Fiona Farrell expresses thanks for a social system that kept her in good health, taught her to read – and allowed her to write.
A couple of years ago I met up with Kevin Ireland at a launch in Christchurch and went with him – as you do – to a bar on the strip, where he insisted on shouting us some very delicious and very expensive wine. And as each bottle was delivered, he said, in his marvellously expansive fashion, “Don’t worry! I’ve just had a stroke of the most extraordinary good fortune!” A few weeks later we learned he had received this award, in his case, for poetry. And now I’m here too, and it does indeed feel like extraordinary good fortune. And not just for the obvious reasons.
Last year I spent six months in Ireland as a recipient of the Rathcoola Residency, which takes New Zealand artists and writers to County Cork. The day before we left for Ireland, my friend Ros Henry, who is expert on tracing genealogy via the internet, asked if I intended looking up my ancestors. “No,” I said.
I can’t bear genealogy: the way that, after a couple of generations, a family tree becomes a dense thicket, and after 20 or so you’re related to the population of the entire world; another few dozen and you’re first cousin to a bunch of shrubs and various species of lichen. It’s endless, like housework. But “Nonsense,” she said. “Of course you must know who your ancestors were,” and within an hour she had traced them back to the slums round the jute mills of Dundee, mid-19th century refugees from the Irish potato famine. And the thing that struck me about the records of their births, deaths and marriages was how many couldn’t write: my great grandmother signed with a cross – and a pretty shaky one at that.
We stand not on the shoulders of giants but on the backs of a vast mass of small dogged individuals, swept about on a tidal suck of political and social changes.
If we’ve been able to lead expressive lives, it has been because we have had the supreme good fortune to live in this country at this point in history. If I’ve been able to spend my life writing fiction, it’s been because of free healthcare, a decent State-funded education system, State milk in little warm bottles at the school gate and a million decisions that we roll together and label “socialism” or “feminism”. This good fortune has not dropped from the hands of some benevolent deity: it’s been made, crafted decision by decision, phrase by phrase, word by word, just as I put together a novel, and I am acutely aware of this and very grateful for it.
I have other more specific thanks to make: to Creative New Zealand and the awards committee, to a government and a leader who confirm by gestures such as this that they value writers and the products of the imagination. To my colleagues in this country – writers, journalists, critics – who are engaged in the difficult business of putting words on paper, to my publishers Random House and Auckland University Press, to my friends and family, especially my dear patient husband Doug and my daughters. Without you, whatever I do or write would have neither context nor meaning. Thank you.
This is an edited version of a speech given in September when Fiona Farrell received the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction.