Q&A with Mandy Hager about her new book for young adults, The Nature of Ash
The latest release from Wellington author and educator Mandy Hager is a novel for young adults called The Nature of Ash.
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.
Ash receives the terrible news that his father has died in a bomb blast.
Everything changes for Ash as he must deal with his father's death,
look after his handicapped brother and leave town as the threat from
offshore gets seriously worrying. We ask Mandy Hager a few probing
questions about the book, its characters and what she's working on next.
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!
Go in the draw to win two copies of The Nature of Ash, courtesy of Random House, by heading to the Book Council's Facebook page and telling them why you want to read The Nature of Ash.