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

By and | 15 February 2023

KF: It’s a beautiful image. People come and visit the community and sometimes, you’re surprised at who turns up. You often suspect why they’re there: have they come to peer in, or are they bringing an act of friendship or interest? I love the moment where you, a late teen by then, try and get your old school friends to dress from the Community Chest. I gather they’re a little bit alarmed by this possibility: this is the world, put a frock on! But I did start to think about what you’re exploring with dresses. They seem to provide an uneasy détente, for want of a word, with your mother around fashion and design. Eventually, you find yourself treading the boards in Wellington that she has trodden before you, in modelling and designing. I wonder if you might reflect if you can, and you don’t have to, on that matrilineal legacy in the book.

MB: I do write about that but it’s still all swirling around me – I haven’t solved that matrilineal legacy in my own living. Somebody, a friend, said to me: ‘The dresses are like a kind of armour. No wonder you are so sartorially obsessed, it’s your armour’. I never thought of it like that. In fact, for my mother, at that time, clothing was an area of control and of extreme self-representation. Often, what this actually meant was no clothes. What clothes my mother did wear had a strikingly expressive, shocking, sometimes antagonising flair, and a set of values that went beyond the tribal identity of dressing like an artist or a hippy or a beatnik.

KF: There are moments too where your grandmother and your mother chastise you for essentially doing what they have done as young women. They’ve both been unconventional. Your grandmother has children from different men, and she’s been wildly outspoken. And then, she’s very puritanical with you.

MB: It’s a strange vein of the radical alongside the judgemental and the puritanical – an abhorring of sexuality while being sexually flagrant themselves. Some of that is a projection of fear on their part, perhaps, of knowing the troubled territory they got into. There’s also a strong competitive drive – and a preference for the male progeny. The sons were valorised, and for the daughters, the matrilineal relationships were troubled. There wasn’t a lot of solidarity.

KF: The word ‘appetite’ in the book’s first sentence is compelling to me. The way you cement your characters honestly feels Chaucerian, something like The Canterbury Tales on the road to Manaroa: all these people come through, sometimes just for a page, wearing amazing things. It’s like a moving tarot pack. But I’m really struck by appetite, and especially, by women on whom a demand is placed to be too much. But they are also being censured for being too much or told off for being extreme.

MB: You know, I wonder if my mother had to top my grandmother’s ‘too much’! My grandmother censured my mother’s too muchness. Which made my mother go even more into too muchness.

KF: They are such terrific characters. There is also an uneasy relation between, I guess, becoming-mother and becoming-father. Your father is a writer, he journals constantly. Early on, journals become a safe place for you to begin scrawling out your life in your own words. And perhaps I might move here to the role of ritual in your book.

There are many rituals that hold this community together. And they’re shared everywhere, not just within the community. They are also going on in shared houses in Wellington, and in the Design School. They’re going on in high schools. I was struck by the braiding of hair, and lighting fires, intensely ritualised activities where everybody gathers. But one stood out to me: a ritual that when your family comes together, you put people down. You have a wonderful line: ‘You never get anywhere in my family for dropping a name unless you give it a bit of a drubbing.’ This becomes a kind of ritualised practice. And I wonder what you’ve gained in writing, through the chance to revisit some of these rituals. You mentioned to me earlier that a lot of people from Manaroa have read your book. That has surprised you. Might you reflect on either of those ideas – on the ritualistic communicating that goes on amongst you all, and what people have brought back to you, from the community, when they’ve read the book?

MB: Ritualistic drubbing … early on, I had a story published in Landfall. The last line was: ‘My parents were vegetarians, but it was their murderous imaginations that kept the marriage alive.’ My father is the writer of short stories and novels, Norman Bilbrough, and my mother is the painter and poet Christina Conrad. My father told me he really enjoyed that line, found it apt. It was the one way that they could commune, I think, because they were so ill-suited, my mother and father, but they shared a proclivity for language, and an ability to really nail an image or metaphor – or a person.

