A New Zealand-born author, poet, and novelist, she is known for such works as Owls Do Cry and The Pocket Mirror. She was a recipient of the Hubert Church Prose Award.
She enrolled in a teacher training course at the Dunedin College of Education in 1943. She received a national literary prize for her debut work, The Lagoon and Other Stories.
She suffered from schizophrenia and narrowly escaped a lobotomy.
She was one of five children born into a working-class New Zealand family of Scottish heritage.
Her three autobiographies inspired the 1990 film An Angel at My Table, directed by Jane Campion.