Wellington author and educator Mandy Hager's novel for young adults, The Nature of Ash, was published in 2012. Set in NZ 20-odd years in the future, corporations control resources, leaving the local population disconnected from the land and powerless. Main character Ash (Ashley) McCarthy is an 18-year-old living in a student hostel and the novel opens with Ash and his friends embarking on a night of heavy drinking, to settle their fears over the torpedoing of an Australian ship in NZ territorial waters after a prolonged dispute. We ask Mandy Hager a few probing questions about the book, its characters and what she's working on next.
1. Young adult readers appreciate fiction that honestly engages with the chaos and complexities of war. Why do you think they have such an interest, even a thirst for writing that taps into this territory?
I think young people are looking about them and redefining the world with fresh eyes at this age. They are starting to see the power structures and inequalities, the imposed controls and frightening complications of the adult world and realising that they somehow have to carve out a place for themselves in this big mess we’re leaving to them! In some ways reading about this kind of thing is a safe version of an initiation ceremony – putting themselves into the shoes of beleaguered characters in dangerous situations and thinking about how they would cope, without having to go through the actual trauma. Here’s hoping our young people only ever have to experience the brutality and pointless destruction of war through fiction.
2. Ashley, like many ordinary people caught up in war, must struggle to survive in a web of action that is outside his control. What interests you about exploring ideas of individual and collective freedom and choice in the context of war?
I’m very interested in the fine line between freedom fighter vs. ‘terrorist’, and the way we marginalise, dehumanise and demonise groups that are different from our own, in order to label them ‘the enemy’ and, therefore, justify the use of force. I want to provide an alternative narrative to the racist and xenophobic ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, and to encourage a greater questioning of the decisions made on our behalf. I’ve been thinking about Aristotle’s political philosophies, and how we could hold up ethical right action and thinking as the role model for advancement in human hierarchies, rather than the ridiculous situation we’re in today where those with the most money (and self-interest) end up in control, perpetrating policies that keep this imbalance in place.
3. Main character Ash’s brother Mikey has Down syndrome. Their relationship is central in the book and encourages readers to confront prejudices that can surround disability. In what ways does Mikey challenge and inspire Ash?
I was very keen to make sure that Mikey had equal agency in the book – to make him a real person with real thoughts and feelings (including all the complications of adolescent hormones!) and who also plays an important part in Ash’s journey as well. What Mikey offers Ash is unconditional love, a capacity for simple joyfulness, an intuitive reading of people and situations, and a lesson in how those deemed ‘outsiders’ have a unique perspective to contribute – how they have a valuable role to play in all our lives. He’s the personification of compassion (while still being an annoying little brother in a very ordinary way!) – Ash comes to realise that Mikey’s so-called disability is much more gift than curse.
4. Would you describe The Nature of Ash as a dystopia?
I guess if dystopia means ‘a state in which the conditions of life are extremely bad as from deprivation or oppression or terror’ (as per the Free Online Dictionary definition) then, yes, that’s what it is. But that’s a scary admission, as everything depicted in the book is already going on somewhere in the world today. The underlying political situation described in the book is the ‘logical’ outcome of the ideology we are currently following in this country, with the relinquishing of vital assets, resources and sovereignty (coupled with peak oil and climate change) destined to widen the gap between rich and poor (the 99%) and disenfranchising vast swathes of the population. Also things like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will walk all over our sovereignty and hand over power to transnational corporations. The actual opening scenario in the book is based on a discussion with an academic who has experience in international security affairs, including intelligence analysis and unconventional warfare – this is how he sees that things could realistically play out. Scary times.
5. What are you working on next? I’ve just started work on a novel about suicide, family secrets, and Vincent Van Gogh!