These days, you will likely see Cathie Dunsford, 67, performing with the Jade River Ukes Band at venues all over Mahurangi. But her novels, poetry and theatrical performances have also struck a chord with audiences around the world. She spoke to James Addis …
My whole family is an incredible mix. My great grandfather, George Hyatt, was a full-blooded “negro” – as he would have called himself – something the family has been able to confirm through DNA tests. He arrived at the Otago goldfields via ship and set up a Turkish bath house for the miners there. One of his sons, Oscar Hyatt, my Dad’s uncle, travelled to Honolulu and became one of the first music publishers there. He wrote a famed hula song, For You a Lei, which I now play with the Jade River Ukes.
I grew up in Milford, where Mum and Dad built our house. It was an area full of housing corporation homes with lots of people of different races. It was poor, but nobody knew we were poor because everyone was the same. We all had our own veggie gardens and we would swap stuff. My Dad worked three jobs – during the week at NZI insurance, Friday night at Keans in Takapuna and pumping gas on Saturday. Meanwhile, Mum worked at a wool store. I went to Westlake Girls High School and found I loved learning. I won the senior prize in English and was chosen as head prefect. Nevertheless, I ended up going to see the headmistress and saying I didn’t believe in this privileged prefect system – let’s have a School Council. So, we did. It only then dawned on me that if I wanted to be president of the council, I faced the daunting task of getting myself elected. I was up against one of the Henares – she was from a family of brilliant lawyers. God knows how I won that one, but I did. There was always a slightly rebellious streak in me. I remember taking a whole lot of Westlake Girls on the bus into town to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. The headmistress berated me over that, relaying the school board’s unfavourable views on the subject in no uncertain terms. “But just privately,” she said. “I’m really glad you did it.”
When I was 14, the head of music took us to see a fabulous concert by the Dorian Singers. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I decided there and then that I wanted to devote my life to music, art and literature. But in those days, I could not see many other women in those fields unless they were supported by their husbands. That same year, I said to my Mum, “I want to live in a tree house by the sea.” And she said, “You will have to marry someone rich,” and I said, “No I’m not getting married. I just want a tree house by the sea.” I saw very early on that to have choices in life you had to be financially independent. That’s still true today. Despite feminism, I know women in abusive relationships who find it financially very difficult to escape.
After school, I went on to Auckland University and studied English, music, education, Latin and French. I directed a couple of summer Shakespeares and had a ball. I ended up lecturing in English and graduated with PhD in English literature. Along the way, I edited the first anthology of women’s fiction for New Women’s Press. In those days, few women were published. Anthologies comprised the same old people. You could have an anthology with 30 authors with only two or three women in it. I knew we were never going to get any new voices if we carried on like this. So, I threw it open to any woman who wanted to submit. I spoke at places like maraes and ended up with a lot of Maori and Pacific contributors. Over the next few years, I edited five anthologies, featuring perspectives that had seldom been seen in New Zealand literature before.
I won a Fulbright scholarship and spent time doing post-doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, and I lectured there in women’s studies and lesbian and gay literature. I’ve always been completely open about being gay, but it was incredibly tough back in the seventies because there were not a lot of books on the subject, and there was not a strong, healthy gay culture. It was very much about finding your own path. Though by the eighties, I was surrounded by brilliant, creative gays like the Topp Twins.
When I returned to New Zealand, some of my family were farming in Omaha Flats, and I found this plot of land at Baddeleys Beach and loved it. I had $2000 and it was just enough for a deposit. At first, I lived in a shack and the possums and rats and wetas would come in. Next, I found a cheap kitset house and a local builder, Bernie McClean, myself and a couple of street kids to put it together. We put it on poles up in the trees, so I had my tree house surrounded by native bush after all. We had lots of fun in the process. At one point, I remember it was pouring with rain and the tractor that we used to put the poles in just slid away into a stream. Bernie was a scream. I had this giant pink flamingo that I had brought back from San Francisco, and one day Bernie screwed it on to my beaten-up Toyota and I couldn’t get it off. I had to drive up to Whangarei for a job interview for the director at Forum North with the flamingo on the bonnet. Afterwards, some of the board who interviewed me saw me with the car outside. I thought, “Oh my God, my chances have gone.” Though as it turned out, I got the job.
Later, I set up my own publishing business Dunsford Publishing Consultants. The first book I edited was Beryl Fletcher’s The Word Burners, which went on to win the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book. That same year, I assessed Albert Wendt’s Ola, which won the best book from South East Asia/Pacific in the same competition. So, it was headlines all over the show. I was also being encouraged to write my own fiction, and I started researching my family background and Oscar Hyatt’s life in Hawaii. That led to the book Cowrie, which Keri Hulme introduced at an international feminist book fair in Melbourne in 1994. During her speech, she said that she hoped that Cowrie would be the first of a series, which up until that point had not occurred to me. Nevertheless, the idea was exciting, and I began to write more. I was published by Spinifex Press in Australia, and they took my books to the Frankfurt Book Fair – the biggest in the world – which led to me being published in Germany and also Turkey, which was a first for a New Zealand novelist.
For the next 21 years I toured around Europe, Canada, the US and Turkey performing my works at book fairs and literary festivals. A highlight was appearing at the Berlin International Literary Festival and a month later at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012 – alongside writers like C.K. Stead, Witi Ihimaera, Alan Duff and Eleanor Catton. The settings for both were spectacular. At the festival the theme was “as you are sleeping” and on stage the moon rose behind me as I blew on my conch to begin my performance. At the fair, New Zealand was guest of honour, and we had an entire pavilion filled with caves and islands surrounded by water – made to appear as though they were being seen at night. It was mind-blowing.
What is the international appeal of my work? Well, when I started few novelists set their books in the Pacific, there was not much Kiwi gay writing and there were few strong Maori female characters in fiction. I wanted to write about my experience of the world. I didn’t care whether people liked my novels or not – again, it was all about giving people a voice who were not being heard. They are also eco-novels – they deal with ecological issues. I don’t see this just in terms of trees and plants, but how we look at the whole world. How can we live in tune with the planet rather than trying to dominate it? And I wanted to entertain people and give them a good time. You can’t just lecture them, you have got to have some humour in there as well. I love humour.