Before I Forget, by Jacqueline Fahey (Auckland University Press, 2012), 192 pp, $45 .
Venturing into often extremely private territory with honesty and insight, this memoir’s a remarkable read. Fahey’s stunning cover is a painting that suggests the older artist looking back: her younger self’s presented in a little black dress with high heels, with younger self yelling ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t’, (as if the older woman can never truly understand the past, not now). We make of memory what we may, crafting rather than recreating the actuality of lived experience, and Fahey illustrates this very well, giving the sense of a mature artist who mines the past for necessary information to unfold the stories she wants to tell and explore. Areas of darkness surround this sense of recall: in the cover image, a dog and an infant perhaps stand for traumatic events. Yet the interpretation of tumultuous life events persists, and the perplexities of returning to her past are carried out with aplomb. This is brave, admirably clear prose, written with wit and containing many surprises – a memoir with various layers and subtle meanings.
It covers broad territory sometimes broadly. It can shock or surprise, but she invariably shows admirable constraint when criticising others. The effort of mentioning something distasteful or difficult is often artfully, but always judiciously, emphasised. The narrative feels real, the sentiments are positive or heartfelt, the action exciting.
On the first page it’s apparent we’re going where more fanciful writers do not: ‘The assumption is that once you have hooked up with your life partner, having been reunited of course after many traumas, you then proceed to live happily ever after. And that is why romantic writers draw a veil over “what comes next”. They don’t want to go there.’ So it is that Fahey mentions she intends to reveal intriguing behind-the-scenes scenarios, in this her second memoir (a follow-up to Something For the Birds). We’re taken into married life where people are not supposed to go unless they live there. Romantic writing seeks to encourage marriage by promoting the idea it offers a more secure state than that of the singleton – the blessed union sees off evil forces – but Fahey would rather show us the worth of ‘the examined life’ rather than promote any ideal. Gradually we’re absorbed by her diverse world, revealing a patently gifted, dedicated artist married for many years to a talented, focused doctor, along with their family life: three children, various dogs and a cat to care for, aged parents besides; and then there’s a bewildering array of friends and associates all across the world, while the arc of her tale takes in the political and social settings of the last half century or so.
Determined to remain a working artist, finding out about ‘life’ wherever possible, access to the art of painting translates Fahey’s world into something visual and tactile, which for her allays confusion and doubt. Illustrations in this memoir are plentiful, beautiful colour reproductions that I hadn’t seen before, along with many old favourites, each with a detailed caption. The black and white photos of people also help form a more complete picture of everyday life and her dramatic persona.
There’s honesty about how artists have to make do, yet make the results appear stylish, despite income that is often low and erratic. Diplomatically she emphasises too, the need ‘… for privacy to think and work … [resulting] in a rigid routine, which may eventually lead to a defensiveness towards intrusions ….’ This is part of the commitment to art, it’s not simply being contrary for contrary’s sake. Younger artists should enjoy these sections, and surely be encouraged to be resolute in building their own schedules. Lovely how Fahey credits Rita Angus with inspiring her to integrate art with everyday life, because these subtle, personal moments are so often forgotten by some professionals, but this writer recognises their value. Fahey embraces what she’s daily involved with rather than traditional subjects, (even if her work does echo occasional classic symbols or characters). The accumulations of a busy domestic existence enliven and inform her paintings; she responds to the magic of family life and attendant difficulties as if they bring out the best in her. Throughout this memoir a sense of community, friendship, real love and respect for others shines through in a way I can only call decent. Her spirit’s irrepressible: this writer makes one believe that it’s possible to enjoy a lifelong circle of fair-minded, talented peers who assist in various ways, even when the artistic path is challenging and full of misunderstandings.
