‘To encounter the unexpected’: Kate Fagan in Conversation with Miro Bilbrough

By and | 15 February 2023

KF: There’s a wonderful point in the book, a discovery in your early childhood, or probably your adolescence, that your mother’s father is the painter, Patrick Hayman. You write about him and reproduce a portrait of him in the book. At one point, you say he doesn’t trust the photographic process. Do you trust the photographic process?

MB: Not when it comes to photographs of myself. I’m at war with it. When I was younger, I sometimes wanted to go to bed for several weeks after I saw a photograph of myself, the dissonance was so great. I remember saying that to the actress, Catherine McClements, who plays the mother, Ava, in my film Floodhouse. And she said, very brusquely, ‘Oh, that’s a stage you’re supposed to get over when you’re about 14’. Which is presumably when you close the gap between how you see your reflection and who you think you are.

I’ve never closed that gap. Having said that, I’ve always been a total photographic freak. I look at a lot of photography. As a filmmaker, I am always saying to my filmmaking students: go back and look at still photographs, go back and look at the frame, because they often aren’t paying enough attention to it. I started out at Design School where I used to spend hours looking at huge tomes of photographs in the Wellington Polytechnic library.

KF: And the poetic side … I mean, you’re a poet-photographer first in this narrative. The vignettes do feel like small poems. Each of these character-driven portraits often hangs on a particular image, or a beautifully realised collection of visuals. I’ve just written down a few to share.

You see a phone box and imagine it to be an ‘emergency beacon’. This kind of juxtaposition is the technique of a poet. At one point, you describe your mother’s bare house and her ‘fierce anti-furnishings’. There is so much in those three words. Later, I think you describe your mother as being her own ‘avant-garde movement’, which suggests a force to be reckoned with. And later again, ‘I had the feeling of colliding with an exceptionally solid piece of code’. What does your poet’s eye bring to this book, and what surprised you in the writing? What did you discover in both the dark room of your imagination, and in your poet’s eye, when you went back to this cast of characters?

MB: Do you mean in the form or in the people?

KF: I sometimes wonder if there are particular ways that we come to stories through the poetic imagination, which might unlock things that aren’t expected. I guess I wonder what turned up for you as unexpected through the process of writing.

MB: The desire to encounter the unexpected is why I write. You think you’re writing a memoir because you want to capture what you know but actually – it goes the opposite way. You’re looking for that which surprises you. If I don’t find that, I have to abort. The sentence, a really granular sentence – style-wise, I can get a bit baroque. Then I make myself interested again via punk or terse strategies such as ending a section abruptly or by refusing explanation or quarter – usually for my narrator self – or by making sudden switches of tone. I feel quite pleased with myself when I manage to pull off these things or when they simply occur because I find it life-like, in that life so often withholds explanation. I am writing to find language and syntax surprises. It’s not a certain that I will, but somehow the sentence carries you, the words are the transport, the words take you there. It’s the words that take me there, and they give birth to the images. And vice versa, of course.

I was thinking about this yesterday on the train. I was reading an essay set inside a Hieronymus Bosch painting, in which the writer, T. J. Clark, becomes a protagonist in the painting Ship of Fools, and describes the painting as if it is happening to him. It was a total transport, and I thought, that’s why I write. That’s what sentences can do. They can take you on that transport.

KF: It made me think about the role of memoir as a primary process of discovery, rather than a re-telling of something absolute or set in stone. At all times in this book, there’s a sense that the story is contested, and that any one of these characters, whether a family member or otherwise, would have a wildly different understanding of this community. And this brings me to ideas of naming within the memoir. Your text is very concerned with the inability to stabilise things by naming them. Or perhaps, with the sudden life buoy, or life raft, of giving a name to something. Names can bring things to life. There’s a wonderful piece of reflection around this, on page 140: ‘Words do die with people. What this means for me is that in resuming namelessness, the tendency to disappear into some other thing or person resumes its ontological lack of order’. And I was drawn to the idea that things couldn’t stabilise.

