Raiment: A memoir reviewed in Landfall


Raiment: A Memoir by Jan Kemp has been reviewed in Landfall. Reviewer Wendy Parkins writes: 

‘In 1971, the Canadian author Alice Munro wrote: ‘There is a change coming in the lives of girls and women . . . All women have had up till now has been their connection with men.’ Two years later, the US Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Roe v Wade — a decision that has recently been reversed. It is difficult, sometimes, not to feel that Munro’s optimism was misplaced, that women’s connection with men is still too often the defining condition of their existence. 

These memoirs by Jan Kemp and Megan Dunn provide an opportunity to reflect on the changing lives of girls and women during the past fifty years in Aotearoa. Though wildly different in tone and style, as well as the time frames on which they focus — the counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s in Kemp’s Raiment; 1990s postmodernism in Dunn’s Things I Learned At Art School — both memoirs recount their author’s quest for self-expression and independence within creative sub-cultures in Auckland. 

For Kemp, pursuing her own voice through poetry in the 1970s not only called into question the kind of life trajectory that her upbringing had prepared her for (education, a teaching career, a family of her own). It also presented the challenge of being the only woman poet in the room or being told by a publisher that ‘he wasn’t certain a book solely by a woman poet would sell’. Raiment is not, however, the story of a trailblazer setting out to shock through rebellion and rule-breaking. Kemp writes frankly and with an appealing humility about her uncertainties and false starts in both writing and relationships. Raiment’s almost naive style works well in recreating the child’s perspective in the first part of the book, where every part of Kemp’s neighbourhood is embedded in a web of relationships and community, and where every achievement or rebuff seems imbued with life-changing significance. The same tone, however, continues into an equally meticulous account of her student days at the University of Auckland (every class taken in her degree, every change of rental address) and beyond, until the memoir ends with Kemp aged 25. As such, the alarming lack of agency in her younger self is presented by Kemp without much subsequent reflection from the older, wiser narrator. Kemp defers to men, has her heart repeatedly broken, marries a man she knows she shouldn’t, and has adulterous liaisons because she thinks she should experiment like everyone else, apparently untroubled by the damage done to other people along the way. Towards the end of the memoir, when Kemp’s passivity continues in another affair with the husband of a friend, she remarks: “He took to me immediately and decided I should become his other woman . . . I had a new lover, albeit a married one. Oh dear.”’

Read the full review here.