Monday, July 30, 2012

A lion in her field - Margaret Mahy 1936 - 2012 - The Listener editorialises

The Bookman was greatly taken by the reflective editorial in this week's NZ Listener which carries the above heading. The Listener has kindly agreed to allow me to carry that editorial here in full. Note that it is not only a fine tribute to Margaret Mahy but is also thoughtful piece on New Zealanders making their mark internationally through creative endeavours and the importance of government support to the creative industries. 

Which is more important, imagination or knowledge? It’s a trick question, of course, because true genius requires both.

No less a brainiac than Albert Einstein recognised this fact. Asked by a curious mother what she could do to encourage her son to be a scientist, Einstein supposedly replied that she should read her boy fairy tales. And yet more fairy tales.

The quote is disputed, but it may well be correct, given that the brilliant physicist later told a notable German doctor: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” It was the ability to ask “what if?”

In any case, New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, who died on Monday, was well aware of this truism. Like another notable author, CS Lewis, she knew perfectly well that children’s fiction often says best what needs to be said.

There were lions and witches in Mahy’s wardrobe. Plenty of pirates, too. Her musical ear enabled her to trip the light fantastic in her waltz with words, while her deep understanding of children’s psyches enabled her to delve into the depths of fantasy that some adults struggle to understand.

Over the past few days, the nation has fondly remembered her wigs, her warmth and her wild streak, as well as her joie de vivre. But it should not be forgotten that she was also fascinated by science – both natural and social. As children’s literature expert Betty Gilderdale once noted, Mahy’s novel The Tricksters is basically a speculation on quantum physics, and The Catalogue of the Universe plays with Ionian philosophy.

As many have suggested following Mahy’s death from cancer, she, too, was a genius in her field. That she touched so many ­people’s lives in a positive way, not just in New Zealand but around the world, is testament to the power of skilful storytelling.

It is also a fine example of how New Zealanders are able to make their mark internationally through creative endeavours. Mahy won the Carnegie Medal – the children’s literature equivalent of an Olympic gold – not just once, but twice, and she also had a slew of other awards to her name, assuring her place in the pantheon of New Zealand writers, alongside Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield.

More recently, writers such as Lloyd Jones and Emily Perkins have continued to show that New Zealand’s voice is being heard globally, while filmmakers such as Sir Peter Jackson are proving that size and distance don’t necessarily matter when it comes to securing locations for big-budget productions.
Thanks to such developments, our creative industries these days carry considerable economic clout. And they will undoubtedly get a further boost in October, when New Zealand is the guest of honour at the world’s biggest and most important book fair, in Frankfurt.

It will be a shame, then, if our Tourism Minister John Key does not put his mana where his mouth is by showing up. He has, after all, damned the industry with faint praise by reportedly noting that “while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to the All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us”.

There is much speculation about the future of the book industry and the impact of new technology, but no one is seriously suggesting humans are losing interest in good yarns, as the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises showed.

And the outpouring of emotion in the wake of Mahy’s passing should give the Prime Minister pause for thought about literature’s legacy in this country.

One suspects Mahy herself may have been surprised by how much she is already missed. She once explained to the Listener about her early books: “What I was doing was simply making the world a nicer place through the power of imagination.”
As far as role models go, that seems sufficiently inspirational to us. 

Thanks to the unnamed person/s at The Listener responsible for this editorial. I hope it is read by many. It deserves the widest possible audience which is why I sought their permission to reproduce it here on the blog.
May I also add that in my view The Listener is itself a huge and valuable supporter and contributor to the NZ creative arts sector. Week in and week out the magazine provides many pages in their fine books and culture section and beyond that frequent interviews with authors and artists, other back stories and features on the arts from their fine stable of reviewers and columnists.

Look this week for the three page story on NZ author Jacqueline Fahey and her new book, Before I Forget; a review of Witi Ihimaera's latest, The Thrill of Falling; as well as a roundup of recent crime fiction and thriller titles, and much else besides. And of course the sensational cover story coinciding with  publication of Joanne Drayton's The Search for Anne Perry.

Listener Arts & Books Editor Guy Somerset has collated memories of Margaret Mahy here.

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