Friday, April 26, 2013

In Search of Janet Frame's New Zealand

American author Aaron Hamburger recently visited New Zealand 'in search of Janet Frame's New Zealand' and wrote five fascinating and moving reports for the Matador Travel Network on his experience as a literary pilgrim:

 My trip, which had nothing to do with backpacking, surfing, hobbits, or sheep.

"I was going to trace the life of one of my literary heroes, Janet Frame, who is perhaps New Zealand’s greatest writer. Her inspirational story was recounted first in her masterful autobiography, and then in the moving film adaptation An Angel at My Table by another extraordinary Kiwi artist, director Jane Campion."

Dunedin Railway Station:

“Ah, yes. Janet Frame,” he said. “Angel at My Table. Amazing film. Wasn’t that with Kate Winslet? When she was just starting out?”
“No, you’re thinking of Heavenly Creatures,” I said.
“I’m sure it was Kate Winslet,” he said.

A former workplace:

Along the way back into town, I passed the Grand Hotel, where Frame had once worked as a waitress while writing stories and poems in her spare time. The once elegant restaurant had since been turned into a rather sad casino.

56 Eden Street, Oamaru:

Taking a last look at the house from the other side of the fence, I felt something stir in my chest. Such a small, simple, non-descript, pale yellow house, in a small, simple New Zealand town that few people had ever heard of. It was from here that Janet Frame had drawn a lifetime of inspiration. She was perceptive enough to notice its everyday magic that everyone else had overlooked.
If such an ordinary place could have served as the foundation for such an extraordinary career, then surely there was enough fodder in my own life to sustain me if I was just willing to look hard enough.

Seacliff Mental Hospital:

The Seacliff Asylum for Lunatics (as it was called at the time) was established in 1879 and was built to resemble a sprawling Scottish castle in the Gothic Revival style, surrounded by lush gardens. It was set on top of a hill with a view of the sea through the trees that surround the property. If you hadn’t known better, you might have assumed it was a resort.

However, the portrait Frame drew of Seacliff in her writing is unmistakably horrific. She describes the wardens as at best indifferent and at worst sadistic. Patients were beaten for wetting the bed or threatened with radical medical treatments, ranging from electroshock therapy all the way to neutering and lobotomy.

Patients were shuffled from beds to dayroom to electroshock treatment like consumer goods rolling down a factory assembly line, which may explain how Frame was misdiagnosed for so many years. In fact, at one point, her prose, with its loose stream of consciousness style and unusual metaphors, was held up as confirmation of her insanity.

The fact that Frame had actually published a book was not enough to prevent an overeager doctor to schedule her for a lobotomy. It was only after she made newspaper headlines when the book won a literary prize that the lobotomy was canceled, with only days to spare.

Takapuna Beach:

I stopped at the beach, where 50 years ago, Janet Frame had sat, staring anxiously at the volcano island of Rangitoto as Sargeson read one of her stories, the moving “An Electric Blanket.” (He damned it with faint praise as “quite good of its kind,” and she never showed him her drafts again.)

Frank Sargeson's shack:

While living with Sargeson, Frame wrote and sold her first novel, Owls Do Cry. One of the books at the house contained a copy of the strikingly timid cover letter Frame had composed asking her first publisher to consider her novel:
Maybe it could be published, though I understand publishing in New Zealand is in a bad way at present. Shall I send it to you?
Which, I wondered, was in a worse way: publishing in 1950s New Zealand or 2013 New York City?

(Excerpts from 'In Search of Janet Frame's New Zealand' by Aaron Hamburger, Matador Network April 2013.)

No comments: