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Post Road Magazine #32

A Visit to the Antipodes

Carolyn Ferrell

Years ago, I assigned all three volumes of New Zealand writer Janet Frame's autobiography (To the Is-Land, An Angel At My Table, and An Envoy From Mirror City) to a graduate fiction workshop. The omnibus edition contained, in my eyes, every bit of instruction a writer could ever need; Frame's story was complete with melodrama, intrigue, violence, poverty, suffering, redemption, love, venom, and wild flights of imagination. Though the autobiography ends when she is in her thirties, its scope is large, often mind-boggling. What was not to like, I thought, as I watched the students sigh over the massive book and its author photo, right on the front cover—Janet Frame smiling cheerfully in front of a typewriter. Her life was anything but cheerful, but her observations, full of wit and poignancy, made the book (I thought) a compelling, welcoming read. The book is peppered with insights that would surely sway any skeptic: "The process of writing…may be set down…as laying a main trunk railway line from Then to Now, with branch excursions into the outlying wilderness." She ingeniously addressed the process of transforming lived experience into fiction, using a visit to Ibiza toward the end of the book as a launch point:

"As I sat at my table typing, I looked each day at the city mirrored in the sea, and one day I walked around the harbor road to the opposite shore where the real city lay that I knew only as the city in the sea, but I felt as if I were trying to walk behind a mirror, and I knew that whatever the outward phenomenon of light, city and sea, the real mirror city lay within as the city of the imagination…"

Mirror City, in other words, was where a writer went to transform her life into art. This was something that would speak to my students, I thought; indeed—I also made these obedient people watch Jane Campion's masterful miniseries based on the autobiography (made for New Zealand TV), and I assigned excerpts from Frame's fiction, including her novel Faces in the Water and several stories from her (literally lifesaving) story collection, The Lagoon.

I assigned the students several chapters each week, leaving time in workshop to discuss Frame's process and then discuss student stories as well. There didn't seem to be an overt connection between Frame's literature and their own; and yet, the students seemed impressed with the power that lay in Frame's highly observant and meticulous eye ("How did she remember how many pleats her teacher's skirt had?" someone asked). The students plugged away at the tome, inspired by the storytelling and wisdom on nearly every page, and yet sagging under the weight of the reading—"Isn't this a writing workshop?" another asked during the first weeks of workshop, annoyed at my enthusiasm. Yes, sure it was, I answered—but whom better to learn from than the actual writers themselves? Of course, I was counting on the students to also fall under Frame's spell. But Frame's story was often emotionally draining—a pivotal moment in her autobiography occurs when she, as a young woman, is institutionalized at the behest of her parents (she was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia) and eventually liberated from mental hospital. A doctor recognizes her as a prizewinning author of The Lagoon (as a patient, Frame hadn't know her collection had even been published) and spares her from a lobotomy.

Towards mid-semester, I admitted Frame overload. Yes, there were lots of pages to take in, plenty to underline, making total progress through the autobiography unlikely. In graduate school I had a literature professor who would assign at least five books a week. I was not that professor, and yet…I was probably too far under Frame's spell to teach otherwise. The truth is, I have never stopped returning to her books. She reminds me why I could never be a good memoirist—real life, I have always told my fiction students, can be our enemy. Real life for me is always a launching pad, not the end product. Real life is shapeless (a lot of the time) and can take a long, long time to decipher. Frame wrote that "putting it all down as it happens is not fiction; there must be the journey by oneself, the changing of the light focused upon the material, the willingness of the author herself to live within that light…the real shape, the first shape, is always a circle formed, only to be broken and reformed again and again." And a bit later on in the autobiography: "So what have I seen in memory? Memory is not history. The passing of time does not flow like a ribbon held in the hand while the dancer remains momentarily still. Memory becomes scenes only until the past is not even yesterday, it is a series of retained moments released at random…"

I find I can never quite finish or even start a memoir. My memories work best as seeds for stories, where I don't have a straight line to follow, or where I can get at the emotional center without worrying about if I'm hewing closely to the "truth." Interestingly, Frame doesn't spend a lot of time in her autobiography on her time in the mental hospital, which is arguably one of the most dramatic and painful parts of the book; those details, however, are given powerful expression in Faces in the Water. Frame writes of the disappointment, upon first seeing a copy of The Lagoon, that there was no author photo in it; "I felt I had no claim to the book," she adds, "This, combined with my erasure in the hospital, seemed to set me too readily among the dead…my years between twenty and nearing thirty having passed unrecorded as if I had never been." In Faces, she saves her narrator from erasure, from stereotypical categorization:

"I wept and wondered and dreamed the abiding dream of most mental patients—The World—Outside, Freedom; and foretasted too vividly the occasions I most feared—electric shock treatment, being shut in a single room, being sent to Ward Two, the disturbed ward. I dreamed of the world because it seemed to accepted thing to do, because I could not bear to face the thought that not all prisoners dream of freedom…"

Her story "The Bedjacket" is a gem in The Lagoon. In it, the narrator tells the story of Nan, a seemingly model patient who has formed a relationship with Nurse Harper, an unusually kind person; Nan lives vicariously through her, not wanting to leave the hospital at all (as the other patients want to do). Nan decides to knit a bedjacket as a Christmas gift, and slowly suffers a meltdown:

"'I've never knitted before,' she said. 'And now I've made it I don't want to give it away, because it's mine, I made it. It belongs to me. Nothing's ever belonged to me before. I made it. It belongs to me'…That night [they] took Nan out of the ward and down to a single room where she wouldn't disturb the other patients. For four days she was by herself…she held the bedjacket under her arm, and she stroked it and fondled it as if it were a live thing."

Frame gets at Nan's desperation, at her frailty, her desire to remain connected in some way to the world outside and her realization that that can't happen.

Frame was a master at defamiliarization; worlds of feeling and action are contained in her most ordinary, unassuming moments, our assumptions are challenged, our story knowledge tested. What makes fiction live and breathe? Frame understood "the only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about (the ego eventually falls apart like a soaked sponge) but simply written: it's a dreary awful fact that writing is like any other work…"

It would be, in Frame's eyes, a mistake to see her life simply transferred to the page without having traveled its journey to the place she called "Mirror City," that place where people and events and memories are transformed by the creative process. They cease being mere "slices of life." Her time away from New Zealand helped make her a "citizen of the Mirror City"—the place, as she puts it so beautifully, where "nothing is without its use," where "memories are resurrected, reclothed with reflection and change, and their essence [left] untouched."

For a poem to coalesce, Adrienne Rich said:

"… a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed... [if] the imagination is to transcend and transform experience, it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is renaming."


This is what I wanted my students to gain from their reading of Frame's fiction and non-fiction: the ability to take life's events and fictionalize them with power and clarity, as well as the capacity to transform the imagination's events, imbuing them with the most deeply felt life on the page. Not only the ability to take life's events and fictionalize them with power and clarity, but taking the imagination's events and giving them the most deeply felt life on the page: this is what I wanted my students to take from reading Frame's fiction and non-fiction. Yes, it was a lot of work. But for us writers, when will it not be a lot of work?


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