Everything I know about Janet Frame, and other stories

04.20.2018

(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 …’

Territory – North American Review

04.23.2016

My short story ‘Territory’, about pig hunters looking for love in the Northern Territory, can be read in the North American Review.

Excerpt of ‘Territory’:

They meet in a gash of clear fell where you can see the sky. Marko turns his car engine off and the woman beside him strokes her long, black-painted nails like they’re her pets. Outside, Scotty has the buggy unloaded and gives it a few revs. His dog is still in the cage, quiet at the sound. Scotty revs again. He has a new baby and Marko knows full well: he needs the noise. After a while Marko leans out the window into the heat.
We going or what?
Scotty leaves the buggy by some stumpy trees, half dead already from burnoff, and hands Marko a can of beer.
They’ll know we’re here if you keep revving it, Marko tells him.
Scotty smiles around the can.
We’ll fucken find them.
Scotty laughs with apple cheeks that look stuffed like a glazed pig. The sun is all over them now, low. Blow-job hot.
Boars before whores, Scotty mutters.
Marko laughs silently out the window so the woman can’t see him. He finishes his can, mashes it slowly against the side of the car, and throws it into the bush.

 

The rest of the story can be read on the North American Review website

The story is  illustrated by Anthony Tremmaglia, and a post about the making of the story is here on The North American Review Blog

Those last days of summer – short story

03.03.2016

That summer stretched yearlong and we were always giving birth. We tried to make a game of it at first — taking turns in the narrow cells and pitching our cries like songs but towards the end we were either just fat or skin. The cells formed a long hall, lit sixteen hours a day and always the same: a fearsome golden light coming from the roof; particles of skin floating through the air, in our throats, our faces; the sisters above us and the sisters below. We were all born to the cell and none of us, not our mothers or their mothers before that, really knew if there was anything but the slanting cage floor, our cellmates, the heat.

One of us had heard stories though. Said there was something more than standing and death.

‘What is it?’ we asked her.

‘Winter,’ she said.

‘And what else?’

‘Darkness.’

One of us had seen her sister die, not two cells over. Sensed the familiar life coming to an end and it gave her such a shock her toes clenched over the bars of the floor. They couldn’t get her loose. Another thought of us all as sisters and rubbed her raw skin against the bleeding cage when another passed away. The guards would bring in someone new and after a while she’d forget and call her sister too.

Some of us didn’t care, were beyond caring. We felt the rage of the endless day beat like wings that we bit and scratched at. When she fell we stood on her, flattening her head into the bruising bars. When we gave birth it was over her body, even though she’d passed days before. We had our teeth removed and our arms made useless so all we could do was stand and eat the slop with our faces. We stood the long day round. Our bodies grew fat and our legs weak and we collapsed on each other. We gave birth over and over again.

In the last days, the giddy, heady urge to birth slowed and then stopped and we shed hair instead. It fell down through the top cells and covered those below. To punish us they stopped the food and turned out the lights and we were plunged into winter. During that time we told each other things. One said the children we made were sent to war in two armies — ‘roasters’ and ‘broilers’. None of them ever returned.

‘We’re lucky to see the long day,’ she said and we stood straighter, those that could, and appreciated our little space and our warn faces and feet and the feel of another’s body up against ours.

Others said, no, the children were taken and raised as guards.

‘If they’re guards then why don’t they help us?’ we asked. We could just make them out through the dim. Watched as they moved past on legs like the bars of a giant cage, checking for children. We wondered if they were our sons. We starved that winter, some died, and then finally someone gave birth and set us all off again.

The lights were turned on and the summer regained and those that had survived were rewarded with food. But we were different. One of us edged forward to eat and heard her brittle legs tremble and crack. She lay on the bars with sisters below and sisters above and called out. The din of us was terrific. We all spoke at once, in small sharp phrases:

‘She ate more than me.’

‘She stepped on me once and said sorry.’

‘She’s too old to have children.’

‘She laughs when I do.’

She lay there and heard our voices flying over her like a great fleet of cages. One of us fell on her, the nothing weight of her raw skin pressed until there wasn’t much breath left. But she was still alive.

A guard came and opened the cell with his cage hands and grabbed her by the legs. She was carried upside down along the hall. As she passed we called out, ‘Don’t go, don’t go; go, go, go.’ We were never sure. The guard carried her beyond the lights and dusk came suddenly, then it was pitch. She was thrown into it and for a moment she was flying. She stretched her useless arms for the first time and caught the air; then she came down. Her landing was sharp and wet. She smelled the sweet smell of herself rotting over and over again. She realised that she was lying on broken bones and there was nothing, nothing! between standing and death. There was no mother, no guards, no sisters, no cells, no skin, no food, no words, no birth — just the light and then the darkness. It fell all over her and sucked her back from life.

