Culture //

In conversation with Miro Bilbrough

Talking to the New Zealand writer about her new memoir.

Art by Prathra Nagpal.

Miro Bilbrough is a New Zealand born writer, poet and filmmaker. Her new memoir, In the Time of the Manaroans, reflects on a distinct mythological milieu of the seventies, a self-adopted group of commune dwellers hailing from a small remote bay and farming community of Manaroa, New Zealand. The inspiration behind her 2003 film Floodhouse, she joined her father in isolated rurality at the delicate age of fifteen. The Back to Land movement and nature and nudity became part of her teenage years, alongside water from the Wakamarina River flooding the house where ‘nature encroached so you could see the sky through chinks in the walls boards’. It was a time and place now gone, distinct and extinct, Bilbrough remarks, but despite leaving the Manaroans, it is easy to see the tides of that time have stayed alive in Bilbrough’s veins. She was eventually, albeit briefly, a Manaroan herself. 

Sarah Jasem: You’re a filmmaker, a published author and poet, teacher. Yet elsewhere you state quite simply, ‘I am a filmmaker.’ I was wondering how do you navigate all of those identities, do they feel discrete at all?

Miro Bilbrough: My spontaneous response to that would be that they all talk to each other, that they are all part of the same changing thing that is the self. Sometimes, it’s a case of needs must, or you find an idea that suits a certain medium, so you switch to that medium without even necessarily consciously thinking about it. The idea may present itself and it’s a poem, or  it presents itself and it’s a memoir. Having said that, I did do a film that was very much like the precedent for the memoir.

SJ: Floodhouse (2003)?

MB: It was Floodhouse, yes. It’s just a different way of skinning the same cat… I would say the poet, the filmmaker, the memoirist, they are completely polymorphously perverse, they’re completely entwined with each other.

SJ: You say that there’s a back and forth in your work across different forms, a poetic dialogue. What are the topics of conversation you feel you’ve been having in this dialogue across your work and now in ‘In the time of the Manaroans?’

MB: I think if I too clearly identified that conversation, and was too conscious and analytical about it, I would no longer be interested in it. I am fascinated by mysteries, incompleteness, things that are only semi-visible, contradictory or paradoxical, and that sounds abstract but it’s not. It’s the way I encounter experiencing other people. So, a lot of my work is nutting out and not arriving at answers, but enjoying immersing myself in complications, the unknown, other people- because other people are always the unknown – and aspects of the self. Irrational behaviors and inconsistencies. As soon as a position is identified or something is clearly articulated and resolved, I can’t really work there. There’s no work for me to do.

SJ: I can see that within some of the imagery in your films. There’s a lot of imagery of women coming in and out of murky water, being submerged into an unknown deep.

MB: Yes, that makes sense. Immersion and the unknown- that’s the emotional world. By the time I left University in the eighties, where postmodernism was at its height, I felt embarrassed by having an emotional life, where to make a narrative that was fired by strong emotions was somehow a shameful thing to do. However, there was a point in the late eighties where I acknowledged that the audience was largely in the cinema for the emotional experience. Reintegrating that knowledge enabled me to start my working life as an artist. Having complex or powerful feelings to work on won’t give you a narrative, won’t help you technically, but it gives you something that can hopefully stay alive, something you can keep making contact with, even though its ephemeral, for the lifetime of you making the work.. Identifying that material that you have emotional stakes in, that’s a big deal. It doesn’t come around that often for me, so I wouldn’t say that I’m super prolific, because it’s like coal, it must have some heat in it to last. To make a feature film that lasts for seven years for example, so you need to be able to keep fanning the flames. We have moved from water to fire weirdly!

SJ: In your work you focus a lot on travel.What made you want to travel back to that part of your life in the seventies, and why now?

MB: The simple origin of this book was as a palate cleanser. I came out of finishing a creative Doctorate of Arts, so I had just written a 30,000 word exegesis. It’s a highly circumscribed space, language and series of protocols which I struggled to write within, I think as nearly everyone does. I came from a background as a creative writer, so there was a bit of a pressure cooker environment for me, in that my relationship to language was really under fire. When I came out of it, I think I just craved an open space to write in again, where I was deciding and regaining my language, whatever that might be. I probably wrote 10,000 words in a week. I have periods where I work within institutions, so by the time I get to go back to my work, I’m so desperate to make it that I don’t arse around . I said to my partner, coming out of the doctorate, “I’m not going to be anybody’s bitch.” I was unemployable, stone broke, and suddenly felt rebellious. I didn’t want to apply for money, I didn’t want permission. It was probably quite an angry phase? Which was great, because it was energizing, to discharge it all after pushing right to the edge of myself, working obsessively to get it done. It was a cleanse.

