RIP Jean Aunty

Author Jean Watson, who was recently featured in the  documentary Aunty and the Star People, died in Wellington yesterday 28 December 2014.

Ms Watson wrote several novels. Stand in the Rain, which was published in 1965 and which was partly based on her marriage to writer Barry Crump, was her first and most well-known.

However, in the last 28 years or so, her focus was split between writing and philanthropic work in Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where she set up, funded and helped run a home for disadvantaged children. It was there that she acquired the affectionate name of Jean Aunty.  She wrote about the experience in Karunai Illam: The Story of an Orphanage.

My colleague Lisa was lucky enough to see Jean Watson at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival in August. Lisa’s blog post about the session is fascinating. While the focus of the talk was on Watson’s involvement in Karunai Illam, as depicted in Aunty and the Star People, I particularly enjoyed reading Jean’s comments on a number of New Zealand luminaries, including her description of Dennis Glover as a “very sort of sarcastic, open person”. He apparently called her a “middle-aged Ophelia”.

Jean Watson at WORD
Jean Watson in conversation with Gerard Smyth (director of Aunty and the Star People) at the WORD Festival, 29 August 2014,

 

Aunty and the Star People: Documenting Lives

Gerard SmythOne of the most successful films at the New Zealand International Film Festival had a New Zealand author as its focus: Jean WatsonAunty and the star people explores the “fascinating double life” of Jean Watson (author of Stand in the rain) who started a children’s home in Southern India. It was completely sold out during the Festival and will be released in cinemas very soon.

Gerard Smyth (the director of Aunty and the star people) and Jean discussed her life and work in India as part of WORD Christchurch.

28 years ago, Joy Cowley invited Jean to accompany her to India to explore her interest in religion. During the trip, Joy had to rush home but Jean decided to stay. She says she’s been there “ever since, emotionally when not physically”.

For the last 27 years, Jean has set up, funded and run Karunai Illam, a Children’s home in India where children from dysfunctional or destitute homes live and attend school. They now also have a school and vocational training community college. There are currently 43 children in the home and 269 attending the day school. Jean spends about three months a year in India. She says “When I’m there, I forget about here. When I’m here, I can’t forget about there.”

Jean first found literary success with Stand in the Rain, a fictionalised account of her life with Barry Crump. Gerard described this novel as meeting “with huge acclaim”. Jean countered with “Not huge acclaim.” “Some acclaim.” Gerard compromised, Jean clarified with “Well, there weren’t many writers then…” Needless to say, Jean is very humble. She said “my ordinary life seems described as extraordinary in the media, to me it is an ordinary life, maybe I should make it more extraordinary.”

Throughout her career, Jean has met many New Zealand literary luminaries:

  • Bob Lowry: He gave Jean a job after he inadvertently got her fired from the Salvation Army by showing up to visit her in an inebriated state. Jean said he was renowned as the best typographer in New Zealand and taught her how to set up type.
  • Dennis Glover: “Very sort of sarcastic, open person. You could never take offence at him. I remember him calling me a middle aged Ophelia. Whatever that means.”
  • Janet Frame: Jean met her when she was trying to get a reference to get into University from Frank Sargeson. Janet eventually wrote her a reference as well. “Just a young lady with red hair who seemed to me extremely nice and empathetic.”
  • Joy Cowley, long-time friend and Patron of Karunai Illam, said “Unwrapping Jean’s writing takes you to  place beyond words.” Jean now wants to focus on her existential writing, similar to Address to a King, complete her autobiography and write a follow-up chapter for Karunai Illam, her book describing the establishment and running of Karunai Illam. Although her goals may change; when Gerard reminded her that “55 [her age when she started the Illam – ed.] is quite old to start a new life.” She countered with “I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a new one tomorrow. Time is an illusion.”

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Jean Watson: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival is a mere few weeks away – it kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Jean Watson – novelist

What (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

Cover of The Wandering MindMeeting with other writers and readers, generally feeling relaxed and sitting around, and naturally, listening to the other speakers, among them; The Wandering Mind a theme so important to writers.

What do you think about libraries?

 I love them! so nice to be in a library on a wet afternoon.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

 Never ever thought I’d be in a festival film!!

Film Festival Literary Connections

The New Zealand International Film Festival is coming to Christchurch in August and we recently chatted to the Festival Director, Bill Gosden about cinematic books that inspired him.

Book cover of The new biographical dictionary of filmBill said he was indebted to Dunedin Public Libraries where he had his unofficial film education while at high school. Titles that helped spur his interest in film included:

Take a look at our collection of movie related resources to get some inspiration for your future-film-festival-directing endeavours. If you are more interested in watching films than curating them however, there are a bunch of films in the Festival that have literary connections. We’ve got a list of them on our website, as well as a list of upcoming film and TV adaptations  and a huge list of books that have previously been filmed. Here are some of the highlights:

There are a lot more titles on our list. Let us know in the comments if we have missed any literary connections in this years Festival.