‘The summer just starts again,’ she told us. She wanted us to know what that was like, to be pulled back into the womb. Like all this time she’d been something spilled and now every cell found the other, reminisced, reformed. She wondered if, when she was born, it would be as a roaster or a broiler, whether it would be the same life she’d just lived, to the same mother, or would she be a guard, or something other? But she asked these questions very quietly, and from far away, so we couldn’t hear her. The guards had brought someone new to the cell and we were already calling that one sister. Far away in the darkness she felt herself becoming small. Encased in warm weather. Liquefied. The heartbeat of home.

END

‘Those last days of Summer’ was produced for Co-respond by Seventh Gallery, in response to Jade Burstall’s video work ‘Trading Futures’ – pictured below.

Jade Burstall

Jade Burstall, ‘Trading Futures’, 2011

Words Without Borders: Cambodia

11.18.2015

This month’s issue of Words Without Borders focuses on ‘Cambodia: Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond’. Along with stunning works by Soth Polin, Sharon May and U Sam Oeur, is a story I wrote about a woman whose writing and life I have admired for many years. Oum Souphany is a writer, singer and visual artist and miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge regime, along with her secret diary of this time. You can read the whole story at Words Without Borders.

 

drops-181x300

The Keeper: Oum Sophany

“If we disappear, we die”– Oum Sophany, 1975

April in Cambodia is dry. The temperature reaches a thick 35 degrees Celsius each day and there is no reprieve. The broken streets of Phnom Penh, which flood to waist deep in the monsoon months of June to September, are bleached as old bones; the sky glares down with a sharp blue eye.

I return to Cambodia in April 2009, having seen it only in the monsoon, and the heat is a shock. People, motorbikes, markets, and noise throng Phnom Penh, but there is a desolation and an impermanence to it all—as though everything is about to be packed up and taken away.

It was here, forty years ago—on April 14, 1975—that a twenty-nine-year-old student, Oum Sophany, made an entry in her diary in the heat of the day: “April is the month in which cicada cries fill up the room,” she wrote, sitting in her family home in the center of Phnom Penh, surrounded by mango and banana trees. “They cry with all their hearts. Their cries spiral down from the top of the trees, hitting the earth down below, intriguingly echoing and filling the air.”

At the time, her note seemed insignificant: a woman recording daily events as part of her practice as a writer. Sophany was a student of archaeology and engaged to be married.

But just days after that diary entry, Phnom Penh was evacuated and the city became the site of mass torture and death at the hands of the the Khmer Rouge while the rest of the country was turned into a hard labor camp for the next four years. These changes were so drastic and so terrible that most wouldn’t live to see the end of it. Sophany did. And so did her diary.

 
Read the rest of this story at: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/the-keeper-sophany-oum-laura-jean-mckay#ixzz3roLrRRX4

Read: Flying Rods

08.11.2015

By Laura Jean McKay. First published in VICE Magazine.


‘There is an optical illusion known as “flying rods” created by insects flying quickly in front of a camera, so that the camera captures them as an elongated creature with multiple sets of wings, which were thought to be a mysterious undiscovered creature when they were first observed.’

Structure and transition: towards an accretivist theory of time, David Preston Taylor, 2009

Flying rods 6

Image credit: http://www.assap.ac.uk

I am bitten late in the summer. Two sharp bites that come one after the other. It happens out at Tace and Erik’s house in the hills, on a tamed lawn punctured by women in high heels and resealed by men in clean thongs – a party celebrating, as Dean says, the amazing fact that Tace and Erik are still together. I have been dodging Erik all night, but when I pull up the hem of my old sundress he lurches over and crouches with Dean to examine the bitten skin of my upper thigh. We all talk about whether it was caused by just one, or two of them flying in tag, like bombers. Whether they die after biting, like bees.

‘How long do they live, even?’ I ask Dean on the way home. The green dashboard clock is lit with 11.02. He and I have left the party early.

Someone should lick it,’ Dean says.

‘Stop saying that.’

Well, that’s what he said, Kat. I think he wanted to lick it. Again.’

‘Erik was so pissed, De. Did you see him with those vodka shooters?’

