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Meg Mason and her grandmother, Foxton, 1983 (Photo: Supplied)
Meg Mason and her grandmother, Foxton, 1983 (Photo: Supplied)

OPINIONBooksSeptember 9, 2020

A gold tickle of toi-toi

Meg Mason and her grandmother, Foxton, 1983 (Photo: Supplied)
Meg Mason and her grandmother, Foxton, 1983 (Photo: Supplied)

An essay about leaving New Zealand, and finding it again via Janet Frame. 

A quick note from our books editor, Catherine Woulfe:

Meg Mason grew up in Foxton and Palmerston North. She’s a journalist – she lives in Sydney, and writes for places like The New Yorker, Vogue and GQ – and she’s just released her second novel. It’s called Sorrow and Bliss and it is shockingly good. It’s about a woman called Martha, who is a bit strange but wonderful, and it’s about her psyche and her parents, and it’s about her marriage. It’s about mental illness.

Martha humbles you, and by proxy so does Mason. You quickly understand that this is a writer who has hit her straps. More than that: what you realise, by the end, is that this is a book that was missing. A game-changer. You’re delighted that it’s here at last, and baffled that it took so long, and you hope that it leaches, a teeny bit, into books that come after.

Also, it is extremely, exquisitely funny, and to paraphrase that great philosopher Homer Simpson, that’s because it’s true. “Everything is broken, and fucked up, and completely fine,” observes Martha’s husband. “That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change.” 

We’ll publish a review soon. 

In the meantime, here’s Meg Mason on Janet Frame, and Foxton, and tips.

(Photo: LazingBee/iStock via Getty)

When you move to another country, you leave behind its words. When the country you leave is the country you grew up in, they were your first words, your formative words, they were fixtures of your childhood, so that is left behind too.

I did not know that at 16; that moving to Australia with my parents would mean I would instantly stop hearing and eventually stop saying macrocarpa and Raro, whānau and fourth form, flutterboard, kūmara and the Desert Road because those childhood words had no meaning to anyone in this new place.

Had someone explained it to me, I would have said I didn’t care. I was too busy acquiring their replacements – Cottees, liquid paper, kickboard, chockas – and trying to practise away my accent so that girls at my new school wouldn’t laugh when I used them.

Five years later, I left Sydney and its words behind, moved to London, gained a third set and still, I didn’t care much about losing the first one. By then, feijoa, wētā, Pams, aroha and tramping had begun to seem very remote; if I heard them from another New Zealander abroad, I just felt a vague nostalgia.

But now, at 42, returned to Sydney some years ago and away from New Zealand so much longer than I was ever there, I suddenly care desperately. It was toi-toi [sic] and the tip – the rubbish tip with “a gold tickle of toi-toi around its edges and grass and weeds” – which made me realise it. Which is to say, made me burst into tears when I came across that line in Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry, rereading a few weeks ago for the first time since university.

It sounds odd to say, but it felt like that tip was in my bones. Or, as though some part of me buried under all the words and scenes and ways of life collected from other places had just been dug up and there I was, sitting on my bed, holding the book, feeling an almost euphoric nostalgia. “Because that’s what tips are like!” I would have said had there been anyone else in the room.

There was one in Foxton where I lived until I was seven. And it had toi-toi around the edges. Francie, Toby, Daphne and Chicks were there to find treasure. My brother and I went, and sat on the wheel arches of the trailer while our father stood on the tray and shovelled it out, because if we did not fight, we would be allowed to stop at the dairy (the dairy!) on the way home for a 50-cent mixture and a strawberry Zap (Zap!). I had not thought about a single element of that memory in so long but a single line of description and there it all was.

State Highway 1, north of Foxton (Photo: ‘pseudopanax’ via Wikicommons)

When she is written about, Janet Frame is usually Janet Frame, New Zealand’s most celebrated author or Janet Frame, the internationally acclaimed author, and Owls Do Cry, a modernist masterpiece, the greatest work ever written by a New Zealander, this country’s first great novel. We have, according to CK Stead, “got into the habit of speaking about Frame, not just uncritically, but in hushed and reverent tones”. She has reached “mythical status,” wrote Elizabeth Allen in an introduction to the Michael King biography.

Did they both mean, in a good way? As in, rightly so? I am not sure but holding her in such esteem seems perfectly reasonable to me. And based on the proliferation of personal stories, online, about reading her for the first time, it is safe to say that Frame’s work means something to every New Zealand writer and reader. What occurred to me, only in picking up Owls do Cry a second time, is that Janet Frame has been a presence in my life before I was either. Pre-sentience, as it were.

After Foxton, we moved to Palmerston North. The way you simply absorb things as a child, without them ever really being said, I absorbed the fact that a famous writer lived there and also somehow acquired the knowledge that she had red hair, was “mad” or had been mad and was now just a recluse who would not – I remember an English teacher telling my class partner – agree to be interviewed for our third form project if we knocked on every door in Dahlia Street until a mad redhead answered.

We decided to do Katherine Mansfield instead and I have regretted nothing so keenly, after I read a newspaper piece lately about another Palmerston girl who, age eight and intent on being a writer, put a note in Frame’s mailbox asking for advice. Days later, she appeared at the door with a blank diary, and a note inside that said, “To Vanessa. If you want to be a writer, you must write and see what happens.”

Frame wasn’t mad of course, and not a recluse; she used to go into Bennett’s Bookshop on the Square, agreeing to sign books as long as she was allowed to do it out the back, I learned from the same piece. I used to go into Bennett’s to buy scratch n’ sniff stickers and wonder, now, if I ever did so on the same day; if I saw Frame but didn’t know who I was looking at.

