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Fiona Kidman Biography - Fiona Kidman comments:

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Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Fiona Judith Eakin, Hawera, 1940. Career: Librarian, Rotorua Boys High 1961-62; wrote and produced radio plays in the 1970s, has taught creative writing, and has been a weekly columnist for The Listener; President of the New Zealand Book Council, since 1992. Awards: New Zealand Scholarship in Letters, 1981, 1985, 1995; Mobil Short Story award, 1987; Arts Council award for achievement, 1988; New Zealand Book award, 1988, for fiction; Writers Fellow, Victoria University, 1988; OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire); DNZM (Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit). Member: New Zealand Writers' Guild; New Zealand Book Council. Agent: Ray Richards, Richards Literary Agency, P.O. Box 31-240, Milford, Auckland 9, New Zealand.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Breed of Women. Ringwood, Victoria, Harper and Row, 1979; NewYork, Penguin, 1988.

Mandarin Summer. Auckland, Heinemann, 1981.

Paddy's Puzzle. Auckland, Heinemann, 1983; London, Penguin, 1985; as In the Clear Light, New York, Norton.

The Book of Secrets. Auckland, Heinemann, 1987.

True Stars. Auckland, Random Century, 1990.

Ricochet Baby. Auckland, Vintage, 1996.

Short Stories

Mrs Dixon and Friend. Auckland, Heinemann, 1982.

Unsuitable Friends. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1988.

The Foreign Woman. Auckland, Vintage, 1993.

The Best of Fiona Kidman's Short Stories. New York, Vintage, 1998.

Plays

Search for Sister Blue. Wellington, New Zealand, Reed, 1975.

Poetry

Honey and Bitters. Christchurch, New Zealand, Pegasus Press, 1975.

On the Tightrope. Christchurch, New Zealand, Pegasus Press, 1978.

Going to the Chathams, Poems 1977-84. Auckland, Heinemann, 1985.

Wakeful Nights, Poems Selected and New. Auckland, Vintage, 1991.

Other

Gone North, with Jane Ussher. Auckland, Heinemann, 1984.

Wellington, with Grant Sheehan. Auckland, Random House, 1989.

Palm Prints. Auckland, Vintage, 1994.

Editor, New Zealand Love Stories: An Oxford Anthology. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.

*

Manuscript Collection:

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

I was brought up in the northern part of New Zealand in isolated country areas, an only child whose family moved a lot, and was hard-up. Perhaps because of this, I have often examined the situation of people who live at "the edge" and find it difficult to communicate. My work has been identified to some extent with the feminist movement in New Zealand, particularly my historical novel, The Book of Secrets, (winner of the New Zealand Book award, 1988) which examined the life of migrant Scottish women on their journeys from Scotland to Nova Scotia, and ultimately New Zealand. My most recent short story collection The Foreign Woman, (runner-up to New Zealand Book award, 1994) has been likened to the work of Alice Munro—a great, but probably undeserved, compliment.

* * *

Fiona Kidman is one of a generation of New Zealand's women writers born during World War II whose works espouse the sub-texts of feminist self-discovery and social validation. Her efforts on behalf of New Zealand's writers, however, are not restricted to gender-based advocacy. As president of PEN and the New Zealand Book Council, she used her influence to establish Women's Book Week in conjunction with her involvement in the United Women's Conventions in the 1970s and the 1975 International Women's Year, which profoundly affected her. She has stated that any account of women's writing in New Zealand during the past two decades is incomplete without reviewing 1975. In a socialist realist style, her fiction depicts New Zealand women, both contemporary and historical, as rebellious heroines who resist the social values that threaten to engulf them.

She brilliantly describes the atmosphere of small towns like Waipu in her first novel, A Breed of Women, which created something of a sensation in New Zealand as it broke social taboos. Kidman believes that she is not wholly responsible for her characters' choices, which originate in the subtle underpinnings that construct her psyche and history. That reaction of New Zealand society to frankly feminist estimations of it was repeated around the globe during the crucial 1970s when women began to speak and write about such matters. Kidman exposes the narrow-minded, conformist mentality of bourgeois New Zealand and the limited choices open to her heroine. Harriet, a bright but unsophisticated farm girl, falls into the hands of milkbar cowboys, and ends up in a shotgun marriage to a Maori. Harriet and her friend Leonie present contrasting pictures of unfulfilled women driven to take risks and seek alternative sources of happiness outside marriage, providing a near-perfect paradigm for middle-class New Zealand women of the late 1970s.

Her second novel, Mandarin Summer, owes more to the genre of Gothic horror, for it tells a disturbing story by evoking a macabre atmosphere. Set in 1946 in a small Northland community, it narrates the encounter between a wealthy, decadent European family and their hangers-on and a New Zealand family, the Freemans, who have been duped into buying unsuitable land from the Europeans. In a tidy reversal of colonial history, the Machiavellian Brigadier Barnsley coerces the Freemans into a servitude that embroils them in his disputes and passions. Although the scenes concerning his opium-addicted, incarcerated wife, his Jewish mistress, and the final conflagration that destroys the homestead are inspired by Jane Eyre, the novel exerts a weird fascination while exploring a new twist on the theme of incest. Emily, the eleven-year-old narrator, sees more than is good for her, even though at times her retrospective child's point of view slips into adult reportage. Kidman distorts the lens of romantic fiction by telling an implausible tale with compelling directness.