‘I think he wanted to lick it,’ Dean says again as we reach town.

 

I wake to a fever and try to shiver against Dean’s comparatively cool body but he moves away and eventually gets up to change the drenched sheets. I press my back to the cold bedroom wall until he gets back in the bed and his breathing is regular. I sit up next to him. My mind falls out of my head and splits on the clean sheets. It separates into clips, like a cut movie reel, and in the delirium I sort the thoughts into shining black squares of before, during and after. My life in three flammable piles on my side of the bed. I pick up a square of before and hold it up to the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains. The square is a still from a ten-hour clip of Erik and me almost two years ago in autumn, when Dean was away. The bed I’m in now. I have clothes on but they’re shoved up and down; Erik is naked.

 

I wake again to the paling darkness of pre-dawn. Dean is a distant mountain on the other side of the mattress. The glowing clock face reads 5.58 and I reach for a memory of whether that’s the right time or not, then for the squares of memories from before now. And then I don’t know what I’m feeling for. The horror of forgetting shivers through me until I fall into a sleep with no dreams. I wake again at 6.02. Dean is gone. I pat my way over the empty bed and when I reach the edge I fall and stumble towards the bathroom. The water in the bath mellows me and when it cools I refill it again. Outside it gets darker rather than lighter. Dean is a deep purple shape in the doorway.

‘Breakfast?’ I ask him.

‘It’s dinnertime. You slept all day. I tried to wake you but you pulled the doona over your head. Are you … do we need to talk about last night?’

‘Last night?’

‘Maybe this isn’t a good time.’ He leaves and brings back toast. I knock a bit of it off my plate and we watch as it melts on contact with the hot water. ‘How long you going to stay in there?’ he asks.

‘I’m not getting out now. The door is open.’

‘You should go to the doctor. Or at least drink some water.’

‘I’ve got water,’ I tell him. ‘The door is still open.’

‘Erik called. To see how you were.’

‘Who’s Erik?’

Dean snorts and leaves. I spend some time flicking at the door with a towel until it swings closed. Then I sleep deeply, right there in the bath. I wake. The water is cold and I refill it with difficulty. My hands shake. Everything is dim: red, yellow, green and purple – there aren’t other colours.

 

I hear Dean’s voice asking if there’s a doctor who makes house calls. I hear the birds calling in the morning. The old doorknob rattles and Dean comes in and tries to cover me with a towel. I push it off me and it bubbles and sinks. A woman has followed Dean into the bathroom. She says she’s a doctor and asks me how long I’ve been feeling this way.

‘I don’t know,’ I answer, my chin submerged in the oily water.

‘She got a fever the night before last and she won’t get out of the bath. I was up all night refilling it with hot.’ Dean turns to me, ‘You know I hardly slept?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘To be honest,’ says Dean to the doctor, ‘to be honest, I think it’s psychosomatic. We had a fight –‘

‘Could be. Now Katherine, I’d like you to describe your symptoms from when they started, two days ago?’ the doctor asks. She has a pad of paper and a pen.

‘I’m tired and I’m hungry,’ I tell her.

‘Yes, you would be, but if you could just –‘

‘I’m not hot.’

She glances at Dean, then crouches and hunches over what looks like a tool kit. She gets a needle out and bites me with it, drawing the blood into the hollow finger and keeping it there.

 

When it’s dark, Dean tries to coax me out of the water by holding a plate of spaghetti just out of my reach but in the end we argue and he plonks the plate next to me on the ceramic edge. It overturns and the red sauce and yellow pasta loosen their greasy grip and separate in clumps and ribbons through the water.

‘Oh babe I didn’t mean to …’ Dean stops. I am ducked water level to eat my way through the mess, my mouth open and sucking, revolted and ravenous at once. Dean dry retches. I eat.

 

Dean is talking on the phone outside the door. He says, loudly, ‘Well, that’s how it is, Erik. Go take care of your own girlfriend’ and then his voice is an inarticulate low buzzing that lulls me to sleep. It’s just light when I open my eyes and I get out of the bath and try to flick the cold beef mince and tomato and the bits of pasta from my skin, but the skin comes away too. It peels in damp hairy flakes from the top of my head. Then there is a hole. I squirm and pull until what has been my outside flops like a wet paper bag to the tiles. I kick myself free of it. Underneath there is another skin, raw and translucent. I find my way to the bed in the early light and creep under the doona beside Dean. He automatically turns to me, and wraps his big arms around my slippery frame.

