Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Congratulations Dame Sir Fiona

Dame Fiona Kidman has become a knight - or more exactly a 'Chevalier d'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres'. The surprise honour was presented at the home of the French Ambassador tonight [Wednesday] at a celebration of Dame Fiona Kidman's latest book - Beside the Dark Pool, the second volume of her memoir. The purpose of the honour is to recognise significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields.

The function at the home of French Ambassador Michel Legras and his wife Marlise was packed with Fiona's friends and family - with many familiar faces among them: writers like Patricia Grace, Vincent O'Sullivan, Marilyn Duckworth and Kirsty Gunn. I was lucky enough to be there, too, and was as surprised as any when the charming and unpredictable M. Legras announced the honour his government was bestowing on Fiona. There was an audible gasp, Fiona seemed to sink a little at the knees, and I noticed a few whose eyes filled with tears at the sight of the speechless Dame, now a knight.

After the Ambassador's speech, Fiona's publisher Harriet Allen spoke and then I was next up to talk about the book itself. If you have the stamina - the speech is below - without all the usual asides that go with these things - and tidied up a bit to make sense on the page. Afterwards, Fiona said a few words of thanks to the Ambassador and others who'd helped the book on its way, and her husband Ian stepped forward and stood beside her with his trademark impish grin. A wonderful - and most surprising - celebration of a wonderful book.

BESIDE THE DARK POOL, by Fiona Kidman [Speech]

Tena koutou katoa. Bonjour. It is a privilege to be here to celebrate Fiona Kidman's new book Beside the Dark Pool. It’s the second book in her memoir and in my opinion, one of the best she’s written. Fiona - let us not forget - has over 20 books to her name. Thank you to the French Ambassador and Madame Legras, Fiona and family for this wonderful evening.

I read At the End of Darwin Road - the first book of the memoir - when it first came out. It explores Fiona’s life up to the publication of her novel A Breed of Women. It is a fascinating exploration of a woman struggling to be a writer at a time in NZ of tremendous social change. Fiona said in that book that to succeed she needed to be : ‘single-minded, driven, often manic.' Those who know her well will no doubt agree that this is so.

A Breed of Women was published in 1979 and Sharon Crosbie declared to the women of NZ over National Radio: ‘Darlings I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for. This book is about us. We’re all in it.’ Women flocked to buy it. It was an important event in social as well as literary history, and the place Fiona Kidman - a woman with a social conscience and a yen to write - had been heading towards for the first forty years of her life.

No surprise, then, to find that Book Two of Fiona's memoirs opens with a political event – not any political event but Springbok Tour 1981 – ‘a time of civil unrest more ferocious than any that had gone before’ [Fiona Kidman.] Reviewer Harry Ricketts said on National Radio this week that Fiona's writing on the Tour is vivid and visceral – and up there with the most vivid writing on the Springbok Tour. It is.

There is an urgency in this book from the beginning - a sense of a woman who’s in her stride and has something to say. At the End of Darwin Road had a more reflective feel to it, a feeling of being in the 'dark pool'; this new book is more about making waves. The urgency is also there, I think, because it is about immediate past history and, for me, it is also because I was there.

In 1981, I was 19 years old and a student politician – albeit a tepid one – I was not nearly run-over on the motorway during an anti-tour demonstration like Fiona, or kicked in the stomach by police so it ruptured like her husband, Ian. Reading about what Fiona and Ian experienced is moving and upsetting stuff at times.

Politics in all its manifestations is a strong thread in this book. Fiona says she went from an ‘accidental activist in women’s issues to an actively committed political activist.’ If she hadn't been a writer, there is every indication she would have been a politician. [Ironically, not long before this point in the speech, Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson made himself known in the room and was hurried to the front to stand beside the Ambassador.]

The 1980's was a tumultuous time and Fiona was in the thick of it. There’s a marvellous scene in the book between her and Sir Robert Muldoon when she’s chair of PEN, and he is later to refer to her as 'one of the most intransigent young woman in NZ’. And there's a perplexing scene when Fiona shows support for the Labour Government’s anti-nuclear stance while in the New York office of her US publisher, to find her relationship with them cooling rapidly to the point where they reject her next book.

