There’s a tiny piece by Rosemary Sorenson in the Australian, but so far the death of Patricia Wrightson this week has gone unremarked in the media.
When I became editor of The School Magazine in the 1980s, I was awed by the knowledge that I was stepping into her shoes. As I understand her work, her central concern was with the disjunction for settler-society between on one hand the experience of living in Australia and on the other having a children’s fairy-tale heritage deeply rooted in European landscapes and histories. In books like The Nargun and the Stars and A Little Fear she set out to create fairy stories that were grounded in the Australian reality. She drew on Aboriginal motifs and, I heard her say in a lecture, was meticulous in consulting Aboriginal friends. I think most people these days would see the project as a noble dead end, smacking too much of appropriation. Certainly in my last months at the magazine, a reasonably ignorant education department functionary was at pains to explain to me that the Aboriginal stories of ‘Judith Wrightson’ were not politically acceptable.
There will be much discussion of Patricia Wrightson and her work on the Internet over the next couple of weeks. ALA Connect, for example, is inviting people to post comments. I happen to have a photocopy of a wonderful letter she wrote in 1974 to a school principal, which I reproduce here for your pleasure and edification:
Dear Mr XXXXX
Thank you for your letter of July 11th regarding the phrase ‘wipe your bottom’ in the June issue of School Magazine Part 2.
I am sorry you found this homely phrase objectionable. It must be pointless to indicate that it was written by one of our leading poets and writers who is now Chairman of the Literature Board; or to ask whether ‘smack your bottom’ or ‘wipe your nose’ would have been so offensive; or to ask for a clear explanation of what is offensive in the phrase. I can only say that we cannot possibly undertake not to be offensive.
We continually offend. We offend by failing to keep in touch with the fast-moving world of young readers and by being too contemporary; by a rigid adherence to syntax and formal style, and by our disregard of them. Our verse is both too classic and too unclassic. We offend by speaking with respect of the church and the theory of evolution; the plight of captive nations and the achievements of communist countries; Anzac Day and the laws relating to Aborigines. We can only follow our usual policy of holding a balance between these things while still aiming for honesty and life.
As to your use of School Magazine in the future, that is always a matter for your decision. Withholding the magazine from children is another matter. It is produced for the children, and those who wish to read it are entitled to receive it.
Mrs Patricia Wrightson
She was not a woman to mess with. At a children’s literature conference in the USA in the mid 1980s, a children’s librarian told me with awe about a lecture by Patricia: ‘She was a very wise and challenging lecturer, but at the same time as easy and comfortable as an old boot.’ As this letter demonstrates, she could also sink the boot when necessary. I never met her. I don’t know anything about the circumstances of her death. I mourn her passing.
This is a beautiful quote and I will be quoting and paraphrasing and stealing it for years to come!
Thanks for this, Jonathan. My first real job was producing and presenting the ABC radio programme Young World during 1974. Following my segments a serialised radio drama of The Nargan and the Stars was played. I’ve greatly admired Patricia Wrightson’s writing ever since, and also regret never meeting her.
Me too. I have always been a huge admirer of her work – especially the ‘Nargun and the Stars’, which at one time held top place in my childhood books – and am only sorry I never wrote to tell her so.
‘A noble dead end?’ Maybe this discussion should be reopened. Or should no writer ever venture beyond his or her own culture? While I do believe that sensitivity to another culture should be a prerequisite for writing about it, to forbid any trespass over the borders of one’s own culture would result in literary and cultural claustrophobia.
Oh JS, that letter!!!!! That letter! It is my manifesto—and it made me weep to read it. Thank you for posting it. JR x
And then I went home, opened my YA textbook and the bibliography was two solid pages of “Wrightson, P”.
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what a wonderful letter! So typical of her! So polite, and firm, and subversive! And the reason why, when I joined the staff of the SM in the early 70’s I felt so at home. With her and Lilith Norman there, I felt that I’d stumbled onto a pair of aunts I’d never known existed.
We all mourn her passing, Jonathan. I recall the first children’s literature function I went to when publishing was a dream and I had already worked for years on my first book. Patricia gave a lecture about being ‘slave to a story’ and that phrase has resonated for me ever since. I was too shy to go up and speak to her.
Years later I joined her on a panel at The Women’s College in Sydney and I was in total awe of her. I wondered what I would say when the formalities were over and we would then have to engage in conversation. She grinned and suggested we go and have a beer!
Hi Libby: That’s a great story. It captures what I imagine the woman in the US meant by the ‘old boot’ comment.
Richard: You and many others.
franzy: Yes, some people manage to tower over the scene. Do read Joanne’s entry – click on her name above. “A pair of aunts I’d never known existed” exactly fits my sense of what the office was like in those days – aunts out of Eva Ibbotson in my imagining.
Patricia was my grandmother and it is lovely to see how other people viewed her. I thought it would be nice to share some of our family memories of her.
For my brother and me , Nan’s writing was such a very little part of the person that we knew. She was Nan, not necessarily a soft, cuddly grandmother but rather a strong, vibrant adult. She was a grown-up who didn’t believe in patronising or underestimating children. Nan listened to us, believed us and validated our thoughts and ideas. She understood how important it was, to sometimes have a grown-up, a “real” grownup, believe wholeheartedly in the fanciful world that children create. She sprinkled our conversations with phrases like; “Of course it could be possible,” “there’s no reason that that couldn’t happen” and “actually, that just might be the way that it works”.
Nan crawled all over the cow paddock with me, looking for an elusive 4 leaf clover, just because I was certain that it would bring me luck. She savoured our story attempts, even later in life but remained a stickler for the rules. “Penny dear – be careful not to split the infinitive.” We thrilled to the debates that were inevitable when Nan and Dad were in the same room at Christmas time. We declined all offers to play “Scrabble” with her, feeling that being an author gave her a distinct and definitely unfair advantage while a game of “Pictionary” tended to level the playing field somewhat. Nan let us know, by all that she said and did, that ordinary people can be transported to extraordinary by one single act.
So how do you put the words around describing a person like Nan? Perhaps my own children said it best. We were reading and discussing “The Sugar Gum Tree” one night before bed. Nan’s story where a simple childhood argument results in 4 frustrated parents and a firetruck before resolution and bedtime. I felt the frustration of a parent, while my children were so much more matter of fact. “Why do grown-ups cause so many problems? They should have just let the kids get on with it!”
I think that is what Nan did so well as a grandmother and an author. She just let the kids get on with it…………….
You know, The Sugar Gum Tree might be my favourite of the PW books I’ve read. After decades of being such an eminence, it’s brilliant that she wrote such a modest and profoundly pro-child book.