Fiona Kidman: Writing the outsider

Oct 2022 | Small craft

Dame Fiona Kidman’s 2022 Sargeson lecture – an excerpt


I want to talk about the situation of the outsider, both from a personal point of view as a writer, about how my characters have emerged from the outside, and a little about my perception of how some New Zealand writers are shaped by cultural expectations and judged for failures to conform to them.

My own formative experience was relatively brief, not a grand tragedy.

I started school when I was six, at a school in the Far North. At that time, after living on a farm with relatives, I’d met just two other children, two brothers, with whom I had spent an occasional afternoon. One showed me how to catch a ball although I always dropped it, the other, in a pretty harmless way, how to play mothers and fathers. 

When I left the farm and started school, there were many children. I was surrounded by a room full of them, noisy, multi-racial, and a year younger than me. I froze at first, then panicked. Some time, towards the end of the first week, I wet my pants and was sent from the room, told that I could come back when I had learned how to behave like a nice girl. I still remember how I sat in a belt of pine trees near the school, wondering if my grandparents in the south would come and rescue me.

Over the years, I found a niche of sorts at that school, although I never liked it. The school motto was ‘Be Worthy’ and I never felt worthy, for reasons beyond that first dismal encounter…. It identified me at an early age as an outsider, and I’m interested in how people who do identify as being ‘outside’ find themselves seeing things like this. The reasons can often be very simple, quite sudden, and can happen, as it did with me, by accident.

To go back a little: I was the only child of an immigrant Irish father, and a fourth generation Scots mother, whose forebears were displaced crofters from Sutherlandshire. On the one hand I think I was bequeathed creativity and at times an over cooked sensitivity, on the other, a steely determination to survive, no matter the odds, and to finish set tasks. This latter is an attribute for a writer, as I would discover. In my days in the media, back in the 60s and 70s, the surest way for a woman writer to win commissions, particularly in radio where there were tight deadlines and air space to fill, was to complete scripts that careworn lads hadn’t got round to; somebody had to do it. I did. 

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A writer lives by their work, and the belief one has for it. Looking back, I ask myself if I’d write The Book of Secrets differently if I was doing it again. It’s a question I can’t answer from the bottom of my heart. I don’t know whether I could have written with the same passion, the same energy that I gave The Book of Secrets if I hadn’t for a time inadvertently placed myself outside of that community. And that perhaps being outside was a kind of gift. The choice had been made for me.

There have been other of my novels about outsiders: The Captive Wife, about Betty Guard, the wife of Jacky Guard, a convict turned ship’s captain, who was kidnapped in 1831 after a shipwreck on the Taranaki coastline. Her rescue provoked the first armed conflict between Pākehā militia and Māori, with little credit to Pākehā, it must be said. 

And, in particular, the stories of first the aviator Jean Batten and  second of Albert Black, a young Irishman, have captured me. 

Fiona Kidman is a leading contemporary novelist, short story writer and poet. Much of her fiction is focused on how outsiders navigate their way in narrowly conformist society. She has published a large and exciting range of fiction and poetry, and has worked as a librarian, producer and critic. Kidman has won numerous awards, and she has been the recipient of fellowships, grants and other significant honours, as well as being a consistent advocate for New Zealand writers and literature. She was awarded an OBE and a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to literature. In May 2019 at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, Kidman won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for her novel This Mortal Boy.

More about Dame Fiona Kidman’s novels, short stories and other writing can be found at her writer website here and at Read NZ here. 

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