On 27 October 2009, prominent New Zealand author Dame Fiona Kidman was awarded two high honours by French Ambassador to New Zealand, Michel Legras. A very convivial reception at the French Residence in Thorndon, Wellington, brought together many of her friends and family as well as MPs Dr Campbell Calder, Annette King and Chris Carter, journalists, and personalities from the academic, cultural and diplomatic world.
Dame Fiona received a medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her long and distinguished literary career, which also included a long and close association with French culture. As the well-deserved applause for Dame Fiona died down, the Ambassador reminded her that he liked surprises. And he had a very pleasant surprise in store for her. Dame Fiona now became a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. As Mr Legras pinned the second medal on Dame Fiona’s lapel, the assembled guests cheered even more than a few moments before.
A visibly happy and moved Dame Fiona then gave an entertaining acceptance speech. Born in Hawera, South Taranaki, her family moved to the Far North when she was young. She spoke of her first encounter with the French language during lessons at Kerikeri District High School – classes which took place in the incongruous setting of the school’s woodwork room. They were however the start of a great interest in the French language and culture, and Dame Fiona was thenceforth a francophile. She spoke of her youth in the Northland town of Kerikeri, which she covered the first volume of her autobiography, At the End of Darwin Road. The author of many works, including the critically acclaimed Beside the Dark Pool, also stressed what a privilege and what a valuable and unforgettable experience her literary residence in 2006 was at Menton’s Villa Isola Bella – Katherine Mansfield’s residence in 1920. The months Dame Fiona spent on the French Riviera after having received the annual New Zealand Post Katherine Mansfield Prize proved to be very productive, because to finish off her speech, she read several of the poems that she composed there to her appreciative audience. This collection of poems should be published in 2010.
While these two awards were certainly very special for Dame Fiona, they were by no means the first she received. A Montana Book Awards winner, she was made a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1998 for her services to literature. She is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Among other things, she also is honorary president of the New Zealand Book Council and patron of the New Zealand Poetry Society and the New Zealand Refugee and Migrant Family Reunification Trust.
Her voluntary activities are of a particular interest to the promotion of French culture here in New Zealand. Now a Wellingtonian, Dame Fiona Kidman is both a committee member of the Friends of Randell Cottage and a member of the Randell Cottage Writers Trust which every year organises the residence of a French writer at the Randell Cottage in Wellington. This residency helps to build strong links between French and New Zealand writers and publishers, and also allows the writers in residence to travel around the country and give lectures and informal talks.