Aorewa McLeod: A single woman’s search

Three sea stories
Jean Watson
Daphne Brasell Associates, 1994, $29.95

Also by Jean Watson: Stand in the rain, Pegasus Press, 1965, reprinted A&U/ Port Nicholson Press, 1986; The balloon watchers, Dunmore 1975; The world is an orange and the sun, Dunmore, 1978; Flowers from happyever, Voice Press, 1980; Address to a king, A&U/Port Nicholson Press, 1986; Karunai Illam: the story of an orphanage, Daphne Brasell Associates, 1982

If Jean Watson’s novels lie somewhere off the usual maps of New Zealand fiction, then that is the fault of the maps ‑ Linda Hardy, introduction to Stand in the rain (2 ed).

In 1979 I bought for $2.95 Jean Watson’s The balloon watchers, the first in Dunmore Press’s Kea new fiction Series. It is a little book of 97 pages, most of which are falling out now because it is one of those few books I reread every year or so. It’s a first‑person allegorical tale of the appropriately named Deidre Pining who lives in a dark flat in Wellington (there are several Pinings in her apartment block), has a dreary job and pines over a broken relationship. She finds a way of living in and enjoying the here‑and‑now through fellowship in a group of balloon watchers. The narrator/ protagonist does not attempt to interpret what the balloons and their watchers represent ‑ she simply records and the resulting text is moving, funny and charming.

The balloon watchers became something of a cult book, which led Dunmore Press to publish The world is an orange and the sun, a novel which had been written 10 years earlier and, with two other novels, been rejected by publishers. Her last collection Three Sea Stories, written in 1988, has only now been published by Daphne Brasell after being rejected by other publishers.

As Hardy in her introduction to Stand in the rain suggests, neither publishers nor reviewers have known what to do with Watson. One of the most intriguing, idiosyncratic of New Zealand writers, who writes with a pared-down simplicity of style and a consistent integrity of vision, she has been largely ignored. New Zealand literary commentators find it difficult to cope with authors who do not fit into definable categories. Only one recent article by Anita Segerberg in Landfall 173 attempts to come to terms with one of Watson’s distinctive forms. She discusses Watson’s Address to a king ‑ a form of the novella ‑ the “apologue”:

a kind of moral tale with slightly disguised moral statements and an overall tone of generality and timelessness, characterised by a cluster of literary devices such as repetition, distancing of characters, allusions to timelessness and general truths, leitmotifs ‑ and relative plotlessness.

 

A very apposite description of the work, it explains why categories like realism or postmodernism don’t fit Watson. Born in 1933, Jean Watson was educated at Mangapai primary school with one term at Whangarei Girls High, leaving at 15 to help on the family farm. At 19 she went nursing and then “worked at just about every sort of arsehole job”. “I was tearing about the country after a man, looking for ideal things, ideal existences.” After three years in Australia 1962‑65 she settled in Wellington, had a son and published her first novel in 1965. As she writes of Catherine in Three Sea Stories:

when she was on the domestic purposes benefit she used the time to study and had gained credits at university. Later she developed a latent talent for writing, had several stories actually published and, on the strength of that small success, had been given a grant to travel and write more. And there she was. Her country’s welfare system had allowed her to break through from being an uneducated, downtrodden solo mother to being an educated, promising writer.

 

Watson’s first novel, Stand in the rain, was a woman’s “on-the‑road” novel. The heroine, Sarah, drops out of university to travel round the North Island with Abungus, who takes on casual labouring jobs, while planning to go possum trapping and whitebaiting. They sleep on mates’ kitchen floors, have drinking binges and keep moving on. Sarah goes along with Abungus’s male chauvinism, and that of his mates: “He looked at me. ‘But what the hell would you know? You’re a woman’.”

Sarah has been commented on as typical of the sixties Kerouac laid‑back hippie, and as a passive woman, not a good feminist role model. But she shows the concerns of Watson’s later novels ‑ a fascination with fate, predestination, an awareness of time passing and of the inevitable transience of present happiness. Sarah attempts to take each moment as it comes and yet the text itself, written some time in the future, contains a nostalgia and sense of loss that pervades the present being described and gives the book a unique haunting and haunted tone. While Sarah focuses on moments to be remembered, the book itself, read now in the nineties, becomes an evocation of the sixties.

