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A Literary Pilgrimage: In Search of Janet Frame's New Zealand

New Zealand Travel
by Aaron Hamburger Apr 18, 2013

IN THE WEEKS before I flew to New Zealand, I was having a hard time explaining the reason for my trip, which had nothing to do with backpacking, surfing, hobbits, or sheep.

I was going to trace the life of one of my literary heroes, Janet Frame, who is perhaps New Zealand’s greatest writer. Her inspirational story was recounted first in her masterful autobiography, and then in the moving film adaptation An Angel at My Table by another extraordinary Kiwi artist, director Jane Campion.

One of five children in a deeply poor family in rural New Zealand, Janet Frame was a bright but extremely introverted young woman who was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic while in college during the 1940s. After enduring eight years in various mental asylums, during which she was treated with electroshock therapy, Frame was slated to receive a lobotomy when her debut book of stories won a major literary prize. Shortly thereafter, the lobotomy was canceled and Frame was released from the hospital and left to rebuild her life. She went on to become a world-renowned novelist who was twice shortlisted for the Nobel Prize.

What is it about Frame’s work and writing that strikes such a deep chord in her devoted admirers? In part that was what I was looking for when I flew to Auckland.

Back when I was 18, Frame’s Autobiography (and Campion’s film) gave me the courage to pursue writing as a career. In particular, I was inspired by Frame’s determination to express herself creatively through language, in spite of an environment that seemed at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile.

For several years, I worked diligently to fulfill my dream. And after graduating from a master’s program in creative writing, I had managed to sell two books of fiction of my own, as well as several bits of writing here and there. It was enough so that when people asked what I did for a living, I felt I could say “I’m a writer” without too much shame. Unless they then asked, “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?”

Lately, though, I’d been feeling that the vocation for which I’d been trained was disappearing. In the age of the iPad and the iPhone, it seemed as if the world had less time or care for prose, or what increasingly was becoming known as “content.” What was the point in telling stories if you were not a member of a select anointed few who gobbled up the last bits of media and crucial attention accorded fiction writers these days? Why work so hard to craft a sentence if no one would read it?

In short, I was seriously considering giving up, chucking aside everything I’d worked so hard to achieve.

But first, I had to travel to New Zealand and pay tribute to the remarkable woman who’d helped me start my literary journey.

* * *
I arrived on the inaugural flight of Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu to Auckland, where we were greeted by two border agents spraying our cabin with aerosol cans of disinfectant and at the gate by a band of Maoris, whose bloodcurdling war cries gradually dissolved into a song of welcome.

The next morning, I rode a bus across the gleaming Harbour Bridge from the city center to the once rural North Shore and the first stop on my Janet Frame tour. On the side of busy Esmonde Road, lightly masked by a thinning hedge, was the former home of author Frank Sargeson, considered the godfather of New Zealand literature.

It was here in 1955, shortly after her release from Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, that Janet Frame had taken refuge, beginning the long, difficult transition from fearful mental patient to self-sufficient artist.

With the subtropical sun in my eyes, I circled the house, a simple gray box with a patchy lawn, until a local librarian arrived with the key. Inside, the home consisted of three tight brown rooms, the walls blooming with water stains. My hands trembled and my eyes watered. I felt as if I were stepping into an old, favorite fairy tale.

There was a knock at the back door. Martin Cole, Sargeson’s godson, had dropped by to say hello. “You couldn’t build a house like this today,” he said. “It’s all asbestos.”

Cole told us that his godfather had been a solicitor until his arrest for indecency (i.e., gay sex) in a public toilet. After the arrest, Sargeson gave up his career, lifestyle, and even his old name and moved to his family’s “bach” — New Zealand slang for a summer home — to write fiction full-time. Here, in this tiny spartan house, he lived until his death in 1982, surviving on his meager writing income as well as his vegetable garden, where he grew such exotic European plants as tomatoes and zucchini.

Cole went on to explain that before the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1959, the North Shore had been a sleepy farming area mostly cut off from the main city of Auckland, and Esmonde Road a quiet cul-de-sac terminating in a mangrove swamp. This cheap, isolated area attracted a community of writers eager to live the bohemian life free from the constraints of New Zealand’s strict middle-class conventions.

