Everything I know about Janet Frame, and other stories

(Read at Amazing Babes)

‘From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories and its direction always towards the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.’ (From To the Island by Janet Frame)

The first thing I know about Janet Frame is that hers is the most appealing book in the 800s shelves of the University of Melbourne library in 2001. It is hard backed, for starters. And blue. It sort of falls into my hand. The Lagoon, it’s called, and other stories.

The second thing I know is the line ‘bother’. ‘Bother, she said’ on page 20. ‘Winnie stared enviously. She wished her own hair was long enough to hang over her eyes and be brushed away. How nice to say bother and brush your hair out of your eyes.’ How nice to be able to take childhood and surround it with all of life.

The third thing is that the book I have in my bag saved Janet Frame’s life. She’d been living in a psychiatric institution called, of all things, Sunnyside, with misdiagnosed schizophrenia and was about to have a leucotomy that would cut the emotion and the intellect and the Janet Frameness from her brain – when she won New Zealand’s biggest book award for The Lagoon. I imagine the superintendent reading about the award in the paper before he goes in for his day’s work. ‘Huh,’ he would say, folding the paper. Then he would open it again, just to be sure.  ‘My writing saved me,’ Janet Frame said.

The fourth thing I know is that everyone knows this about Janet Frame. Even people who will never read ‘bother’ or anything Janet Frame ever wrote in their whole lives knows this.

All I know is that I like every short story I’ve ever read by Janet Frame. That’s the fifth thing.

The sixth is that I’ve disliked her every novel.

Seventh: Jane Campion directed a movie of Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at my Table. She said of Frame. ‘Little Nini, the adventure-loving, practical, red-haired girl with nits: a poetic soul has rarely come better disguised.’ Little Nini. I don’t remember reading her memoirs, just that I lived another life through them. How did she crawl inside my unadventurous, practical, almost-red haired but more twitchy than nitty little self and live again? How did she sew my eyeballs onto hers and take me back in time to a poor rural Aotearoa fifty years before I was born? How did she have sisters – two of whom drowned – where I have a brother, alive and well and living in Canberra? I was born in to grief over the death of my dad and things sort of got better from there. Janet Frame lost and lost in her lifetime. She found something not many could.

Eighth: madness. It runs like a seam down one side of my family. I always assumed that I would get what Frame called ‘Shizofreenier’, and kept an ear out for ‘the voices’ that never came. Mine and Frame’s symptoms, though, were the same: ‘I knew that I was shy,’ Frame wrote, ‘inclined to be fearful … that I was absorbed in the world of my imagination, but I also knew that I was totally present in the ‘real’ world and whatever shadow lay over me, lay only in the writing on the medical certificate.’ As for me, growing up in the 80s and 90s, rather than the 20s and 30s, my mother watched me carefully as the twitching, the desperate shyness turned into twitchy desperate poems. And I wasn’t ‘put away’. The only voices were those outside my head from other high school kids saying that I was ‘mad’, ‘gay’ ‘weird’, ‘slutty’ or a combination of. This set me up well for art school.

Nine. Over in the United State of America, Miranda July, who is the same age as me, was also crawling around in the skin of Janet Frame. Trying also to understand and get to the Third Place – a place of nervousness that admires boldness, of sit down and write over stand up and shout, where smiling or desperate panting often replaces conversation. Her husband saw the Jane Campion movie and said ‘oh, you think this is your story. Like, this is how high the stakes of your internal creative struggle are … In truth,’ says Miranda July, ‘I had a really easy time compared to Janet Frame … But … I think this is true for many artists that the stakes have to be at that pitch. In order to really keep doing it against whatever odds there are.’

Ten: Everyone says I look like a cousin who lives for four months a year in the low units of a mental health clinic where she throws herself against walls and tests her arm on the iron. She won’t stand on a chair to change the channel or a bulb or they’ll think she’s trying to hang herself. I visit her in the room with the open door. Where my cousin has thick cheeks, wrapped wrists and a clumsy tongue that dances over medicine teeth. Where she tells me how in group therapy they danced instead of sharing. Where we snigger together about family. My eyes stray to the gormless chair, the hidden rope; my wonder on her commitment. To want to last page first.

My life at the time is more like Janet Frame’s short story ‘The Day of the Sheep’ – the righteousness of the particularly sane, carrying newspapers and washing from room to room of an okay relationship and finding magic in something so exciting as a sheep.

Eleven, a friend from New Zealand says his mum knows Janet Frame and would introduce me, but Janet Frame dies of leukaemia before she can.

‘ – Spirit 350?

-       yes.

-       you died yesterday?

-       yes. sunning myself in the garden.’ (from Frame’s story ‘Spirit’ in You are Now Entering the Human Heart.)

Twelve, katkitkaty posts a review of You Are Now Entering the Human Heart on Amazon, titled ‘A Hearty Effort’ ‘This excellent book by Aussie writer, Janet Frame really expresses it’s title.’ Two out of ten people find the review helpful.

The thirteenth thing I know about Janet Frame is driving around the South Island of New Zealand. I take a notebook and don’t write a thing but spend my time yelling the names of the towns from her autobiography as I go through. Quiet again as the landscape towers over and dips away. Frame does write of the same trip, ‘A dream of strangeness and strange landscapes.’ In my car I feel vertigo, an edge-of-the-earth feeling. I miss the confidence of 4000 kilometres stretching behind me. We might have been the same sort of children, Janet Frame and I, but words like hers could only come from this mud. Mine, when they arrive, are drier and always about other people.

Fourteen, I fall in love with a New Zealander and start writing again. ‘The heart, ceiling high,’ Frame writes, ‘occupied one corner of the large exhibition hall, and from wherever you stood in the hall, you could hear it beating, thum-thump-thum-thump.’

Fifteen, I never read Janet Frame’s oeuvre. Just the short stories and autobiography over and over and over. I say ‘bother’.

Sixteen, I teach The Lagoon and other stories in a creative writing class and one of the students says my hair looks like Janet Frame’s. I’m delighted until she tells me Janet Frame from the movie – the Hollywood version.

The last thing I know about Janet Frame is that it is completely impossible to articulate what it is about her that has influenced my life. I know that at home the kettle is constantly on the boil and Janet Frame is often on the table: a moment in New Zealand then back again to the sun of Australia, the twitching, life filled trees. The peace. I know that sanity is not the place from which I write, not insanity, not bedlam, but the place of the shy, behind the closed door and with a nod to talking to yourself and a package of books in the mail and with a sheep wandering from the washhouse of someone else’s story and all that I know about Janet Frame.

‘Well,’ Frame writes in ‘My last story’, ‘I’m not going to do any more expressing. This is my last story. And I’m going to put three dots with my typewriter, impressively, and then I’m going to begin …’