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New Zealand author Janet Frame dies

‘An Angel at my Table’ was a chronicle of her life
/ Source: Reuters

New Zealand author Janet Frame, hailed for work described as a mighty exploration of human consciousness after years blighted by a misdiagnosis of mental illness, died on Thursday after a battle with cancer, media said.

Frame, 79, the recipient of numerous literary awards and a frequent prospect for the Nobel Literature Prize, revealed last December that she was suffering from acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“While her humility was renowned, she was a most engaging personality with a wickedly funny sense of humor and a generosity of spirit,” Prime Minister Helen Clark said in a statement paying tribute to Frame’s contribution to literature.

Born in Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand in 1924, Frame chronicled her sometimes tortured life in a famed three-part autobiography later turned into the film “An Angel at my Table” by Oscar-winning director Jane Campion.

Early in her life Frame was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, undergoing electric shock treatment in mental hospitals, and coming close to having a lobotomy.

Frame published her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, in 1951, and her first novel, Owls Do Cry, in 1957. In total she wrote 11 novels, five short story collections, a collection of poetry and an autobiography.

She was awarded the Order of New Zealand, named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and won innumerable literary awards in New Zealand and internationally.

Frame, who died in Dunedin Hospital, was widely tipped as a leading contender for last year’s Nobel Prize for literature.

A troubled life
Her autobiography revealed that Frame suffered several years of electric shock treatment for schizophrenia before doctors decided on a lobotomy. The operation was cancelled only after a collection of Frame’s short stories won a literary prize.

Frame once said she played down the experience of living in a mental hospital where patients lived in rooms covered in human feces and ate their meals off the floors, because she did not think she would be believed.

When Frame went to England in her thirties, it was found her schizophrenia had been misdiagnosed, with a British psychiatrist saying she was just someone who preferred to be alone, and who was different from most other people.

Her friends said it was her desire to be alone in order to concentrate on her writing.

Clark said Frame had an international reputation second to none, and her contribution to literature in New Zealand and internationally had been immense.

In 1986, the American Academy of Arts and Letters made Frame an honorary foreign member with a citation saying the body of her work should not be seen merely as “a series of extraordinary insights into suffering and thought, but as a mighty exploration of human consciousness and its context in the natural world.”