Cover Girls

My first-ever time on the cover of The New York Times Book Review with a review of Janet Frame’s stories: Between My Father and the King (published in NZ as Gorse is Not People).

New York Times Book Review, Sunday, 26 May 2013

New York Times Book Review, Sunday, 26 May 2013

…then inside:



Cross-Post: Who Was That Woman, Anyway?

[This was originally posted on 20 May 2013 at The Hand Mirror]

It’s trite to say that books take you places. But true nonetheless. With books, you can disappear into other times, cultures, imaginary worlds. “Foreign” fiction is better than any guide-book at introducing you to a place and its people, and sometimes even better than going there if you want to see beneath the surface.

But if you live here and read enough of the stuff (say novels from the two Anglophone powerhouses – the United States and the UK-plus-Ireland) then a different feeling starts to kick in. Like what you’re getting to know is really life inside the American novel, not life inside America. At about the same point, for me anyway, “local” fiction itself starts to feel a bit foreign. Not in the way “foreign” fiction is foreign, but in the way local fiction feels rare, like something you don’t see very often. Which, when it’s good local fiction, also makes it feel precious and exciting and new.

Who was that woman imageI felt this way reading Aorewa McLeod’s new book “Who Was That Woman, Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life.” It’s a novel, yes, but as McLeod explains in the book’s front matter, it’s inspired by real life events. “Some details happened in real life, some did not,” she writes. “The characters are fictionalised and given fictional names.” The book’s 10 chapters, ordered by date, span roughly 40 years in the life of Ngaio, McLeod’s protagonist who, like the author, is an English lecturer at a university in Auckland.

The subtitle is sweet in the way it undersells the book. These are not only snapshots of a lesbian life, but of life in New Zealand, and life in Aotearoa. Snapshots of what it can be like to grow up here, and live here.

Its starting point is the 1960s with Ngaio, a university student, heading to Nelson to spend her summer break as a nurse’s aide because “an ex-schoolmate’s father was someone high up in the mental health service and he had suggested that nurse-aiding in psychiatric hospitals was a lucrative way of earning money in the holidays”. Ngaio is put in a ward with bedridden, severely disabled children. “There were enormous hydrocephalic water heads, tiny pinheads, huge slobbering mouths, bent bodies, contorted hands waving in the air, grasping blindly, clutching as if there were something to reach for. They could grip me with such desperate strength that I had to pry their fingers off. Many were blind. I couldn’t tell how old they were.” McLeod’s writing, particularly in the first half of the novel, is like that: direct and piercing.

It’s while she’s working in Nelson that Ngaio meets Suzy, her first love. Suzy is a Māori woman from a Mormon family who works as a charge nurse at the children’s ward in town. “She only goes for white girls,” a friend tells Ngaio. “All her family’s married white. That’s what the Mormons encourage them to do, to make it in the white world.” Who cares! Ngaio is in heaven. “This was it; this was what it meant to make love. This was the transformational moment of my life.”

Continue reading


The book is launched. Phew! It was a wild ride, which included an interview with a BoP Times reporter about the new early medication abortion service in Tauranga while traveling in a taxi en route TO the launch (book about the struggle meets the struggle); dropping my room key down a storm water drain in a downpour and actually managing to fish it out, all while wearing purple pyjamas and getting soaked; going into VicBooks to do the “sign some books” thing, and being

Dame Margaret Sparrow and moi at the book launch. (Copyright is Vic Uni Press.)

Dame Margaret Sparrow and moi at the book launch. (Copyright is Vic Uni Press.)

evacuated because of some alarm. False I guess, but I didn’t wait to find out because I had to meet the lovely Zenaida, but messed that up  – we were waiting in different cafes on opposite sides of town. At the launch (thank you so much VicBooks and VUP), I met people I wish I’d found BEFORE I finished writing the book, but then again, it’s always hard to STOP researching. Scored a lovely bottle of Scotch from the WONAAC women (my request!), had an excellent ALRANZ AGM and weekend at the Women’s Studies Association Conference trying out some of the Prochoice Highway stuff. Had some orders for the Body Politics calendars and scanned some great images from Margaret Sparrow’s personal collection for said calendar. Has anyone heard of Condoman? Not sure if he’s sound as I don’t really know anything about him, but Margaret had some Condoman patches, which must be collector’s items or something. Speaking of Dame Margaret Sparrow, my all-time favourite photo of the self (and I don’t usually like them) is now the one attached to this post because I’m next to her (at the book launch). Oh, and I met the Queen of Thorns. At least, I think it was her, but can one ever really be sure? Finally, I nearly forgot (did I want to forget?) there was a Kim Hill interview on RNZ on Saturday 27th. That was pretty intense, and I haven’t plucked up the courage yet to listen back to the podcast.

Missed you Linn and Helen!

UPDATE: Thanks to for making a video of the launch, and putting the speeches (they’re short, honest!) on YouTube. Links to those are at the ALRANZ blog.