Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yvonne du Fresne

The writer Yvonne du Fresne died on Sunday, aged 81. Her funeral will be held at the Harbour City chapel on the corner of Cockburn Street and Onepu Rd, Kilbirnie, at 2pm on Thursday (tomorrow). 

After winning the PEN best first book award for her 1980 short-story collection Farvel, she was twice runner-up in the NZ Book Awards, first for the 1982 novel The Book of Ester and then for the 1985 short-story collection The Growing of Astrid Westergaard. Her books are suffused with her Danish-French Huguenot background: in her last published book, the 1996 novel Motherland, Astrid returns to Denmark and has a reunion with her Danish relatives. There is a last novel which she worked on for years but remains unpublished. 

She will probably be remembered most for her short stories which Maurice Gee calls “beautifully fresh stuff, unlike anything we’d had before. Danes in New Zealand and back home were her true subject, the thing that lit her up. Her writing, especially those early stories, is unique.” 

In his introduction to Farvel, Bill Manhire writes:
Like the oldest Norse tales, the Farvel stories have all the flair and pace of oral narrative . . . But a better way of describing their effect might be to borrow the image of embroidery which appears so often in them. Farvel is like a tapestry, with fresh scenes being added story by story until at the last the richness of a complex picture is revealed. And Yvonne du Fresne’s language can be like a needle flashing in and out of linen. Her writing has the intense, controlled exuberance of one of her Danish women at work on a piece of tapestry – human energy directed well.
Nina Nola writes in the  Oxford Companion to NZ Literature:
Critics operating from realist premises have struggled both with the blurred borderline between reality and fantasy, and the claim of Danish spiritual affinity with Maori in the two novels [Ester and Frédérique]. While they consistently celebrate du Fresne's sharp and exciting language, humorously employed to look ironi­cally at herself and her community, they are frequently uncomfortable with her construction of an indomitable immigrant community identity and its mythical connec­tion to another place, a superior homeland that is not England. This depiction of difference is a deliberate negotiation of New Zealandness in a distinctive style of voice du Fresne calls her “Danish clonk”.
 For Was I Not Born Here?: Identity and Culture in the Work of Yvonne Du Fresne, by the Norwegian academic Anne Holden Rønning, is available at Fishpond, and the NZ Book Council bio is here. 


Mary McCallum said...

Thank you for this Stephen. I haven't read Yvonne's work - let alone knew much about it - but now I want to ... fascinated by the unfinished novel. Is it really unfinished, or had she not been able to let it go?

Stephen Stratford said...

I'm told that the novel was finished but, for whatever reason, never found a home with a publisher.

Farvel and The Growing of Astrid Westergaard are probably the best entry points.

Stephanie said...

I recall with distinct pleasure the sound of her voice reading on NatRad years ago her collection of short stories (?) about growing up inthe Manawatu. Every time I drive up State Highway 1 through the rolling mounds of the Foxton Straight I remember her and her lovely voice and her stories. A lot of imagery about wind, as I recall today. I loved her 'Danish clonk'.

Glenyss said...

I was so sad to hear of Yvonne's death, as I was hoping to visit her in the near future.Several years ago, we discovered we were related (shared a great Aunt), and we kept in touch since then, chatting on the phone regularly. I read and re-read her books, and found they gave me a deeper understanding of our shared Danish ancestry. Sleep well, my dear cousin.