My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions Frankie McMillan, Canterbury University Press, 2016
Frankie McMillan has published several collections of poetry along with a volume of short stories. Owen Marshall claims her as ‘our maestro of flash fiction.’ She won the New Zealand Flash Fiction Award in both 2013 and 2015. Much of her new book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions, was written when she held the Ursula Bethell Residency in 2014 at the University of Canterbury. She teaches at the Hagley Writers’ Institute.
Frankie is currently in Hungary as the guest of the Hungarian Embassy in Wellington. She was invited to attend a commemorative event of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Representatives of the Embassy attended the launch of the book at the 2016 WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival in August.
It was expected that Frankie would be the only guest from New Zealand at a gathering of potentially 100,000 people on the Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament building on 23 October.
The new book is a gem. Beautifully produced by Canterbury University Press, the internal design, the cover, the shape and the feel of the paper are spot on. Most of the writing occupies the right-hand page which leaves a left-hand stream of blank space. I liked that – the empty space stands in for the unsaid, for sidetracks or pauses on the part of the reader. The writing is elegant, spare, captivating. At times there are jolts of the unexpected.
Much of the collection pivots upon location and dislocation. At the heart, are the stories of family and the Hungarian refugees that come to stay. There is an undercurrent of getting lost and finding one’s way. The parents of an old school friend of mine were Hungarian refugees and I was fascinated by their stories, mostly imagined on my part, in terms of their flight to New Zealand, and their life in a strange country. They tried to plant Hungarian roots in the soil, in the moonshine in the basement, in the language spoken, in the preserves and the cooking. So reading Frankie’s small fictions really affected me. There is a clarity in her writing, a mustering of strange and delightful detail. It feels unbearably apt to be reading behind the lines of the refugees. Disconcerting. Moving.
‘We did not have much; most of what we carried was in our heads, a smell, a snatch of song, our mother’s face, but we had our suitcases and Imre had letters and we had each other of course, though some would say let’s not gnaw that bone again. And though some of us shared a room or a bed it was our little space in the world and a place where Stefan hid when the Hungarian Welfare Officer came with his briefcase, his smell of government and questions.’
from ‘… and in a flash it seemed all the unliving we had loved were flying overhead …’
The book raises the prickly question of genre. Is it small fiction, flash fiction, short short stories or prose poetry? I don’t think it matters an iota. Call it what you will. This writing should hook anyone who sniffs at flash fiction because Frankie shows how good it can be.
I have much admired Frankie’s poetry but it seems to me with this book she is on the bicycle and hitting the right gear; the writing wheels are humming so sweetly. Brava maestra!
Canterbury University Press page