Before Palmerston, Frame lived in Levin, moving there in 1983. My nana lived there then and I used to go and stay with her for weekends; I Google-mapsed it and if Frame’s house was on Rugby Street, I passed it on my way to the dairy, where I got sent by myself, age five, to buy Sunday Special (Sunday Special!)

I was a slow walker, and used to sing all the way and pick flowers out of people’s gardens – you were allowed any that overhung the fence – and wonder as well if I helped myself to any of her freesias, or if my meandering made-up songs carried in through her windows, distracting a writer so averse to noise that, according to Jane Campion’s exquisite recollection of meeting Frame, published in The Guardian, she laid a second layer of bricks along the front her house and wore ear muffs inside.

Frame, 1984 (Photo: Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

It wasn’t until I had left New Zealand that I read Owls Do Cry, my first encounter with her work. A friend gave it to me, claiming it as a favourite. What I felt first wasn’t a reaction to its beauty, its cleverness, the story. It was disorientation, as sort of subconscious confusion as to how my friend, an Australian, had it in the first place – a book written by a lady from Levin, a book so full of words that belonged to New Zealand, how would it even make sense to someone who had never heard or said wax-eye, the Clutha, jersey or the Māori Wars.

Although I loved it, rather than starting me on the rest of Frame, Owls Do Cry was a gateway novel to the genre that is, for want of a much better term, female madness – The Bell Jar, The Yellow Wallpaper, selected Woolf – which remained my preoccupation for the rest of university.

Then, adulthood, life, work, husbands and babies, water bills, making dinner, trying to write and much less time to read. When I did, my preference was still for “difficult” women – author or protagonist – but I had less wherewithal for difficult books, days tending to contain enough difficulty without them. Occasionally, I picked up another Frame until I had read most of them but I don’t remember reacting as strongly as I did to Owls Do Cry.

Still, I did not expect to react as strongly to it as I did this second time, to the tip and the toi-toi. And – after the realisation that I had named one of my children for a character in it – the realisation that a novel I hadn’t read for 21 years was woven through every line of a novel I had just finished writing. That Frame, the author, has informed everything I do and whatever I am able to do as a writer. All my preoccupations, madness, grief, home, are hers and every lesson I have to learn about the work, I can learn from Frame’s.

Owls Do Cry is literary but it is not difficult. Hilary Mantel was talking about Towards Another Summer when she said Frame “is not – not in this book, at least – hard to read, but piercingly clear” although she could just as well have been referring to Owls Do Cry. Knowing, of course, that I could do this for the rest of my life and the best sentence I ever write will not come close to Frame’s worst, that is the kind of clarity that I strive for.

And, while the novel is experimental, it is not exhausting. “Unpretentious eccentricity” is how one reviewer in The Times described Frame’s particular gift to us and it is abundant in Owls Do Cry; following a section of Daphne’s fantastical thinking, Frame rewards us with something so quotidian it is breathtaking. “It melts under your feet. And the rain falls in silver paper. And a kingfisher, colour fast, will sit on a telegraph wire and be stroked and sing with silver dazzle.” Three lines later, a hot, crowded school hall, children eating coconut ice.

As a genre – I don’t know what we are even supposed to call it – but the one she wrote in, or invented because who else was doing it in 1957 (or who could do it in Palmerston North), that perfect middle between the art and the everyday, is the place I long to find, as I’m sure so many authors do.

Meg Mason and her second, brilliant, novel Sorrow and Bliss (Photo: Grant Sparkes-Carroll)

And – another gift to our kind – Frame found an answer to the autobiography question. Every author gets asked how much of their work is “based on real life” but especially, it seems, female ones. As Nora Ephron wrote in the foreword to a later edition of her novel Heartburn, “I’ve noticed, over the years, that the words ‘thinly disguised’ are applied mostly to books written by women. Let’s face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge, they were never hit with the thinly disguised thing.”

Frame didn’t just contend with the question but, worse, the assumption that she was always writing about herself. Even now, and “even more than Virginia Woolf, Janet Frame is the prisoner of her biography” Hilary Mantel also said. Frame resented it since, of course, the implication being that she wasn’t clever enough to really come up with all that, it must just be her exact experience with the names changed.

My novel Sorrow and Bliss came out a week ago and I have been asked a dozen times if I am Martha, its main character, or Martha is me, if I share her mental illness, or if her marriage troubles are secretly my marriage troubles. Each time, I have recited some version of what Frame said once in a radio interview. “Naturally, I draw from what I’ve seen and observed and the people I have seen, but it’s always a mixture.” Or what she said, elsewhere, of Istina Mavet, the protagonist of Faces from the Water – “she is more than me” – and I’ve felt grateful again for Frame’s example.

What I am most grateful for now though, facing the prospect of closed borders, is just the words. If I cannot come home for a year or longer, I have the New Zealand contained in Janet Frame. When she lived overseas, Frame kept returning to it in her work “like a migrating bird who is programmed to only call one place on earth ‘home’”, as it was put by a writer for the Times Literary Supplement. I can keep returning because of Frame, and feel connected to a country I have been away from for so long, because of all those intertwined things, the overlaps and commonalities with a writer I have never met, only because we’re both from there – the fact that Frame changed her surname to Clutha after the river, I only learned reading for this piece; the fact that my grandmother, pictured beside me above, her and I on that trailer at Foxton Beach, was called Roha Rakaia, is the reason I’ve always given for why I am particularly obsessed with New Zealand rivers, especially braided ones.

And while I am waiting to come home, I will start another novel and I have decided because of her, I will set it in New Zealand. And I will fill it with as many tūī, spencers, bags of scroggin, bachs and breezes that are coming straight off the Ruahines as I possibly can. 

Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason (4th Estate, $35) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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