Rediscovery of the self, Janet Wilson

Come Rain or Shine: Women around New Zealand share their life stories
Shona Jennings (ed)
Viking, $34.95,
ISBN 0 670 87834 0

A Family from Barra: An Adoption Story
Beryl Martin
Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86940 185 4

Leap of Faith: My Dance Through Life
Shona Dunlop MacTavish
Longacre Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1 877135 04 6

Flood Tide
Heather Heberley
Cape Catley, $27.95,
ISBN 0 908561 51 x

“Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives”, title of a recent Women’s Book Week session, is also fitting for these life stories. All the women represented here have witnessed or lived through unusual experiences, dealt with disaster or survived tragedy. In discerning the path that each has shaped by her choices, one finds a special resonance in individual personalities, not just individual dramas. The quiet heroism evident in Beryl Martin’s story of neglect and abuse, in Heather Heberley’s search-and-rescue stories, in Shona Dunlop MacTavish’s tragedies and successes, in the stories told by the women whom Shona Jennings interviewed, reinforce those staples of the national stereotype: resourcefulness, pragmatism, endurance.

Most accessible are the micro-narratives of the fourteen women in Shona Jennings’ Come Rain or Shine. Appearing as a coffee-table book, the concept belongs to 1990s feminism. The oral account, the most elementary form of autobiography, is presented with calculated intimacy. Jennings compares this process to chatting over a cup of tea; she includes photographs, a biographical note, and, a special ’90s touch, each speaker’s “parting gift” to the reader: a recipe, poem, proverb or photograph of an artwork. Many of the women said “Why me?”, when asked to contribute. Yet “ordinariness” has strength here, it has social resonance. Mirror-like, these stories – told by women of different ages and backgrounds – show how the familiar can become threatening, and how one’s survival can depend on developing certain skills, adjusting to unexpected circumstances.

Their fates cast light on our own problems, crises and moments of self-doubt, often magnifying them horrifyingly: the woman in Rotorua who fell into a sump of boiling water when the ground beneath her collapsed; the feelings of the Samoan when she learned that her brother and his family were killed in a car crash; the Catholic who entered a closed order after being persuaded to adopt out her illegitimate son; the woman whose husband became a homosexual; the transsexual, Aussie “Coaster” who had a sex change and became a foster-mother to problem kids and now runs Access courses. Other stories, less traumatic, show society’s affectionate and caring side: the Maori mezzo-soprano who was adopted by a Pakeha family; another from the Orakei Trust Board, a welfare officer who values education, who speaks for traditional Maori values.

Not surprisingly, these fourteen tales also expose social agendas, chauvinistic sleights-of-hand, and institutional deficiencies which in the past have restricted opportunities for women or determined their status as second-class citizens. But the more self-reflexive women, such as the strict Catholic who accepted her lover’s casual dismissal of his paternity, also criticise their earlier passivity. Mood, attitude, and character are shaped, the narratives suggest, more by our choices and responses to events, than what actually happens. Such insights lift the speakers into a more symbolic sphere, as does evidence of a public profile: one woman has a monthly radio slot, another fronted Crimewatch for a year, others are involved in community work or politics. Of course, some stories make more impact than others, yet the most dramatic are not necessarily always the most moving.

The ability to transform or reinvent oneself is crucial to women who are mothers and wives, but who also want to become known as individuals in their own right. This is never truer than in the account of the most hidden of these lives under review: A Family from Barra, by Beryl Martin, known otherwise as Pat Hawthorne (née Ridge). Here is the voice of the severely dispossessed: the woman whose early life was based on a lie, and who, furthermore, suffered a loveless childhood. Martin/Hawthorne was an adopted child who, like so many others, never knew the truth until she was an adult. By the time the Adult Adoption Information Act was passed and she could trace her real mother in 1985, it was too late.

Martin’s upbringing at the hands of a professional foster-mother who disliked her was miserable in the extreme. The reign of terror under which she lived – physical punishment, psychological bullying and other forms of abuse – had her soon identified at school as a problem child. Hers was a working-class family in the Depression, but her foster-mother Nellie Ridge’s background and character were, at best, shady. At the age of 41 she married George (Beryl’s “Dad”), twenty-two years her junior. Her greed and malice led to merciless exploitation: Beryl was forced to do housework until her hands bled, to procure money by collecting George’s wages from his work-place and by soliciting his friends; later she had to buy Nellie the lollies she craved and accompany her to the pictures. Her attempts to become more like her real self, whatever that self was, through educational or social channels were also thwarted as Nellie forced her to leave school at 14 to work in the Zig Zag factory so she could spend Beryl’s wages.

