Short story by Michael Botur
[Did you know an NZ writer kicked this story out of a competition because it was published on my blog? Pretty stupid. – Ed.]
The 24 year old born Miranda Lilith Pruitt – the same lass who’d begun her poetry career at our trite tavern get-togethers reading entries from her journal in a teenaged voice so frail she struggled to be heard over the sound of people sipping the foam off their beer – was to be presented with the People’s Choice Award. With the award came a cheque for $10,000, budget to publish a hundred page poetry collection, and she would have her name engraved on a roll of honour in the English department up at the university. There wasn’t much we could do to stop her success. Now known as Miranda X, she was the most successful member of our literary community.
And we hated her for it.
The award was announced by faithful emcee Muriel Malcolm at Vocal Locals, the poetry evening our Independent Writers Guild put on every two weeks at the Bard & Barley. There was a coveted list for open mike readers which most of us had to wrestle to find a spot on, but now that she was to become writerly royalty, Miranda was invited up to the mike first, without so much as having to write her name down. Miranda pushed behind her ears the hair she’d had curled and dyed black to appear “more 99 per cent,” in her words. Rejecting her ancestry had provoked a dispute with her mum and dad which led to her legally divorcing them as her parents. They had had to fly back from Bermuda to sign the papers. She’d dirged upon her situation in the poem On Rejecting Privilege. The poem’s description of her parents’ holiday homes and neo-liberal comfort were truly confronting. Any one of us could have been Miranda’s mother or father, arrogantly forcing our love on a true independent spirit who needed no one but herself.
The Chosen One lit a cigarette, blew the smoke out then sucked it up her nostrils and exhaled it again, a stylish loop. Performers aren’t supposed to smoke inside, but the last time the duty manager dared to challenge Miranda she chained herself to the bar rail and wailed about how smoking is one of the few pleasures left for People of Colour. She carved Grand Dragon KKK servd here into the bartop before performing a full Māori war dance, slapping her thighs and tonguing the air and screaming KA UPANE! KA UPANE! KA UPANE WHITI TE RA! The police who asked her to leave were informed by Miranda, at exceedingly high volume, that this “haka” of hers could not be described as a threat, it was actually honour and respect and empowerment all mixed into one, following which they tucked away their notebooks and shrugged.
‘So I’ve got these stale pale male publishers begging to immortalise my every utterance or whatever,’ she said into the mike in an exhausted tone, and yawned, and sucked her smoke, and scratched an itch inside her knee-high boots. The boots were black, her jeans were black, singlet too, and her hair and eyes. We’d watched her, over a few short years, chrysalis from a waif with an unoriginal impedimenta of teenage angst into a bouff-haired militant in black and khaki with two holes cut out of her tank top so her pierced nipples could, in her words, “breathe.”
‘So, like, I’ve allowed my art to be published by some mainstreamer, y’know,’ Miranda drolled. ‘Just more publisher-pigs trying to immortalise a nigga’s words while she’s still alive. Course, none of you have to worry about publishers vampiring on your talent, lol.’ She aimed her eyes at us. She even glared at Mrs Gladys Fotheringay, winner of the 2013 Romance Writers Guild Best Kiss Award. Miranda took a slurp of her mulled wine, took the black necktie off her chest, tied it around her eyes in solidarity with blindfolded political prisoners being executed by firing squad, then launched into her West Papua Resistance poem. Six minutes after the red light had come on and Miranda was supposed to have been clapped off the stage by our emcee, she ripped off the blindfold and lurched into a tribal dance. Miranda X – about to be named the nation’s most innovative literary doyen for her poem ‘Everything That’s Totally Not Xenophobic about Brexit,’ which consisted of three blank pages – then pulled her singlet over her head and stood proudly, panting, chubby breasts outthrust, hands on hips, bathed in a standing ovation. Within seconds there was a mob of people three-deep at the tiny bar fighting to buy her a kombucha and a gluten-free slice. Amongst them was Magnus Nilssen, our neurotic young essayist who’d had his romantic overtures to Miranda rejected repeatedly. Miranda was seen to kiss Magnus on the cheek, for a moment, before kissing the cheek of Sir Richard Bradbury instead. He’d once given Miranda $400 rent when she was facing homelessness. Miranda’s weary face tonight, however, indicated everyone was just an adoring blur.
The rest of us sat stroking our Clearfiles, trying not to let her afterglow scorch the precious words we’d gone to Warehouse Stationery to have painstakingly printed, the cheeky limericks, the rhyming ballads, the excerpts from the historical novellas we’d never complete. We queued, waiting for the privilege of snapping a selfie with the literary queen we’d nurtured. We airkissed, we hugged, we flattered. We did every nice thing we could to keep her from realising we wanted to destroy her.
Overnight we commenced our campaign to publicly support Miranda X while trying to figure out a way to utterly annihilate her. We were the Independent Writers Guild, after all. We’d pledged to help one another wholeheartedly upon founding the damned club, although when we graciously accepted the young Miranda Pruitt’s entrance into our exclusive circle, none of us could have conceived Miranda would get as far as she did. Had we known she was going to be the person “chosen” by the so-called “people” to be thrust into prominence at the Writers Festival four weeks from now, we would have destroyed her years ago.
It was difficult just to have a quick coffee and zine swap with Miranda, let alone spend long enough with our new celebrity to talk her out of accepting the award. Gladys phoned Miranda repeatedly (costing Gladys tens of dollars as Gladys didn’t have a mobile telephone) hoping Miranda would still be available on the 29th to help grade pencil-written entries in the children’s short story competition which Sir Richard Bradbury, OBE, was sponsoring. Miranda said she was tied up at a photo shoot and despite having helped with the Children’s Story Awards ceremony each of the previous three years (the former highlight of our literary calendar), the newly-minted Miranda told our Gladys “I can’t help with unpaid stuff if it ain’t in my diary.” The photo shoot Miranda was preoccupied with turned out to be for a major interview in the lift-out arts supplement of the paper. In the pictures, our Miranda was posed on a mocked-up balcony with the words Lorraine Motel in the background, preaching her gospel of aspiration to a digital audience. Other photos showed Miranda dead in a pool of beetroot juice, clutching her heart, assassinated, her acolytes pointing to the rooftop from whence the bullet of martyrdom had come. After the photo shoot, Miranda said she would be busy at Internal Affairs filling out an application to get rid of her Anglo-Imperialist surname and replace it with an X.
The photos, the name, the otherworldly image: this was just the beginning of the star’s ascension. Three weeks out from the award presentation, Miranda appeared on Breakfast Today. They asked how her family felt about her success, and did she have a partner, and was he pleased for her? Miranda sucked an unlit cigarette and told the nation that she was actually divorced from the entire concept of partners, as well as family.
When coiffured host Lawton Hanson shuffled his notes and asked Miranda if she had anyone in her “writing club” she wanted to “give a shout out to,” and sixty of us pressed our noses against the TV screen in anticipation, Miranda said the only “shout out” she wanted to give was a shout against the Spanish government for its failure to grant Catalonia independence. With the host stunned, Miranda stood shaking her blubber on the couch, blocking out most of the sunny Breakfast Today backdrop, pulled her shirt up and revealed a new stomach tattoo spelling ¡VIVA CATALUÑA LIBRE! She then thrust two fingers at the camera and bellowed ‘Fuck fame’ before the steadycam maintained a shot of her black curls and Lakota shawl storming from the studio, reusable shopping bag of spray cans rattling on her shoulder, filmed her exiting the building, striding into the middle of Queen Street, spraypainting a blue globe, colouring the most underdeveloped nations in pink spraypaint, sitting down amidst the honking courier trucks and beginning to chant COLONISED LIES, COLONISED LIES, until a class of university students one by one joined her in the road, sitting cross-legged on the pink nations.
Miranda’s walk-out and sit-down trended on Twitter. M.I.A. sent support. Neil Gaiman liked her status. Caitlyn Jenner Instagrammed her. Beyoncé started the hashtag #HonoraryNegress. Sure she didn’t need friends, but by God they were on offer.
