much will have been lost in translation from Frame's poetic and allusive English to academic French and back again to academic English. There is a claim made in its blurb that "It is the autobiography and its film version, An Angel at My Table, that won her [Frame] international fame." This disturbingly naive statement appears to have been copied off the Wikipedia article about Frame. The Campion film maybe won Frame international fame in the eyes of the airheads who do not read literary fiction anyway (perhaps because they spend their time obsessively editing Wikipedia articles) but Janet Frame's international reputation as a major novelist and poet had been well established long before she was motivated to write her autobiography, as a little thorough research would have easily established. The highlighting of this startling fallacy rather indicates that Bazin is another of the commentators who approaches Frame's life (and work) through the smokescreen of the Campion film. Bazin has admitted as much, has confessed that she had not read Frame before watching the film 'about' her (not something to boast of, if one claims to be an expert on literature in English, I would have thought!):

"The book seems to depend on the film: most people, myself included, saw the film first and then wanted to
read the book. So in our perception, the book exists ‘retroactively’ and the same could apply to her fiction and poetry."

This admission is a warning that Bazin's 'analysis' is likely to be skewed and inaccurate in many other details as well, given that she had chosen what to think before even approaching the texts. Fascinating though, to observe the blinding power of a preconception.

Frame said in an interview about her autobiography:

"I am always in fictional mode, and autobiography is found fiction. I look at everything from the point of view of fiction, and so it wasn’t a change to be writing autobiography except the autobiography was more restrictive because it was based in fact, and I wanted to make an honest record of my life. But I was still bound by the choice of words and the shaping of the book, and that is similar to when one is writing fiction. I think that in writing there’s no feeling of returning to or leaving a definite form, it’s all in the same country, and within view of one’s imaginative home so to speak, or in the same town. They are different and each has its own interest."

This is one of Frame's clear statements that though for her the project of autobiography and fiction is 'different' she was able to use the same formal techniques in one that she had perfected in the other. But she always stresses the difference between making "an honest record" and writing fiction. The two are completely separate genres for her.

Bazin misreads and misrepresents Frame's own words to make the claim that because Frame has said "autobiography is found fiction" that she has therefore admitted that all of her work is a murky fusion of the two genres, despite the fact that Frame repeatedly railed against this fallacy, including in the same paragraph (quoted above) in which she says "autobiography is found fiction", she adds that "They are different".

It never fails to amaze me that people can ignore the evidence of their senses in favour of a belief that is as fervently held as if it were a religious tenet.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Frank

Janet Frame In Her Own Words (Penguin NZ 2011):

An indispensable collection of Janet Frame's short non-fiction, in which - among the multitude of other topics raised - you gain a range of fascinating insights about Frame's complex and conflicted elderly friend Frank Sargeson, and about the long relationship between those two influential literary figures. Everyone who claims an interest in New Zealand social and literary history needs to read this book in which Frame speaks frankly on and off the record about her love-hate relationships with her home country with its judgmental and prescriptive attitudes.

Today marks the 109th birthday of Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame's gossipy old friend who ran a literary salon from out of a shack on Auckland's North Shore, and who searched Frame out when she came to his notice because her reputation for brilliance was steadily growing after having won a prestigious literary prize for her first book. Frame wrote her second book, the novel Owls Do Cry, while boarding with Sargeson for a little under 18 months before she left to live in Europe.

A ponderously heavy 600 page selection of Sargeson's letters has recently been published which includes dozens of Sargeson's surprisingly tender and transparent missives to Frame - who evolved as one of his most trusted confidantes - as well as to many other literary figures. A good review of this selection of Sargeson's letters was written by Peter Simpson and is archived online in the NZ Herald.

Frame completists will need to read these letters, and will find Sargeson's backstage whispers concerning Frame fascinating and at times appalling. The old saying "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" springs to mind, although Frame herself was very forgiving of the old man's foibles and like many of his other closest friends she was happy to tolerate his bitchiness and malice because of his extraordinary generosity, his wit and his gift for warm hospitality, and his genuine desire to promote good literature and to support other writers.

Open Day at Frank Sargeson's Cottage - Sunday March 25th 2012 2-4 pm
14a Esmonde Road, Takapuna, Auckland

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Dutch Angel

Joining the new foreign releases of Janet Frame's work is a new Dutch paperback reprint of Janet Frame's popular second volume of autobiography in Dutch translation:

Een Engel Aan Mijn Tafel

(An Angel at My Table)

The Dutch publisher De Geus has given this new mass paperback edition a fresh cover (as in the photo above), and a new isbn number:

ISBN 978 90 445 2390 4

Monday, March 19, 2012

Historical Fictions at Oamaru

The Friends of the Janet Frame House at Oamaru are running another of their much-appreciated writing workshops later this week. The guest writer on Saturday March 24th will be the celebrated South Island short story writer and novelist Owen Marshall.

On Friday night (the 23rd March) at 6 pm in the Oamaru Library there will be "a free public lecture on historical fiction with reference to Marshall's new novel The Larnachs."

Owen Marshall will be addressing this topic of historical fiction together with Dr Paul Baker, the former Rector of the local Waitaki Boys' High School.

Here's a link to more information, in a recent report by the Otago Daily Times: (3 March 2012).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Cuckoo in the Nest

I have returned from a refreshing jaunt overseas to a narrowly provincial New Zealand that appears as abusive towards Janet Frame's right to her own agency (as a self directed and ambitious and successful woman author) as it ever was.