Literary politics took a nasty turn for Fiona with the fiasco over the purchase of a writers' flat in Bloomsbury, London, but she doesn't shy away from this in her memoir. She says she was against the flat because it was an elitist move which didn't reward the many writers - especially women - who didn't have the time or money to leave NZ. On the other side of the argument was CK Stead. The rest is history.

There is much in the book about Fiona’s involvement with writers' issues: her role in the genesis of Writers on Wheels – or WOW, the wonderful Writers Walk on Wellington's waterfront, Writers in Prisons, and the writers' residency Randell Cottage [which is how I've got to know Fiona.]

The Life of the Writer is the other strong thread in the memoir – not just novels but the scripts and articles that were Fiona’s bread and butter. Fiona describes the hard work involved and the marvellous stories behind the novels and stories e.g. Paddy’s Puzzle is a place where Ian lived once and which Fiona lets Ian describe. This is a writer after all who says – or quotes - ‘Don’t invent until the truth is exhausted.’ The overlapping of truth and fiction in her novels and her impulse to record real life in her journalism is a fascinating element in this book.

Fiona’s excitement at being a writer and part of the writer’s world is palpable. The thrill of writers festivals and travel abroad is explored in the book, and there are some wonderful vignettes about a range of internationally-known writers: Angela Carter, Fay Weldon, Margaret Attwood; and Fiona writes about her personal search to discover the life behind the writer Marguerite Duras.

There’s also her generosity to other writers – shown in her politics and in the writing classes she took for so many years, and in mentoring new writers like myself.

The third thread of this memoir is Fiona’s personal life. Fiona Kidman understands only too well what Kirsty Gunn calls the ‘terrible intimacy of family life.’ While trying to write and teach and fight for writers and others, Fiona Kidman has also had a family: children and then grandchildren to care for – sometimes unexpectedly – a mother to nurse for many years – a husband who nearly died twice.

There are two heart-breaking scenes in the book where Fiona is racing to be with family members who are dying. In one of them she is driving back and forwards in the middle of the night – exhausted -- between a husband and mother, both of whom are apparently at death’s door [both survived.]

The stuff of her family is incredibly moving – Fiona’s relationship with Ian [he contributes some marvellous stories directly to the narrative] especially their trips overseas together, and especially their trips to Asia. A visit to Greece to find her son Giles’ birth father is another highlight. Then there are Fiona’s deep friendships with the like of Lauris Edmond and Witi Ihimaera.

Up til now the reviews of Beside the Dark Pool have been by men. They tend to talk more about the political and the literary world - especially the upheavals - than the domestic.For me it is the skilful weaving of all three of these threads that makes this book so compelling. As a woman writer relatively new to the job I see the parallels with my own life at every turn of the page.

Harry Ricketts says anybody interested in the last 30 years of NZ literary history will need to engage with this book. That’s true, absolutely. You must also read this book if you want to engage with the life of an admirable writer and an admirable woman.

Beside the Dark Pool has the wonderful line: ‘We survive in this world and there are flashes of radiance.’ This book is one of those for sure.

Congratulations Dame Sir Fiona. May it sell well and be read by many.


Rachael King said...

Thanks for posting this Mary. I'd like to never forget that it's women like Fiona, who was patronised about her 'hobby' when she first started getting published, who make it possible for women of my generation to take an awful lot for granted. That is, I try NOT to take it for granted because the right to be taken seriously as a writer is a right that was only bestowed after Fiona's generation fought for it.

I will be reading this book with interest. I was 11 when the Springbok Tour was on, but I still managed a march or two! With my dad, up Queen St, before things got nasty. I'll never forget it.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Rachael. You're right, I was constantly amazed while reading Beside the Dark Pool by all those things we writers take for granted now that Fiona fought for or was involved with starting up ...

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Well done as usual Mary!

There was a cringingly sexist review in the ODT, in which the male reviewer belittles Fiona's exposure of past controversies by characterising her perspective in condescending language such as "sulks". And he further says none of us will be interested in those petty battles. Well you can see which side of the barricades he stood on!

The conspiracy of silence has always suited the bully-boys, and I think a lot of us are very interested in the struggles (for instance) of NZ literary women to be taken seriously by a handful of influential old goats.