Academic journal article Hecate

Interview with Beryl Fletcher

Academic journal article Hecate

Interview with Beryl Fletcher

Article excerpt

Beryl Fletcher is a New Zealand Writer engaged in writing a trilogy about the lives and concerns of a group of feminist women over a period of years. The first novel of the trilogy, and Fletcher's first published novel, was The Word Burners, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book South Asia/South Pacific for 1992. It is the story of two sisters, Julia and Isobel, and of their widowed mother, Sally. The setting is mainly that of women's studies in a university framework. The second, The Iron Mouth, appeared in 1993, and has been well received in New Zealand. It is an ambitious attempt to rewrite The Iliad in a modern New Zealand setting. The third novel is due for publication in July 1995. Beryl is interviewed here by Laurel Bergmann.

Would you like to begin by talking about your background?

I was born in 1938 into a poor, working class family. We lived in what we call "State Houses" here (the houses people rent when they haven't got much money) in a big housing development on the outskirts of Auckland. My father was very left-wing, a socialist - although he never joined the New Zealand Communist Party, he was very sympathetic to its causes. I have clear memories of sitting on his lap while he read aloud passages from Marx's Das Kapital. He was a working man all his life, and my mother was a traditional housewife with five kids. Where I was brought up I never saw women going out to work.

Your education, then?

I went to high school, and left when I was sixteen. We had to leave school, we couldn't really keep going because of the lack of money. In fact, for the last two years I worked all weekend at a local shop. I put myself through school because, although my father was never out of work, we really didn't have any money.

So you were expected to contribute to the family income as early as possible?

Yes, we had to. We didn't have a car, or anything like that - we didn't have any 'things' the way people do now. I really like that, actually!

What happened after that, you worked for a few years?

Yes, for everybody in our family - in the working class area I was brought up in, the big thing was to get an office job and not go into the factories. It was all wharf labourers, and manual workers - that sort of thing. Real nuclear-family city it was, too, a sort of world that's gone forever, I think. In fact I'm writing about that era in the third novel of my trilogy.

Anyway, I went to train as a school dental nurse, which is a system we used to have here of women training as dentists where you did two years training instead of six, then you went into the clinics in schools. I got married when I was nineteen, very young. Everybody got married and had children; there was absolutely no other possibility. That marriage didn't last long, but there were no children. Then I remarried and went to live in Sydney for ten years. My second husband was an alcoholic, but a sort of wealthy one. I came back in 1972 to New Zealand with my two kids. I became a feminist, and that's when I started to go to university. I always had this longing - absolute kind of bone-longing - to study. I sort of grieved all through my twenties because of that. I felt really cheated, because my two brothers went to university. That was the weird thing, when we were brought up they went to university and the girls didn't, even though my parents are not sexist, and they're very supportive of feminism (they're still alive, in their eighties). They're very supportive of me and my sisters - we're all feminists. It was just the accepted thing that the girls had babies and didn't bother to learn anything. I always felt pissed off about it, because I really loved ideas. But I read novels, and that was quite good.

So did you work when you were married?

Yes, I did, I worked all through those years. I had a plant nursery, which was rather a struggling thing. I've never really been a pampered figure of middle class life; I wanted to, I thought it would be great, but I never got there. …

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