Nick Mulgrew was born in Durban in 1990. The recipient of the 2016 Thomas Pringle and 2018 Nadine Gordimer Awards, he is the author of four books, the most recent of which is A Hibiscus Coast. He was also a runner-up for the 2021 Desperate Literature Award in Madrid.
Nick currently lives in Edinburgh, from where he runs the multi-award-winning poetry press uHlanga, and is working toward a PhD at the University of Dundee.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place by email between Edinburgh, Scotland and Cape Town, South Africa.
Kris: I’ve tried to come up with an opening sentence that introduces the story of A Hibiscus Coast, but it seems like neither one character nor one story is quite at its centre. I’d still call it a novel, but one that tells stories via emails, newspapers, and even via a telebingo board. It seems like you’ve gone to some very creative and effective lengths to tell the story in the way that the novel does. I suppose how the story is conveyed, how authorship is created, is a concern in the novel?
Nick: Absolutely. The narrative mechanic driving the novel is a young woman’s attempt to tell her story of migration and personal trauma. Soon, however, she begins to recognise that her story is entangled with other people and their own stories of migration and trauma. So she tries to document everything she can about these other people too. This, of course, is an imperfect process – her perspective on the world is limited to that of a nineteen-year-old slacker from Durban North. As someone who was also a nineteen-year-old slacker from Durban North, I can attest that this is a very limited point from which to view the world.
In a way, the novel is also about that too: how we are trapped by our own subjectivities and histories. Our own very being in the world circumscribes what we can know about it, even (or especially) about the people and events closest to us. Of course, we don’t have to accept this fact – the young woman, Mary, certainly doesn’t, and, in a way, neither does the novel. A story being imperfect is no reason not to tell it. I suppose that’s why it isn’t told in a traditional way: apart from some short sections of traditional narration, there are transcripts of audio, articles from newspapers, emails, posters, and God knows what else I put in there.
Kris: But a story imperfectly told can have damaging effects? The young journalist in the novel who interviews Buck uses Buck’s own words against him. But then again a story with the appearance of perfection could be just as damaging. Could it be that stories can appear perfect, and in so doing affect the reality that they purport to represent?
Nick: Of course. I studied journalism at UCKAR (the University Currently Known as Rhodes), and one of the first things I was taught was that objectivity is an unattainable ideal. On reflection it’s probably the best thing they could have told us: you have to aspire to something that is impossible. That paradox creates a good deal of generative self-reflection. In practice, it foregrounds the constructed and mediated nature of news, and of stories in general. But more importantly it’s a reminder that a story can be a way in which a power dynamic is expressed. Exposing this dynamic, often within the story as it is being told, can be a winding path – but it is the one that I personally believe – at least at this point in my life – that leads closest toward both an accurate and compelling depiction of the world, or toward the fullest and broadest realisation of one person’s perspective.
“There are the multiple potentials of homes, but how do you realise any one of them? The problem, of course, is that wherever you travel, you have to bring yourself along.“
A Hibiscus Coast, of course, is full of people who would disagree with me. Someone like the young journalist, who so vexes and frustrates Buck throughout the novel, is ignorant of the fact that he is little more than a vessel for the conservative values common in small-town New Zealand; a world that mirrors itself back to itself. In other words, he takes everything at face value; what he encounters first is what entrenches itself in his mind. Someone like Alette Terreblanche, however, the ex-journalist who compiles the notices for the South African Club of the Hibiscus Coast, as well as her own increasingly unhinged newsletters for South African “ex-pats”, is convinced of her own power to see hidden meanings in everything she encounters; meanings that link up conveniently well with her apocalyptic paranoia about the future of white people in South Africa. Both of these people are equally adept at finding facts, and yet equally susceptible to manipulating them, unknowingly and recklessly, to their own, largely unchallenged worldviews.
