Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Janet Frame was not as shy as you think

Janet Frame pictured at the Fifth International Festival of Authors, Toronto, 1984, where she appeared with other international literary stars including Susan Sontag, Margaret Atwood, Homero Aridjis and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
An interesting article on literary festivals in this week's New Zealand Listener quotes novelist Emily Perkins on her experience of hearing Janet Frame perform her work at a Wellington festival:

 “She read a story but basically knew it by heart – it was the most electrifying experience. For all that she is said to have been shy, she had the room in the palm of her hand.”

Janet Frame was indeed shy when she was young, as so many young people are. Even young animals are 'shy': it is a natural phenomenon. But for some reason Frame's shyness has been grossly exaggerated to the extent that when her shyness is referred to these days the speaker often finds it necessary to add some adjective like 'pathological' to the word 'shy', just to enhance their story, to make it more shocking, more sensational. 'Shy' just doesn't seem to fit the bill given all the other outrageous gossip one has heard over the years about Janet Frame. People imagine that she must have been so shy she was scared of her own shadow, surely. (Perhaps influenced by demeaning fictional portrayals they may have encountered.)

So they just make it up. They add 'painfully' or 'pathologically' or even the egregious 'cripplingly' shy and with a stroke of the pen Frame is made to be 'other'. She is not permitted the run of the mill 'shyness' that describes so many of us, including our other heroes such as Edmund Hillary and almost every rugby player ever. Their shyness is acknowledged and accepted as part of the self-effacing  New Zealand character while Frame's is exaggerated and pathologised.

But even for a shy person, Frame went a lot of places and did a lot of things, and met a lot of people. She mixed easily in all levels of society and she was not as shy as you might have been led to believe, and she certainly was not pathologically shy.

Emily Perkins seems to have realised all this from observing the control Frame had over the huge sold-out audience at the Wellington Town Hall. ("For all that she is said to have been shy.") As a young person Frame had, after all, been a prize-winning speaker in her school years and was on the high school debating team. Hardly an indication of an 'agonisingly' or 'inordinately' or 'deeply' or even 'very' shy person.

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