It's not just Janet Frame that is being misrepresented now of course, it's also her estate, as I was reminded on reading a twitter exchange dominated by Helen Heath, the "publicity maven" employed by Victoria University Press, who uses Crosby-Textor-like strategies to great effect in her manipulation of social networks to publicise the works she is paid to promote. Heath is charged with promoting the fan fiction novel 'Gifted' by Professor Evans, that utilises Janet Frame's real name for a character ostensibly based on Frame but for which many important facts of Frame's life have been distorted and suppressed deliberately - in order to present a blow-up Janet Frame doll built for Patrick Evans's ideological convenience.

Heath was 'live-blogging' a talk by Evans who reveals his own academic agenda and his aims, by claiming that Frame herself is "unread" and "unreadable" (unless you're paid to do it, as he, an elderly English lit professor, is) and that his own novel is a climax of all Frame actually didn't ever manage to achieve because of her imperfections which he has managed to surpass by his self-proclaimed innate talent.

No really. He said all that. Perhaps we should reframe him as a stand-up comedian. But is he just a harmless buffoon as so many of his fellow academics have long treated him, with his dogged determination to entrap Frame within her own fiction, and his derogatory insistence that her non-fiction is a mere fable?

Here are some of the tweets:

Craig_Ranapia @helen__heath "I'm reminded that Frame was somewhat bemused by folks who took exception to 'All Visitors Ashore' on her behalf."

(a) This assertion is a total fabrication. To maintain a dignified silence in the face of a vindictive act of revenge is not to be "somewhat bemused".

(b) 'All Visitors Ashore' (by CK Stead) was at least a novel, with fictional names and characters. It cannot be compared to 'Gifted' which appropriates the real name of a recently dead writer, and deliberately falsifies important facts about her life in order to make fake claims about her personality and her literary theories. Claims that she abhorred in her lifetime and strongly disagreed with. Evans was not able to stick to historical fact in his novel because those facts contradict his puppet 'Janet Frame'. Claiming you can get insights about the real Janet Frame from his fictional 'Janet Frame' when he has bowdlerised her, is just plain dumb.

Craig Ranapia @Helen__Heath "I can understand why Janet's neice [sic] is very protective of her aunt's rep - but too much so perhaps?"

Helen Heath @CMRanapia "in some ways it more damaging to be over protective if you know what I mean?"

Craig_Ranapia @Helen__Heath "Nobody is honoured by being turned into delicate porcelain dolls locked in the glass front case of reputation"

Ironically is it Patrick Evans who is constructing the "doll" (although his is more of a blow-up doll given that the motivation to 'play' with Frame is not benign; it approaches the abusive).

I, who fight for Janet's right to be seen as the self-directed complex autonomous and ambitious author that she was, hardly condone the false doll in the cabinet. That sentimentalising reductionism is what I have consistently and coherently opposed. 

Read "Janet Frame in her Own Words" if you want to learn about the real Janet Frame herself and not just a pale bloodless travesty!! Evans treats Frame like an academic plaything - his is the 'porcelain doll'.

To accuse me of presenting Frame in a "glass cabinet" really shows that particular tweeter's rank ignorance of the real issues... and does give an insight into the kind of scuttlebutt about the Frame estate that is being circulated by a certain coterie.

But we knew that already.

‎Helen__Heath: "Even though her literary trust wasn't happy and she wanted to restrict public discussion, Gifted is a loving portrait."

Who is the 'she' who wants to restrict public discussion? Surely not the Frame who (we have just heard) was allegedly "bemused" by being defended? Which is it? Was Frame happy to be slandered and misrepresented and made an object of sniggering and belittling mockery or not?

Or is Helen Heath claiming that it's the Frame literary trust that wants to restrict public discussion? Gosh, how would we manage to do that?

Do the occasional blog posts by Frame trustees in defence of Frame's agency as a feminist writer mistreated by medical institutions and by sexist male literati, constitute a "whitewash" in Heath's opinion? And how precisely has this restricted public discussion?

Patrick Evans has made a last ditch play to replace the real Frame with his Cuckoo, and I will never understand why any intelligent educated person would delight in enabling that misogynist agenda which has been on the record as a fact of New Zealand literary criticism for decades (see Denis Harold's review of Gifted for some details of a feminist critique of Evans).

Learning to Swivel

Radio New Zealand has archived a recording of 'Learning to Swivel: The Changing Face of New Zealand Literature", the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture 2012, delivered by novelist Marilyn Duckworth on the 1st March 2012 on the Marae at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, on the Wellington waterfront, and which by all accounts drew a large and appreciative audience.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Book to Handle and Love

Just received a copy of a beautiful new poetry anthology: Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems edited by Paula Green for Godwit Press (an imprint of Random House New Zealand).

The volume is due to be published shortly and is already attracting rave reviews, for instance this one by Graham Beattie on his influential BEATTIE'S BOOK BLOG (you can read Paula Green's introduction to her book in Graham's post).

After leafing through the book for a pleasant half an hour I can see why everyone so far has had such a positive response. A book to cherish. There are a couple of poems there by Janet Frame, and by most of the other big names, old and new, in New Zealand poetry.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Janet Frame reading five poems

Please visit the UK Poetry Archive to hear Janet Frame reading five of her poems:

'Flowering Cherry' from The Pocket Mirror (recorded in 1974 when Janet Frame was 50 years old)

Then you can listen to several more poems that Janet Frame recorded not long before her death at nearly 80 years of age:

'The Icicles' (from The Goose Bath)

'The Old Bull' (from The Goose Bath)

'Daniel' (from The Goose Bath)

'Scarlet Tanager, Saratoga Springs' (From Living in the Maniototo)