Review of Janet Frame: In Her Own Words
Edited by Denis Harold and Pamela Gordon
Penguin Books NZ 2011
ISBN 978 0 143 56627 4
Admirers of Janet Frame’s work are being treated to a series of posthumous publications released by the Janet Frame Trust, and in this volume the Trust has brought together a selection of Frame’s published and unpublished non-fiction: letters, interviews, speeches and articles, with a few short pieces of fiction and poetry. Of the material which was published in Frame’s lifetime, much of it is now only readily available for readers with access to academic internet sites and the major libraries. Given the difficulty of accessing Frame’s writing in the UK, this little book is consequently a real treasure house, full of Framean gems, so it is all the more frustrating that it is not on sale in the UK.
The major articles written for the Times Literary Supplement, Landfall and the NZ Listener are all reprinted, along with a selection of interviews from a wide variety of sources in New Zealand, London and the USA. Oddly, the editors have chosen to print only Janet Frame’s answers to interviewers’ questions ‘to give full prominence to Frame’s own testimony’, as Denis Harold says in his Introduction, supplying just the context of the interview. The effect is like listening to one half of a telephone conversation, and in brief and minor interviews, I suppose this is not very significant. But Janet Frame had a real rapport with interviewers such as Elizabeth Alley, and these major interviews are very much conversations: dialogues. Printing just one half is disjointing.
The selection of Janet Frame’s letters to friends and newspaper editors illustrate her often subversive sense of humour as well as her concern with the social and political issues of the day, and her dealings with her editors. A selection of unpublished non-fiction sheds further light on Frame’s view of herself as a writer and a New Zealander. In conversation with Elizabeth Alley, Frame had described her fiction as ‘explorations’ rather than ‘novels’ and these pieces allow us to see more of her ‘explorations’ in the process of writing. The book concludes with two wonderful, moving late poems, in which Frame looks back on her life with her customary wit, candour, and precision: ‘Growing older, I find I’m a moth-hole poet.’
The contents of this selection of writing, however, could be better supported by the book’s organisation: it is not always entirely clear whether items have appeared elsewhere or not. There are a few explanatory endnotes, but more would be welcome. Each section has its own contents sub-section, which would have been more usefully integrated into one comprehensive contents page at the beginning. Even more disconcerting, given the usefulness of this book to academic readers, is the lack of an index. My copy is festooned with page-markers, testament to its usefulness in recent studies.
The main gripe, however, has to centre on the difficulty of getting hold of copies in the UK. This has also been a problem with some of Frame’s novels since at least the 1980s; a source of frustration to Frame’s admirers. Currently, Penguin NZ does not hold publishing rights for Frame’s work beyond New Zealand. These publishing arrangements help to deny Janet Frame an international readership, with the result that this fine writer, a major novelist, remains so little known outside her homeland.