‘Your fever’s gone?’ he asks without opening his eyes. ‘You smell clean.’ I burrow down and stay there in the aching, almost sexual clutch of sleep.

 

Dean is talking through the barrier of doona over my head. His voice is muffled, but loud.

‘… know that jealousy can be hard for you to understand,’ he is saying. I press the covers closer. ‘But Erik was really coming on to you the other night and you didn’t seem to mind it. At all. That’s what I feel. Felt! I meant felt. But I think it’s making you sick and so I wanted to say I’m sorry. I trust you. I didn’t, but that was ages ago. Now I do. I’m going to work and tonight I’m going to cook you dinner. What would you like most? Anyway, there’s some muesli here now.’

‘Now,’ I repeat. Something I can grasp. I wrap my mouth around the word and hold it.

‘Yeah, right here. On the dresser.’

He leaves. I part the doona to let in the bright yellow light and focus my eyes on the muesli.

 

It is there. The muesli is there. The muesli is there. The muesli is there. The muesli is gone. I can hear noises – metal clanging and water – through the door. It’s dark. I push the doona off my head. The room is dark. I push the final slippery layer off my body and I’m free. Wet. Open the window by sticking the bottom of my foot to it. Pull. The foot comes away from the glass with a shuck. A wind blows in. I dry. The long, thin folds at my back dry. My tongue is a tube that curls out from my mouth. It doesn’t dry.

I am perched on the windowsill when Dean opens the door. He turns on the light and I fling myself towards it. The folds at my back grow and spread and I reach it too fast. Glass showers down and there is darkness. But I can smell Dean. He makes a sound, a giant angry sound and smell comes from him. He thumps around in the dark. The folds expand again.

He yells, ‘Kaaaaaaaaat getin ‘eeeeere,’ and swipes at me with a hand. He is slow. I can feel the heat of his motion as he makes it. I step aside though the air towards the window. And I smell the blood. Not Dean’s blood, though there’s that: a familiar metal. I can smell more blood, other blood, new blood out there. Un-tasted. Big blood and small. Blood in the trees and blood in the yards. Blood at a time different from now. A time I can get to. And the folds rise on the air and I go for it.

 

Letter to a wish

05.02.2015

In 2013 I went to Java, Indonesia, with the irrepressible Women of Letters gang, who had asked us to compose a ‘letter to a wish’. This was the result:

Dear mortification,

You are my wish. A late wish. One that always comes after. If my every action is the fart, you, mortification are the smell that lingers and my second greatest wish in the world is that I didn’t have you around. You attached yourself to me early, like the string of a helium balloon to the finger of a child. I missed out on fulfilling my first greatest wish in the world because of you. Of course you remember: you have a recall for awkward moments like Mr. Healy my primary school vice principle. Of course you remember Arbor Day …

You can read the rest of my ‘letter to a wish’ here, along with many other brilliant letters.

Foreign Body

12.02.2014

A story about travelling through a tropical illness called chikungunya (affectionately: chicken dinner), published in Meanjin.

 

When visiting Couch, your body is not your own. Distances are distorted. I could dimly make out my drink bottle poking through the zip of my red travel bag, which lay over an uncrossable desert of carpet on the other side of the room. I was thirsty.

I got to Couch in the usual way, having made it through all the checkpoints in time: incubation, fever, rash, arthritis. At duty free I picked up some extras: headache, nausea, vomiting, swelling, photophobia, desquamation, anxiety and loss of appetite. I set my heavy baggage down on Couch with time to spare.

Read the rest of this story on Meanjin (it’s free).

THE MACHINERY OF GOVERNMENT: ON BEING A PERSON IN THE TURNING COGS OF AID

05.23.2014

You can read my piece about the AusAID/DFAT merge and how it affects everyone involved here on the Right Now website. 

 

NSW Premier’s Literary Award shortlist

04.08.2014

Congratulations to everyone shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award! I am delighted that Holiday in Cambodia is the list for the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing along with Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, Margaret Merrilees’s The First Week and Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love. 

 

Martin Bequest Travelling Scholarship 2014

03.06.2014

Woohoo! I’ve been awarded a Martin Bequest Travelling Scholarship, in the prose category for 2014.

Through the scholarship I can undertake a series of research and career-development residencies with animal-related organisations to research a novel, while observing and experiencing human/animal interactions throughout Australia – from animals used for human consumption, to animals in captivity, animals living in protected areas or the wild, from Melbourne to Broome.

Find out more about my project and also about the other fantastic winners here.