Child abuse, one of the great bogeys of our age, takes on a new dimension in this wicked stepmother story, but Wellington society in the 1930s was unruffled, the Child Welfare services were easily deceived, the adoption processes untouched. Martin had no-one to turn to but “Nana”, George’s mother who, saintly in her goodness, provided a haven of sanctity and on more than one occasion intervened. How she rescued herself from this imprisoning relationship by running away at 22, marrying, and having children makes a striking escape story. But the sinister implications of her unnatural upbringing, evident in the psychological difficulties she records – her shyness, immaturity, awkwardness, even her apparently difficult temperament – are not fully explored: perhaps because beyond the scope of this autobiography which painfully relives the “lie”. Although Martin distanced herself from Nellie completely, hints at the struggle to construct a separate identity from her “prescribed” one are only that. Divorce and a new life with richer possibilities, then discovery of her real family – half-brothers with whom she is still in contact, and of her family’s origins in the Hebridean island of Barra – all of which provided an emotional catharsis, are apparently staging-posts on this road to fuller selfhood.

The understated style of this finely judged autobiography makes it ring all too horrifyingly true. Martin’s rage at the system’s fundamental betrayal and Nellie’s denial of her essential self are only implied. But the healing process which discovering her family initiated appears through sublimation in language. By signing herself as Beryl Martin in a fundamental gesture of self-assertion she recovers some truth of her past, restores one symbol of her original identity.

No greater contrast can be imagined than that between Beryl Martin, oppressed from birth by circumstances beyond her control, and Shona Dunlop MacTavish’s story of triumph as New Zealand’s “First Lady of Dance”. Whereas Martin’s family was ground down by poverty during the Depression, Shona’s mother, after the sudden death at the age of 57 of her husband, John Dunlop, Professor of Theology at the University of Otago and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, shrewdly realised the financial opportunities of economic blight and bought a large acreage of land in Southland. This inspired investment gave her the financial security to take the family, including a companion, Major Campbell, to Europe in 1935, leaving one son to farm the land, for she planned that the other, Bonar, Shona’s talented brother, should attend the Slade School of Art. By a mix of good fortune and Mother’s whimsy, the Dunlops fetched up in Vienna, and were soon installed in expatriate British society.

Quoting from her diaries and letters from this period, Shona describes how she came to her vocation at the age of 16 by training to a professional standard with the remarkable Frau Professor Gertrude Bodenwieser, a founder of modern expressive dance. After further travels, adventures and some narrow escapes, with Europe on the verge of war in 1938, Shona’s spirited mother returned to New Zealand, while Shona herself pursued her career with Bodenwieser’s troupe in South America. The extraordinary, eye-witness accounts of Viennese society and the Nazi occupation become a narrative describing the interweaving of Shona’s life and career with the fortunes of this Jewish exile who finally relocated in Australia, founding the Bodenwieser Ballet in 1939.

The next turning-point in her life proves the appositeness of the title, Leap of Faith. In 1948 Shona met, fell in love with and within five weeks married a Canadian missionary, Donald MacTavish, accompanying him to China at a time when communism was about to transform the nation. Further adventures brought about by the sudden redundancy of Christianity that forced them eventually to flee from China, are interspersed with the joys of motherhood: the birth of her daughter, Terry, also a notable dancer, and after the MacTavishes moved to Africa, two more children. But then tragedy struck: Donald died suddenly from cancer. Returning to Dunedin in 1956, as a mother of three with no visible means of support, her life must have been in collapse.

The rest of the autobiography blurs this transition from marriage and life in Africa to the resurgence of her vocation. How Shona managed, or indeed what happened to the inner person, and the alternative domestic life she created for herself, are only hinted at. The private grief which remained with her emerges in a moving account of her return to Africa and the scene of Donald’s death; but the last third of her story, lacking the sense of personal struggle and engagement which dominates her earlier travel and marriage narrative, dwindles in dramatic tension. Shona’s talents and natural ebullience obviously pulled her through; she undertook choreographic work for theatre and opera, and founded the Dunedin Dance Theatre. She developed her affinity with African culture by becoming a pioneer of religious dance in the 1960s, and creating ballets and dances for church performance. International recognition followed: a tour of South East Asia in 1964, several tours to the Philippines to study the religious origins of primitive dance; and in the ’70s a world tour and then appointment as Advisor in Dance at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1975.