Also, as an openly gay man in a country where homosexuality was criminalized until 1986, Sargeson carried an additional burden. “I remember once there was a heavy knock at the door and his face went all white,” said Cole. “He was afraid it was the police.”

In Janet Frame, Frank Sargeson saw a fellow misfit, an artist who could thrive only by surviving on society’s margins. He invited her to live in a shack (now demolished) in his garden to work on her writing undisturbed.

During the 16 months that she lived with Sargeson, he introduced her to other writers, helped her apply for government benefits, and encouraged her by example to treat her writing as a daily practice. In fact, in her Autobiography, Frame recounts feeling so anxious about getting work done that if she heard Sargeson walking by, she’d rush to her typewriter and bang out typing exercises.

While living with Sargeson, Frame wrote and sold her first novel, Owls Do Cry. One of the books at the house contained a copy of the strikingly timid cover letter Frame had composed asking her first publisher to consider her novel:

Maybe it could be published, though I understand publishing in New Zealand is in a bad way at present. Shall I send it to you?

Which, I wondered, was in a worse way: publishing in 1950s New Zealand or 2013 New York City?

Eventually, the two writers grew tired of each other. (Perhaps Sargeson felt jealous that Frame’s career was superseding his own, while Frame chafed under her mentor’s sometimes withering criticism.) With Sargeson’s help, Frame won a grant to travel to Europe, and she sailed to England.

After my visit, I strolled up and down the hilly streets of the North Shore, following a route marking homes of noted New Zealand authors, including poet Kevin Ireland, who stayed in the shack after Frame left. I stopped at the beach, where 50 years ago, Janet Frame had sat, staring anxiously at the volcano island of Rangitoto as Sargeson read one of her stories, the moving “An Electric Blanket.” (He damned it with faint praise as “quite good of its kind,” and she never showed him her drafts again.)

In 2013 New Zealand, Sargeson could have been cruising the busy gay bars on Karangahape Road or reading in the newspaper about the upcoming vote in Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage. But in the New Zealand of his time, he paid a heavy price for working and living in his own way, eking out an austere existence, often shunned or ignored by publishers and audiences. His godson told me he’d died with just a few dollars in his bank account.

And yet what little Sargeson had, in terms of money, connections, even property, he eagerly shared with those in need, and as a result earned his own little kingdom of friends and admirers. Every writer on the North Shore had visited that tiny gray house until the author’s passing in 1982.

As I rode a ferry back to downtown Auckland, I contemplated Sargeson’s generosity and tenacity, his drive to serve others and to keep working even when few people knew or cared.

Perhaps by giving away everything he had, he learned how little he really needed. Through sacrifice, he’d found the strength to keep going until the end, when others might have quit the game halfway through.

* * *
Flying into Dunedin, the second largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, I was still shaking from my morning bungee jump off the Harbour Bridge in Auckland with some of my new Hawaiian Airlines friends. The assault on my nerves continued when I rented a car and drove for the first time on the left side of the road. My biggest adjustment was finding the turn signal, which was on the opposite side of the steering wheel. Every time I wanted to change lanes, I kept turning on my windshield wipers.

In 1943, Janet Frame had arrived here from her home in the small town of Oamaru to enroll at Dunedin Training College. Though her ostensible purpose was to become a teacher, her real passion was reserved for the courses in literature she took on the side at prestigious Otago University, the oldest university in New Zealand.

It was also in Dunedin where Frame was committed to a mental asylum for the first time. This occurred during a period of intense grief over the death of her sister by drowning and her loathing of what seemed like her destined profession of teaching. Years later, as a successful writer, she returned to the city, and in 2004 she passed away here at the age of 79.

Like Auckland, the outskirts of Dunedin has its share of drab concrete architecture, but in the center there’s a good deal more charm, thanks to the city’s Scottish-influenced brown brick buildings crowned by Gothic spires.

There was a Fringe Theatre Festival on that weekend, and students in extravagant pink, gold, and fur-lined costumes strutted past the open-air bars and cafes on Princes Street and the town’s central plaza, the Octagon. Their brashness reminded me of my own time in college in Ann Arbor, where I anxiously submitted my confessional stories in creative writing classes and dreamed of seeing my name on the spine of a novel.

