- “A very mysterious world”: Placing Margaret Mahy
Margaret Mahy’s death on 23 July 2012 caused grief and dismay, both locally, in New Zealand, and worldwide, but also prompted celebrations of an extraordinary life. Inevitably, such celebrations have involved appreciative re-viewing of her achievements as a writer; this symposium is just such an occasion.1 It has proved no easier placing Margaret Mahy the writer for a retrospective event like this, of course, than at any other point in her wonderfully generous, productive life. It is also the case, however, that her work has been much discussed in volumes of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, figuring in half a dozen articles since 1991. In a sense, then, the essays written for this symposium find their place in a double history of appreciation. They remember Margaret Mahy. They also develop a line of critical history in revisiting Mahy’s adolescent fiction, but expand it by giving critical attention to Mahy’s verse and her illustrated stories for younger children. In all, they contribute arguments and analysis that offer different angles on the place and work of “Mahyan” imagination.2
To speak of the verse and the illustrated tales is to make a point that Margaret Mahy’s first readers—children and their parents—are never likely to forget. Clare Bradford, talking here especially about the picture books, speaks of Mahy’s fiction as comprising so many “varieties of enchantment.” Mahy has indeed written in an extravagantly wide range of genres, with a power that seems both to bring genre brilliantly into view and to raise serious questions about the usefulness of the concept for an understanding of her work. So much is going on in the Mahy story; so much more goes on than genre seems capable of accommodating. One way or another, the four essays that make up this symposium take off from this point, where genre ceases to be a [End Page 105] central critical issue. So, for Roberta Seelinger Trites, a very specific shaping of a central Mahy genre, the fantasy novel, proves highly effective in supporting investigation of embodiment; for Christine Wilkie-Stibbs, these novels display an interest in hybridization in both form and content that speaks of the colonial and postcolonial histories of a settler society. In every case, for the authors in this volume, genre proves to locate a significant textual place, but a place that is invariably, provocatively, transcended, affording thereby an opportunity to reflect on the force and driving concerns of Mahy’s writing.
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There is a serious paradox here. For scholars, intimately acquainted with the sophisticated text of children’s fiction, this complexity may be represented most plainly in something like the concept of a “poetics” developed by Zohar Shavit in discussing the ambiguities and ambivalences of children’s literature—a consequence of the unusual mobility of children’s fiction, crossing “boundaries” and addressing “different audiences.”3 Often, of course, this sense of complexity is appropriately rearticulated as appreciation of a work’s anticipation of very different interests, broadly child, broadly adult, represented in rather different aspects of the text. For Mahy, who, as Anna Smith reminds us—in an essay that concentrates on the extraordinarily playful verse—devoted much energy and time to cross-over performances (in talks, in stagings of her stories, in stagings of herself), this poetic complexity goes bone-deep yet surfaces in the everyday. Mahy seems adept at subverting, indeed “dissolving,” the borders between the real and the imagined.4 This capacity and these performances have enthralled many, especially among her New Zealand public, and indeed they have been recalled repeatedly, with huge nostalgic pleasure, in memorial occasions since her death. [End Page 106]
Neither poetics nor performativity, however, quite takes the measure of Mahy’s achievement. The central paradox of her impact has been acknowledged by Gavin Bishop, himself a fine author and illustrator of children’s books, who in fact collaborated with her.5 At a memorial in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 1 August 2012, he insisted on the value of her children’s writing in irresistible fashion: “as profound and mysterious as anything...