Janet Frame

Presented by Sandra Ens to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club

October 19, 2021

Janet Frame always wanted to be a poet, to have her imagination recognized, and while she published only two collections of poetry, her prose has the lyrical qualities we often associate with poems.  Her strength, quite simply, is “show, don’t tell”.   She describes situations in precise imagery and emotion and leaves the reader to interpret her intention.  In “A Boy’s Will”, when Peter’s kite breaks and he patiently repairs it,  we understand that he has reached a maturity, and acceptance of what he is and what he will become.  In “You Are Now Entering the Human Heart”, she does not explicitly tell us this is the heart of darkness that we are entering; rather we glean it through the description of the characters’ actions and reactions.  Even in her autobiography, An Angel at My Table (1982, 1984), she rarely describes her hair, but many other people she encounters suggest she “really should do something about it.”  Her shock of curly red locks is emphasized in Jane Campion’s film of her autobiography (1990):  each of the three actors playing Frame at various times in her life have unruly thick mops, as if both Campion and Frame are gently mocking those who believe their suggestions might change this intensely private, independent, and talented writer. 

Like many Canadian writers, she achieved recognition in her home country of New Zealand only after her books received awards and accolades by British and American reviewers.  Although she travelled extensively and often accepted writing fellowships overseas, she always returned to New Zealand.  She lived for various periods in several North Island towns, including Wanganui, Shannon and Levin. In 1997, she returned to Dunedin where she had been born in 1924.  She lived there until her death in 2004.

Founded in 1999 by Frame herself, The Janet Frame Literary Trust is the charitable trust that controls the author’s literary estate. Upon her death, Frame bequeathed her copyright to the Trust and specified that the ongoing royalty and other income be used to financially support New Zealand writers of poetry and imaginative fiction. In 2005, the Trust established The Janet Frame Literary Awards, with winners announced on the 28th of August each year to mark Frame’s birthday.

The Janet Frame Memorial Lecture was inaugurated in 2007 by the New Zealand Society of Authors. The annual lecture acts a literary ‘state of the nation’, overviewing and enhancing understanding of New Zealand writing and writers.

Owls Do Cry (1957), her first novel, was announced as the winner of the 2015 Great Kiwi Classic competition, described as one of New Zealand’s ‘most treasured and classic books’.