Cath Koa Dunsford
FIONA KIDMAN’S MEMOIRS:
AT THE END OF DARWIN ROAD, VINTAGE, RANDOM HOUSE, 2008.
BESIDE THE DARK POOL, VINTAGE, RANDOM HOUSE, 2009.
ME TE OTURU: RADIANT LIKE THE FULL MOON - A REVIEW ESSAY OF FIONA KIDMAN’S MEMOIRS.
Ko Hinemoa, ko au
As for Hinemoa, as for me
Or, as Governor Grey interpreted this whakatauki, “I am just like Hinemoa, I would risk all for love.”
Hinemoa was the young woman/wahine who left her people and swam across Rotorua Lake to the island of Mokoia, where her lover, Tutanekai, waited for her.
Reading Fiona Kidman’s two volumes of memoir recalls this whakatauki because at the heart of this deeply soulful and moving memoir is love. Not just love for her Maori partner, Ian, or for her wonderful children, family and friends, but a genuine love for community and the preservation of values in Aotearoa, a love that is of iwi, tribe, hapu, sub-tribe, whanau, family and for all who share the values of kinship, whether this be the whakapapa of family or nature. Kidman is a kaitiaki. She is one who cares and writes about the guardianship of taonga – those values we hold dear and which make us the unique country of Aotearoa-New Zealand.
I recall debates at the Frankfurt and Leipzig Bookfairs over the past two decades, with some of the most esteemed translators of the English language into German. Many of them believed that all English language writing was the same - whether from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia or Aotearoa-New Zealand. They would use high English to translate the work of a Kai Tahu author. An entirely different breed. It showed in their translations. It showed in the German edition of the bone people, Unter dem Tagmond, which neither my German publisher or translator could read until I gave them the English language version, which they loved. Not all translations are equal. Nor are all English languages equal.
I state this because Fiona Kidman is a practitioner of a well established New Zealand genre that is neither fully pakeha/English nor that of tangata whenua. Her own family is a mix of Maori, Greek, Spanish and New Zealand pakeha traditions. Like so many of us, she is a cross-breed of many tradtions in her blood and inherited families and all this helps make up the richness of her verse and her novels. She is a New Zealand pakeha writer, which is very different from a UK or US or Canadian author, steeped in their own rich inheritance. She is a breed apart. And she is a Breed of Woman.
Kidman wrote a runaway best-seller called A Breed of Woman, which spoke to women in Aotearoa-New Zealand as no other novel in our history had ever done before. It outraged some of the more prehistoric New Zealand males, of whom there were quite a few in our literary establishment. Yet it did not go far enough for some of the radical feminists. At the time it came out, I was the Literary Editor for our most established feminist magazine, Broadsheet, one of the first in the world. Author, activist and editor, Sandra Coney had urged me to take up this post. Yet when I argued to review Kidman’s A Breed of Woman, some of the Broadsheet collective argued that it was “too mainstream.” I felt for the author, Fiona Kidman. She was too radical for the Literary Dinosaurs, like CK Stead, yet deemed too mainstream for the feminist radicals. How could you win? How could you survive in such a literary climate?
Well, survive she did, indeed. She was even made Dame Fiona Kidman in gratitude for her services to New Zealand literature. It is an award well deserved. Yet, reading these memoirs, we see throughout, the difficulty of walking the tightrope, the name of an early poetry collection of hers, which meant you could never be accepted by one or the other group. But this never put Fiona Kidman off her path. What emerges from these memoirs is fascinating storytelling as lucid and stunning as any of her popular novels. Kidman never shirks from telling the truth. She is one of the most ethical and honest writers I know. Yet she manages to skilfully weave the fabric of the social history of Aotearoa-New Zealand, as a nation growing to understand its bi-cultural and multi-cultural roots, into very readable and page-turning memoirs.
It is many years since I read literary memoirs that I literally could not put down. I was recently short-listed for the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Hawai’i Writer’s Grant. I was flown down to Wellington to face the Fulbright and Creative New Zealand boards. After the interview, I walked in the rain along Lambton Quay, recalling wonderful Wellington trips hanging out with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Who could forget playing viola to the sunrise after an all night korero or Ken Young composing a symphony while we cooked, Josephine Harris playing her cello while I wrote my first poems? It was a time of richness and excitement, revolutionary fervour where we felt we would and could change the world.
I was full of memories. One of the top authors from my publishing consultancy, Commonwealth Prize winner, Beryl Fletcher, had written her first novel, The Word Burners, about freedom of speech and writing.Publishers were interested, but frightened. We eventually sold it to Daphne Brasell, who had moved from running New Zealand Government Print to run her own publishing house, Daphne Brasell Associates in Tinakori, Wellington, just up from Katherine Mansfield’s home. We flew down for a hui with the publisher. Daphne saw the potential for this novel and published it. Fiona Kidman was on the Commonwealth Literature Committee when it was submitted. She supported the novel. It won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the Best First Novel, Asia-Pacific Region.
The same year, another book I had positively assessed for Penguin, Albert Wendt’s Ola, won the Best Book, Asia-Pacific Region. Other negative colonial reviews nearly prevented its publication. It was a double win for Dunsford Publishing Consultants in our first year of operation and we never looked back since. It established our agency in the Pacific and global realms. I always felt that Fiona Kidman, unwittingly, had a huge part to play in this because she had the courage to support literature outside of the mainstream arena. Intelligent feminist and indigenous Pacific literature that deserved a voice in our colonial literary history. I believe she helped make history in that era. And she has done so ever since in her own novels, her poetry, her scripts and now, with her memoirs. Nga mihi nui, Fiona Kidman, for your honesty, courage and bravery in the face of many colonial literary voices.
One decision that came to haunt Kidman though her memoirs, was the controversial support for a New Zealand literary base instead of the much touted and highly expensive Bloomsbury flat that Stead and Bassett supported in London, largely so they would have a New Zealand tax-payer funded residence whenever they felt like travelling. Kidman was a visionary. She was utterly right in supporting a New Zealand writer’s residency, available to those without the funds of ex-academics like Stead and Bassett, who genuinely needed a New Zealand base for time off to write their work. The antics of Stead at the time lead many writers to support Kidman in the ensuing debates, though few had the courage to voice this openly. Kidman won out. The much touted Bloomsbury pad for the Glitterati was dumped. Tau ke! Kidman won out because she never deserted her ethics and her kaupapa of supporting the needs of New Zealand writers. Others were only concerned for their own needs. Kidman’s whakapapa, her intelligent knowledge of kaitikaitanga, where you protect your resources for the future generations, prevailed. Many of us celebrated this huge achievement.
But these compelling and sensitive memoirs are so much more than the petty debates of the Glitterati. Fiona Kidman talks about the nature of storytelling, the price the writer often pays when not perceived to be giving due regard to her subjects, the delights and struggles to write historical fiction, finally rewarded when she is invited back to Waipu to celebrate her own work, then a year later, the success of the play, the Rocking Cave, by James McNeish, about the life of Norman McLeod. I recall working at the Mercury Theatre when that play was first acted. There was a mixed response. Many of us loved it and lived it nightly. Others were outraged at the portrayal of McLeod. It was a victory because it did what all good art should do- it created vibrant and vigorous debate.
And so have many of Fiona Kidman’s novels. That is exactly as it should be. Life is in progress. It is a journey of learning that is never ending and Kidman welcomes and celebrates this, despite all the times of struggle that she and her whanau have endured. She honours the support of her Maori partner and husband Ian, a teacher whose work took him to Cambodia to support other nations, and lead him to become a Buddhist through his inner and outer journeys. Towards the end of the second memoir, Fiona Kidman and her son Giles, who was adopted from a Greek seaman, return to Greece in search of his true whakapapa. This is a deeply moving section of the memoir where they finally do trace him to find he has, sadly, died. Yet the journey to discover whakapapa is honoured as a vital and important one for all. It is a moving tribute to the cultural richness of this true Kiwi family, brought alive by the vibrant and evocative words of this deeply loved and honoured Kiwi Wordsmith, Dame Fiona Kidman.
Her work in establishing the New Zealand Book Council and the highly popular Writers in Schools and touring writers programmes are documented alongside the journey to write about real New Zealand lives in her work, with extracts from novels, poetry, journals, essays and speeches spiking the texts with contemporary offerings. I cannot recommend these memoirs highly enough. They are as rivetting and as memorable as any of Kidman’s finely wrought novels and once immersed, you will not want to leave these memoirs until they are finished. Like any fantastic book, you spread the enjoyment out, not wanting it to end. By the time I had finally reached the conclusuon of the last memoir, I immediately wanted to return to the opening of the first one. What could be a better endorsement for such a rich and rewarding reading experience? I hope that all readers and writers groups will enjoy these rich offerings as much as we have here at Dunsford Publishing Consultants. We have recommended these books to overseas editors and publishers and we hope they are picked up for translation at the upcoming Frankfurt Bookfair 2012 [through Kidman’s agent], where New Zealand is the official Guest of Honour and our work will be ripe for the picking for overseas’ translation.
It is impossible to summarise the depth and richness, and the refreshing humbleness and honesty of these memoirs, to a prospective audience of readers, Instead, we can only urge you to buy these memoirs and luxuriate in the experience yourselves. Kidman has taught us so much about our own cultures in Aotearoa New Zealand and about the mysterious nature of our everyday existences. She is a magician with words, who knows how to touch our hearts and souls globally. Her work will remain an ikon of New Zealand literature, with its insights into our complex, contradictory and yet enthralling cultural and gender experiences.
E iti noa ana, naa te aroha
A small ordinary thing, begotten by love.
It is through the small and ordinary, transformed by love, aroha, that we become to know ourselves. Nga mihi nui, Fiona Kidman.
Mauri ora - Cath Koa Dunsford.
[c] Dr. Cathie Koa Dunsford, Dunsford Publishing Consultants, 2011.