Although the second half of Paddy's Puzzle is also set at the end of World War II, the novel opens in the small town of Hamilton during the 1930s depression. The traumas caused by Winnie's pregnancy, poverty, and her husband's abandonment of the family to seek work anticipate the abortive, juvenile love affair of her heroine Clara, whom Winnie has also raised. But her early life does not entirely explain Clara's subsequent fate—a life of abandonment in prostitution, and then tuberculosis—outlined in a grim account of her dying days in Paddy's Puzzle, the name of a tenement slum for prostitutes on Karangahape Road. Through this cityscape Kidman explores the seedy side of life during the war with pathos and dramatic flair. Although Clara's death may convey a message about the afflictions women suffered at a time of limited social support, it reveals Kidman's fascination with forms of self-entrapment and marginal states of existence. Paddy's Puzzle was re-issued in the United States under the title In the Clear Light.

In The Book of Secrets Kidman returns to historical fiction, telling the lives of three women through letters, journals, and dreams. The novel is an exploration of the isolated, strangely un-emancipated figure of Maria, who lives in solitude as a witch. Her story has its roots in fact: the account of the charismatic figure of Reverend McLeod who led his followers from poverty-stricken Scotland to Nova Scotia and New Zealand is true. The plot's main focus is the three generations of women who enact some pattern of retribution through their association with McLeod. Isabella defies him, is raped, and goes mad; her daughter, Annie, submits to his order; and Maria eventually achieves some kind of spiritual victory. The theme of hidden lives once more demands negotiation with religious and social values, which reflect an irrational patriarchal power structure. But Kidman lets her story take its path rather than imposing a determinedly feminist pattern on her historical sources.

Kidman's True Stars tells a contemporary story of love, betrayal, politics, and death in the last days of Lange's Labour government. Her subjects are the citizens of Weyville: the left-wing yuppies who rose to prominence at the time of the 1981 Springbok tour. They gained a political voice through their freshly elected Labour MP, Kit Kendall, and the Maori activists, along with the drop-out generation. Together they represent a range of topical issues in New Zealand during the 1980s, including the need to confront a collapsing dream with the reality of a nearly defunct government. The victimization of Kit's wife, Rose, and her conflicting family and social loyalties signal the full extent of those confused times. Kidman shows her strengths as a journalist, capturing with immediacy the class and social divisions of the times, the tensions of small-town politics as played out against a national context, and the personal dilemmas faced by the middle-aged Rose. In a tightly organized plot, she ties together these different strands in such a way that each interacts with the other to create a thrilling denouement.

Kidman has been called an "ordinary woman" who dares to challenge, and she takes on a common effect of provincial and lower middle-class life with Ricochet Baby. Lower economic classes are often forced to ignore the serious effects of the so-called mysterious women's illnesses, such as post-natal depression. Kidman's examination of one woman's bout with the hormonal imbalance reveals how devastating the postpartum syndrome can be on the family as well as the individual. The novel The House Within delves even further into an ordinary woman's psyche as Bethany Dixon negotiates her complex network of relationships, the numerous roles to which women often devote themselves in an irrationally generous manner. She plays mother and step-mother, wife and ex-wife, daughter-in-law, sister, and lover in fragments and snapshots that span twenty-five years. Despite her devotion to the woman's roles she plays, Bethany has yet to establish her own identity separate from those she serves, and her own place in the world. In compensation for this, she is addicted to food, children, and Peter, a departed ex-husband who Bethany continues to regard as her emotional focal point.

Fiona Kidman is one of New Zealand's most honored novelists, as well as the author of numerous critically acclaimed collections of short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as dramatic works including radio plays. She has won a number of awards and scholarships: the Ngaio Marsh Award for Television Writing; the 1988 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction for The Book of Secrets ; the Literary Fund Award for Achievement. As a writing fellow at Victoria University in 1988, she was awarded the OBE, and in 1998 was made a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her ceaseless, all-encompassing service to literature.

Like her predecessor, Katherine Mansfield, she may be remembered best for her short stories, which discuss marital infidelity, marital break-up, and failed relationships. However, her talent for weaving together stories as easily as many women juggle the bits and pieces of their families' lives is evident in the novel The House Within, which takes the form of interwoven stories, each narrated by the central character. Kidman's prose is economical, yet often sensual. Her women characters become the outsiders in a narrowly conformist society, and this status is dramatized by sexual transgression and punishment. She has been called a "raider of the real" because of her unerring look and prolonged gaze at women's lives written in the social-realism style.

—Janet Wilson,

updated by Hedwig Gorski

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