Obituary — Yvonne du Fresne

Yvonne du Fresne

1929-2011

Yvonne du Fresne was one of New Zealand’s finest writers of literary fiction, her work exploring the experiences of this country’s European migrant communities. Born in Takaka in 1929, du Fresne was a second-generation New Zealander of Danish and French Huguenot descent. She spent her childhood years in the Danish community of the Manawatu, immersed in its language, music and dress, and especially in the rhythms and sounds of the stories told to her by her family.

This European heritage and its contrast with the predominantly English culture of the wider world around her formed the basis of du Fresne’s writing. She became intensely aware of the pressure on migrant communities to assimilate. This pressure was particularly acute during du Fresne’s childhood, the 1930s, when suspicion of foreigners (especially anyone who looked or sounded vaguely German) was at its height.

Du Fresne began writing at an early age, much encouraged by her father, who was himself a gifted storyteller. She was first published in the 1950s, a time when the audience was mainly British in background. To appeal to this audience, du Fresne downplayed her own European heritage. But, as she later wrote, “You can’t go on writing about people and happenings that aren’t really yours.”

With particular support from Robin Dudding at Islands, du Fresne began to find her own voice, grounded in her strong cultural heritage and drawing on the storytelling traditions she had absorbed from her childhood.

A successful career in teaching allowed du Fresne to support herself financially, although it meant rising daily at 5am to write for two hours before the working day began. So she was “enraptured” to be awarded the Literary Fund’s prestigious Scholarship in Letters in 1978. It allowed her a year to devote to writing, during which she began a novel and completed a collection of short stories, published in 1980 as Farvel.

Farvel’s stories are linked by a common narrator, Astrid Westergaard, a child growing up in a Danish family in the Manawatu in the 1930s. Through Astrid’s eyes, du Fresne explores the cultural differences in the “homogenous” world of rural New Zealand at that time, weaving together themes of cultural, personal and national identities. The use of a child narrator allows du Fresne to record observations of the strange and new with the same intensity that a foreigner might. This approach provides a perspective on the dominant culture that allows New Zealanders to see themselves afresh. The Farvel stories were first broadcast on National Radio as Astrid of the Limberlost.

Farvel won the PEN best first book award. Later, a novel, The Book of Ester (1982), and a second short-story collection, The Growing of Astrid Westergaard (1985), were both runners-up in the New Zealand Book Awards. A second novel, Frederique, was published in 1987, followed in 1989 by The Bear from the North (a selection of previously published stories) and Motherland in 1996.

Much of du Fresne’s writing draws on the mythical world of Danish folklore and has a narrative quality that evokes the Danish oral storytelling tradition. It mixes myth and memory, imagination and reality, the past and present, the strange and the familiar, so the ordinary becomes enchanted. Du Fresne has described how she strove to echo the “brief, powerful structure of the Jutland stories and songs and poems, with bursts of colour only when they were really needed”.

Her themes are the experiences of migrant communities in New Zealand, and the challenges of cultural difference and dislocation. This is well-covered territory, but du Fresne’s sharp, energetic language, combined with her humour and acute observations, put her explorations among New Zealand’s finest. Some critics have questioned the strength of the links she makes between the Danish and Maori experiences of colonialism. Even they, however, do not deny the power and complexity of du Fresne’s narratives.

As well as being a popular and highly regarded writer in New Zealand, du Fresne gained international recognition. In 1999 she held a writer’s residency at Aarhus University in Denmark, where she later established a permanent fellowship for New Zealand writers. Recently, the international academic publishing house Rodopi published a study of du Fresne’s fiction (Anne Holden Rønning, For Was I Not Born Here? Identity and Culture in the Work of Yvonne du Fresne, 2010).

Du Fresne died in March 2011, aged 81. She occupies a prominent place amongst New Zealand writers and remains a central figure for any student of postcolonial literature in this country.

Ingrid Shouler

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