Q&A: Nick Mulgrew on ‘A Hibiscus Coast’

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Nick Mulgrew

We have been eagerly waiting for the publication of Nick Mulgrew’s debut novel, A Hibiscus Coast. It is a delightfully innovative, surprising, and warm-hearted meditation on family, loss, and home, as well as a deft examination of dislocation, dispossession, and the cultural blind spots of two very different (and in some ways similar) communities. Mervyn was lucky enough to get his hands on an advanced copy, and Nick graciously agreed to answer some questions about the novel.

You’ve been working on A Hibiscus Coast since 2013. Why do you think it has taken so long for you to complete the novel and is the final version substantially different to earlier drafts and if so, in what ways?

The difficulty with writing the novel was that for a long time I wasn’t a good enough writer to write it. I don’t mean this in a twee, “Oh, here comes the Imposter Syndrome” kind of way. It was a challenge of technique. I had to work out how best to tell a complicated story that stretches across families, countries, idioms, histories, and cultures, but in which all the action takes place in only a few locations and a relatively short amount of narrative time.

From 2013 to 2016, most of the time I spent working on A Hibiscus Coast consisted of repeated attempts at writing the first chapter, in which the protagonist Mary discovers her neighbours have been killed while she was at Christmas morning mass with her parents. A breakthrough came for me when I had the opportunity to take a two-month residency on Sylt, a famously bleak and isolated island off the German coast, where many South African writers have bravely gone to lose their minds. But there I was finally able to finish the first chapter, along with the rest of the first part, and a year later I finally finished the first draft. But then the first draft didn’t work, so I had to go at it again. From 2017 to 2019, I rewrote A Hibiscus Coast seven full times. Some passages or chapters were rewritten ten or maybe even fifteen times before they clicked.

You have published two collections of short stories and a poetry collection since starting the novel. Did working on other stories and in other genres impact on your writing process with the novel?

The books of stories and poems were what I did while I was working on the novel, but were also the things that helped me learn how to write the novel. This is not a conventional book, with all of the shifting perspectives and timeframes, not to mention the weird documents and transcripts that make up so much of the story — and so it needed to come about through non-conventional means.

Much of the novel takes place among a community of white South African expats in New Zealand. Was that the starting point of the story you wanted to tell and if so, what drew you to them as a subject?

I’ve always wanted to write about white South Africans living in New Zealand precisely because I was once a white South African who lived in New Zealand. It was as simple as that. I also loved the idea of writing something set in the late 90s. It was a terrifically strange time for South Africa and most South Africans; even as a young child I experienced a sort of cultural whiplash. Our media and politicians were telling us everything was New – as in New South Africa, you know – but if you peeled back the veneer, so much was still so old and rotten.

The importance (both symbolic and practical) of land is a key element of A Hibiscus Coast but the land under discussion in the novel is in New Zealand, not South Africa. Land ownership and the historical theft of land is obviously a huge issue in SA, but your novel encourages SA readers to remember that issues of access to land are pretty universal, albeit with very different politics and histories in different countries. Were you writing about land in New Zealand specifically with a SA readership in mind?

I was writing about land because land is our universal concern. For all their differences as modern nation states, It’s no co-incidence that South Africa and New Zealand both have significant populations of people who live in precarious and vulnerable situations: both countries have a history of dispossession by (predominantly) British settlers, and either imperfect or non-existent ways of addressing that dispossession today. As such, they’re countries in which colonialism isn’t historical; it’s a process that’s still very much in effect.

What gets lost in the “debate” about land — and I use scare quotes here because my belief is that many people who get involved in debates over land reform do so in bad faith — is that land is a predicate for human society, and for individuals’ security and comfort. And yet, the societies we live in continue to deny so many people access to land. What are the forces that continue to drive this ongoing dispossession, and why do societies continue to allow these forces to operate? It sounds very academic, but that question was something I kept on coming back to while I was writing this book — how do these forces act in our everyday lives, even in domestic settings?

