Monday, January 23, 2012

Nina Nola on Yvonne du Fresne

The 45th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1996 issue: the portrait is by Jo Heller. The intro read:
Nina Nola talks to bicultural novelist Yvonne du Fresne about alternative notions of “home”.
I sat in the cable car on a piercingly bright Wellington winter morning with my dossier on Yvonne du Fresne clutched between sweaty palms: will I remember which side of her family is Danish, which French Huguenot? Will I confuse her novels? How does a Dalmatian New Zealand doctoral researcher encounter a writer like du Fresne, whose prose creates such a pervasive sense of Scandinavia?
As I step out of the car, notes and camera bundled under one arm, I see a figure making uncertainly toward me. I am surprised to see du Fresne – it has to be her, peering at me over large, red-framed sunglasses – looking so un-Danish in a white sweatshirt, blue skirt and slip-ons. She could have been any European New Zealander out on a Sunday walk around the rose gardens, sprightly and, I was surprised to note, rather small.
Her short fair hair blew wildly as we walked to her car and then she smiled, her eyes crinkled up and slanted like almonds, as the eyes of Danes have a habit of doing when they are happy (I had learned this from her fiction), and yes, here was more of the Dane I had expected to meet.
Driving over the hills from Kelburn we descended into an increasingly barren, wild landscape. Yvonne was disappointed not to find the resident geese waiting to welcome me to her Makara, but a few corners ahead there they were, sunning themselves on the banks of the stream.
Suddenly all echoes of Hans Anderson disintegrated into the spilling-out mouth of the sea that gaped at the coast of forbidding Makara Beach. We turned up the last driveway to Yvonne’s beach house, perched on the hill, just as I had always imagined it. I could see through the glass doors that the simple cottage was small and cosy, full of hygge (comfort, warmth, food and welcome – everything a Danish home should offer a visitor). Geraniums in pots crowded around the entrance, and a fine-nosed collie was barking excitedly. She was called “Lalla” in Motherland – though she is Olivia by pedigree – and Lalla she remained throughout our afternoon.
We walked through the cottage to Yvonne’s studio, divan lining the back wall, a comfortable writing chair facing the sea. The cover mock-up of Yvonne’s latest novel lay in front of me, a bold play of a rich yellow field, blue sky, a windmill idling in the distance with the title Motherland suspended across the terrain. The image spoke of Denmark, but the title poses the question: which country is the homeland of Astrid, a New Zealand-born woman about to turn 50 and fall in love with a Danish journalist with whom she experiences the country and culture of her parents?
It is based on the author’s experience of trying not to be different in conformist New Zealand, and it made me wonder how the pen that produced the Astrid stories in the immensely popular Farvel and its follow-up The Growing of Astrid Westergaard could develop the portraits of the two or three intolerant New Zealanders, among the many who embrace cultural diversity, in Astrid’s adult world.
A pair of malevolent characters, in flashback, molest little Astrid as she proudly, and innocently, wears Danish national costume. The bright and flamboyant clothes are a marker of cultural difference, and incite violence in these men, much as the homespun jumper covered with bidibids and smelling of shearing sheds, worn by Bill at the Danish education conference, humorously invites the reader’s recognition of what New Zealand culture stands for in the popular imagination. To Astrid, the jumper is home – or one of them, at least.
Du Fresne started writing stories based largely on English models, butt captivated Robin Dudding, then editor of Islands, with stories that were to become part of the Farvel and The Growing collections. Commissioned for radio, each story was written in the weekends, after du Fresne had finished her school work. Their success encouraged her to harness her Danish voice and develop her portraits of growing up in the Manawatu in the 30s and 40s.
With confidence and acclaim, she felt impelled to address the other side of her heritage, her paternal French Huguenot side. The Book Of Ester and Frederique explore the lives of the heroines of the titles, contemporary Ester Capelier, and 19th-century Frederique D’Albret who, with the remnants of her family, flees Catholic persecution in Europe and hides on the Manawatu plains. Both novels, like the short stories, are set in the Manawatu, with an intertwining of imported and Maori spirituality, but centre on a European past.
This affinity of the Danes with Maoris has irked reviewers, who are uncomfortable with what they see as du Fresne’s too-easy affiliation of European coloniser with the colonised. Du Fresne’s explanation that the Danes are very sensitive to aboriginal people is particularly relevant to the fellow-feeling developed through her characters Astrid, Ester and Frederique, and Maoris, towards the land. She felt an echo of this intense, respectful and symbiotic relationship on her visit to Denmark while on a writing scholarship: “I felt really a part of the landscape. This countryside was where my families, and my larger ‘national’ family lived and worked. My past was all around me, skin and bone and spirit.”
This recognition of what it is to be a Dane punctuates Motherland with acute and sometimes poignant observations. Astrid is surrounded by people who look and behave as she does, and at last she’s one of a large group; she even realises there is a peculiarly Danish type of hair and a way of wearing it, as she sees herself reassuringly mirrored in Danish women.
The puzzle of Astrid’s life in New Zealand is also completed as she fits into the mould of her lover Kristian. Bone to bone the couple lock into a seemingly perfect physical match, while their words play in and out of a weave of English and Danish: “My cheekbones and chin. His own mouth: lower lip full, at rest; upper lip thin and mobile all the better to speak Danish. Fading blond hair with the same grey patches as mine and the same cowlick and thinness. I knew exactly how he walked, ate, moved his hands, curled up in sleep. I was him and he was me. After such a long absence it gave me a light-headed feeling and huge relief. My mind couldn’t grasp how the pattern of our shared genes had formed again and again over one hundred and five years, twelve thousand miles apart, and not changed.”
Throughout Du Fresne’s fiction there is acknowledgement of other pasts, of alternative notions of “home” that challenge the Eurocentric norm of Pakeha New Zealand. Only the Dalmatian New Zealander Amelia Batistich before her has written of the contemporary impact of two cultures outside the Maori/Pakeha dynamic. Like Batistich, du Fresne pushes the limits of what a New Zealander writes.
With her sixth book, du Fresne’s prose is as sparse and potent as ever. Her distinctive style shines – as do her eyes when I hand her the gift I have brought. The delight with which she savours unwrapping the bottle of lavender that I had helped my grandfather harvest in Croatia, and the way she enjoys the aroma that escapes, reminds me of my own thrill at every word on a du Fresne page. I am reminded also of Maurice Gee’s comment on her writing: “Everything is tasted, heard, seen, smelt. Many writers operate on about one sense, your landscape is absolutely delicious.” Q

