Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, by Elizabeth Knox
An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms
I am a pretty gregarious person. I approach people at events; I call people on the phone. (When left on my own for more than a few hours, I go mad and start serenading my pet rats.) I am a natural networker, and literary events like writers festivals are like catnip to me: I get to talk to other readers, to meet authors I’ve read and discover others I’d like to read, to buy books and get them freshly signed. Having a media pass is even better − I get to interview people, hobnob with celebrities, and tune my curious book-reviewing brain to live events. My usual festival MO is to constantly make myself available for interesting conversations.
When Elizabeth Knox’s lecture ended, I did none of these things. I couldn’t wait to get out of the room. I saw many people I knew, who I enjoy conversing with, but I approached none of them. I headed straight outside into the calming Christchurch cold and towards the cardboard cathedral.
I didn’t know what to think. It was just before 11 in the morning on a Sunday and my mind was in whirring turmoil. What had I just experienced? Some kind of profound and disruptive event of the mind. I wasn’t ready to be around other people, wasn’t ready to discuss the experience we’d all just had. I couldn’t even put it into words in my own head. And why was I striding so desperately towards the cathedral? I am an atheist, and have never, from my compulsory-Catholicism childhood onwards, viewed houses of worship as places of consolation.
Perhaps it was that Knox had spoken so matter-of-factly about experiencing the presence of god in her own life; doing what she had credited Mahy with; “making the supernatural natural”. Perhaps it was because, when Kate De Goldi came back onstage to do the end-of-event wrap-up, she suggested that, rather than ask questions, the audience just file silently out, as from a church. We did. Many of us had been crying.
Either way, I was stymied. It was a Sunday morning and the cathedral was being used for its primary purpose: there was a service on, and I didn’t want to join in. So I walked around outside, touched the cardboard, admired the stark, fresh lines of the architecture, and listened to the singing − borrowed sounds of beauty and calm.
I thought about Knox, about her talking about the experience Mahy had had on her as a reader: “she opened up a room in New Zealand literature that I wanted to hang out in”. And I thought about how the same is true of my discovery of Knox. I was living in England and feeling a bit distanced from New Zealandness. One day in a bookshop I discovered a book that had been written by a fellow Kiwi called Elizabeth: The Vintner’s Luck. I bought and read it.
It was so strange, almost uncomfortable. Was it literary fiction? Fantasy? Paranormal slash? (One of my favourite Knox quotes is a tweet she once sent: “I am a genre-tunneling monster!”) Was it New Zealand literature? It wasn’t set in Aotearoa and it didn’t have that NZ lit feel at all. But in that book I met something, someone, that has stayed with me ever since. Knox opened up a room for me in New Zealand literature that I value enormously. I revisit it whenever I need to be prodded in the mind, pushed off my comfortable perch and forced to fly. Knox’s writing reminds me that the world is strange and that I can be better in it. Ehara koe i a ia, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Knox’s inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, entitled ‘An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms’, will be coming to national radio soon, and Knox promises to publish it as prose as well. Make sure you go there.
by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher