Janet Frame: The Self as Other/Othering the Self

Tara Hawes
Department of English
University of Otago
New Zealand

Deep South v.1 n.1 (February, 1995)

Copyright (c) 1995 by Tara Hawes, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.
(Paper originally given at the "Identities Ethnicities Nationalities" Conference, La Trobe University, Australia)

Why did Janet Frame pretend to be "of Pacific Island origin" when submitting poems to the London Magazine from New Zealand? Later, when she went to England, why did she write from the point of view of "a West Indian arrival?" (An Autobiography, p. 308)

Frame's literature contains many examples of othering the self/selfing the other, such as "Jan Godfrey" (one of her earliest short stories), where the narrator takes an identity then deconstructs it in the process of the story. The exercise of writing an autobiography is essentially one of othering the self, Frame describing it as an exercise of legitimacy, or "making [herself] a first person." (Interview with Elizabeth Alley, In the Same Room, p. 40) In my paper I will investigate these representations of otherness, particularly Frame's culturally inflected othering of the self.

My paper is divided into four parts. When organising my discussion, I was faced with a dilemma. Although I wanted to concentrate on what I call cultural cross-dressing, I realise that presenting any sort of literary analysis is pointless without some sort of background on what I'm analysing. So for the benefit of those who've never read any Janet Frame, or, dare I say it, never heard of her, I'll briefly introduce Janet Frame and why I'm researching her work.

Secondly, I'll look at autobiography as self-representation, which will lead onto my discussion of Frame's cultural cross-dressing. Finally I'll finish with some speculation, as I feel that is all we, as readers and as academics, can do with a writer who totally rejects critics and academics alike.


Firstly then, who is Janet Frame? Janet Frame is one of New Zealand's most successful writers, if not the most successful. She has written eleven novels, three volumes of autobiography, four volumes of short stories, a collection of poems, and numerous other short stories and poems published separately. She has also published a work of children's fiction and various reviews and critical essays. Her popularity is reflected in the thirty-one awards, honours and fellowships she has received, including an Honourary Doctor of Literature from the University of Otago, a C.B.E., and the Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.

In 1990 her autobiography was adapted into a film, called An Angel at My Table, which is also a three part mini-series. Both the autobiography and film have led to Frame becoming a household name in NZ and some parts of Australia, with readers who found her novels too unconventional appearing to enjoy the autobiography's more accessible form. Directed by Jane Campion, the film won seven prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, as well as the Special Jury Prize, and The Four Season's International Critics' Award at the Toronto Festival of Festivals.

Despite all this national and international recognition, Frame remains apparently untouched by her fame and fortune. She has given less than a handful of interviews during her life and refused to cooperate with the one attempt at a biography of her life by New Zealand academic Patrick Evans. As a response to would be biographers, and the many literary critics who insist on including biographical aspects of Frame's life in their analysis of her fiction, Frame wrote "her story", or, as she described it to Elizabeth Alley, a "desire really to make myself a first person." It is this exercise of writing herself as first person that will be the main focus of my paper, particularly the many different "selves" Frame constructs throughout her life, then reconstructs in the confessional nature of her autobiography.

Representation of the subject is perhaps the most central issue Frame is concerned with in her fiction, if one was to attempt the impossible task of making sweeping conclusions about her vast body of writing. Her stories and novels experimented with metafiction way before it became a buzzword for postmodern and postcolonial literary critics, for example, The Edge of the Alphabet, published in 1962 has a metafictional narrator, Thora Pattern. Frame actually had to lesson Thora's prominence in the novel to please her publishers. Several of her later novels, including her most recent, The Carpathians, play even more unconventional narrative games, showing Frame to be not only ahead of her time, but a literary trendsetter.

Frame's narrators would make a fascinating study in themselves. Her early stories in particular contain many examples of othering the self/selfing the other, for example, the short story "Jan Godfrey", where the narrator takes on an identity then deconstructs it in the process of the story. What I am going to focus on however, is the narrator of Frame's autobiography, and the self she constructs in writing her life story.

Autobiography as Self-Representation

Autobiography is a relatively new field of literary and cultural study, women's autobiographies in particular being "new" subjects of study academically speaking. Studies of autobiography favour an interdisciplinary approach--literary criticism, sociology, psychoanalysis, history, and women's studies all having valuable perspectives to contribute to any analysis of the representation of an individual's life. There is a huge amount of research underway at the moment investigating many key issues, for example, the whole issue of fictionality. Autobiography as a genre highlights the traditional binary opposition of truth and fiction, with its position of narrating the truth of one's own life, or, essentially, othering oneself in the name of truth.

Rather than investigating Frame's autobiography with theoretical issues in mind, I want to argue that in the process of writing herself as first person, Frame in fact writes her own theory of autobiography as a genre, and that she does this by the metadiscourse of Frame the narrator. I believe this is a means of not only covering her newly acquired self, that is, the "first person" that she is making/writing, but covering the back of Janet Frame, the acclaimed writer. It is also an indication of the depth, or denseness, of this first person. I haven't time to go into this argument in adequate detail, but I do want to look at a couple of the paradigms Frame sets in order for us to read herself in the first person.

She begins To the Is-Land, the first volume of her autobiography, with her own description of autobiographical "truth":

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth. (p. 7)

This, I think, is to cover herself from those critics who've already gone through her novels and identified autobiographical truths, and who, I'm sure, would go through this story and find autobiographical lies. There is another reason for this definition however, and that is to make up for Frame the writer's own probable memory deficiency. As she says after being finally discharged from hospital for good:

After having received over two hundred applications of unmodified E.C.T., each the equivalent, in degee of fear, to an execution, and in the process having my memory shredded and in some aspects weakened permanently or destroyed . . . (p. 224)

Now how can someone who has had their memory destroyed write an autobiography, you may well ask? Frame in fact expects you to, that's why she introduces her autobiography by foregrounding the issue.

Another common talking point in autobiographical criticism is the issue of time: how do we know things happened exactly when the author said they did? Do they follow linear time, or is time cyclical? Frame, involved in this vitally important task of constructing herself as first person, cannot leave such an crucial issue ambiguous--so, she constructs her own time frames, (pardon the pun), and alters them to suit throughout her autobiography.

As Janet Frame the autobiographical subject changes, so does her perception of time. As the narrator observes in To the Is-Land:

Where in my early years time had been horizontal, progressive, day after day, year after year, with memories being a true personal history known by dates and specific years, or vertical, with events stacked one upon the other, "sacks on the mill and more on still", the adolescent time now became a whirlpool, and so the memories do not arrange themselves to be observed and written about, they whirl, propelled by a force beneath, with different memories rising to the surface at different times, and thus denying the existance of a 'pure' autobiography and confirming, for each moment, a separate story accumulating to a million stories, all different and with some memories forever staying beneath the surface. I sit here at my desk, peering into the depths of the dance, for the movement is dance with its own pattern, neither good nor bad, but individual in its own right--a dance of dust or sunbeams or bacteria or notes of sound or colours or liquids, or ideas that the writer, trying to write an autobiography, clings to in one moment only. (p. 131)

In the second volume of autobiography, An Angel at My Table, which covers the period of Frame's hospitalisation, several of the chapters are almost purely metadiscourse, Frame the narrator stepping in now that Frame, the character is a third person, for it is in the psychiatric hospital that she becomes "'she', one of 'them'" (p. 194). For example, while Frame the character is being driven to Seacliff Psychiatric Hospital, Frame the narrator observes:

Writing an autobiography, usually thought of as looking back, can just as easily be a looking across or through, with the passing of time giving an X-ray quality to the eye. Also, time past is not time gone, it is time accumulated with the host resembling the character in the fairytale who was joined along the route by more and more characters, none of whom could be separated from one another or from the host, with some stuck so fast that their presence caused physical pain. Add to the characters all the events, thoughts, feelings, and there is a mass of time, now a sticky mess, now a jewel bigger than the plants and the stars. (p. 191-92)

So even though Frame the writer says she is writing the autobiography to reclaim herself as first person, the constant intrusion by Frame the narrator is always close at hand to tell the reader what to think. This narrative authority verifies this new other self, for writing an autobiography is essentially a process of writing the self as other, and to do this, one must other the self. Frame the narrator would have us believe this is a very complex process, for the path of constructing one's identity is not always an easy one. In her autobiography, she narrates the story of the many identities adopted by Frame the character in her quest for belonging. I've divided these identities into five major phases:

  1. the intelligent sensitive child of To the Is-Land
  2. the poetic scholar who the narrator describes as "the stoical solitary heroine suffering in silence" (p. 127)
  3. the obedient student the narrator of An Angel at My Table describes as "'I', almost a nothingness, like a no-woman's land" (p. 161)
  4. the schizophrenic "madwoman" ("'she', one of 'them'", p. 194)
  5. the writer

Apart from her experiences in early childhood, Frame the narrator would have us believe that the latter four identities are all constructs of self by Frame the character, which she adopts for various reasons. It is the last identity that I will focus on in the remainder of my paper, for it is the guise she has kept.

Cultural Cross-Dressing--a culturally inflected othering of the self.

Until her first volume of short stories, called The Lagoon and Other Stories won the Hubert Church Award while Frame was in Seacliff Hospital (getting her taken off the waiting list for a leucotomy), Frame had not been able to contemplate writing for a living. As she repeats several times in her autobiography, "my writing saved me." Once "saved" Frame then had to face up to the harsh reality of being a woman writer in New Zealand in the 1950s, particularly one who was still talked about in the third person, "as if I were my own obituary". Frame was however saved again, this time from suburbia by an unlikely knight in shabby armour--Frank Sargeson.

Frank Sargeson is considered New Zealand's first professional writer, as he was the first writer to actually live and write in New Zealand. Those before him, and indeed, most of his contemporaries, were compelled to go elsewhere, generally to England, which was still considered the cultural centre of the world by most New Zealanders. Sargeson took Frame into his home and under his wing, helping her learn how to live as a writer in a society which was hostile to those who rejected the Puritan work ethic, writing not being classified as "proper" work.

Frame not only had a place to write, but the necessary support and encouragement to do so. In retrospect however, Frame the narrator realises that there is a flip side to this luxury, for Sargeson was a blatant misogynist. As the narrator observes:

The price I paid for my stay in the army hut was the realisation of the nothingness of my body. Frank talked kindly of men and of lesbian women, and I was neither male nor lesbian. He prefered me to wear slacks rather than dresses. I, who now looked on Frank Sargeson as a saviour, was forced to recognise through the yearning sense of gloom, of fateful completeness, that the Gods had spoken, there was nothing to be done.
In exchange for this lack of self-esteem as a woman, I gained my life as I had wanted it to be. I gained also the joy of knowing a great writer, a great man, and of meeting and knowing his friends . . . It was a world where appearance did not matter, where I was free at last from the ceaseless opinions about my hair and my clothes and the behind which showed through my skirt. (p. 250)

Sargeson does more to Frame's self-esteem than marginalise her sex however, for it is Sargeson who first suggests Frame's cultural cross-dressing. Not only does he prefer her to dress like a man, but "To make matters more interesting" as Frame describes the experience,

He chose a name for me--Santa Cruz--repeating solemnly as if I did not know, 'That means Saint and Cross. His letter to John Lehmann explained that I was a woman from the Pacific Islands who was new to Auckland; he had been impressed with my writing. The reply was kind. The poems, John Lehmann said, were refreshing, new; he hoped that when I learned a little more English he might see more of my work. (p. 260)

Frame relates their game to "the Australian Hoax of Angry Penguins and Ern Malley". The poems concerned however, are actually some lines from the beginning of Frame's first novel, Owls Do Cry. So it is not as if Sargeson is actually getting her to write from a different perspective: he is in fact implying that she writes as if she's just arrived from another country. Now although the South Island of New Zealand is technically a Pacific Island, English is our first language. Sargeson is not only making Frame ashamed about her sex, but is implying that her vision is so different, she might as well not be a New Zealander. The effect of this little prank on the psyche of Frame the character, trying to construct her identity as a woman writer on the outskirts of a society that still deems her as mad, is only fully realised when Frame arrives in England. After arriving in England, Frame has an inevitable identity crisis, and it is here she appropriates the identity Sargeson has given her. This time however, she actually writes from the point of view of "the other", cross-dressing to adopt a West Indian identity.