I had a friend who talked about her mother in similar terms. They were also New Zealanders. She said that when she brought her first boyfriend home her mother said afterwards that ‘he looked like his face had been pressed into a spoon’. Helpful! My maternal grandmother came out with those kinds of pronouncements. And I have also found myself with a partner who is kind and good, an innately decent person – with a mordant wit. Which I am drawn to. Given my origins, it’s not surprising. Black humour. I did once have a yoga teacher who said, ‘Oh, you New Zealanders, you are so decorous, you have such beautiful manners –and you are so vicious towards each other in private.’ I recognise myself in that description and I recognise my family too.

KF: And people come to you and express this?

MF: I have to say that the other side of that – is that I wrote In the Time of Manaroans in a cold sweat of terror. ‘What can I say? What is it OK to say? How do I let my imagination run and but not be cruel?’ I abhor cruelty. I need an enormous amount of kindness myself. And I teach. Kindness is essential. I was constantly juggling the question of how to write about people that are real and living and named. All of that. Mind-fuckery.

At the same time, I gave myself the liberty of writing in a snowdome. I thought, ‘My God, I was 15!’ I was about 54 years old when I started Manaroans, and I thought: ‘Argh, none of them are going to read it. They’re far flung. They don’t read books. They never go to book shops. And they’ll never get hold of this book even if they do.’ That gave me a little delusional safe spot.

Then everyone read it. Everyone got in touch. And they all told each other about it. I have to say that I have been blessed, so far, that those that have got in touch have been enthused, sometimes done a bit of fact checking, but mostly, been astonished that the ‘I’ of the book, the Miro they hung around with, was also this 15-year-old fly-on-the-wall collecting.

KF: Observing.

MB: Yes, because as a 15-year-old you are underestimated. One or two correspondents have even apologised for that. Beautiful letters that have sustained me in the time of Covid and re-awakened a sense of continuity with the people and, in particular, the Manaroans. I found that many were still living out varieties of idealism, activism, of grassroots advocacy. I was moved by that and hoped the book had done them even a glancing justice. One person who wrote, Zlatka, has a small cameo in the book but was a legendary figure of the time. She wrote from Melbourne, where she is now a knitwear couturier. Zlatka remembered the Community Chest, and was she close to John of Saratoga who taught her how to crochet. John of Saratoga was a very beautiful man who came to a tragic end, but Zlatka said she felt the book restored him to her. During our ensuing correspondence she conspired with the Dulwich Hill Post Office to send me boxes of her exquisite knitwear.

KF: It’s not necessarily an easy one to answer, but I have a question to do with, I guess, the affordances of a fragmentary form. There are some very traumatic things that happen in this book – in particular, loss of life. And I know this interests a lot of our students, which is why I am asking you about it here. How do you write trauma in memoir? I mean, this is opening a huge can of worms, but I think it is something that interests many people who are listening. Can I ask how you engaged with some of those difficult moments, including your uncle’s death? How did you decide to write those stories?

MB: Two things. Firstly, economically. This book was never going to be fictional, nor did I see it as a piece of analysis. The narrator is reflective, and there are moments where I take a long look back and allow myself to be analytical. But … there was a kind of stringency about how much I could say. It was the idea of freedom in limitation. Something about the spareness of the form, the way I was writing it, gave me freedom. I only had so many words I could use – that was the feeling. That’s the screenwriting training.

There’s also a strong honouring at work. There are two suicides in the book and a double murder. Particularly the murder, I couldn’t leave that out because I no longer heard that person’s name spoken. I hadn’t heard his name spoken in so long. I went back to the record, the public record, but googling New Zealanders from Australia is a vexed category. You don’t get much. I had a lot of particulars but even so, I couldn’t find anything, and I wasn’t able to travel back to libraries. That disturbed me. As I say in the book, I don’t want John of Saratoga’s name to sink like a ship below the horizon. There was a need to name the dead who I had loved. An act of honouring was at work. That doesn’t take the heat off the material, but it re-focuses it. I can’t think of how else to say it. You write tremulously. It’s a powerful thing to engage with, a bit sacral, a bit difficult, and you tread lightly.

This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.