Finding herself, Heather Murray

Yvonne du Fresne
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 26038 2

For a nation which has for so long depended upon a steady stream of new migrants, New Zealand has a very poor record of making them feel welcome. Our attitude seems to be that the sooner they shake down and look like us, speak like us and drop their silly foreign ways, the better for all. It’s the least they can do for a share of Godzone.

The theme of the bemused migrant coming to terms with displacement and alienation is a perennial one in our literature (and some impatient critics would say that the “torn between two cultures” syndrome is a cliche; settle down quickly, please). Amelia Batistich writes on behalf of Dalmatians, who despite their spectacular success in New Zealand, still hanker for their lost home. Maartje Quivooy explores the Dutch dimension and more recently Kapka N Kassabova puts the case of the young Bulgarian. Alistair Campbell explores his Raratongan heritage and, with Albert Wendt and John Pule, tries to plot a path somewhere down the middle of Polynesian and New Zealand heritages.

It is not an easy path for the writer — the cliches do tend to fall. And, since the echoes of migration still resound for most of us, it is a topic upon which most would claim some expertise and be prepared to offer tips on getting acclimatised while others who have made the big transition are bored by it and have moved on — not to mention those who, despite a century or more of habitation chalked up by their families, still feel aliens in the current atmosphere of dislocation and tenuousness weighing upon those who do not proclaim the mantras of rightwing economic policy for breakfast, dinner and tea. Who precisely is “at home” and who is hanging on by the fingertips there?

Perhaps it is a fear of difference, a need for homogeneity and a common shared national purpose, but in our blinkers we overlook the blessings of cultural variety and we provide extra little hurdles for the emerging citizen. We are basically kind, just a little reluctant to gaze upon difference, since difference implies an unwillingness to become a real Kiwi.

Such might have been the opinion carried away from New Zealand by Otti Binswanger, one of our forgotten immigrant writers who gave up the unequal struggle to blend in. In her collection of short fiction, “And How Do You Like This Country?”: Stories of New Zealand (Walter Brookes, 1945), the German Jewish refugee presented a gloomy view of the life she and her husband, a doctor of philology, experienced in Christchurch. In a story called “Turnips” Binswanger portrays the hostility people with German names attracted. Despite the sense of alienation, some human warmth is conveyed to the foreigners; in a gesture of bleak inarticulateness, but a gesture of support nevertheless, a neighbour tosses some turnips over the hedge. That’s New Zealand.

Yvonne du Fresne represents a large group of Danish refugees who fled Jutland after the German invasion of Denmark in 1864 and settled near Dannevirke. While du Fresne (and her alter ego, Astrid Westergaard) was born in New Zealand (1929), her ties with Denmark are far from severed. Although the letters came “stained and faded from their long journeys”, the ones who stayed at home still exert a pull and the New Zealand family returns for a visit in the 1930s to renew links. At primary school in a conservative rural community during world war II and experiencing the institutionalised jingoism of the time, the young girl tries to fit in, to be more like the two young princesses, brave and pretty. Europeans with funny names were suspect, lacking the stiff upper lip, unable to fight, too passionate and self-indulgent. They are the “Grasshoppers who wasted the summers away while wiser ants toiled”. Stalwart New Zealanders are always having to sort out their wars for them.

Later as a teacher, du Fresne began to write, pale imitations of the English style (Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf) but in the late 1960s she discovered her “ethnic” style — a style Stephanie Edmond was to call the “abrupt, laconic, so practical style of Danish storytelling” — and the subject matter of her own people in the new country, for she realised that the motherland had never let go its hold. “It plucked at our sleeves, whispered in our ears …  we used our old Danish country magic and brought our Jutland to New Zealand.” It was only when du Fresne faced the possibility that a people who “wipe out the memory of who they are and where they come from will see their souls die…”, that she began to live in New Zealand: “You must know where your old village is to find your way to the new one”.

During the 1980s du Fresne published five books, her last in 1989. Now comes the novel, Motherland, which takes up the adult story and maturing of Astrid Westergaard. Readers first met Astrid in the short story of 1982, “The Growing of Astrid Westergaard”. It is a moving work in which du Fresne acknowledges her deep love of New Zealand and her acceptance of it. She discovered (thanks to an enlightened teacher) that the new country was not devoid of the relics and myths which was so rich a part of her Viking culture. Her father unearths some Maori relics while ploughing and summons the local iwi and Astrid’s school to witness these visible signs of the people who had gone before. As the Maori chant breaks out, “I bowed my head and began my long life’s journey, the learning by heart of the stones and the grass and the wind of our new homeland… The growing of Astrid Westergaard began”.

Du Fresne presents New Zealand in a wonderfully vivid and impressionistic way. In the same earlier volume, the story, “The River”, is great evocation of a New Zealand childhood during world war II: ageless picnics down dusty roads in the lurching Ford truck, the smell of lupins, the “dried-out January creek”, the pine roots binding the riverbank, schoolgirls in flourbag pants and cake tins with faded pictures of the King and Queen.

A darker story in this group, “Christmas (Shirley Temple is a Wife and Mother)”, leads towards the adult Astrid and is a fitting introduction to the new novel. Childless, husbandless, the adult Astrid faces Christmas alone, aware that she fails to fulfil society’s expectations of the mature woman. In Motherland with a failed marriage behind her (her husband found her too sensual), she is drawn back to Denmark to revisit the relations and a Danish journalist she met in New Zealand. The plot follows Astrid through her pilgrimage (with a suggestion of urban terrorism and a teachers’ conference providing some variety) and, yes, it is a story of coming to terms with one’s heritage but du Fresne avoids the pitfalls of the well done-over topic. She writes so beautifully and puts such a new edge on it all, that the reader finds everything to enjoy. Her evocations of Denmark in winter are well observed and will sound familiar to those who have studied Viking legends. Past and present are a seamless whole.

Astrid emerges from her Danish journey confident in her biculturalism: the blessing of the New Zealand childhood with its underpinning of the remembered Viking past, coupled to her new adult sense of self: “Today a gap had closed; I felt my two countries firmly under my feet. Both equal”. Astrid “finds” herself, a cliche if ever there was one, but in the hands of this good writer it is all made new. Profound, ironic, clear-eyed, poetic, witty — du Fresne has has written a very impressive novel.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin scholar and writer. 

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