Refreshing self-questioning features throughout, revealing a woman who approaches the world, absurd as it likely is, in some confusion but with intelligence, determined to understand or at least absorb enough insight to go on in better heart. The reader’s easily able to tag along on her riffs and speculative musings: trying to make sense of how her aged father came to be: ‘… standing in the middle of Parnell Road holding the traffic at bay brandishing his walking stick,’ or wondering, while looking back at her New York visit, how the women’s movement has lost so much ground, since ‘… the Vietnam war [was] brought to an end, so why not a equality achieved?’ Then there’s questioning of peculiarities in the mental health system throughout the career of her husband (anyone concerned with mental health issues in our community, by the way, needs to read this well-grounded book). Struggling with her art, and with its subject matter, teaching at Elam, making vital things clear to sniggering students in a life class, or simply wondering about family, her sense of adventure and application of a kind intelligence to every day always shine through to inspire, instruct, illuminate.
It was curious to read that Fahey rejects gentility, however, which the dictionary defines as being well-mannered, refined and of a high social standing, because she does employ some stylistic trappings of that way of life: writing with a certain carefulness, well-educated, using diplomatic reticence and politeness at times — but gradually it became more obvious what she means. Gentility can be a pretentious or snobby public image exercise, rather uptight. What truly matters is discounted for an attempt at surface perfection, but she rejects this and is more relaxed about ‘perfectionism’. Fahey speaks, for instance, of housewives terrified of the house inspection police, the decor police. Many women spent hours obsessively shining, cleaning, then stocking larders to the nth degree, seeing this as more worthy than actually being fully engaged with their family and not minding a bit of mess, and also perhaps taking up pursuits just for themselves, like study, relaxation, arts, work or sports as well as carrying out household duties. Those who refuse to embrace feminism too (which means being for women and equal rights, not being against anything, except inequality), she points out can try to appear holier-than-thou while really being engaged in actions which are actually wasteful, slavish and dishonest. Rather, it’s casual, easy-going South Pacific ways and genuine connection with others that Fahey embraces, and she proves so with anecdotes.
Fahey mentions the puritanical beginnings of New Zealand in relation to child abuse, where some cruel people look for religious excuses to hit children. She makes the point too that: ‘… when the gap between the rich and the poor widens, so does the incidence of child abuse increase.’ She doesn’t place herself on a pedestal however, and relates some incidents within her own family which shocked and worried her.
Determined not to conform to a snobbish, spick-and-span image, Fahey describes her own choices with disarming honesty. Painting’s done in order to make sense of the world: she employs its materiality to bring the abstract into view, to assist with ordering her own thinking. Art is vital, and for her integral to what’s usually going on. The act of writing works in dialogue with her painting and all the rest of her activities (such as family life), with everything woven together.
Fahey’s painting is candid, joyous and celebratory in many cases, and, as she states herself, without any censorship. Good and bad aspects are included, with shades in between; this contrast makes the whole picture attractive. Her writing also proceeds along similar multifarious lines, weaving together various moods, tones, and shifts in focus.
Many famous writers and artists and public figures, whom this outgoing woman, now an octogenarian, has met over the decades are mentioned, with some insight into, and gentle reminders of, their humanity. And there are the very-stuff-of-life encounters with everyday people too: a story-telling Chinese driver in New York, a poetry-quoting retail store owner, art students, medical staff and skateboarders, and many others. Family pets have enriched her life. She uses diaries and records from the past to provide proof of what happened with zestful accuracy. The richness of detail is a strength, and every time I had to put the book aside I looked forward to the next instalment. She offered a treat, and a chance to rethink some matters I’d taken for granted, my eyes sometimes wide with delight or wonder, drawn in to what Fahey considered touching or worth mentioning. No words are wasted; eventually it’d be good to read this memoir again.
A rare and savvy woman celebrates life in a concise, energetic and original style in this memoir, that I’m sure would suit many readers worldwide. Before I Forget is the remembrance of an intellectual, a warm-hearted artist, an insightful adventurer, and an unashamed New Zealander, written with what I can only call gumption and elegance.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER writes novels, poetry, plays, stories and non-fiction. She lives in Auckland’s inner west, and tutors in creative writing at her local Community College.