In this story of a crowded, eventful and successful life – despite its tragic shadow – Leap of Faith resembles the type of autobiography associated with the professional, public figure (usually male), whose inner self plays the role of understudy. Dunlop MacTavish writes as she travels and as I imagine she dances, with great joie de vivre. Her very style is testimony to her spirit and fortitude; and a reminder of her impressive achievements is the list in an appendix of her major choreographies since 1945.

Flood Tide is the sequel to Heather Heberley’s first volume of autobiography (published in 1996) about the Heberley family who have lived for generations in Okukari Bay on Arapawa Island in Queen Charlotte Sound. Weather Permitting was a best seller, and it put this whaling family and their remote community on the map: in fact, no less a personage than Sir Tipene O’Regan paid over-the-top dollar for a copy at auction. The opening of Flood Tide, preoccupied with the event of the earlier book’s publication – book launch, author-tour, Women’s Book Week Festivals – seems at first glance excessively self-conscious. But Heberley’s response to the demands of being a public personality – correspondent, traveller and impromptu speaker – makes her a role model of sorts. She reminds us that she is acquiring the vocational skills of professional writer, by contrast to those of mother, farmer, wife, teacher, and “guardian of the hearth”. Her voice is more than autobiographical since she speaks for all who live in this isolated area – fishermen, divers, pilots, farmers, coastguards, vets, women who wait – with a deep understanding of the special problems of remoteness. By chronicling recently developed techniques in fishing, in sea and air rescue operations and in farming, she brings all these lives into view.

Heberley’s awesome sense of responsibility – expressed in sleeplessness, fear at what tomorrow may bring, anxiety for those who are not rescued, concern for those who are safe, even for farm animals – is vital to this book’s appeal. Here, we urban dwellers are reminded, is a habit of mind developed from years of close attention to the dangers of the sea, to the unpredictability of the weather, and to the knowledge that death and loss will occur if vigilance is not maintained. The scattered community for whom she speaks is constantly on guard against the elements, yet enviably united in this common pursuit. Two of the book’s emotional high points rested this very ethos: the death of John Gibb, Marlborough’s Volunteer Coastguard president and Picton’s senior constable, to whom the book is dedicated, whose insistence on the installation of night-vision binoculars on a rescue vessel saved a life just weeks later, and her husband Joe’s award in 1996 of the Queens Service Medal for his work in Search and Rescue.

Flood Tide also includes extracts from the journal of James (“Worser”) Heberley, the original whaler who settled there in 1827 and after whom Worser Bay is named. Worser, with another whaler, Dicky Barrett, guided Colonel Wakefield into Port Nicholson in 1839; equally fascinating are his unadorned accounts of cannibalism:

There was a Slave Girl on board, she had a child on her back by accident she dropped the child overboard, belonging to a Chief, the child was not drowned, but the Chief took the Slave girl on shore, and hung her up by the heels and stabed [sic] her in the back of the neck and sucked her blood until he was tired, then the Chief Wife took a turn at sucking the Girls blood till she was tired and so on, till the girl was dead. Then they took her up and cooked her in a copper.

Social historians will be grateful for this rich material, but as Heather Heberley’s autobiography becomes a family chronicle and then a community history, there is some diffusion of personal interest. Although written in sprightly style, the final chapters seem to be episodic and anecdotal, perhaps because the fitfully anxious persona of the writer is less in evidence. Perhaps also Heberley’s desire for inclusiveness, for full representation of family and community life and history overwhelmed her otherwise shaping influence.

Truth-telling is an assumption which these autobiographers share; equally important are the processes of reflection and assessment with which they develop a perspective on their past. But “self writing” is polemical as well every good storyteller secretly endeavours to put across her point of view. Shona Dunlop MacTavish celebrates her art; Heather Heberley speaks for a community which is rapidly changing; Beryl Martin investigates her childhood to discover who she really is, Jennings’ women speak to establish visibility. All are using this most gelatinous of literary forms, furthermore, not just to communicate their worlds and lives, but to take a new tack, to renegotiate their relationship with society. None aspire to the textual transformation of identity which Janet Frame and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, those great practitioners of the art in New Zealand, create with their embroideries of fact, but all share in the process of rediscovering the self that can underlie the writing of fiction.

Janet Wilson lectures in New Zealand literature and Middle English at the University of Otago.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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