Late last year Victoria University Press published a brilliant new memoir/biography by Auckland journalist and author Adam Dudding. The book, about Adam’s father Robin Dudding, a man considered to be the greatest New Zealand literary editor of his generation, signals a radical departure in the New Zealand memoir genre.
Sitting somewhere between memoir and biograpy it is written from the personal perspective of the protagonist’s son, as a kind of voyage around his father. Robin Dudding was editor of Landfall in the 1950s and then went on to establish his own literary journal, Islands providing a crucial alternative publication platform for all of New Zealand’s major writers.
For New Zealand Book Month, March 2012, authors at Auckland University Press were asked to write about “The book that got me started.”
There was no one special book that got me started. Instead there is a collection that has inspired the individual projects. I discovered Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame on a New Zealand literature paper at Canterbury University in the late ‘seventies. These writers indicated it was possible to be a New Zealander and a writer - my school education had implied that great writing occurred elsewhere - and that a woman could write and that her writing might be poetical, courageous and feminine. At that time I also read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and was introduced to feminism. I was immediately interested but also unsettled. Like the woman protagonist, I was emotionally attached to a medical professional and it seemed the two couldn’t mix and certainly my feminist politics would lead to fireworks when my husband veered towards the cosmetic side of plastic surgery. I have never been able to read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
Last night I had the pleasure of introducing Miriam Frank and her book My Innocent Absence: Tales of a Nomadic Life at a packed event at Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden.
Miriam is not only a memoirist and translator but until 1995 was a senior lecturer and consultant at the University College, London and head of Anaesthetic Services for the Obstetric department at Newham General Hospital which is affiliated with the Royal London Hospital.
The Stolen Children: Their Stories (1998) edited by Carmel Bird, is a deeply affecting collection of testimonies and personal stories by Indigenous Australians gathered from the Bringing them Home report (1997) that examined the racist assimilation policies 1922 – 1970s whereby mixed-race Indigenous children, some just tiny babies and toddlers were forcefully separated from their families with the intention of absorbing them into mainstream white culture.
The vast majority were sent to far-flung parts of Australia, siblings separated by inhumane policies known as ‘split the litter.’ Frequently they were exploited as domestic servants and manual labourers bullied, humiliated, under-nourished, abused, often denied the promised education while stripped of their own language and cultural knowledge. This is a deeply sorrowful story of the mental anguish of a people, of broken despairing mothers and fathers who lost their children forever and of the emptiness felt by the children who were told their parents were dead or had rejected them. And we learn, the trans-generational grief continues today when families are re-united but not always re-integrated as a result of the loss of tribal knowledge, family history and language.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg, historian, novelist and memoirist, is one of the most interesting, original and thought provoking authors at work in New Zealand today. He began writing short stories while studying at Canterbury University and following his graduation with a PhD in History from the National University of Australia, returned to New Zealand in 1978 to write fulltime.
Since then he has demonstrated an impressive facility in both the history and fiction and now memoir genres. A central preoccupation in his writing has been the history of wealth and class, in late colonial New Zealand, notably the experience of Canterbury landowners from whom he descends on the paternal side - A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth (1980), A New History of Canterbury (1982), Pleasures of the Flesh (1984) and Siren Celia (1989)a satirical comedy of colonial Canterbury mores and manners.
Blake Morrison, And When Did You Last See Your Father?
London: Granta Publications, 1995
Blake Morrison, Things My Mother Never Told Me
London: Chatto and Windus, 2002
It is unusual for an author to write companion volumes of memoir about both his father and his mother. Neither parent was a literary or public figure unlike the four generations of Waugh writers whose lives and work were explored in the family memoir Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh.
So how does Blake Morrison elevate his portrait of a marriage between two medical professionals - he himself states the subject matter is not ‘earth shattering’ - into the realm of literary memoir? The first book, And When Did You See Your father? was award-winning and adapted into a high budget British feature film and the second was shortlisted for the WH Smith biography and autobiography awards. The answer lies in the fascinating blend of personal memoir and Morrison’s reflections on the dilemmas and challenges of writing biography which really gains momentum when he discusses his discovery of his parents’ love letters in Things My Mother Never Told Me.