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.
I 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.”
Ngaio doesn’t want to come home – she yearns to live in England – but is summoned back by a brother who tells her she’s needed to help care for her ill mother. It’s a painful relationship.
There are a few of those in McLeod’s “snapshots”, which are – as with real life – dominated by relationships. There’s a funny discussion among “the girls” about what defines a fling, an affair, a one-night stand, “being an item” or just “sleeping together”. “We all agreed that it’s called a relationship when the two participants move in together and think they will last. But we also agreed that people in an affair often think they’re in a relationship.”
“Who Was That Woman, Anyway?” visits parts of the history of New Zealand that are largely invisible. There’s the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s; homophobia and the gay rights struggle (from the inside); women’s spirituality (therapy groups, Tarot readings, Wiccans); the rise of Māori activism (Ngaio marches over the Auckland Harbour Bridge with the land hikoi, but as a Pākehā feels she doesn’t belong); the rise (and fall) of university Women’s Studies; and, if I might
Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand); while details eerily similar to another can be found in Dame Margaret Sparrow’s 2010 book Abortion Then and Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories from 1940 to 1980.)
It’s the mid-70s when Ngaio, who has been having a relationship with a man (or would “the girls” call it an affair?), discovers she is pregnant. She wants to become a mother (to be better than her own had been), but feels there is something wrong. She visits Professor Brown, head of National Women’s Hospital, for an amnio, but Brown resists, insisting to her that she’s not really 35 (she is!) and so not in any high-risk group. “This was crazy. I could hear my voice wobbling. ‘My dear, you are twenty-five. No need for an amniotic fluid test.’” Brown continues: “You’re a perfectly healthy twenty-five-year-old. It’s perfectly normal for a mother-to-be to have illogical panic. Perfectly normal.” Ngaio never goes back to Brown, but somehow never has the test either. Then, at eight months pregnant, doctors tell her the baby is hydrocephalic and will not be born alive. “I must be induced. Immediately.” McLeod ends that section with these words: “Such pain, such awful pain. Such pain.”
was arguing that he believed there were no mental health grounds justifying abortion because pregnancy temporarily altered a woman’s outlook, but that women’s attitudes usually improved as the pregnancy advanced. In other words, women like Ngaio don’t really know what they want, don’t know what’s best for them, are too irrational to make important decisions, must be protected from themselves. (Green was also the doctor at the centre of the Cartwright inquiry into cervical cancer treatment.)
Similarly, Ngaio’s account of a midwife jailed for performing abortions is reminiscent of “60/71’s” story in Margaret Sparrow’s book (60/71 refers to a prisoner number). In the non-fiction account (an interview with “60/71”), she is a nurse who in the late 1960s, when a legal abortion was almost impossible to get in New Zealand, performed illegal abortions. (She did not take any money for her services.) “60/71”, like the character in McLeod’s book, is trapped by a policewoman posing as a young woman seeking an abortion. Both accounts, though particularly the longer and more detailed non-fiction version in Sparrow’s book, are harrowing. After the fictional woman is sentenced to a year in prison, Ngaio remarks that she hopes “the policewoman would find herself needing an abortion one day”.
I mentioned the similarities to Margaret Sparrow by email, and sent her a scan of the pages. She hasn’t read McLeod’s book yet, but replied that it was “good to see abortion stories as just part of the web of life portrayed in a novel”. (Another local writer who has done this in fiction is Dame Fiona Kidman, including in her book of short stories The Trouble With Fire.)
The women’s spirituality movement plays a big part in the chapters on the 1980s then, into the 1990s, when Ngaio is overseas again, traveling to conferences, festivals and shows in the United States and Britain. The 90s was less engaging to me perhaps because of the busy itinerary, but it introduces the reader to the new(ish) politics of gender identity that made – and continue to make – once-radical gay and lesbian struggles look tame, almost narrow.
The final chapter, “Cunning, Baffling, Powerful,” opens in 2000, and Ngaio is in rehab for alcoholism: “My first therapist, three years before, had classified me as a ‘functioning alcoholic’, which meant, she said, ‘that you are surviving while drinking a ridiculously large amount, but you’re certainly not thriving.” Now, though, Ngaio’s “liver is shot” and she’s been told to stop drinking or die. Being in an institution reminds her – and the reader – of that trip to the mental hospital in Nelson 40 years earlier, but McLeod doesn’t press the link. “I wished I had some of the cherries we used to eat then,” is all Ngaio thinks.
Aorewa McLeod took part in an event called “Remarkable Women” at the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival that perhaps some readers attended (I wasn’t able to get to Auckland) or have written about (links welcome in comments).
Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop (where the book was launched) talks about the book with Lindsey Dawson on FaceTV
Moments of Being: An interview with Aorewa McLeod by Rosabel Tan at The Pantograph Punch