Raiment: A Memoir by Jan Kemp (Massey University Press, 2022), 255 pp, $35; Things I Learned at Art School by Megan Dunn (Penguin, 2021), 352 pp, $35
In 1971, the Canadian author Alice Munro wrote: ‘There is a change coming in the lives of girls and women … All women have had up till now has been their connection with men.’ Two years later, the US Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Roe v Wade—a decision that has recently been reversed. It is difficult, sometimes, not to feel that Munro’s optimism was misplaced, that women’s connection with men is still too often the defining condition of their existence.
These memoirs by Jan Kemp and Megan Dunn provide an opportunity to reflect on the changing lives of girls and women during the past fifty years in Aotearoa. Though wildly different in tone and style, as well as the time frames on which they focus—the counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s in Kemp’s Raiment; 1990s postmodernism in Dunn’s Things I Learned At Art School—both memoirs recount their author’s quest for self-expression and independence within creative sub-cultures in Auckland.
For Kemp, pursuing her own voice through poetry in the 1970s not only called into question the kind of life trajectory that her upbringing had prepared her for (education, a teaching career, a family of her own). It also presented the challenge of being the only woman poet in the room or being told by a publisher that ‘he wasn’t certain a book solely by a woman poet would sell’. Raiment is not, however, the story of a trailblazer setting out to shock through rebellion and rule-breaking. Kemp writes frankly and with an appealing humility about her uncertainties and false starts in both writing and relationships. Raiment’s almost naïve style works well in recreating the child’s perspective in the first part of the book, where every part of Kemp’s neighbourhood is embedded in a web of relationships and community, and where every achievement or rebuff seems imbued with life-changing significance. The same tone, however, continues into an equally meticulous account of her student days at the University of Auckland (every class taken in her degree, every change of rental address) and beyond, until the memoir ends with Kemp aged 25. As such, the alarming lack of agency in her younger self is presented by Kemp without much subsequent reflection from the older, wiser narrator. Kemp defers to men, has her heart repeatedly broken, marries a man she knows she shouldn’t, and has adulterous liaisons because she thinks she should experiment like everyone else, apparently untroubled by the damage done to other people along the way. Towards the end of the memoir, when Kemp’s passivity continues in another affair with the husband of a friend, she remarks: ‘He took to me immediately and decided I should become his other woman … I had a new lover, albeit a married one. Oh dear.’
The narrator’s apparent lack of curiosity about such life choices seems like a missed opportunity. What does the author think now about her reliance on male approval, or the downplaying of female desire in the politically-charged seventies? Why were friendships between women seen as secondary to flings with self-absorbed men? ‘I wasn’t much of a feminist’ despite the ‘chauvinism’ of the times, Kemp tells us, but that is as far as she goes. She never reads her copy of The Female Eunuch because ‘I wasn’t good at reading prose’, a slightly puzzling statement given her devotion to studying literature at university. In re-telling such a potentially fascinating story in 2022, ‘Oh dear’ seems frustratingly limited as a response.
Raiment is also rather elliptical in recounting the poet’s early development. Kemp describes her childish reading, and her fondness for words and language but does not share with us when, and how, she first began to write poetry. Instead, she notes almost as an aside ‘I write poems too’, before returning to a dense account of school holiday adventures and family visits. By late high school, Kemp is winning the school poetry prize for a poem she includes in the memoir, but readers might wish for more about her method of composition, when and where she wrote, or why she was inspired to pen verse rather than prose, for instance. Even if poetry was a form of creativity that seemed to come naturally to the young writer, it would be fascinating to know why.
Later in the memoir, following the harrowing account of the loss of a pregnancy, Kemp comes closest to a manifesto for life and creativity, writing that ‘my poems … could never be aborted. For they came to me without my asking and were my gift to give to the world … I would stand up for them, read them, present them and represent them, whenever they needed me to do so.’ In this impassioned declaration, the tension between intuitive creativity (‘they came to me without my asking’) and an active defence of her poetry’s right to exist is striking, begging to be teased out further.
From her university days onwards, though, Raiment often becomes an ‘Everyone was there’ narrative, name-checking the artists, academics and activists of Auckland at a time when it was still possible to believe that poets might change the world, or at least New Zealand. Kemp begins to establish herself as a poet, describing how she was swept up in the ebb and flow of late-night readings and small publishing ventures in a way that captures a sense of being young in a time of rapid change. Raiment ends, however, with Kemp on a yacht in the South Pacific, where she had gone in pursuit of another unsuitable man, perhaps a fitting image to close, leaving unresolved the paradox between actively seeking one’s destiny and merely drifting that has framed much of her life story to this point.