Forgoing Gladys’ warning that Miranda was changed irreparably and wouldn’t stoop to mingle with us anymore, we invited our local legend to the launch of the manifesto of pacifist pirate Magnus Nilssen. Sure there was only a week to go before she was to be presented with the Poetry Laureate Committee People’s Choice Award, but we hoped she could squeeze us in. Magnus, like Miranda, had joined our circle of scribes as a wet-behind-the-ears youngster with dreams of literary grandeur. Publishing his manifesto with a spine, cover, ISBN and barcode was a huge deal to Magnus and he’d had it printed at the university copy shop on their finest 100gsm distressed-edge cream paper. The book contained poetry, fiction, memoir, essay and recipes for Molotov cocktails. Vulgar stuff, sure, but we would bring gifts of chardonnay and canapés and we’d all buy a manifesto for $40 each and hold ours up for Magnus to sign with a silver Sharpie pen.
We would of course set aside a copy for Miranda.
Assuming she’d be there.
Shockingly, sickeningly, and weirdest of all, pleasantly, the nation’s literary ingénue replied to the email inviting her to Magnus’ launch with an RSVP and a smiley face and said she’d be delighted to attend, assuming she didn’t have any media to do on the day, which she almost certainly would, sad smiley face– ‘Oh, and BTW, how many seats y’all want?’
Each of us Googled ‘btw’ and ‘y’all,’ figured those mysteries out, then wesheepishly asked which “seats” Miranda was referring to. Was Miranda organising tickets for the March 4th public library launch of Beatrice Philgren’s Polish Plum Cultivars: Secrets Revealed?
‘Seats 4 prizegiving ceremony PPlz Choice u dummies,’ she wrote back. ‘C da medal up close sit in front row support my black ass.’
We told her to set aside seats for all of us, though they wouldn’t be filled.
The Writers Festival pumped the city with so much hype we were almost exhausted by the time the awards ceremony arrived on the final night.
There were buses printed with Lee Child’s hard, punchy name. There were choppers delivering Booker Prize-winners onto rooftop helipads so they could descend to the stage unmolested by shrieking librarians. There was a hologram of Michael Crichton delivering a lecture on ‘literary necromancy.’ We queued for front row seats for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A. J. Finn and Kazuo Ishiguro. The seats in front of Miranda’s award ceremony? We’d RSVP’d those, paid our $140 a ticket. That gave us the power to leave them empty. Human-sized holes in the audience. Conspicuous absences.
Carved into the People’s Choice Award were both Miranda Lilith Pruitt’s legal name and Miranda X, which she called her “Soul Name.” The award was carved from the oak desk of Janet Frame, word had it.
The last workshops and soirees and lectures wound down. There was a shared supper at which mummy bloggers and agents and superstar erotica writers forgot their differences and downed champagne. After this – we’ve since been told – the literati then filed into the theatre, the drums rolled, and the audience bathed the stage in applause. As the lights searched for her, Miranda walked awkwardly onto the rectangle of black in the middle of which waited a man with a plaque and a giant cheque, apparently. We’ve heard she blinked in the stark white beam of light and stuck her fist in the air, trying to look confident while searching the black clapping void for any sign of smalltown directionless indie authors she might recognise. We imagine the presenter, Nobel Prize for Literature winner J. M. Coetzee, must have looked like a fool. Fool, too, was the award recipient, who finally accepted the award when she could prevaricate no longer. Miranda tiptoed to the edge of the stage. Her lip appeared to tremble as she squinted, cupping a hand over her brow, trying to spot genuine admirers amid an ocean of tuxedoed strangers in which sat no parents and no friends.
Just as Miranda was about to sob into her hands and accept the collapse of the most important day of her life, we filed in, clopping through the darkness past row after row of journalists and English students and German publishers, making gasping heads turn. In marched Beatrice and Sir Richard and Gladys and myself and 36 others and finally Magnus.
We marched til the stage stopped us and lined up in front of 40 empty seats we wouldn’t need. We looked at one another. Coetzee polished his spectacles as he peered down from the stage, unsure what he was seeing. We breathed in synchrony. First we began slowly slapping our thighs, then our chests, then the right elbow, then the left, showing Miranda our teeth and tongues.
KA MATE! KA MATE! Ka ora! Ka ora!
KA MATE! KA MATE! Ka ora! Ka ora!