After checking into my hotel, I walked across the campus and then away from the center, searching in vain for the house where Janet had stayed as a student, the home of her Aunt Isy in an alley called Garden Terrace, which no longer exists.

To young Janet, this lovely-sounding address promised a light-filled cottage with a view of a terraced garden, but the house was actually a dingy, narrow building in the bad part of town, supposedly frequented by prostitutes and Chinese opium addicts.

I was unable to guess where the house had been, so I climbed up a steep hill to South Cemetery, dense with trees and cracked headstones tilted at odd angles. Here in this hillside cemetery, which had fallen out of use even in her time, Frame escaped from her lodgings to write poetry. She also used the cracked headstones as a hiding place for her dirty sanitary napkins, as she was too embarrassed to give them to her aunt to burn.

I could imagine Frame in her element here, looking out over the town, toward the sea, like a queen ruling her kingdom rather than a shy girl from the countryside, lost in the confusion of campus life.

Along the way back into town, I passed the Grand Hotel, where Frame had once worked as a waitress while writing stories and poems in her spare time. The once elegant restaurant had since been turned into a rather sad casino.

I finished my journey at the ornate train station, whose grandiose style earned its architect the nickname “Gingerbread George.” That evening, a fashion show was taking place there, and as I approached the entrance, a young man in a dark suit held up a clipboard to check my name against his guest list. I had not been invited. I was no one.

“I don’t care about your fashion show,” I snapped. “I’m looking for a plaque dedicated to Janet Frame.” He looked confused. “The New Zealand author,” I explained.

“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll get someone who knows.”

He brought back an older man who worked at the station. “Ah, yes. Janet Frame,” he said. “Angel at My Table. Amazing film. Wasn’t that with Kate Winslet? When she was just starting out?”

“No, you’re thinking of Heavenly Creatures,” I said.

“I’m sure it was Kate Winslet,” he said.

He was wrong about the film, but he pointed me right to the plaque, a brick-sized metal plate in the ground. The fashionistas swept by it on their way to a champagne reception inside the station, where Frame, a railway man’s daughter, once used to buy “privilege tickets” to ride back and forth on weekend visits home.

I took my picture, then headed back to my hotel. It was Saturday night in Dunedin, prime time for partying, but I spent the evening alone in my room, watching clips of Frame as a middle-aged and then elderly woman, speaking with quiet authority and the occasional nervous laugh to interviewers, whom she mostly avoided, fiercely protective of her privacy.

She didn’t care about the values of our world because she had her own, a world of imagination she called a “Mirror City,” a reflection of our world, and by its reflection, an indictment of it too.

Janet Frame didn’t care about plaques or parties to which she had or had not been invited. So why did I?

* * *
New Zealand had been in a two-month-long drought that had frizzled its characteristically green hills to a crackling brown. However, when I drove from Dunedin to the fishing village of Oamaru, the skies unleashed a furious rainstorm, as if to make up for those past two months.

The chief attractions of Oamaru (accent on the “u,” population 13,000) are its Victorian architecture and a troop of adorable tiny blue penguins who trek back and forth between the ocean and a nature reserve.

Chilly and wet, I checked into my hostel, where I explained to the young man at the counter why I had come to town.

“You’re the first person who’s ever said that, and I’ve worked here for a while,” he told me, even though I’d passed several signs marked “Janet Frame Heritage Trail” on the road, as well as a stack of Janet Frame Walking Tour brochures as I’d entered the front door. “I’ve never read Janet Frame myself, though I know I should. I have watched part of the movie, but it wasn’t high quality enough to finish.”

I recommended a few of Frame’s books for him, but he grinned guiltily.

“Maybe I’ll just read your article.”

It was St. Patrick’s Day, and though I stayed in that evening, reading Frame’s novel Scented Gardens for the Blind, most of the other guests braved the gloomy weather to hit the bars. They were still fast asleep the next morning as I headed for the Oamaru tourism office, where I had a 9 o’clock appointment with local historian and Janet Frame expert Ralph Sherwood.

“Ah, there’s my man,” said Ralph, a dapper older gentleman with a tweed newsboy cap, a neat bowtie, and a trim snowy white beard. After eagerly pumping my hand, he explained our morning’s agenda: a four-hour walking tour of the town where Janet Frame had spent her formative childhood years, a town that for good or ill informed almost everything she wrote after leaving it behind for good.

