Marvellous Margaret Mahy: a Tribute
Friday 18 January 2013
Faculty of Education, Cambridge
Alison Waller writes:
On hearing the news back in July last year that Margaret Mahy had died I knew that my own private mourning of this important literary figure would be reproduced and amplified by obituaries, reflections and tributes from around the world. Mahy’s writing reached so many: from anarchic, carnivalesque picturebooks to humorous portraits of family life and magical explorations of the complexities of adolescence, her books were enjoyed by countless young readers and discussed by many teachers and academics of children’s literature. In my own work on the figure of the teenage witch, I have found her young adult novels The Changeover (1984) and The Tricksters (1986) especially inspiring.
Of course, her work will continue to be read and relished: one of the magic tricks performed by authors like Mahy is that they never truly leave us. I was therefore delighted to be invited to participate in an afternoon’s tribute and celebration of all things Mahy organised by children’s literature scholar Dr Liz Hale. I wrote a chapter for Liz’s Marvellous Codes: the Fiction of Margaret Mahy, edited with Sarah Winters back in 2005, and was glad to finally have a chance to meet her while she was on sabbatical at Cambridge.
Dr Cathy Butler joined us from the University of West England and gave an entertaining and thought-provoking talk tracing the role of librarian in The Librarian and the Robbers (1978), The Haunting (1982), The Changeover and The Catalogue of the Universe (1985). She ingeniously linked Mahy’s ambiguous portrayal of chaos and order to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, particularly ‘The Library of Babel’. Unfortunately Prof Adrienne Gavin had to send her apologies – her talk was to be on ‘Kiwi Ingenuity: Margaret Mahy, New Zealand Mythmaker’ and it would have provided a very welcome focus on the national impulses in Mahy’s writing. Liz spoke about security and danger in a range of picturebooks, including A Lion in the Meadow (1969), The Boy Who Was Followed Home (1975) and The Great White Man-Eating Shark (1989). She also reminded us of a wonderful short story called ‘The Cat who became a Poet’, which nicely interrogates the dangers (and pleasures) involved in embracing the literary imagination.
I wanted to remember Mahy by considering two of her novels that have loss and memory at their core, and I was also keen to turn my attention towards some male adolescent protagonists for once. So I looked at the various metaphors of memory employed in Memory (1987) and 24 Hours (2000) and suggested that in some of her more radical images of embodied and connected memory, Mahy reflects recent models of consciousness that have emerged in more scientific discourses.
The afternoon was great fun, with lots of discussion, plenty of tea and plans made to publish papers in the future. Many thanks to Liz for organising, and Cambridge for hosting. And of course to Margaret Mahy for being so marvellous.
Marvellous Codes: the Fiction of Margaret Mahy, a collection of critical essays on the New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy. Eds. Elizabeth Hale and Sarah Fiona Winters. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005.