Happy Birthday, Janet: WORD Christchurch

August 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 HallOwen 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."

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