AWF17: 2017 Honoured New Zealand Writer, Dame Fiona Kidman

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.

pp_fiona_kidman_smlI 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.

cv_a-breed_of_womenHer 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!

cv_all_day_at_the_moviesHer 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

Dame Fiona Kidman was honoured on 21 May, 6.00 – 7.00pm in the ASB Theatre

All Day at the Movies
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9781775538905

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Book Review: This Change in the Light, by Fiona Kidman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_change_in_the_lightFiona Kidman’s latest collection of poems, This Change in the Light, feels like a documentation, and exploration, of the past. The present is there in the voice, but the past occupies the words. Separated into four parts, each section looks at a different part of Kidman’s life, interspersed with a mixture of images, from black and white photos of a wedding, to colourful tiled mosaics.

This sharing of a life is made to seem very intimate in this collection, realised through the exact descriptions given by Kidman. She creates vivid images, scenes, and characters in her poetry, allowing the reader a visual way into the subject. Like the mosaic pictures scattered through the book, her poems are put together with many different pieces, coming together to create a singular beautiful image.

We are invited to a festive dinner in the poem Christmas, both before and after the passing of Kidman’s father, the contrast inviting our sympathy. In her poem The Town we are taken to her childhood town, hearing not only about a railway / station and an avenue of green trees, but also about a wild girl who used to live there. These poems are reflections of the past, a crystal ball giving us a view of these people and places, while the voice of the poet stays with us in the present.

This clever use of the past tense mixing with the past serves to not alienate the reader, but helps to ease us into Kidman’s past, allowing a comfortable experience to unfold. But it is not only this journey into the past that Kidman presents us. Part three of this collection, titled Abroad, takes us over oceans to Canada and France. The physical distance is neither alienating or strange, much like the use of the past and present. Kidman begins this section with the poem Rooster on a Window Sill, and this sets up the closeness of these faraway places. ‘[M]y friend, / who is going ‘back home’ / to Canada’. The distance is broken down and shown as a home from the start, allowing us to comfortably journey around the world with Kidman.

Her poetry is a lot about comfort, or about feeling comfortable, in that it never feels strange or out of place, but rather there is an inviting nature in the words. The collection has a calmer ending, the short fourth section, titled So far, for now, seemingly more cemented in the present. It is short, but does not feel abrupt. Rather, it is a quiet, fading goodbye. ‘Oh, you know / that you are going, that / you have already gone’. Just as throughout This Change in the Light Fiona Kidman makes the reader comfortable in her poetry, so too does she make the ending continue this, leaving us with a pleasant feeling as we close the book.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

This Change in the Light
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Godwit
ISBN 9781775538554

Book review: The Trouble with Fire by Dame Fiona Kidman

This book is in stores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

It’s a shameful fact to admit but I don’t need both hands to count how many collections of short stories I’ve read. Okay if I’m being honest, I don’t even need all the fingers on one hand. So when the chance to review Dame Fiona Kidman’s latest compilation came up I was excited to stretch my literary wings – and with its nomination for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards I knew The Trouble with Fire was going to be a real treat.

There are 11 stories in this anthology and all are linked by the theme of fire. In some cases the fire is physical, as in the three interconnected tales in part two of the book where the peat swamps of 1930s Waikato burn as young and naïve Joy Mullens mysteriously disappears: a fact that does not seem to trouble her callous husband. In Extremes, Sam keeps fire watch over the forests of Tokoroa while unknown to him, his wife Doreen escapes to Australia to abort her affair pregnancy.

In the last story which gives this collection its name, two well-to-do ladies of our country’s pioneering days enjoy the thrill of burning tussock to clear the Canterbury land for pasture.

In other stories it is metaphoric. In The History of It fire shows itself as the initial scorching passion between clandestine lovers Geraldine and Duncan which burns out as the reality of the marriages they jeopardise sets in. In Preservation, it’s the deception and its unintended outcome played by two old school friends who pull together to help another whose mother dies while she’s in prison.

I was really worried that, even though these pieces are generally considered long by short story standards, I wouldn’t be engaged by them – that the stories would just start to get going and then come to an abrupt halt. Or that I wouldn’t have enough time to become involved emotionally with the characters and their plights – one of the luxuries of novels.

I was delighted to be wrong.

Dame Fiona writes with a subtle and deft hand. Every story was a perfectly formed little morsel, obviously finely crafted so as to draw you in with the detail you needed but not a word wasted. They seemed to effortless flick time periods and narrative point of view with assuredness. In fact I particularly enjoyed the very “New Zealandness” of the settings, how they ranged the length of the country and how authentically Kiwi the stories were.

Of course some stories grabbed me more than others: I loved the cleverness of the shopping ruse’s outcome in Preservation and the strong sense of time and place in the uncomfortable forced walk down nostalgia lane for the character of Hilary in The Italian Boy.

And despite my misgivings, I really did like the brevity of the pieces. It was great to be able to dip in, have a short but satisfying read and then come back to it later without having to worry about remembering who characters were and what they’d been up to.

So the big question is did The Trouble with Fire convert me into a short story reader? The answer is a resounding yes and I’m so fortunate this is an art form Kiwi authors – and in particular Dame Fiona Kidman – excel at. If you need me, I’ll be the girl with her nose in a short story collection.

Reviewed by Kelly Badman, The Well Read Kitty

The Trouble With Fire
by Dame Fiona Kidman
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869793593 (Paperback) and 9781869793609 (Ebook)