Today we welcome author Melissa Fagan to share how she came to write about the family behind the iconic Brisbane building, her own, in What Will Be Worn: A McWhirters Story.
We also had the pleasure of reading this fascinating title… our review below.
When my grandmother died in August 1999, I was asked to give a eulogy at her funeral. I was twenty-six and had never given a eulogy before (I haven’t given one since) and my first few attempts were overly earnest, striving for a profundity I did not feel. She was a complicated character – very funny, and unashamedly herself, but also something of a tyrant – yet my overwhelming impression of her life, or what I knew of it, was that it had only been half-lived. Was a eulogy the most appropriate time to express this? I wasn’t sure.
The night before her funeral I stayed with my mother and sister in a motel in Montville, a quaint, touristy town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, where my grandmother had lived in as a child. On the actual day, I woke feeling panicked; I still hadn’t written my eulogy. I went out for a coffee and cigarette at a local cafe and started writing about my failure to write anything substantial, my thwarted desire to say something meaningful. I tried to imagine what her heaven might be like, and went from there.
Later that morning I stood behind the pulpit and told the small group of friends, family and acquaintances that this is what I had done. I drew a picture of the kind of place that might settle atop the Magic Faraway Tree, the Land of You Can Always Get What You Want – my grandmother’s version. I told them that her heaven was a place where there is a luau every night (she loved Hawaii), and regular cruises to exotic destinations (she loved to cruise), where muu-muus are compulsory attire at all times (her favourite attire), where everything’s always on sale (she loved a bargain), where food has no use-by date (she never threw anything out), where hearing aids are not affected by background noise (she was deaf), and where you can play the same pokie machine for hours using only one coin because you always get out exactly what you put in (who knows why she did this, but she did).
Did I get it right, or even close to right? I remember people telling me that they thought I had spoken well, that in my words they recognised the woman they knew. But that night, when the family gathered at my aunt’s home in Mapleton to eat and drink and regale each other with memories of my grandmother, I asked my mother why her mother had been the way she was. She told us about my grandmother’s affair, which led to her parents’ divorce in 1950s Brisbane, how she’d never recovered from the shame and scandal of it. There had been a whole other side to her, a whole other life, a whole other story. I wouldn’t attempt to tell that story for over a decade, a fuse was lit; I knew that night that there was something there, at its heart, that would reveal the pattern of not only my grandmother’s life, but my mother’s and my own.
In many ways the grandmother I knew, and eulogised, was a caricature: a collection of habits and sayings and other idiosyncrasies. I used to regret that I would never truly know her, that I hadn’t even tried while she was alive. One of my cousins, after reading What Will Be Worn, echoed this same regret. Would she have answered our questions, had we thought to ask? I don’t think she would have. Either way, the woman I have reimagined her to be in What Will Be Worn is as close as we will get.
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What Will Be Worn: A McWhirters Story Synopsis
Sometimes it seems the most invaluable stories can be found in the unlikeliest of corners.
For all who know Brisbane, McWhirters, a once celebrated department store in Fortitude Valley, is an icon. For Melissa Fagan, it is also the starting point for this remarkable exploration of her mother and grandmother’s lives, and a poignant reminder of the ways in which retail stores and fashion have connected women’s lives across decades.
Behind the dusty shop counters of an Art Deco treasure, Fagan discovers both what has been lost and continues to shine. Ultimately this tender exploration of self and family, so exquisitely written, speaks of the ways in which life so often surprises us and of how the legacies of others can truly enrich our own relationships and lives.
‘With delicacy, flair, and an ever-questioning but never judgemental eye Fagan performs beautifully the dance of writing history, slipping seamlessly back and forth between what is known and what must be imagined.’ — Peggy Frew, author of Hope Farm
(Transit Lounge Publishing, 1 September 2018)
I, along with so many of my peers here in Australia, am a child of a migrant. Perhaps this is why we are so drawn to tales of industry and pioneering spirit — of people that packed up all their worldly possessions and left everything and everyone they ever knew behind in the hope of something better for themselves and their families; those daring enough to try their luck on foreign shores.
When James alights at Eagle Street Pier and sets foot, at last, in the city that will one day be synonymous with his name, he sense straight away that this place, with its rough edges and its sharp light, will suit him just fine. He cannot wait to get to work.
Born and raised in Brisbane Australia, the names and locations featured in this McWhirters family story are deeply familar to me. I worked for many years and still routinely dine along the same (albeit much more refined) Eagle Street Pier where James McWhirter landed back in 1878. In that context I can vouch for the now heritage-listed McWhirters Building’s iconic standing in our city. To this day, when giving directions to a restaurant/bar in Fortitude Valley people routinely start with “Well, you know where the McWhirters Building is…”. So, it will come as no surprise to hear I found the story of the people behind this beautiful facade, along with the 8-page photo inset, simply fascinating.
Writing a family history/memoir when personal records are scant and elderly relatives party to fractured relationships are less than forthcoming, must be such a tricky thing. So while I found the narrative back and forth through time (and between documented fact and that imagined or surmised) jarring at first, I grew to appreciate the way Fagan has patched this layered tableau of historical events and personalities together.
Readers less interested in the historical elements are likely to be engaged by the author’s exploration of the integral role that appearances have played in her family’s life and her own to this day, the good and bad.
There’s a part of me — the little girl who lives inside me still — that yearns, even now, for the idealised life of an E.M Forster heroine or a dancing princess. But I’m thinking about a moment as though it were a lifetime. In my whimsy I’m forgetting how the fairytale ends…
In What Will Be Worn Melissa Fagan’s candour in respect to her own life choices and family members still living is striking and the avoidance of sentimentality admirable. A captivating weekend read.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
Get your copy of What Will Be Worn from:
Genre: Historical, Memoir, Non-fiction, Drama
About the Author, Melissa Fagan
Melissa Fagan is a writer and editor based in Brisbane, where she also teaches and lectures in creative writing courses at the University of Queensland and QUT. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, QWeekend, and others. At various times throughout her life (but mostly pre-21st century) she has worked as a receptionist, data entry clerk, call centre operator, market research telephonist and editorial assistant. She has also taught swimming and horse-riding and led tours through South East Asia. In 2018 she started a practice-led PhD in travel writing with Curtin University and the University of Aberdeen.