by Michael Botur
The 24 year old born Miranda Lilith Pruitt – the woman who’d begun her poetry career at our humble 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 it 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 guts.
The award was announced by faithful emcee Muriel Malcolm at Local Vocal, the poetry evening our Independent Writers Guild put on every two weeks at the Bard & Barley. There was a coveted list for open mic 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. Miranda pushed behind her ears the kinky curls she had had Africanised 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 Nassau to sign the papers. All this, she’d confessed in the poem On Rejecting Privilege. The poem’s description of her parents’ holiday homes, trust funds, monolingual-imperialist English lexicon and neo-liberalist positions were truly worrying. 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 manager challenged her she came back later in the evening, chained herself to the bar rail and wailed about how smoking is the one pleasure People of Colour try to enjoy. 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 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 bigshot stale pale male publishers begging to immortalise in print 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 Doc Martens boots. The boots were black, her jeans were black, singlet too, and her hair and eyes. We’d watched her change over a few short years, transforming 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 have allowed my manuscript to be published by Defiant Press, y’know,’ Miranda drolled. ‘Just more publisher-pigs trying to immortalise another nigga’s words while she’s still alive. Course, none of you have to worry about publishers sucking on your talent, lol.’ She aimed her drunken, evil, slitted eyes at us, her coterie, her fortnightly family. She even glared at Mrs Gladys Fotheringay, winner of the 2013 Romance Writers Guild First 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 Irian Jaya 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. He’d once given Miranda $400 rent when she was facing homelessness. Miranda’s darting eyes tonight, however, indicated everyone was just an adoring blur. We weren’t in her league. We bored her.
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 support one another wholeheartedly upon founding the damn club, although when we graciously accepted the young Miranda Pruitt’s entrance into an exclusive circle of the most serious self-published writers in the land, 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” and thrust into prominence at the Writer’s 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 sabotage her. 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 transcribe the children’s pencil-written short story competition entries into typed documents which could be given to Sir Richard Bradbury, OBE, as he didn’t trust computers and preferred a pen and quill when marking stories. 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), told our Gladys “I can’t help with unpaid stuff if it’s not 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 podium with her fist in a Black Power stance with a mock Olympic gold medal around her neck (recreating Smith and Carlos’ 1968 Mexico City protest which had inspired her to get rid of her Anglo-Imperialist surname and replace it with an X in the first place, she informed our Gladys when Gladys telephoned to congratulate her).
The arts section interview was just the beginning of her star’s ascension. Three weeks out from the award presentation, Miranda appeared on Breakfast Today, the 6-9am television variety programme. They asked how her family felt about her success. Miranda sucked an unlit cigarette and told the nation that she was actually divorced from the entire concept of family, as well as friends. Miranda said she considered herself an adherent of the Mosuo cultural group in which women dominate society, practice ‘walking marriage’ instead of monogamy and will accept sex from males only at the woman’s discretion.
When coiffured host Lawton Christianson 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 belly covered in rhinestones spelling ¡VIVA CATALUÑA LIBRE! in glittering letters. 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 as the sun cooked the paint into fumes.
Miranda X’s walk-out and sit-down became a top 20 trending Twitter topic. This was international-level stuff. M.I.A. tweeted support. Neil Gaiman hearted her Facebook status. Michael Moore Instagrammed her. Beyoncé started the hashtag #HonoraryNegress. Sure she didn’t need friends, but by god they were there if she opened up.
Forgoing the warnings of Gladys that Miranda was changed irreparably, 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 dreams of literary grandeur which would be dashed as the realities of how the book industry crushes genius set in. Publishing his manifesto with a spine and cover, ISBN and barcode was a huge deal to Magnus and he’d had it printed at the university copy shop on their finest 65gsm 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.
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, as secretary, I sheepishly asked, on behalf of the club, 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.’
To tell her we’d be there up front and ready to clap would be a lie. It was hard to tell her what we had planned without affecting her feelings. We told her to set aside seats for all of us and left it at that.
The Writers Festival pumped Auckland with so much faith in the written word we were almost exhausted by the time the awards ceremony arrived on the final night.
There were crime scene photos printed on every bus under Lee Child’s hard, punchy name. Helicopters delivered Booker Prize-winners onto rooftop helipads so they could descend to the stage unmolested by shrieking librarian fans. We saw a hologram of Michael Crichton deliver a lecture on afterlife literature. We queued front row seats for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith and Lionel Shriver. 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. Invisible statements.
Carved into the People’s Choice Award were both Miranda Lilith Pruitt’s legal name and what she called her “Soul Name.” The award was carved from a shoulderblade supposed to have belonged to Dylan Thomas.
The last workshops and soirees and lectures wound down. There was a shared supper at which 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 bone and a giant cheque, apparently. We’ve heard she blinked in the stark white power-light and stuck her black power fist in the air, trying to look confident while searching the black clapping void for any sign of tired old 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 walked to the edge of the stage. Her lip appeared to tremble as she squinted to try and fight the light and find love amid an ocean of black strangers in which sat no parents and no friends. As for us? We were in the in the foyer, lined up, hand on the door, shushing the usher.
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 black past row after row of tuxedoed journalist and English student and German publisher, making gasping heads turn. In marched Beatrice and Sir Richard and Gladys and 36 others and finally Magnus, who had a red rose clutched between his teeth.
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. 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, scorching her as the emotion boiled out of our eyes as our voices erupted.
KA MATE! KA MATE! Ka ora! Ka ora!
KA MATE! KA MATE! Ka ora! Ka ora!