I think this model of cross-dressing is an important one, for cross-dressing has a long tradition behind it. There is a history of women dressing as men to play into the prevailing gender, becoming men in order to gain status, power or opportunity, which would not have been available to these individuals had they remained part of the "fairer" sex. Frame's cross-dressing makes a significant deviation however. Not only is she opting for a position that is further on the margins, but as far as I know she is the only woman to have done this. The literary scene, both in England and the colonies in the 1950s, was still predominantly (if not exclusively), European--a look at any anthology of writing of the time backs this up. Frame then, is identifying a lack in society.

When we turn to her own reasons for this culturally inflected othering of the self, another kind of lack is highlighted. As she explains:

I did realise that such literary pretences were a safeguard against the discovery by others that my 'real' poetry was worthless. They were also a reflection then of a New Zealander's search for identity beyond her own country where being thought 'more English than the English' was felt to be more insulting than praiseworthy. In a sense my literary lie was an escape from a national lie that left a colonial New Zealander overseas without any real identity. (p. 308)

Now if Frame was going to conform to the traditional mode of cross-dressing, that is, cross-dressing for some sort of gain or opportunity, surely she'd adopt the identity of the dominant culture around her, an English identity, for isn't she already more English then they are? Frame's rejection of English culture shows the nature of her agenda: it isn't just any identity she's after, but an authentic post-colonial identity. This is reinforced by her own feelings of marginalisation, her feelings that her "real" poetry is worthless. For hasn't Frank Sargeson, her mentor, already denegrated her to the margins, firstly because of her gender, and secondly, because she doesn't write his way--that is, in the popular realist mode of the New Zealand provincials of the 1950s, now referred to as "masculine realism".

If Frame is choosing to write from the position of a Pacific Islander or a West Indian, then surely this must be the perspective we should approach it from. For she is rejecting the "half colonised" position Robin Visel argues white women in settler cultures occupy, for a "doubly-oppressed or doubly-colonised"[1] space on the margins. Actually choosing to adopt a doubly-colonised identity includes an explicit rejection of patriarchal power structures, and white men. It also acknowledges the state of "double jeopardy" described by Regina Blackburn:[2]

women who belong to racial or religious minorities . . . [are] defined not only by their category WOMAN, but also by the category BLACK, JEW, or whatever other group the dominant culture has isolated from the mainstream.[3]

Why does Frame cross-dress to fit in with these groups "isolated from the mainstream?" Because she feels she can never be part of the mainstream, --an identity of greater marginalisation than her own at least gives her something to identify with, a "real" identity that she can justify writing about. To escape "a national lie" she must adopt a literary one, a culturally inflected othering of the self that gives her her very own true post-colonial identity.

Frame's cultural cross dressing, with its associated desire for a "real" identity, in fact predicts a situation we can observe around us today. It predicts the European fascination with the other, the exotic, a trend Susan Hawthorne terms "cultural voyeurism." Whilst Hawthorne sees it as part of Western consumerism, with capitalism consuming anything new, critics such as Ruth Brown and Simon During discuss it in a post-colonial context. Post-colonial settler societies, ravaged by capitalism and consumerism, look to the exotic for some kind of spirituality. Frame's own search for identity in the realms of the exotic predicts what Simon During and Ruth Brown observe in the Pakeha appropriation of books such as the Booker Prize winner the bone people, a desire to gain an authentic post-colonial identity through Maoriness. Ironically, it is an issue Frame satirises in her most recent novel, The Carpathians, where she criticises Pakeha exploitation of Maori culture in the tourist industry.

Because of these developments, I think if Frame tried to adopt a Pacific Island or West Indian identity today, it would be pointless. She would surely be attacked by Pacific Islanders, West Indians and Europeans alike, if the present debates concerning cultural authenticity are anything to go by. If writers such as Keri Hulme and Alan Duff are criticised by Maori and academics for not being Maori enough, then I'd hate to imagine Frame's chances at being Pacific Islander or West Indian in the 1990s.


  1. Robin Visel, "A Half-Colonization: The Problem of the White Colonial Woman Writer", Kunipipi, 10 (1988): 39. [Back]
  2. Regina Blackburn, "In Search of the Black Female Self: African-American Women's Autobiographies and Ethnicity", qtd. in Susan Stanford Friedman, "Women's Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice" in The Private Self, ed. Shari Benstock (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 47. [Back]
  3. Friedman, p. 47. [Back]

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