Kris: The journalist acting with ignorance and Alette Terblanche acting with conviction is a fascinating mirror. I suppose Mary gets entangled in similar acts when she makes the posters for Buck. Ironically, and much to his frustration, people seem more attracted to what Buck sees to be an image of cultural appropriation, or rather as an image of exoticisation. The crowds would not have turned up without Mary’s accidental exotisication. But without the inherent racism that led Mary to draw that poster, I guess Buck wouldn’t have needed to organise the Hangi.
Nick: I suppose the practical point that might be taken from the story is that the forces of wider society are almost completely out of one’s control. What is more under control is one’s awareness of and reaction to these forces. With a greater understanding, both of oneself and of surrounding forces, like a practitioner of judo, one can manipulate a force against itself, or divert it elsewhere, possibly to one’s advantage.
As you point out, Buck learns this lesson, even if it is somewhat unintentionally. He’s a man who has already been through so much that I didn’t want him to have to go through a long dark night of the soul like Mary or Mark Bothma does. Buck knows himself better than most people know themselves, and so his worries – at least at this later stage in his life – are far more practical than existential. His problems are much bigger than himself. For example, Mary, in her enthusiastic naivety, draws an incredibly offensive poster that promotes Buck’s event far more effectively than his own sober advertisement – what a shitty experience that is! But it doesn’t surprise him. He already knows that the society he lives in sees little importance in issues affecting people like him – that is until that society sees that those interests are under threat by foreigners. Then the inherent forces of racism in the society he lives in are eclipsed, at least for a moment, by the forces of xenophobia, or at least xenoscepticism. Buck doesn’t have to accept this hypocrisy, but in the end I think he learns how he can manipulate people’s prejudices to his advantage. The long-term success of his project will chip away at the prejudice that made his project so important in the first place.
Writing realist fiction is a somewhat similar process. The first part is correctly identifying the forces at work in a community or a person. Then it’s about manipulating those forces, both through and into a narrative that can be artistically realised. This is all very abstract, but the fact that we can talk so abstractly and tangentially about the book’s plot means that the forces that catalyse it are recognisable and, I hope, provide some points for reflection – which is, at least for me, the point of writing a novel like this.
Kris: Manipulating the forces surrounding a community or a person is an interesting way of looking at the process of writing. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier with regards to authorship. I’m also seeing – perhaps looking for – a connection between you being an author and you being a collector of stories. I mention this as a segue into asking you about how running a poetry publishing house, uHlanga, might complement your writing styles.
Nick: For me, literature is urgent. There is so much in the world that demands addressing – writing and publishing are the ways in which I can do that, and in which I can help other people do that.
I’ve been publishing as long as I’ve been writing seriously. uHlanga is a personal project that I’ve been working on since 2014, which itself came out of another project I was involved in from 2013 to 2019, which was a magazine called Prufrock. Prufrock was born out of a sense that South Africa had no literary magazines that appealed to a non-specialist literary audience; uHlanga is much the same, but for poetry. I always used to say that, as a writer, I cannot thrive unless the literary community I work in is thriving. I still think that – but I understand now that, much like most parts of South African society, vast and systemic change needs to happen deliberately toward that end, and most of that change is out of my control or influence. On the plus side, I like to think that both projects have opened up opportunities, both for readers and for writers, that did not exist before in South Africa. For uHlanga, I think success means there being a press that stands for identifiable aesthetic and political ideals. At the very least, I hope that the books I publish constitute some sort of generational expression for the troubled times into which both myself and the excellent poets I work with have been born.
That all said, being able to do publishing work – to help bring other people’s work and stories into the public sphere – brings me a lot of freedom in my own work. I don’t have to tie myself up into knots, doing this thing that a lot of writers do, asking myself, “Oh, is whatever I’m writing about important enough to be writing about, when there’s so much else in the world that’s more demanding and important?” uHlanga lets me leave alone that question, or even the question about whether it’s one that writers should be asking themselves in the first place. I can focus specifically on whatever mess I happen to be focusing on, and trust that the publishing work that I do is addressing the more important business. It’s a sort of freedom.
