My Mother and the Hungarians (2017)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017 (March 2017)

Books and Magazines in brief:

Frankie McMillan. My Mother and the Hungarians and Other Small Fictions. ISBN 978-1-927145-87-6. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2016. RRP $25. 114 pp.

Fankie McMillan: My Mother and the Hungarians (2016)

When does a flash fiction cease to be fiction and become a prose poem? This is, I’m afraid, the elephant in the room with regard to this particular ‘new’ genre — if it is a genre, exactly. Graeme Lay’s pioneering anthologies of ‘short short stories’ in the late 1990s came down pretty firmly on the side of fiction. The fact that at least one of the pieces in Frankie McMillan’s latest book is reprinted from an earlier poetry collection does encourage me to return to the question, however.

Does it matter? Probably not as much to writers as to readers. For this reader, at least, most of the ‘flashes’ I read seem to lack the virtues I myself look for in fiction: plot, characterisation, depth of immersion in ‘Mirror City’ (to borrow Janet Frame’s term for the world of her own writing). As prose poems, however, they have the sudden sparky connections, the topsy-turvy thinking: the need to read between the lines to be understood, which most of us would agree to be poetic virtues.

In any case, whether considered as ‘flashes’ or poems, Frankie McMillan’s book seems to me to work best as a whole. I prefer to think of it as a themed poetry collection, admittedly, but perhaps that’s just to qualify it for notice here (it arrived too late for a fuller review, alas). It shows her at the top of her form, in fact: alert to the quirkiness and humanity of her growing cast of misfits.

The basic theme here is the attempt to assimilate ‘otherness’ within the almost pathologically sealed society of New Zealand in the 1950s:
What I wanted to understand was their Hungarianness. I watched their surprised faces as they tasted salted butter for the first time . . . I sniffed their dirty clothes then opened their top drawers to look at letters I could never fold straight again and when they returned on their bikes . . . I was already perched up in the quince tree, singing loudly, ‘God Save the Queen’ (p. 81)
God save the Queen / The Fascist regime’! There’s an affectionate black humour behind all of these pieces, which disguises, but does not dull, their sting: ‘My mother . . . liked the refugees best with . . . their willingness to share a bed so that if one woke in the night crying, no shoot, no shoot, the other could turn and blanket their sorrows with their old European ways.’ (p. 13) Whether poetry or fiction, this is powerful writing.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017. ISBN 978-0-9941363-5-0 (March 2017): 322-23.

[446 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017

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