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Black and white portrait of an older woman wearing glasses, looking straight to camera with an assessing sort of air
(Photo: Sarah Hunter with permission of Playmarket; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksNovember 10, 2021

Life stories: Renée on the transformative power of learning to read

Black and white portrait of an older woman wearing glasses, looking straight to camera with an assessing sort of air
(Photo: Sarah Hunter with permission of Playmarket; Design: Tina Tiller)

At the National Library on Wednesday, Ōtaki legend Renée delivered the 2021 Read NZ Te Pou Muramura pānui. The 92-year-old playwright, poet and crime novelist talked powerfully about her mother, the casual racism of her childhood, and how books have propelled her life. 

This is the first section of the lecture – you can read the full version here.

This pānui discusses suicide of a parent; please take care. 

I was born in 1929, the year Jean Devanny left Aotearoa New Zealand for good because her novel The Butcher’s Shop had been widely condemned, and the year Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was published.

New Zealand readers were horrified and repelled by Devanny’s novel. It was heresy. This beautiful, idyllic, green and pleasant place, dotted with little white woolly clumps that baa-ed or larger brown clumps that moo-ed? Where the sun always shone? And this woman portrayed it as a violent and murderous place for both women and cattle? Oh, dear me no. We can’t have that. It didn’t help that Jean was a communist.

Woolf, from an illustrious British upper-middle-class family, well-educated, married to Leonard, large house, servants, wrote about the necessity for a woman to have a room of her own.

At the time, I imagine I was only interested in sucking milk and sleeping, but I’d place a bet that my mother Rose read The Butcher’s Shop, and I wonder about her perspective as a farm-worker’s wife. As for Virginia’s idea, a room of her own would never have occurred to Rose as a possibility – when she was growing up, she might perhaps have dreamed of a bed of her own.

My father shot himself in 1934, the year Ngaio Marsh’s first crime novel A Man Lay Dead was published, and the year the Reform Party in New Zealand put off the election because they thought they’d lose. There were no great thinkers in the Reform party, but they got this one right. Gordon Coates, their finance minister, completely unable to explain his financial management even to his colleagues, or indeed anyone else, was said to have told out-of-job workers who complained about a lack of money to feed their families, that they could eat grass. I don’t think he did say this, but it didn’t matter anyway – it was like putting stuff up on Facebook: everyone believed he had said it, it was the kind of thing he did say, so the election was put off and 1934 became “the forgotten year”. But not for me. I remember 1934 because it was the year my mother taught me to read.

Rose knew about hard work, she’d lived or existed through the headlines and reality of my father’s death. YOUNG FARMER SHOOTS HIMSELF, screamed the headlines. Pākehā man married to Māori woman, great copy, fulfilled all expectations, editors and readers loved it.

The house went with the job, so once my father wasn’t there to do the job we were chucked out. Rose got a room with Daisy, and she and us three kids lived in one of the big front rooms in this old villa on Guppy Road, Greenmeadows, in Hawke’s Bay while Rose looked for a house to rent. This was a pretty hard ask. A young Māori woman with three kids, whose husband had shot himself – landlords were not lining up. Daisy’s husband was in jail. She had four kids, which increased to six after the next two times her husband came out of jail. Daisy was a working-class Scot I think, or maybe cockney, a small, pretty, garrulous and good-hearted woman, and she needed the money – so letting a room to another outsider helped both of them. What didn’t help was my continual questioning.

Why have we moved?

Why are we living here?

What is that word?

That word was either in the big black headlines of The Daily Telegraph (the local paper) or in the reports. And so, it was in that room on Guppy Road that, grieving, lonely and heartbroken, Rose began teaching me to read.

She’d gone to St Joseph’s in Wairoa. She and her older sister Mary ended up in the same class because Mary was a sickly girl who was often away, and who eventually, aged 33, died of tuberculosis. One day, Rose got the answer to Sister’s question first and hissed it to Mary. Sister strapped them both. Mary got three for not presenting her own answer, and Rose got six for telling her the right one. Unsurprisingly, Rose hated school, but the one thing she learned was to read. She was a fast and voracious reader. She liked being taken away from this world and transported to another better one, or perhaps it was that she liked the respite from thinking about money, rent and food. She read anything and she liked to read in peace.

I saw Rose staring at these black marks on a white page and I was curious.

Rose was short, dark, good looking, highly intelligent, hard-working and irritable. When she had time off, she liked it uninterrupted – so when she began telling me the words, she expected me to remember them. I knew a lot of words but didn’t have much idea how to join them together. She was an impatient woman, and I am too, so I understand how it irked her when I asked the meaning of a word she’d already told me. I have a good memory, and it didn’t take me long to recognise the words again and know what they meant. I do not mean I understood them completely, I just had an idea.

