The Juvenilia of Katherine Mansfield

Back in the last century, when I was a teenager devouring whatever literature I could lay my hands on, I read a short story by New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. It was called The Life of  Ma Parker, and it was about sadness and regret and the aging of parents, things that I, at fourteen or fifteen, couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around but they made me cry anyway. I loved it so much I looked for Katherine Mansfield’s work and some years later I read a couple more of her books: The Garden Party, Bliss and Other Stories.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_7861.jpgI haven’t thought about that story in a long time, but here is what I came across last year on Lambton Quay in Wellington, New Zealand.  The tall and elegant figure by sculptor Virginia King, Woman of Words, features lines from Mansfield’s short stories, diaries and journals carved into her clothes. Alas, we couldn’t stay to see the statue lit up at night from within, but I can feel those words winging their way through the decades.

It turns out that Mansfield was a child writer, and her first published story was discovered in 2017  in Wellington City Libraries’ archives. “His Little Friend” is reprinted in full in Redmer Yska’s new book, A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903. It is an odd little tale, its voice carrying that strange precocity characteristic of so many young writers. She was 11 years old at the time, writing under her given name, Kathleen M. Beauchamp. Here’s how the story begins:

In a quiet little village in S- there dwelt an aged couple whose names were John and Mary Long. They had a small cottage standing far back from the road, with a large garden in front, both of which were scrupulously neat and tidy. Mary had married John when she was nineteen, and they had lived in the same little cottage ever since. Now she was past sixty, and he was seventy-three. Mary took in sewing while John sold fruit and vegetables to the villagers.

The voice is confident, taking joy in its ability to establish a place, people, circumstances, to reel out a story, play with its possibilities, and then bring it all to a tragic finish. What’s remarkable, as the story progresses, is the child writer’s ability to conjure up a decaying marriage, the fading of youth and memory and a friendship across generations. Even the dabs of sentimentality are charming because they are from an 11-year-old. In these words, I can almost hear the writer this child would grow to be–a writer who would die too young, whose bohemian life would whirl through many scandals, but whose startling clarity and careful use of detail would be considered to have revolutionized the English short story.

A 15-year-old Book and Menstrual Hygiene Day 2018

Yesterday was Menstrual Hygiene Day.

In among all the royal wedding hoopla, few remember that before she married into royalty, Meghan Markle wrote this piece for Time magazine on the need to combat the stigma of periods. Excerpt:

Imagine a world where the female leaders we revere never achieved their full potential because they dropped out of school at the age of thirteen. In the Western world this is challenging to fathom, but for millions of young women globally, this remains their harsh reality for a staggering reason. From sub-Saharan Africa to India, Iran, and several other countries, the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation directly inhibit young women from pursuing an education.

Puberty is universal, and embarrassment is no reason for a girl to quit on herself.

periodpiecesOn my shelf is a middle grade short story collection titled Period Pieces: Stories for Girls. The stories were selected by Erzsi Deak and Kristin Embry Litchman. There are thirteen in all, among them “White Pants” by Linda Sue Park, “The Gentleman Cowboy” by Cynthia Leitich Smith, “A Family Sandwich” by Jane Kurtz, and my  own story, “The Gift.” I haven’t looked at this book in many years. Here’s an excerpt from Kris Litchman’s piece:

“All girls bleed. You can’t stop it.” Madeline certainly sounds positive.

“Don’t the boys have to bleed?”

“No.”

“That’s not fair!”

“That’s the way it is.”

Fifteen years later, this rather surreal short Hindi film from India poses that very  question: What if boys had periods? How would society handle them then?

If it’s uncomfortable viewing, that’s intentional. At long last, the world is being forced to deal with the inequities surrounding what should be a normal developmental life event.