Standing on the Rock of Herself

Janet Frame by CS

A writer must stand on the rock of herself and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth.Janet Frame.

I have never been to New Zealand, but some of my favourite writers are from there, and have given me such a strong internal impression of the country and its landscape that I feel I have been there.  Keri Hulme’s The Bone People blew my mind when I was in my early 20s. Katherine Mansfield’s stories have dogged me for years with their rhythms, imagery and representations of time, in particular ever since I read “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” But perhaps the New Zealand I have most visited is that of Janet Frame, whose surreal, time and space bending novels speak of an emotional landscape I recognize even as its constituent elements morph and shift, between fiction, poetry and memoir.

There is no past or future. Using tenses to divide time is like making chalk marks on water.--Janet Frame.

Frame thought of herself as a poet, but never published as much poetry as fiction, or received as much acclaim for her verse, perhaps because everything she wrote was imbued with her poetics, except on a larger, more narrative scale. Her novels are complex, psychological and often surreal. My favourites include Faces in the Water, Scented Gardens for the Blind, and Living in the Maniototo. The latter blurs autobiography and fiction, relating the story of a woman immigrant to the US living with room-mates she barely knows–or at least that’s how things appear. Little is what it seems in a Janet Frame novel. And if her novels provide a degree of challenge, her short stories offer a deceptive simplicity. So little–and then so much happens. Time stands still, then leaps forward or backwards, exemplifying the kind of associative, patterning structure of poetry. Fierce uniqueness, a strong voice, sense of poetic descriptive detail and an ability to reveal, with the flip of a wrist, the chasms that underlie ordinary life.

I have discovered that my freedom is within me, and nothing can destroy it.–Janet Frame.

Janet Frame might never have been a writer. She grew up in poverty, and endured family tragedy: the loss of two sisters to drowning. Famously, she came perilously close to being lobotomized after being committed to an insane asylum with the Gothic moniker of Seacliff, because she had been erroneously diagnosed with schizophrenia. Looking at her life-story from the viewpoint of the 21st century, she shows many signs of being on the spectrum, i.e. living with a neurologically different but entirely functional brain, although there has been some controversy about this suggestion. Either way, Frame’s writing career ultimately gave her a way to communicate with others and be in the world while retaining the space she needed around her to remain well, and her work speaks eloquently about the inner experience of difference, while also challenging European notions of linear time and the unified self. 

... it is imperative, for our own survival, that we avoid one another, and what more successful means of avoidance are there than words?--Janet Frame.

After reading her three-part autobiography, An Angel at My Table, it’s difficult to think of Frame’s work without referencing her life: her struggle with her rotting teeth, her ecstatic visit to Majorca after receiving a travel grant, the day she simply walked out of a primary school classroom, abandoning her fledgling career as a school teacher, never to return. But it is her work she should be remembered for, space it opened up for the acknowledgment of a kind of madness, which is to say, all human consciousness, and the brief bright flames of our untrammeled minds.

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