The theme of the conference, for me, was “Patricia Grace really is here, we promise.” Every time a speaker would try to locate the honoured guest there would be a kind of pleading in their voice.
“Is Patricia Grace here?” Pause for response. “Okay, I guess we’ll introduce her later.” She was the most slippery of taongas.
Cynthia Orr made her apology for bending copyright rules on Grace’s short story, “Butterflies”, to a room full of English teachers nodding in agreement, but Patricia Grace was not there.
“She was here earlier…” Another plaintive conference organiser explained. This really mitigated the somewhat offensive and claustrophobic notion that Grace was to sit ‘at the bar’ and be available for us to talk to. On show. I found myself feeling that the conference’s pet writer had other ideas. She would go where she pleased. I found myself thinking that she wasn’t at Waitangi at all.
When Grace was finally introduced, at the conference dinner, my experience was no different. A giant centre-piece of woven flax blocked her from my view. Part of me wanted to keep it that way. It seemed narratively apt for me to never see this unassuming giant of New Zealand literature. The sophisticated subtlety of her writing would get to match her presence. Powerful and invisible at the same time.
Then she spoke. And it wasn’t just a few words she had for us. She thanked English teachers for their interest, their copyright violations, for keeping her in print. She spoke of the power of representation. She spoke of things I don’t remember because I was not immediately prepared to take notes.
Patricia Grace was worth cheating my drawing rules for. The sketch above is not from life, like the others, but from a terrible low-light photo on my Samsung Galaxy, blown up as much as it would let me. It’s a terrible drawing. The notes are patchy.
I like the idea that she defied capture until the last.
Addendum: I have it on good authority that Patricia Grace chose the bar and stayed there for three hours. This is even better than I could have hoped for.