SJ: Like a pent up desperation to start something new.

MB: Exactly, except the desperation stops as soon as I start again, then it’s quite joyful really. I just sat down and just started writing the first pages of the book, which are still the first pages. It turned out to be a piece about my father, going to live with him at fifteen years old. I haven’t really analysed why. If we are living in a fast time now, it was a slow time then, pre-digital, pre-internet My family all cohabited while living very intensely in our heads, inside a space which allowed us to do that, which was kind of a blessing and a hell. It always is, when you’re inside your head, especially at fifteen. My dad was just newly divorced, so he was inside his head and my sister had just come to live with him as a child of separated parents, so we all had a lot to process. I also felt that when I wrote Floodhouse, there was a lot of unfinished business. I also started writing just before the whole #MeToo phenomena erupted, and as early as 2007 I remember always being in film schools with women and girls under twenty who were leaving home and suddenly negotiating their sexuality. II wanted to speak about it – the trials, the missteps, the traps and the exploiters, filtered through my own experience. That strong impulse had been accruing delicately, subliminally in the back of my mind and it was ready. You don’t have a lot of say in that.

SJ: In your films, your characters live in nature with creatures alike. There’s a creature in Floodhouse that flutters within a windowpane, the moth. In Virginia Woolf’s, ‘On the death of the moth,’ she views the moths’ activities with ‘a simple kind of pity.’ Would you say you view your characters with pity or empathy?

MB: I hope not pity. To me, pity implies superiority to the characters. I prefer the word empathy. I think writing out of pity is problematic. Empathy – that’s the writer’s job, unless you’re writing satire. That’s how you get to attempt to occupy another’s perspective and get under their skin. With pity, you’ll collude with them and be blind to their complicity and their flaws.

SJ: How did you turn that empathy onto yourself?

MB: It’s always very hard to write yourself as a character. Often my characters are an eye on a scene, a witness, and maybe that’s the artist’s character, I’m not sure. You have to occupy all your characters at some point to write anything that comes out of their mouth Once, a woman in the audience in Heidelberg, Germany, said ‘the men in your films are all like colorful birds. They’re exotics, they have no truth to them!’ I, of course, bridled at the time, but she was possibly pointing out that they weren’t as occupied. Maybe they were support characters.

SJ: It’s interesting that you lived in a state of freedom surrounded by nudity and nature, but at the same time, it was hard to negotiate your sexuality as a young girl.

MB: It was still patriarchal. The hippie movement wasn’t necessarily feminist. Although there were plenty of strong women around asserting their point of view, there was plenty of sexism too. Those paradoxes are always at work. I think whenever you get a tribe or a group of people strongly espousing one value or set of values, there’s usually going to be a subtext or an unconscious area that might be in defiance of the conscious position. I was also a child amongst adults, so negotiating sexuality in a world where everyone’s older than you is problematic. It was a libertarian kind of set up. Everyone was reluctant to enforce rules or laws, so in that dismantling of decorum, taboo and etiquette, invariably some of it backfires. There were women living on the commune who were more consciously influenced by American seventies feminism, but I wouldn’t say that was the governing ethos. It’s kind of complicated.

SJ: I guess in reading the book we can experience the complexities at play.

MB: Yes, and the book, it’s definitely not an essay. It’s a series of portraits, and a self-portrait running under that, often quite indirectly.

SJ: It’s amazing that the place you left at fifteen had such an impact on your life.

MB: I think that probably anyone that lived at Manaroa feels like that. It functioned almost outside of a monetary economy, because of its isolation, which meant we were actually very poor.  A cultural anomaly. There’s been nothing like it for me since and nor was there before, right down to the music that was played and the weather. 

SJ: What would you suggest to students who want to have autonomy over their own creative life, in this digital era when there is already so much out there?

MB: Getting it out in the world is hard but first and foremost, you make creative autonomy in the relationship between you and your materials. Investigate, find it, play, have fun. Some of the most pleasure I have in life is rubbing words together on the page and that’s total creative autonomy there. Getting published is another matter, but I always believe that you should make work for yourself first, invisibly. In the early days of my film career, I found the right people and I think that enabled me to make the work I wanted to make. 

In the Time of the Manaroans is available by ordering from your local bookshop, FROM Gleebooks and Victoria University Press from the 10th September in New Zealand, and shortly after in Australia. (Bilbrough suggests Bob Dylan’s albums ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ and ‘Desire,’  as the unofficial soundtrack to the memoir.)