Kris: One of themes addressed in the book is that of freedom. It glimpses at a fantasy freedom of the South African ex-pats who want to remain in control of their destiny and, particularly, continue to have some land of their own. It also glimpses at Buck’s fantasy freedom of him not having to lose his land to foreign migrants, again. The setting of your book, 1997–1998, was when South Africa and South Africans became a spectacle of freedom for the world’s gaze. Indeed the fantastical way freedom seemed to have been achieved is something that much of the literature written after the end of Apartheid addresses. But what led you to address the story of white South African migrants during this time? Are my thoughts that it had something to do with the global spectacle of freedom pointing in the right direction?
Nick: Indeed, but it was also more practical than that. I wrote about white South African migrants because I was – and recently have become again – a white South African migrant. Of course, the entirety of human history might be summed up in the two words – “Humans migrate” – but mine was not an experience I had ever encountered in literature. (A Hibiscus Coast isn’t autobiographical, but is based directly on experience, both mine and other people’s.)
As you rightly point out, the immediate years after our first democratic elections were partially defined by what we might like to call a performative freedom. The end of formal apartheid was something to be rightly and full-heartedly celebrated. However, the immediate socio-political and economic changes that needed to happen in the country to achieve actual freedom for the majority of South Africans – freedom from poverty, freedom from epistemic and cultural oppression, freedom from a capitalism that churned up and spat out black workers, and damned the majority of those that could not work to penury dressed up as welfare – simply did not. There is an argument to be made by people who worked in government at that time that many of these changes were attempted, but it’s the results I think we should be interested in here. What many people experienced, no matter their background, was a reality that did not fulfil a promise, even as the reality and the promise were being formed and modified in real time. As I get older I realise that I grew up in a society whose conception of itself was held together by symbols of exceptional grace – Archbishop Tutu crying at the TRC, Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela lifting the Rugby World Cup, and so on – that we replayed and replayed to ourselves – and literally, through mass media, until we internalised them and their supposed meanings. White South Africans in particular are adept at creating and believing our own propaganda. In South Africa, that’s one thing; but in another country?
I should also say that it isn’t just white South Africans who emigrate, nor that they do unthinkingly. Some of my friends growing up had family and loved ones in exile, and South Africans of all backgrounds have tried to make new lives for themselves all over the world, for all sorts of good reasons. What I’m trying to pin down here is a very particular zeitgeist.
Kris: I had to laugh at your two word summary of human history. It’s quite a brilliant summary.
Would I be wrong in locating the zeitgeist of migration in the hibiscus flower? Your use of the word “a”, an indefinite article, in the title allows for the Hibiscus Coast to be located everywhere in its singularity. There are multiple Hibiscus Coasts, but they all share the same spirit. They can all be called home.
Nick: The more prominent example of botanical migration in the book isn’t the hibiscus, but the rewarewa – Knightia excelsa, the only protea found in New Zealand, which lends its name to Ōrewa, where Mary ends up on the Hibiscus Coast. But the indefinite article is used, as you rightly point out, because there is more than one Hibiscus Coast. In the novel, there are two, but even within themselves, each of the Hibiscus Coasts mean something different to each character. For Buck, the Hibiscus Coast is home, but also the locus for his struggle to feel at home. For Mark, the Hibiscus Coast is a home which he left and yearns for, and is also a place where the very idea of home resists him. And for Mary one Hibiscus Coast is where she suffered an “almost” unbearable loss, the other is where she reconnects with and reevaluates that loss, and comes to terms with more quotidian and survivable losses. There are the multiple potentials of homes, but how do you realise any one of them? The problem, of course, is that wherever you travel, you have to bring yourself along.
Kris: Finally, and trying not too autobiographical a question, what made you include the slacker generation through Mary?
Nick: I think deep down everyone loves a slacker. But slackers have motivation for why they slack, you know? Sometimes you get to where you want by going around the wrong way to somewhere else. And sometimes that’s the best way.
Photo credit for featured image of Nick Mulgrew: Adam Mays.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.