Farvel and Other Stories (VUP, 1980)
Du Fresne’s reputation was firmly established by this first book (the title translates as “Farewell”), which Bill Manhire’s introduction likens to a tapestry, with her language a needle “flashing in and out of linen”.
This is an obvious place to start to get to know Astrid, her family and the community she describes from the outside as an observer beside her Far, Mor and Bedstemoder, and from the inside as a schoolchild trying desperately to be a good member of the British Empire.
Astrid is a spy setting out to discover the world for herself, and the new world for her family. Stories such as “The Messengers” underscore the collection with a sense of the vital importance of the first-generation children: Astrid must “find the message” of the new land for herself and her people so that they may escape the migrant’s fate of drifting psychically anchorless.
“The Looters” is a popular favourite as it humorously parades the ability of Astrid’s family to mimic the English, both the language and the culture, around them.
The stories are all brief, simply constructed, and linked for the original Radio New Zealand broadcast format. This lends them continuity and promotes a picture of a community and Astrid’s vital place within it.

The Book Of Ester (1982, out of print)
Astrid makes way for Ester Capelier, Danish becomes Danish-French Huguenot and the wholesome symbiosis of childhood in the Manawatu disintegrates into a widow’s sense of not belonging in New Zealand any more. The elements are simple enough, but du Fresne’s alternative mythmaking is complex and potent.
Her strongest work to date on the ethnic theme, Ester comes with a preface linking du Fresne’s previously explored Danish heritage with the stories of the French Huguenot: “They were still trying to fit in with the Danes, let alone the New Zealanders!”
An introduction helps to make sense of exiled Calvinist Protestants escaping persecution across Europe, and journeying through Ester’s grieving mind. Only by reconciling herself to the plight of her ancestors, and a 17th-century namesake in particular, can present-day Ester pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
This book has been called the classic study of working through grief, but you don’t have to be bereaved to relish the intricate web of alternative mythmaking at which du Fresne excels.

The Growing of Astrid Westergaard and Other Stories (1985, out of print)
This book returns to Astrid and her family, friends Cherry Taylor and Anna Friis, and continues the semi-autobiographical storytelling of Farvel. Astrid’s exuberance is as infectious as ever, her wide-eyed appreciation of her Danish heritage and endless thirst for experience undaunted by restrictive schooling.
This collection is divided into three sections: 11 stories exploring Astrid’s negotiation of her position as a schoolgirl between the wars in the Danish farming community of the Manawatu; three final bleak tales of adult women disappointed and despondent, bereft of the comfort family provides childhood, adding a darker note to the world of Astrid’s perpetual optimism; and a single bridging story which gives the collection its title.
This account of Astrid’s “growing” marks a pivotal step in the child’s perception of her place as a Danish New Zealander. Equipped with a multicultural sensitivity, Astrid is able to embrace “our country”. The growing of Astrid Westergaard has indeed begun.

Frederique (Penguin, 1987)
Don’t be put off by the cover! Do read the novels chronologically: even if Frederique D’Albret hails from the last century, she is introduced in Ester’s readings on the Reformation and so seems familiar. This book is hard to get into, but the richness of myth and memory make the text increasingly rewarding as you read on, even if you don’t buy into the apparently supernatural mystery of psychic links central to the plot.
The romantic ending is a total surprise, but that is probably giving away too much – this poetic, evocatively textured historical fiction legitimises other threads of myths to be woven into the story of colonial New Zealand. Not a costume drama, more a testament to the migrant experience.

The Bear From the North (Women’s Press, 1989)
No new stories, but a British publishing coup for du Fresne. The subtitle “Tales From A New Zealand Childhood” is a telling addition, introducing the Danish perspective to an international concept of what it is to be a New Zealander.

Yvonne du Fresne’s cousin Karl du Fresne blogged recently his fine article about her and the importance of knowing one’s family history, first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard on 4 January, 2012.

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