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.
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