Patching together a life on the stage and the page


Makaro Press

Renée describes teaching as one of the most fascinating, frightening and fully-engaging things she does.

As she looks at her Your life, Your story courses she considers that what she is doing is helping her students steer their kayak through the choppy waters, the sharp rocks, the sudden surprising waterfalls that writing a book about their life entails.

So here she is navigating these stimulating challenges herself.

She has waited until her late 80s to put this into the public arena, although aspects of her life have already appeared in novels, poems and plays.

Her way of managing this task is to present her life as a quilt, with a patch for every year; 88 patches in all.

Within these patches, reflective prose, poems, extracts from novels and plays focus on family background, life events, consideration about influences and activities in both the domestic and public arenas and their relationships.

She tells of a childhood in which her single mother was always struggling financially and with prejudice against Maori.

Regular shifts of houses through reduced income contributed to ill-health and physical deprivation.

Her mother, Rose, was hot on manners, hospitality and reading.She taught Renée to read and gave her that love and advantage.

Relationships with family, both older and younger are ever present in the patches and the life.

Renée discovers the heady joys of performance at Tarradale School when she is 11 and that summer organises concerts on the riverbank.

As a 30-year-old she becomes involved with amateur theatre in Napier and Wairoa, and her serious interest develops.

Through working with experienced people, reading plays, acting in them, directing them for both adults and children, being on committees and seeing what was involved in production, she journeyed to the job she liked best: writing plays.

In Patch 60, she pays tribute to the many groups of people (unpaid) who give us theatrical events we might never otherwise see.Here she includes the Globe Theatre, in Dunedin, for which she has a fondness.

Renée, by then described publicly as a lesbian feminist playwright, recalls falling in love with Dunedin in 1982 at the tail end of a national tour of What did you do in the war, Mummy?

She has since been back several times, as a Burns fellow, as a Span co-ordinator and as a resident in the Lord cottage in Titan St.

Many Dunedin readers will appreciate her stories and reflections of these times in the context of the creative and educational life in the city in the wake of the National Women’s Conventions in the mid 1970s.

For Renée, writing is a problem-solving activity.

Problems of story, structure and style have to be addressed (everyone else is always better).

But in addition it is a habit she can’t break, a habit she doesn’t want to break.

It has for her the exciting, mind-changing, hallucinatory effect of a drug.Her success in writing is still something of a surprise to her and she acknowledges that she will fail more often than succeed.

Now living in Otaki, alone but with lots of family contact, she is considering stopping teaching her writing course.

Overall, where does she sit? What have these threads made of her quilt?

She sees linkages in her life and experiences, the feeling of being part of a story.

So, she says: "it’s the salad, the mix of chemistry and context, the after-taste of moments, some bitter as rocket, heady as mint or wry as chives — your choice, my choice — dressings of oil, vinegar, rue or rosemary. I regret nothing."

- Willie Campbell is a Dunedin educator.

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