Happy Birthday, Janet: WORD Christchurch

Janet FrameAugust 28 2014 marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors (so far) Janet Frame. As part of WORD Christchurch, Bernadette Hall, Owen MarshallTusiata Avia and Janet Frame’s niece and literary executor, Pamela Gordon discussed her work and influence.

Owen Marshall said that although he met Janet Frame three times, the thing that most closely aligned them was their shared common experience and knowledge of Oamaru and the fact that he “loved her work very much indeed”.  He read her description of returning to Willowglen, her family home, after the death of her father. Owen Marshall also visited Willowglen, when it was in a derelict state, and took a plug and chain as a souvenir, which he showed to the audience.

Tusiata Avia, the winner of the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, read four beautiful poems from Stories will tell: I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold, If I read St John of the Cross, Drought in another country and The end.

Bernadette Hall told us about her attendance at Janet Frame’s 70th birthday party as part of the New Zealand Arts Festival in Wellington. She remembers her as a ‘sturdy, white curly haired figure” with her handbag on her lap, underneath which was a book with her bookmarks and speaking notes. As she stood up to giver her speech, her book and marking papers fell out which Bernadette felt “rather charming”.  Once she gathered up her notes she read two passages, My Cousins ‐ Who Could Eat Cooked Turnips and an excerpt from Daughter Buffalo about two dogs mating. Bernadette enjoyed the juxtaposition of the writing with the formal occasion she was presenting it in. Malfred’s train journey from A State of siege was the work she choose to read, with emphasis on the quote:  ‘Where were the people to look on the scene and know its meaning?’

Book cover of A state of siegeBernadette also shared her original poem, Dark pasture, written with permission of the Janet Frame Literary Trust. Alternating lines from A State of Siege and Hall, it ends with the Frame’s line: “where is the Ministry of Imagination? the Secretary of Empathy?”

Pamela, chair of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, said she was also “lucky enough to be her friend” and that people are surprised that the real Janet was “ribald and quite funny”. The Janet Frame Literary Trust believes “exaggerations and errors of biographical fact” abound about the life and personality of Janet, and states that as time passes, “the Janet Frame ‘story’ hardens into a legend”. The biographical page of the Trust hopes to debunk some common myths about the writer; including her mental health and reclusiveness.

As her works were read at the event, it is hard to argue with Pamela when she said “her work remains strong and vibrant today.”

Tusiata Avia


Ten years ago today … Janet Frame died

Janet Frame photo
Janet Frame photo in Kete Horowhenua

Find out more about Janet Frame.

Janet Frame ranks as one of New Zealand’s finest ever novelists, with an international reputation. (Helen Clark on the announcement of Janet Frame’s Prime Minister’s Award for Literary achievement 2003)

One of the senses in which Frame is decidedly not ordinary is that she is a writer who, in the past, has gone to considerable lengths to avoid publicity for herself or for her books. She is the only author I know of who writes under her own name but lives under a pseudonym: Janet Clutha. Biography and Compassionate Truth: Writing a Life of Janet Frame by Michael King in the Australian Humanities Review.

She had no consistent “message”; but she had suffered and seen suffering, and she did not want it to be overlooked. (C.K Stead The gift of language in NZ Listener)

In private, with family or a few trusted friends, she could be quick, witty, articulate, entertained and entertaining, capable of everything, not excluding malice. She had her bad days; but at her best she sparkled and shone like her own writing.(C.K Stead The gift of language in NZ Listener)

I think what is essential and durable in her work is a tragi-comic vision, bleak in its implications but full of life, courage and humour in its expression. New Zealand has lost an icon, but we have not lost the books she wrote nor the letters and records of an exemplary life. The life and the work together are reminders of how unpredictable, uncontainable, unmanageable – how rare and mysterious – real talent can be. (C.K. Stead)The gift of language

It is ten years ago today that we heard of the death of Janet Frame.

Find out more about Janet Frame.

Reality bites?

Book cover: "Gifted"Patrick Evans offended Janet Frame so badly she sent him the angriest letter he ever got from someone he wasn’t in a relationship with. She called him a ‘person from Porlock’, likening him to the unwanted intruder who disrupted Coleridge’s inspired creativity as he set down his dream of the poem Kubla Khan.

Evans never met Frame, but he has spent 40 years thinking and writing about her; reading and teaching her. She called herself New Zealand’s greatest unread writer; he calls her the richest we have ever had.

Gifted, Evans’ novel about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson, is an interesting addition to the ever increasing genre of books about ‘real’ people featuring some events that did happen and some that did not.

C.K. Stead met them both – he said the Frank and Janet in Gifted are much nicer than the real Frank and Janet. Others thought not. Few would know the ‘truth’.

So who owns the story of a person’s life? Does Patrick Evans have the right to attempt another narrative of Janet Frame’s life, when she had Book cover" "Wulf"already created one with her autobiography?

Who owns the stories of Te Rauparaha or Paratene Te Manu? Where does history end and the novel begin?

Maurice Shadbolt wrote fiction about the New Zealand Wars and said “it’s true if I say it is”.

Peter Carey wrote fiction about the Kelly Gang and said “I made it all up”.

What do you think?