By Niki Tulk.
Janet Frame's writing is, for many, a series of intimate letters from a place of exile that those of us who live and work as artists, thinkers and scholars may sometimes feel we know too well; in her own words, “All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land” (Janet Frame, The Envoy from Mirror City. An Autobiography: Volume Three. Auckland: Hutchinson, 1986, 152.). Frame’s short story “The Terrible Screaming” consolidates this idea that she returns to again and again—our inner, authentic voice that is suppressed (through institutions, paradigms of social power and control, and our own internalization of society’s “shoulds”) is there, loud and pervasive. Frame’s consistent, yet varied metaphorical expression of the complexities of this existential exile—from both our inner voice and wider social context—means that each story of hers feels fresh and almost, to this reader anyway, like some sort of epiphany, even when the abstract theming of her work hovers over the same conceptual landscape.
In her latest published work The Mijo Tree (a posthumous publication, Penguin Books, October, 2013) we read a crystallization of the cry of the buried voice: a seed from the Mijo Tree in Home Valley begs conveyance from the wind to the top of a mountain, where the Seed believes her destiny as Queen awaits her. It is a fable that distills the theme of a soul that desires to transcend what they are told they should be, yet finds on that adventure that the journey towards this end is not simple, nor taken without great sacrifice. In fact, through a classic Frame lens, the place they have been told they belong (the realm of society’s shoulds) haunts the protagonist even as escape is successful—a background refrain “perhaps they were right, perhaps I truly am no-one significant, perhaps I am what they see me to be.” This fear seems to drive the main character, the Mijo Seed of the title, onwards to reach her aspiration, but also prevents her from truly seeing her state of mind and being in any realistic light. By the time the Mijo Seed tries to make sense of this tension and to deal with it, it is too late—she has achieved her position on top of the mountain and the view she yearned for, and has attained a type of transcendence, but she does so only by ultimately sacrificing her lifeblood. As a final tragic thrust, the Mijo Seed realizes that home has never been truly left.
Frame explored these ideas in her novel written not many years after The Mijo Tree (again, published posthumously), Towards Another Summer in the metaphor of a woman, Grace Cleave, who copes with her displacement and alienation by choosing to believe she is a migrating bird. This image perfectly encases Frame’s consistent study of this idea of tormented liminality, and the magic realism of discovering she is a bird is the only way Grace can contain the struggles within her.
The Mijo Tree comes for Frame at a time when she had just ended an intense love affair, whose legacy included Frame's first experience of emerging motherhood and loss when she miscarried a child (she had already ended the relationship with the father). In the Afterword to the Penguin edition, we learn of the circumstances and the possible symbolism of the seed in the novella and the concept of a Mijo tree, but these ideas are best read, I believe, after the fable has been experienced on its own terms. It was fascinating to return to a part of Frame’s life and writing that was so soon left behind as later she traveled to London, found a new agent and gained freedom from the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, and, in the words of Pamela Gordon, Chair of the Frame Literary Trust, “freed herself from the influence of society’s oppressive ‘you shoulds, and learn[t] to be herself without apologizing or feeling self-conscious.” (90) Indeed, Frame’s work after The Mijo Tree seems to increasingly embrace her self-doubt from a position of artistic vision and strength, a stronger sense, perhaps, of acceptance of the hauntings and devastations that would always form part of Frame’s core—it is as if she makes peace with them and explores them from a more robust place. But The Mijo Tree seems full of pain, and in the end there is no more strength—only the seed’s own lifeblood, her one purple flower and part of her root—transported back to the home valley by the Seed’s lover, the goat. The apparent “saviour” male goat not only boasts of what he has done to help her, but his chivalrous act exposes the fact that there are significant promises of loyalty that he has not kept; and it is he who justifies the final murder (by consumption) of the small, bereaved and still-living seed. The hope remains that the new plant that has been brought to the valley might have a chance to try again, in some new way—that there might be a new “Phoenix” version of the seed who may perhaps find a new life. But overall this is a desperate and bleak fable, seared with the seed’s (Frame’s?) stubborn and beautiful belief in her own vision, that she was not doomed, that she could break out and live in a world where the “the ocean that scrubbed the doorstep white and left shells and sponges and drops of music, in homage to the beautiful Mijo Queen” (22).
For those who have never read Frame’s work, this is a story that showcases the way Frame is delicate, surgical and inventive with both diction and style—she creates surprising narrative turns and manages to convey the rich conceptual palette and angst of Albert Tucker’s expressionism, with the deft and manicured precision—and surface naiveté—of a Geoffrey Smart painting. This tension between deliberate innocence and deep knowledge of suffering makes for a contained and compelling piece of writing, and she somehow carves a path through alienation and trauma that helps us walk it with her, and we are compelled to keep moving with her to that lost land.