As we walked up the main drag of Thames Street, and then turned onto Eden, and then Chalmer, Ralph quoted periodically from Frame’s stories, novels, and autobiography. Though the signs had changed, much of the architecture was just as Janet would have seen it back in the 1930s and ’40s.

Here was the cheap theater (now an opera house) where as a child she had gone to see B-movies and dream of being a movie star. Here was the chiropractor’s office (still a chiropractor’s office, still run by the same family) where Janet’s mother used to take her brother in vain attempts to cure his epilepsy. Here was the government building (now closed) where as an adult she had slunk with some embarrassment to collect her disability pension from the government. Here were the town baths (now a skateboard park) where Janet’s first sister had drowned.

None of the movie An Angel at My Table had been shot in Oamaru, a source of great disappointment. “It was all on the North Island of New Zealand,” complained Ralph. “There’s a unique light on the South Island, because it’s reflected off the Antarctic polar ice caps. So the light’s all wrong in the movie, and people here can tell.”

However, Janet Frame wasn’t always so popular in town. When the Frame family moved to Oamaru from the very southern hinterlands of New Zealand, because of the children’s wild manners and the family’s somewhat lax notions of hygiene, they were known as “the feral Frames.”

As Ralph put it, “Janet Frame’s mother was no Martha Stewart.”

A visitor to the Frame household at 56 Eden Street, now a museum, would have encountered a noisy as well as dark, dirty house stinking of chamberpots that hadn’t been emptied in days. This at a time when good New Zealand housewives were expected to devote different days of the week to various household chores (Monday for washing, Tuesday for ironing, Wednesday for sewing, etc.).

Today, however, 56 Eden Street has a stately calm. Walking through the now silent rooms where Janet, her three sisters, and her brother used to play, squabble, and dream, I felt much more of the warmth and nostalgia with which Frame wrote about her childhood than I did its other darker side, which I had to imagine.

In the back bedroom, which used to belong to Janet’s grandfather, there was a blond wooden desk that Janet used as an adult and which she’d donated to the museum.

“Have a seat,” Ralph encouraged me, and so I did, looking out at the garden, with the same pear and plum trees I’d read about in her writing. Beyond that was a steep hill Janet used to climb and look out over her town, the one she’d dubbed her “kingdom of the sea” after a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”

After I’d had a look around, we were served tea and cookies in the kitchen by Lynley Hall, the gracious current curator of the museum. (Her predecessor was Ralph, who occupied the position during the museum’s first seven years of existence.) As we drank our tea next to the coal bin where Janet used to sit happily for hours, curled up with a book, the two curators talked of the visitors to the house, who came from as far away as China, Poland, France, and America.

“You have to want to come here,” said Ralph. “You have to know about it. Many people are moved to tears. Others walk by the front walk, stop, take a picture, but don’t dare to come in.”

I saw what he meant when I returned the next morning to get a look at the house in the sunlight. Just as I parked my car, I saw a woman and man get out of theirs and approach the house. The woman took a picture, stood there for a minute, and then followed her husband back into their car and they drove off.

Taking a last look at the house from the other side of the fence, I felt something stir in my chest. Such a small, simple, non-descript, pale yellow house, in a small, simple New Zealand town that few people had ever heard of. It was from here that Janet Frame had drawn a lifetime of inspiration. She was perceptive enough to notice its everyday magic that everyone else had overlooked.

If such an ordinary place could have served as the foundation for such an extraordinary career, then surely there was enough fodder in my own life to sustain me if I was just willing to look hard enough.

So what was it that I was not seeing? And why wasn’t I brave enough to try to see it?

My final stop on my Janet Frame tour was the mental hospital at Seacliff.

* * *
The road to Seacliff twists and turns over and back again across the train tracks between Oamaru and Dunedin. In her Autobiography, Frame recounts taking that ride many times before and after her stay at the asylum, and each time, as the train passed the Seacliff station, she’d think, “the loonies were there,” though, “Often it was hard to tell who were the loonies.”

The Seacliff Asylum for Lunatics (as it was called at the time) was established in 1879 and was built to resemble a sprawling Scottish castle in the Gothic Revival style, surrounded by lush gardens. It was set on top of a hill with a view of the sea through the trees that surround the property. If you hadn’t known better, you might have assumed it was a resort.