This, I’m sure, is why it was republished in 1986. It creates in those of us old enough to remember a nostalgia for the time when we used to travel up and down the main trunk line between Auckland and Wellington, when we could drop jobs or university and always find another job, when we felt free from the values of the generation before us and believed in a future stretching before us that we didn’t have to plan for. The book’s ending still has the power to evoke that for me:

For there to be an empty car parked on the roadside and people to say, “Whose car’s that? ” ‑ “Abungus and Sarah’s, they’re up the Mahitahi,” or “Where are Sarah and Abungus?” ‑ “Up the coast. See grey blue Cape Bedford in the distance, stretched out into the sea, suspended above the waves by long visibility? They went round there.”

I have at times wanted to belong with a cape, or trees and mountains for a landmark and then found ‑ although I knew it before ‑ that it’s too hot, with mosquitoes, or too cold, with nothing to do, and then wanted a tarseal road and “going somewhere” again.

There are people who will never get used to marriage is “why is the stew burnt and where are my clean socks and must you do that when I … ?”

There are people who will always look in lighted windows and want to be there behind the safety of drawn blinds and when they are there they’ll suddenly not want it or something will bugger it for them and they will feel the road beneath their feet again and when they’re too old for that they will from time to time watch it through the window of a bus or train ‑ someday it will get them.

And when we sleep will the road unwind dreamlike before us?

 

Written shortly after, but not published till 1978, The world is an orange and the sun is the first‑person narrative of a thirtyish woman with two small sons on a small holding. She watches the development of an affair between 18‑year-old Terry and her neighbour, Del, who has teenage daughters. Interwoven with this is her attempt to live in the moment and respond to the world in the way her children do. Of a baby eating orange segments she says:

I saw everything as he would have seen it; there was just the warm sun and the taste and smell of orange in the world ‑ he sees so much more sharply and clearly than I do. There is more immediacy in his vision, no interception of words, memories and thoughts.

 

And she’s fascinated by the way children have to develop concepts of time. When she and Freddie pick kindling under large macrocarpas:

“It’s LATE UNDER THE TREES,” says Freddie.

For a moment 1 am confused. This remark from Freddie has completely changed the day.

Of course he means it is dim. Like twilight: “Come inside Freddie. It’s late!”

As far as he knows, no matter what time of day it is, it is LATE under the trees.

 

Del tries to stop the progress of time through her young lover. The narrator wistfully watches, conscious of the impossibility of this for her self‑reflective adult awareness.

In her next work, Flowers from happyever, which she subtitled A Prose Lyric, Watson leaves the conventional realistic novel format, as she had in The balloon watchers. A nameless protagonist remembers one moment of extraordinary happiness ‑ an epiphany: “I had this experience that cannot be described in words … like a premonition of a happiness so intense that I would never have believed it possible”. She keeps meeting a group of travellers who are returning home ‑ she becomes one of the band but keeps forgetting them and returning to her mundane life. The affection and happiness of the gypsy‑like fellow‑travellers and their flowers from happyever, where presumably they’re headed, echoes through the 59 pages of the book, as does the memory of that ecstatic moment. Interlaced with this is the repetitive memory of Lasseter’s Gold, the story of the search for mythical gold which ends in the searcher’s disappearance or death.

Virginia Woolf in Moments of Being writes of those moments which we remember and which stand out as compared to the nondescript cotton wool of our daily life which is not lived consciously.

These, she says, are the moments she struggles to capture as a writer. And although the final form of their novels are different Watson and Woolf’s concerns as writers are very similar. Both are preoccupied with time, memory and the capturing of the moment out of time. Linda Hardy’s comment on Stand in the rain:

I find myself reading a surprisingly modern text, shifting, undecidable, subversive of claims for the “fullness” of knowledge and representation

is a description that could be applied to any of Woolf’s novels. The repetitive echoing lyrical interweaving of The Waves which some have claimed as Woolf’s greatest novel is not unlike Watson’s technique in what Segerberg has described as Watson’s “apologue” novels:

… a relative lack of action and crisis, a passivity underscored by, repetitions, flashback memories and quotations; these retardations in the text foreground the timelessness and “message” of the story.

Again in Address to a king we have a narrator/protagonist struggling to understand the meaning of time and ultimately of life, a desire for a romantic negative capability ‑ to be like “those children playing on the slide by the fountain, innocent of time” or like “white, bright, yellow‑eyed daisies, innocent of time”. Interwoven with her life in Wellington with two teenage children are her addresses to the good King Aravinda of ancient India who gave up his kingdom to become an aimless mendicant. Here for the first time Watson’s interest in the Vedanta and following of the Vedanta teachings surfaces in her writing.