Before asking about this, I just want to share a couple of the ways you set about naming the lifestyle of the Manaroans. This is an alternative community of the 1970s and you start by using words like ‘hippy’, ‘freak’, ‘feral’ and ‘fringe’, and then the ‘back to the land’ scene, which does give some idea of what is happening in this community. But none of these names ever feel right to you. Then you’ve got ‘counter-culture’, ‘commune’, and I love ‘pioneer approximations’. That’s one of your most brilliant two-worders (and this book is full of them!). ‘Deadhead provincialism’ – this is a fantastic phrase for the kind of acid-freak washup on the South Island’s north-east coast, which you describe as constellating in groups of mostly, but not entirely, white people. And you also have softer ways of referring to this phenomenon, such as ‘collective dreaming’. I wonder if you might talk about this idea of giving name to a movement or moment like this one? I mean, what was it all about?

MB: Maybe because there aren’t enough names for that movement, maybe that is part of the reason I had to write the book. I couldn’t find a two-worder. I certainly couldn’t find just one word. I had early schooling in that because my parents were always at war with naming words, with group-identity words. In fact, the Manaroans, themselves, were tribally ill-disposed towards the word ‘hippy’. So, I’m not alone in that.

I was always trying to find other ways to capture the smell or the scent trails, the atmosphere, and to do so tangentially. Naming can be so frontal. Making a nod to what is off screen – that’s what I’m after. Which sounds grand and conceptual. Of course, in writing the memoir I was also simply tracking lost objects and experiences; all those things that I wanted to re-enter because I missed those places, atmospheres and people.

KF: Through the book, those collections of words feel like a go-to place for you, as you’re trying to make sense of the people and narratives running around you – whether it’s your parents or your sister, who you do and don’t see. She’s not often living with you, and when she is, she is not often present in your life. There’s a gorgeous sense from the beginning that you collect words, and you dress yourself in them. An idea of textiles comes to the fore. I just started jotting down, for pleasure, the number of ways in which you refer to ‘lace’ or ‘lacework’. You mention handiwork, piecework, weavers. And your sister is ‘knitted’, she’s ‘knotted’, she’s ‘embroidered’ and ‘stitched’. And this extends later in the book to collecting dresses.

There’s a wonderful idea of a dress as something that is passed down generationally in a family, and at one point, you describe a wedding dress that a friend bequeaths you. There are many coded reasons for these exchanges between women. I wonder if you could speak to what you call your ‘textile obsession’? This is one element that appears to unite you, your mother, and your grandmother – when yours are not easy unities, and when these relationships are uneasy or actively dis-easy through the whole book. What is it about textiles that you are exploring?

MB: I did discover that remote French ancestors were silk weavers from my aunt Amanda, who has a slightly operatic role in the book. That made incredible sense. It is a place of ease for me. I wouldn’t say it’s without complexity, but it is a place of intense essential rewards and joy. Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘Oh, I can get up and get dressed!’ Getting up, to get dressed, it’s such a joyful thought.

At Manaroa, the commune, there was this thing called the Community Chest, which was a magical portal, a bit like the wardrobe that was a portal into Narnia in the C. S. Lewis books. His wardrobe had been an obsession for me since I encountered it at four years old. The idea that you could hop inside a wardrobe, rummage through all the coats, and it would take you somewhere else. But really, rummaging through seasonal layers of clothes was the thing. I once encountered, in a rich childhood friend’s house, a wardrobe exactly like that. It seemed to go the length of the room, but although I tunnelled right back through it, I never made it to Narnia. Just disappearing into the coat folds was extraordinary enough.

There was a Community Chest at Manaroa, and you could rummage in that chest. It had collective ownership, and you never knew from day to day what you would find there. You could never reach the bottom – and you could dress yourself from it. Pretty grubby, I assume, but then grubbiness, or rather cleanliness, was not high on our list of criteria. We bathed once a month like the Victorians, or Londoners in the 70s as Viv Albertine writes about in her punk rock memoir.

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