However, the portrait Frame drew of Seacliff in her writing is unmistakably horrific. She describes the wardens as at best indifferent and at worst sadistic. Patients were beaten for wetting the bed or threatened with radical medical treatments, ranging from electroshock therapy all the way to neutering and lobotomy.

Patients were shuffled from beds to dayroom to electroshock treatment like consumer goods rolling down a factory assembly line, which may explain how Frame was misdiagnosed for so many years. In fact, at one point, her prose, with its loose stream of consciousness style and unusual metaphors, was held up as confirmation of her insanity.

The fact that Frame had actually published a book was not enough to prevent an overeager doctor to schedule her for a lobotomy. It was only after she made newspaper headlines when the book won a literary prize that the lobotomy was canceled, with only days to spare.

Seacliff’s precarious location, on the side of a hill that was slowly eroding into the sea, ultimately led to its doom. After years of cracks in the walls and foundations, the asylum was finally closed, its buildings razed to the ground. The site was then turned in a nature reserve, named after one of the asylum’s early directors, Truby King.

Today there is no parking lot for the Truby King Reserve, whose sign is half-hidden by a thick bush, and whose driveway is cut off from the road by a locked gate. I parked on the side of the road and followed a short walking path to an expanse of freshly mown grass divided by lines of concrete. After looking at an old photograph of the grounds, I realized I was standing directly in front of where the asylum had been. The lines of concrete in the grass were the remains of the building’s foundations.

The wide lawn, the wind rustling through the trees, the views of mountains and in the distance the sea, it was all lush, beautiful, even romantic — if you didn’t know what had taken place on these grounds. I kept looking around wondering what Janet would have seen and experienced here. Could she have seen the sea?

I wandered down a path looping into a small forest, where I heard the haunting flutelike cries of wild birds echoing through the trees. Up ahead, I saw a middle-aged woman walking her two dogs. Janet’s ghost? No, she’d always been a cat person.

Further on, in the middle of the woods, I saw something small and dark brown set into a rock on the ground. Leaning over it, I realized it was a tiny plaque bearing a quote from one of Janet Frame’s novels, based on her time at Seacliff, Faces in the Water:

What I love about this quote and Frame’s writing in general is the suggestion that the whole world is an asylum. Just as the patients at Seacliff ooh and aah over a glimpse of the doctor’s laundry, we too titter with excitement over celebrity scandals or the cheap comforts of the material world, like our iPads and Uggs and favorite reality TV. We fail to realize that in our obsession with things, we’ve trapped ourselves in a material asylum of our own making that prevents us from breaking through the gate to the real world, the world of the spirit, the world where we can be truly free.

We’re all crazy if we buy into our digital society’s warped values, its cheap thrills, its false idols like celebrities. That’s what Frame was warning us.

After years of needless suffering, it took her first book winning a literary prize for Janet Frame to win her exit from Seacliff. All I had to do was walk through a gap in the fence to my rental car. After I drove my way down the mountain, past the Seacliff train station, and then once again looping back and forth over the train tracks, I turned off the road and walked down to the beach, where I thought back over my journey. I recalled the extreme generosity and blind faith of Frank Sargeson, the youthful enthusiasm of the Otago students parading down Princes Street in their costumes, the horribly haunted beauty of Seacliff. But what ultimately stayed with me most was the town of Oamaru, the nothingness of it and the way Janet Frame still managed to see in it enough material for a lifetime.

The world could never force me to give up writing. All I needed was a pen and the courage to put my thoughts down and face them honestly. If I couldn’t do that, it was my own failing, not the world’s.

In Frame’s honor, I unwrapped a chocolate bar I’d been carrying with me, one of her beloved Cadbury Caramelos that she’d survived on during her poor and lonely college days. I intended to have just one tiny square of caramel-filled chocolate, but it was indeed as good as Janet had advertised. In fact, it was better. So I had two. And then three.

And there, on the lonely southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island, while sucking chocolate and caramel down my throat, I said my goodbye to Janet Frame.

[A portion of Aaron’s trip was sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, marking its inaugural flight from Honolulu to Auckland.]

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