Week in Review

Novelist faces the wreck of life in state care

Otaki writer Renée reveals the personal circumstances behind her new crime novel The Wild Card.

If it hadn’t been for my mother Rose I’d have been a state ward. When my father shot himself he knew she was living in a house that went with the job. He knew if he wasn’t there doing the job she’d be evicted. He knew she had no money. He knew she was Maori. His mother had said to him, "If you marry that Maori girl, I’ll never see you again." She died a couple of years before he did but two of his brothers ignored their mother’s racism and were generally around on their days off. One of them supplied wood and they both stole fruit for us. But no good going over old ground, right?

Wrong.

I had to go over this old ground when I decided to write my crime novel The Wild Card. No escape. No flinching. Full-on stare, okay? I had been one of the lucky ones. Who did I think I was to turn away?

So Rose made the hard choice. She was 27. Three kids. No money. Was she tempted to put us in a Home as she was advised to do? I only heard her talk about it once and that was to Daisy, a British immigrant who let Rose a room in an old villa and whose husband was in jail. She must have asked Rose why she didn’t stick us in a Home. Rose said, "If I put them in a Home, they’ll be separated."

Then she said what became something of a mantra. "Renée will be all right, Jimmy will be all right, but Val is soft, she needs them to look after her." By soft she meant tender-hearted. And it was true. Val was much more inclined to believe the sad stories while Jimmy and I would think, "Look mate, you’ve got a bed,  you know where your next meal is coming from, you’re okay."

Now I think, no I know, that the three of us would have been sexually, physically abused, starved, wrecked. Jimmy and I would probably have survived, Val probably would not.

*

We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the ones who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear. 

- Adrienne Rich (1972)

I thought of this poem all the time when I researched, read, talked, wrote and worked on The Wild Card. The thing was that I wanted to write this crime novel in a style that was easy to access, funny, triumphant, I wanted to write a hero whose lips don’t fucking quiver, who doesn’t turn to the nearest male to fight on her behalf, who has doubts, fear, memories that sometimes overwhelm her but that also arm her, protect her, inspire her. I didn’t want it to be a ‘literary’ novel. I wanted it to be a novel that people who live near the wreck will read and have a laugh and a cry over.

Obviously the wreck in this case is the New Zealand State Home system and even more obviously I had to dive down and talk to people about things both of us would rather not talk about.

But we look into each other’s eyes and we know. We know those eyes.

This Royal Commission? You have to ask if anything will ever be done. Will those who abused the kids ever be brought to justice? You’ve got more chance of winning the Melbourne Cup on a donkey.

So I dived. I faced the wreck. I came back with The Wild Card.

The Wild Card by Renée (The Cuba Press, $35)

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