This is Lena Dunham, speaking about Lorde, in a recent New Zealand Listener interview.
More and more women are rejecting the idea that somebody else should be handling them or managing their career or telling them what to do. I think Lorde’s a great example… She never grew up with any idea except that she was going to be in control of her own destiny. You can see it in everything she does and it’s super inspiring not just to women younger than her but to women older than her… She’s kicking ass all over the planet.
Lorde fits nicely within New Zealand’s extraordinary women’s history, one that includes many Maori women leaders; being the first country in the world to give women the vote, in 1893; and the presence of legendary artistic talents from Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, and Jane Campion to Fran Walsh—who produces and writes with her domestic partner Peter Jackson—and Eleanor Catton—who won the Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013. I rejoice in Lorde’s success and in Lena Dunham’s. They inspire me. And whenever I read about Lorde’s hard work—recently four hours each night curating a Hunger Games soundtrack after an evening’s performance and during travel—I’m spurred to work harder myself.
But quite apart from whatever talent we may have, not all of us have feminist mothers as both Lorde and Lena Dunham do. Nor do we necessarily have supportive fathers as they do. Nor the ownership of deep familial belonging and a sense of entitlement that empower us to be in control of our own destinies (in a filmmaking world that privileges white men) and ensure that we’ll be resilient in the face of endless obstacles. So, as a featured member discussing my life and its relationship with film, I’ve tried to isolate the steps that have helped me take control of my own destiny in my practice as a writer, filmmaker, and activist coming from a background where I was abused and silenced. It’s been a trudge mostly. Sometimes a jog. There have been frozen moments, many trips and stumbles, the occasional sprint, and some dance. I haven’t included many dates or geographical details, choosing instead to identify the projects and events that called to me or pushed me forward over many years, almost in chronological order. (There’s a little bit of overlap here and there.)
When I was born, my mother “turned her face to the wall,” she used to tell me now and then. She’d conceived me on her honeymoon, following a second marriage, following The War, following the loss of her beloved only brother in The War, following the loss of her first husband from cancer when he returned home from The War. My mother had been a fire warden through the London Blitz, had already had a daughter, my half-sister, to care for. No wonder she didn’t welcome an unplanned child.
The shadow of The War fell across our family the way wars do within families across the globe. It happened to be what’s known as World War II, but the visceral experience of its presence at home, long after the battles ended, bore no relationship to the stories I learned at school. The War was a significant element of my mother’s continued, deep unhappiness. Referred to in passing as The War, with nothing beyond the tone. No stories. No questions allowed. But I’ve no doubt that her experiences during The War fueled her frustrations, her rage. It took forty years for her to confront her grief, when it was triggered by a commemorative television series. My father had been in The War too—rarely, he’d refer to Iraq, to Palestine—with my mother’s first husband and came to visit him when he was dying. But, perhaps because of his boarding school experiences, The War appeared not to have affected him as profoundly as it did my mother.
These days I believe that my mother’s rejection of me, her resistance to welcoming me into her frame, was the beginning of my activism, my writing, and my filmmaking. All three reflect my obsession about who’s allowed in the frame and who isn’t, my search for women’s cultural heritages, for places where I feel at home and can be uniquely myself without making adjustments to “fit,” without fear of colonization and assimilation.
My father, who’d never expected to have children, was profoundly welcoming and easier to love. But because he’d been sent away from home to school when he was 7(!), he had limited experience of family life and had Victorian views on women and much else. He expected my mother—who like him was a well-qualified, very competent teacher who’d also promised “to love, honor, and obey” him—not to work outside their home. He attempted to draw us all into his narrow frame of reference, and when he was 64, he became an Anglican priest, who spoke out against feminism, abortion law reform, and homosexual law reform. (I knew from an early age, sitting in a wooden pew and later in the choir, that even though I loved the ritual, the music, and the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, Christianity was not for me.) But some elements of his stifling framework influenced me, even as an outsider within the family. (My mother welcomed my younger brother and sister and forever described me as “difficult,” or on more positive days, “Miss Mercury.”)
When I was almost three, the family emigrated to New Zealand, a British colony where the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), signed by Queen Victoria and the indigenous Maori, had not been honored. The Treaty has still not been fully honored.
Immigrant children, even privileged ones, learn about being outsiders, hovering at the edge of the frame in the “wrong” clothes and the “wrong” shoes and with the “wrong” history. Even the wrong presents. “What did you get?” kids would ask at present-giving time. My responses, until I learned to shrug and be silent, of “Shakespeare” or the “Concise Oxford Dictionary” caused much amusement (but I also had zilch interest in dolls and other toys). At school I got to know and enjoy those others who sat at the edge of the frame or completely outside it, to identify with them, though my parents wouldn’t allow me to associate with them after school or at weekends without a formal invitation from their parents, which was never forthcoming.
From my family and from “difficult” experiences at school, I reflected on whose story got told and whose story was heard. I began to question silences and silencing. And those questions got me into trouble, beaten at home, and strapped at school. I was expelled from Brownies and asked to leave ballet classes. When the lead in our school play got sick and I, as the well-prepared understudy, stepped up, the director decided to invite someone else to take the part.
But it wasn’t all bad. When my father, always “Father,” taught English at an elite boys’ school, we lived in one of the school houses for a time among “the boys.” And he directed an annual Shakespeare play. I did love those, and the rich velvets and chintzes my mother used when she made the boys’ costumes. I loved the annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions, too. Father also coached rugby, and I found the games thrilling, like the boy soprano’s Once in Royal David’s City solo, in the English-y school chapel. Everything “the boys” did intrigued me. Some of them came from what was known as the “backblocks,” and during school holidays we’d stay in their various parents’ shearers’ huts, way out in the country along unsealed roads. That’s when I started to write about a boy on a horse.
My mother found the exercise book and drew attention to it and its many chapters. Mortified by her invasiveness, I destroyed it and didn’t write fiction again for a long time.
Then, an awful adolescence. A relationship with an enchanting Greek guy. Marriage to an artist and actor, a “golden boy” among other golden boys, after I became pregnant for a second time and decided against another abortion.
It’s not surprising that although I felt a pull towards a creative life, I failed to imagine that it could be my own. Instead, I had two children and worked in acquisitions and cataloguing and photographs at the Alexander Turnbull Library, the national research library.
Now, I understand that work as the beginning of my filmmaking because it introduced me to the joys and the challenges of documentation and the preservation of documentation in many media. From then on, I can track the “steps” that affected the qualities of my storytelling and activism and built on my childhood-generated obsessions.
Step 1—Children’s Picture Books
After I left the library, I took part in the first-ever intensive course in spoken Maori at a state education provider. (There are now three official languages in New Zealand: English, Maori, and New Zealand sign language.) The course opened my eyes to more of the realities that were to some extent reflected in the Turnbull Library’s collections, of the profound effects of the Crown’s failure to honor the Treaty of Waitangi, of the richness of a culture and language I’d known very little about. And then, I became involved with a community project Kidsarus 2 to publish New Zealand-based children’s picture books for my small children and for other New Zealand children.
Until then, here in this colonized country with a population of then around 2 million, our books came from England, with English characters and “English” English, though a few Maori teachers produced black and white picture books in Maori for their classrooms and sometimes other people’s classrooms. Even our most distinguished children’s writer, Margaret Mahy—winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her lasting contribution to children’s literature—wrote for overseas publishers, with titles like A Lion in the Meadow instead of A Lion in the Paddock.
Publishers believed there was no market for stories set in New Zealand. And certainly not stories illustrated in full color. Certainly not stories in Maori.
Building on the work of Kidsarus, a feminist collective that produced several simply produced counter-sexist picture books, Kidsarus 2 published four books in New Zealand English in collaboration with established publishers. We persuaded them to work with us by providing publishing-ready and child-tested stories and illustrations, along with subsidies for their production in full-color and, in two cases, for publishing separate editions in Maori. At least one of these books, Patricia Grace’s award-winning The Kuia & The Spider (kuia: grandmother, old woman), is still in print 25 years later.
What did I learn? Firstly, that there’s a strong market for diverse stories with women and girls at their center, set in a small corner of a small country. Secondly, when diverse work is innovative and engaging, alliances with sympathetic institutions and individuals can be made. These alliances in turn help generate interest and commitment from organizations and institutions that otherwise wouldn’t support the work because they don’t believe there’s a market for it.
From Patricia Grace—who later won the prestigious Neustadt Prize and whose novels about the Maori world I wish would become the major films they deserve to be—I learned, through her The Kuia & The Spider, that competition and conflict are natural parts of life. The book’s portrayal of the competition between the kuia and the spider about “Whose weaving is best?” and of their ongoing arguments demonstrate that very different beings can co-exist peacefully, even though at the end of the story they “argue and argue for the rest of their lives” without any resolution. For those like me, whose experiences of argument are accompanied by emotional and sometimes physical abuse, this can be a revelation. The lessons from this story helped me during the inevitable collective conflicts within Kidsarus 2 and in the many conflicts that accompanied other projects.
From working with writers and illustrators, I also began to understand the relationships between image and text. This understanding later informed my understanding of relationships between image and dialogue. For example, each of the kuia’s grandchildren looks different, some very Maori, some not, another element of the “difference” theme that ran through a beautiful, poetic story. The illustrations don’t just “illustrate.” They complement and extend the text. That’s why some of the illustrations here don’t have captions. They—or the text—are subtexts: the text is their “caption,” or they are “captions” for the text. I’ve added captions only when necessary, to explain who’s who, or to acknowledge a photographer.