In an altogether different vein is Megan Dunn’s Things I Learned At Art School. It is not that Dunn’s early life lacks pain or hardship, or that her time as an art student is an unalloyed triumph, but her wit, combined with a facility for page-turning story-telling, makes difficult material easy for readers to absorb without the author sugar-coating the events described. Her parents’ separation, bullying at school, and unsafe sexual initiation, for instance, are interspersed with obsessions like The Smurfs, Sweet Valley High novels and the movie Splash. Dunn might later eschew the postmodernism that was in its heyday in the 1990s during her art education, but she remains a child of postmodernism in her unashamed celebration of kitsch and popular culture and its capacity to provide her with meaning and self-expression.
As a student at Elam School of Fine Arts, disillusioned about the possibility of originality or even individual creativity, Dunn turned to video art. Editing together clips from popular movies became a way for Dunn to navigate life and art—life as an artist—in uncertain times and with limited resources. Like Kemp, Dunn describes her student days as a phase of life during which the very precarity of existence could liberate young women from traditional expectations and life plans. Write poems. Open an art gallery. Experiment with transgression in whatever form comes to hand. Do things you regret. It is your life to live and figure out the rest afterwards. Dunn captures the joyous maelstrom of young adulthood without withholding the reality of squalid flats and unsavoury meals, carrying her reader along on the wild ride with verve and energy. ‘Who wants to read about a good girl, for fuck’s sake?’ she asks.
Dunn tells her story through essays, a format that provides the opportunity for a series of great comic titles and anecdotes, fleshed out in entertaining and occasionally profound ways. An essay can be a virtuoso mode of expression: a small, perfectly-formed thing that dazzles a reader with detail or whimsy, but, for that reason, it can also work against the possibility of sustained exploration of a topic. One of the things Dunn learned at art school was the critique of the male gaze, an orthodoxy of feminist theory in the nineties, and the essays devoted to Dunn’s work experience as a receptionist in sex clubs offer an opportunity to bring such theory into dialogue with lived experience. ‘I know this genre is a fucking cliché’, Dunn writes, referring to ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ stories, but the tales she tells of traumatised girls and wise-cracking femmes fatales also point to some of the downsides of the essay format: painful vignettes without a clear, organising principle can evade uncomfortable conclusions that a unified, linear narrative might insist upon. Positioned in the section called ‘More Middle’—a title signalling a willingness to play with the imposition of structure on story—the sex club essays risk becoming repetitive iterations of Things I Learned at Sex Clubs (that men are sleazy and sometimes charming; women are simultaneously exploited and making the best choices they can; sex is compelling and complicated).
By contrast, the essays in the final section relating to the death of her mother see Dunn tie together beautifully the threads explored across the essays: her love of art (both high and low), her love for her mother, and how both have helped structure her life and continue to shape her identity as a woman. Here, Dunn’s confessed predilection for writing ‘in fragments’ finds the perfect match in content: the disconnection of grief, the moment-by-moment experience during a bedside vigil when everything the eye falls on seems significant, worthy of memory, is conveyed in short sections, spaced out on the page. Dunn’s attention to the varied art displayed in the hospital is more than a structural device here. During her mother’s final hospital stay, Dunn slowly walks laps of the corridors with her. She shows her mother her favourite painting there, one that Dunn had mistaken for a Matisse print due to its bold colours but was initially ‘embarrassed’ to find was the work of ‘Harriet, aged six, who donated Flowers for the Leukaemia Ward in memory of her father, Ned’. In the hospital, however, ‘art becomes, once again, something you do for someone you love’, allowing Dunn to both regain her belief in the power of art—lost to some extent during her years as an art student—and begin to imagine connection with others after the searing isolation of bereavement.
Whether explored with self-deprecating humour and energy like Dunn or charted with gentle detail and a deliberate lack of polemic like Kemp, these coming-of-age memoirs provide illuminating snapshots of women’s lives in a distinct time and place. They invite readers not only to immerse themselves in the absorbing milieux they describe but to reflect on what it means to live creatively, then and now. ‘Art is about everything surplus to requirements—that’s what makes it so essential’, Dunn concludes.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every Morning, So Far, I’m Alive: A Memoir (Otago University Press, 2019).