The only story on the local cultural front today is the death of Margaret Mahy yesterday, at 76 . I don't think I'm the only reader who was shocked, but shouldn't have been, that this intensely private woman (despite her vivid public persona) was diagnosed with cancer in April.
Others can write with more authority about a career that ranged from children's picture books and poetry, through "Young Adult" novels every bit as fine as "real literature" (gag!) through to a singular (and under-rated at the time) foray into science fiction-ish television writing that makes me wish she'd done more. Marketing catergories, genre and arbitrary age distinctions were treated by Mahy with all due disrespect.
It's certainly not my place to talk about the private woman I never knew. But even the most cursory reading of Tessa Duder's Margaret Mahy: A Writer's Life (HarperCollins, pbk. $40.99) is a sobering experience. It's almost as if the life Mahy wanted, even was compelled to live -- as a writer and a woman -- never had a easy option. In the often petty, bitchy and feud-raddled literary scene, Mahy's grace and genuine niceness stood out as much as her work. If anyone ever had a mean word to say about her, they sure seemed to keep it to themselves.
Margaret Mahy knew that writing -- and her advocacy for libraries, literacy and the word -- had a vivid element of performance art. I doubt I was the only child beguiled into delightedly sitting still by this storytelling witch in the candy-coloured afro clown wig. But her magic was something deeper and more profound. It was about respect. Respect for language and story, expressed though an extraordinary level of craft regardless of whether the target audience was five, fifteen or fifty. Respect for the rich tradition of literature we brought from far away and eons past, and making something new from it right here in Aotearoa that could go back out into the world without apology or special pleading. Respect for the knotty, exquisitely human truth that joy and sorrow, delight and loss, are inextricably linked and the young can handle it. They need to.
Most of all, it was respect for the reality that parents, critics and academics all too often forget. Children know when they're being talked (or written) down to. Growing up is full of wonderful things -- sex, booze, money, car keys, staying up late -- but that doesn't include the idea that "literature" requires us to put up with the pretentious, the shoddy and the dull because it's really good for us. Mahy knew that the young not only deserve better, but they demand it.
Her real legacy is that she never stopped delivering.
It's time for me to stop talking, and you to start. The comments are open for you to share your thoughts and memories about this woman, her career and legacy but most of all her work. Weeping is OK, making merry is compulsory, but please don't get drunk and trip over the coffee table. M'kay?