We moved into a rental house and then, as successive landlords decided to sell, we moved to another – and another – and as rents went up, the houses she could afford gradually got grottier and grottier.

I went to Greenmeadows Primary school, which had Primers 1-4 and Standards 1-4. I tore through the Primers in a year, simply because I could pick out words, and in Standard 1, I learned very quickly how to put little joining words between them to make sentences. The world opened up. I began to read stories.

I liked learning and I loved, loved, loved, reading. And the bonus was that this got me approval from the teachers. I hated the playground, hated not being friends with someone, anyone, hated the sidelong glances, the whispers … So there I was, liking the classroom, loathing the outside world of school. Sometimes I wished I’d be naughty and sent to a room with a book and told to read it, which is what happened to some kids but never to me. I couldn’t deliberately be naughty, because Rose would be furious – she was very decided on what she saw as good manners. You said “please” and “thank you”, you did not say “can I” when you should say “may I”.

The teachers never quite knew how to take me. “Pretty little thing, pity she’s so dark,” one said to another as they stood in front of me. Did they think I was deaf? They never put me higher than second in the end-of-year tests. I suppose it would not have done to have this little dark kid, whose mother was Māori and whose father had shot himself, be placed first. However, I liked the work and I liked learning, so I had a sort of love-hate relationship with the whole thing.

Michael Joseph Savage and the Labour Party were delighted to have the election put off for a year. It gave them just that little bit of extra time to sort themselves out and storm to victory in 1935, the year one of my all-time favourite novels, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, was published. I didn’t read it till I was 11, and although I didn’t fully understand it then, I got the main theme, which was about the fact that when a woman got married she gave up any hope of a career and became subservient to her husband – bearing his children, being a good mother and baking for church socials. If you were middle or upper class and could afford a nanny, a cook and a housemaid, you might be allowed to interest yourself in some charitable society or cause.

Michael Joseph spoke the language of the out-of-work farmhand, teacher, hospital worker. He spoke the same language as the poor, he’d been hard up himself. Christened Michael, he’d added the name Joseph in memory of his brother, who died when quite young. Like thousands of others, Rose had his photograph on the wall. It hung along from the dog collar, which Rose used to strap us when we did something really wrong.

In our house, there were grades of punishment: a good shouting at, a lot of swearing, no pudding, to bed with no tea and – a last resort – the str­­ap. I only got the strap once. I’d put three oranges on Rose’s bill at the grocers. She knew to a penny how much the bill would be, so it was a shock when she found out there were extra items. I remember that huge longing when I looked at the oranges, then the idea, then the giving in to temptation. I had intended to give my brother and sister one each, but I ate one and could not resist eating another one, so my brother dipped out. When Rose challenged us, my sister denied she’d eaten one – so I got the full force of Rose’s shame and fury. Not only had I done the wrong thing, I had also made a fool of her, because she’d queried the bill, and Mr Rundle had told her “in front of two other people” that I had put them on the bill. She felt I’d added to the shame she experienced on a daily basis: that of being Māori in a Pākehā world.

Rose, after she got home from working, weeding carrots, would make herself as cup of tea, roll a cigarette from yellow Zig-Zag papers and her tin of Melrose tobacco, light up and read. She had an internal clock and when that buzzed, she’d get up, prepare tea, cook it (she was a terrible cook) and, when it was time, command us to wash our hands (“We might be poor, but we can be clean,” was her mantra). I thought of Rose when Dr Siouxsie Wiles told us that cleaning everything with soap and water was best, and that frequent handwashing was the answer to frightening Covid away. Rose would have approved.

Once I learned to read, I read in bed, I read in the lavatory, I read walking down the long drive to the letterbox, I read walking along the road to school.

I read girls’ annuals, single stories and then, when I was around seven or eight, I discovered novels – long stories that went on and on. It was pure bliss, and at first I loved the novelty of them. However, after the first heady exhilaration and reading each one two or three times, I got very bored. The kids in the books went to boarding schools where they had midnight feasts, which I thought was mad. Why would you get up in the middle of the night and have a feed? And they were always saying “scrumptious”. What the hell did that mean? I didn’t know anyone who said “scrumptious.” If I’d said it in front of Rose she’d probably have said, “Don’t try and be funny with me, my girl.”

One day, I was moodily looking for something to read, and I picked up Rose’s library book.

Keep going!