While writer in residence at Auckland University in 1988 Watson wrote stories based on her visits to India, which were later published as Three Sea Stories. Then she wrote an autobiographical account of her visits to India which resulted in her setting up a small orphanage, Karunai Illam. Out of the dole, out of temporary part-time jobs she saves enough to found and support the orphanage: “I wouldn’t have much to live on, but as I didn’t have a mortgage I could just manage.”

It is a simple straightforward account of Jean Watson visiting Kanyakumari, on the southern tip of India, meeting with the Tamil collector for a local orphanage. It made me vividly aware how privileged we are in New Zealand: 2000 rupees a month ‑ $200 ‑ provide food, rent and clothing for 10 children.

The autobiographical account and the three stories overlap ‑ the places, the people are the same. Both are vivid accounts of an alien way of life. But the stories are not about an orphanage ‑ they’re about cultural difference and the friendship that grows between a young Tamil man who speaks little English and a 50‑year‑old New Zealand female tourist who speaks no Tamil. Catherine arrives in a strange little town “bemused and dissociated, but beneath the surface of her consciousness aware of an anxiety she recognised as culture shock”. The stories tell how she acclimatises to this new and alien culture through moments of cultural illumination:

Again, speaking of things I only partially understand, there is the time I had spent the day in Trivandrum and caught the express bus back so I would be in time to meet you at the rock. I had bought a large packet of cashew nuts ‑ I’ll keep some for Satya and Subaryan, I thought. I wasn’t prepared for the eagerness with which you accepted them. They’re only cashew nuts. What’s the big deal? I wondered. Another insight was to come. I call it the incident of the vadai.

We were at Mururgan’s tea stall, the three of us among the evening crowd. You ordered tea. “Take,” you said, handing me a vadai. I didn’t feel like eating. “Please take,” you insisted.

“Well, half,” I said reluctantly, “and Subaryan can have the rest.” I tore it in half and handed one of the halves to Subaryan. So eagerly Subaryan took the vadai in his cupped hand and ate it. And as he did, a ripple of understanding washed through the group of people standing there and broke into gentle laughter, illuminating among you a subtlety of your culture that I, bemused stranger, can hardly begin to understand. I still puzzle over that incident, examine it, turn it over in my mind till facets of it shine.

What did it mean? Was it one of the “pearls of great price” that I had come to find? Sometimes I think I have the meaning then once again it eludes me. Half a vadai. A leathery greasy vadai! When I think of that time the word grace comes to mind.

She and Satya and his friend Subaryan meet daily, spend hours together walking and. talking. She has little to do with Satya’s wife, does not talk about gender differences in Tamil culture. She does not interpret the culture for us: rather there’s a very sensitive attempt to watch, listen and be accepted.

Bell Hooks, the African‑American theorist, writes in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center:

Those scholars, most especially those who are themselves radical critical thinkers, now fully participate in the construction of a discourse about the ‘other”. I was made ‘other” there in that space by them. In that space on the margins, that lived-in segregated world of my past and present, I was not “other”, they did not meet me there in that space. They met me at the centre. They greeted me as colonisers.

This is a salutary warning to people from developed, or perhaps we should say colonising, nations when we approach and write about minority cultures, or so‑called “underdeveloped” cultures. What I find so admirable about Watson is that she is so conscious of this and that she can move (when invited) into the space of the other, humbly and offering unconditional love.

In the final story, speaking of her love for Satya and his culture Catherine speaks of “my insatiable need to be true in thought”. It’s this that gives Watson’s writing its integrity. It was there in her first novel when Sarah says:

It is hard to explain what I want to be and do and belong to, something that I cannot put into words, and if someone else puts it into words for me I say, “No, not quite that.”

It’s the sense of a single woman’s search for what she wants to be and do and belong to that makes Watson’s first person works so powerful and distinctive.

The concept of an open‑ended journey has been with her from the beginning and it’s still with her as she reaches Southern India.

I had a very strong feeling of ‘rightness”, that I was where I was meant to be, as well, the feeling I was starting a new life.

I look forward to the next stage of her journey.

Aorewa McLeod is a senior lecturer in English at Auckland University. She teaches a thirdyear paper on women writers, an MA paper on nineteenthcentury women writers and an MA paper on Australian and New Zealand women writers.

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