This was the session I had been waiting all weekend for. What a national treasure this woman is. A true heroine of New Zealand publishing, but more importantly of telling the stories of women’s lives in this country. I have read three of her books in the last six months, I love what she writes, I love what she represents, I love what she has done for women’s issues, for working tirelessly for writers in this country, for being happy to spread her knowledge, her experience and love of writing.
This was the last session of the festival. I would love to have seen more people attending – it was free – but those who did attend were treated to a most special and moving session, celebrating the life and achievements of Dame Fiona. She is in esteemed company, previous winners are CK Stead, Vincent O’Sullivan, Patricia Grace, Albert Wendt, and Maurice Gee.
The equally divine Paula Morris chaired this session, and what a wonderful job she did. Her admiration for Dame Fiona shone through, she was welcoming, gracious and gently probing in equal measure, her own awe more than apparent. She conducted the session more as gentle prompt to Dame Fiona, leaving Dame Fiona to hold the floor with her own story. Before the session got properly underway, we were entertained with a group of colonial dressed women singing a traditional Gaelic song. They were from the town of Waipu, originally settled by Scottish immigrants in the 1850s, and where Dame Fiona lived for much of her childhood.
Dame Fiona seems somewhat bemused at the pathway her life has taken. She said she is just a small-town girl who dared to dream. She also made the comment that decisions we make when young have massive impact on our futures – the ‘power of early made decisions’ as she called it. She also said she was a ‘difficult’ child, and maybe for the times – the 1940s – she was. She was an only child so no comparisons with siblings possible, plus her parents were very Presbyterian in their mind set, where conformity was key. She says she was a lonely child, and when the small family moved to Rotorua she found a refuge in the local library.
I was thinking while Dame Fiona was talking about this time in her life, the importance of having a significant adult in your life who is not a parent. For Dame Fiona it was the local librarian, whose name now escapes me. She introduced Dame Fiona to the classics, languages, other ideas. On leaving school, university was not an option as her parents could not afford it, she didn’t want to be a school teacher or dental nurse or secretary like so many of her peers. So she went to work in the library with this amazing woman.
She recounted her courtship with husband Ian, a school teacher, and as she said ‘married outside expectations’, Ian being of Maori descent. Settling into a life of domesticity and babies in 1960s suburban Rotorua did not come easily, with all its expectations of normality, and writing being a most unconventional thing to do. The family moved to Wellington, where Dame Fiona and Ian still live. She started writing poetry, along with other women, including Lauris Edmonds, with whom she had the most wonderful friendship, lasting until Lauris’ death in 2000. She read out a poem, ‘Grass Street’, the street where Lauris and her family had lived. A very beautiful and poignant poem.
These women belonged to what the likes of Denis Glover and Kendrick Smithyman called the ‘Menstrual School of Poetry’. Not all men were so unsupportive: Bruce Mason was a great mentor, which lead to her writing radio drama with Julian Dicken, both these men contributing a huge amount to her development and career, and to whom she said she owes a great deal. So she was writing for a living long before she was first published.
The strange thing listening to her recount her early days as a professional writer, her difficulties in getting work, being recognised and respected for her writings, her views and herself, is that I didn’t feel I was listening to a fire brand, an activist, a fighter, a difficult child. She almost sounded surprised that life for her had turned out this way.
Her poetry was first published in 1975, serendipitously in the same year as International Women’s Year. Her activist spark had been ignited, and now there was not stopping her. She really caught everyone’s attention with her 1978 novel A Breed of Women, which thrust her into the limelight. It sounds like there was quite a lot of controversy with this novel, a young woman daring to be different, to follow her heart, even if it goes against the conventions of the times. In her words, she became an ‘accidental feminist’, with her subconscious belief system suddenly there for all to see, and at times not all that easy to deal with.
Paula Morris then got Dame Fiona to talk a bit more about how she writes, and where her stimulation for stories and characters comes from. Character seems to be the most important component for her. She goes for strong, brave women, such as Jean Batten, Betty Guard from The Captive Wife, Irene in All Day at the Movies, Harriet in A Breed of Women. She likes to get inside her characters, she chats with them, saves her best dialogue for them. She loves the research too – flying as many of Jean Batten’s routes as possible, wearing a white flying suit and flowing scarf, even doing aerobatics!
Her latest book is All Day at the Movies, which Lauris Edmonds’ daughter Frances read an excerpt from. Marvellous. I remember when reading this book that Dame Fiona covered almost the entire length of the country, even as far away as offshore islands. She made mention that this book is a testament to small towns, a lament for their loss.
Always, always, always Dame Fiona’s focus has been on making things happen, and not being afraid to do so. Way back in her Rotorua days she began a literary event. She saw how it lit up the town, and resolved to keep doing it. She was the first person to run the NZ Book Council, PEN, and started the ‘Words on Wheels’ tours targeting small towns and rural areas in New Zealand, which grew out of a similar programme in Australia where it is done on trains. And she is still an activist, her and Ian recently joining the Pike River protest. Quite a dame!
Finally, she shared with us all a second poem, a tribute to her husband Ian about the Hokianga. Again, very beautiful, heart felt and emotional. I think we all had a tear in the eye by the time the reading was finished.
But wait, there was more! Festival Director, Anne O’Brien, presented Dame Fiona with a pounamu, thanking her for her life-long contribution to the literature and stories of New Zealand. The Waipu bonnets sang for us again, and it was over. A wonderful end.
Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ
All Day at the Movies
Published by Vintage NZ