Mary is a wonderful character at the heart of the novel. She’s not perfect – nobody is – but despite being sent from SA by her parents as a young almost-adult to join this community of expats in New Zealand, she manages to define herself to some extent outside of the group into which she’s been thrown. She is a very complex character, beautifully drawn, at the heart of the novel. She seems as a character to represent possibilities – the possibility to grow, to change and she adds a hopeful tone to the novel which would otherwise be missing. Tell us a little about the genesis of Mary and how difficult she was to write?

I wasn’t thinking about this while writing her, but Mary’s a bit like South Africa in the 1990s: full of potential, but too wracked by trauma to fully grasp the possibilities and opportunities in front of her. She was easy to write, though. Her world is the world I grew up in, and in such a world, growth and change is the only possibility of escape. Ultimately, privilege is a trap of ignorance, and I wanted to write about someone who wanted, and probably needed, to struggle free from it.

A Māori character (and his family) play a crucial role in the novel and indeed the conflict over land is between him and the white SA expats (so while internationalising the issue of land in your story, you’re not letting white South Africans off the hook). How much knowledge of Māori culture did you have going into this novel, how much did you you have to learn and how did you ensure that what you ended up with was authentic?

I knew too little and I still know too little. My first port of call — apart from revising the Māori I learned at school — was literature and literary criticism. And although there’s only so much you can learn from books — one of the novel’s plot points! — I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives both in KZN and New Zealand.

Most importantly, from the outset of my work on the novel, I had been in touch with the committee of the marae in Ōrewa, the town in which I used to live, and where much of the New Zealand side of the novel takes place. A marae is a difficult thing to explain to people not familiar with Pacific peoples, but it’s essentially a meeting-place for social and religious functions, and they can act as a centre for community-building purposes, too. The marae committee in Ōrewa helped me hugely, including reading the finished book and checking for anything that might be written in an insensitive or hurtful manner, or historically weird or incorrect, or simply taboo. I was also fortunate to have the
help of a number of historians and academics, some of whom are descended from the people who
would have originally lived around where Ōrewa is now.

In other words, the book passed through a lot of hands. Although its shortcomings or errors are mine alone, I hope there’s at least some care and consideration evident in it.

There’s a lot of trauma in the novel, yet there’s a playfulness that is central to the tone as well from the brilliantly absurd emails that are circulated among the expat community in New Zealand, to an equally absurd but hilarious author bio to the awful design of a poster designed for a serious cause. It’s extremely difficult to hold the tension between humour and trauma, but your humour doesn’t feel disrespectful. Was that tone always central to how you wanted to tell this story or is it something that grew into the novel over time?

The novel’s tone is a product of my having spent so much time with the book. The plot is on balance a very sad one, and if I had managed to write the book right the first time, so that it didn’t need to be rewritten, it probably would have ended up about as uplifting as JM Coetzee reading out the obituary pages. So I tried to find space for humour in the book. The longer I spent with it, though, I realised that not only did the book need it – I needed it.

There’s also the fact that, you know, life is like that. Light and shade, comedy and tragedy. In turbulent times and in turbulent places, you sometimes swing wildly from one to the other. Catholics have a party after a wake, but if we have enough of a party, chances are we’ll go to another wake at the end of it.

You left SA to study in Scotland not too long before the onset of Covid. I imagine that your vision for the last year and a bit and how it’s panned out have been vastly different (similar to many of us). How difficult was it for you to have the world turn upside down just as you embarked on a new chapter in your life?

It was terrible! In a way, my wife and I have only just arrived in Scotland, despite having lived here for almost two years now. I haven’t been able to enjoy the literary scene, or meet many people, or find a publisher who wants to bring out my books over here. Covid’s made the British literary scene even more myopic. But we do have a dog, so, you know, light and shade.

Imagine you’re a bookseller. A customer picks up A Hibiscus Coast and asks you what it’s about. You’ve got one sentence to capture them before they pick up another book from the table. What’s your sentence?

“I don’t work here.”

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished John Laband’s The Land Wars and Zoe Wicomb’s latest novel Still Life, and am trying to decide what to read next. Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence is on the table in front of me, and I’m a pretty anxious person, so I’ll probably go for that.

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