Deportations. Soviet Russia. Young art students in love. These are just some of the ingredients to be found in Rosetta Allan's enticing new novel The Unreliable People.
Described as 'a compelling story where love and loss intersect unexpectedly with a Korean fable about a crow king and a rice farmer’s wife,' the Auckland writer's latest book, published by Penguin NZ, will be launched today.
We talked to Rosetta about her inspiration and motivation, New Zealand books she has loved and the appeal of dark mysteries.
Kia ora Rosetta! Please tell us about your new book, The Unreliable People.
In 2016 I was the first New Zealander to take up the St Petersburg Art Residency in Russia. I went there to research the volunteers who spend their holidays in the ring that was the Siege of Leningrad, uncovering, finding the millions of dead soldiers that still lay there, often just beneath the surface, sometimes in pits created by bombs in mass graves. I interviewed a volunteer. I went into the fields where bombs were still lying about, the iron skeleton of a stretcher, helmets with bullet holes in them, leather boot souls with nails hammered through them to grip the mud and snow. It was mesmerising, and I felt tingles all over me, but that wasn’t the story I would come to write. Somewhere I came across the story of the exile of the Koryo-saram (Soviet Koreans), and my new novel took a sharp turn in another direction.
‘The Unreliable People’ is what Stalin called the Koryo-saram. Some crossed over from North Korea in the late 1800s, then when Japan annexed Korea, a lot more cross over. They formed their own communities, became successful businessmen, academics, farmers, fought in the Red Army, supported the Bolsheviks, naturalised to Russian and took Russian first names, and became leaders in the Communist Party. But none of this mattered during Stalin’s purges. They were Asian. Therefore, Stalin believed that they were spies. The entire community was uplifted and transported in cattle-cars Nazi-style and sent into exile in central Asia. Many died on the train, and a myth was formed – the belief that those who were left behind would travel the train track for all eternity searching for loved ones.
My protagonist (Antonina) is training at the prestigious Academy of Art on Vasilevsky Island in St Petersburg. Her life is disrupted by the fall of communism, an unexpected pregnancy, and intergenerational trauma of being a third generation Koryo-saram – a people without a homeland. All this works its way out of Antonina through the fluidity between the conscious and the unconscious production of her sculptural artworks.
The invitation to your book launch mentions the venue as ‘atmospheric gothic.’ How does this relate to the book, and how important is setting a tone, or atmosphere, in your work?
Atmosphere is everything. I wanted the grandness of those gorgeous Russian Buildings for my launch, and although St Matthews is Gothic rather than Baroque, it has the same large-scale opulence that can take your breath away. In these types of buildings, there is always the sense of mystery of what or who was there before still lingering in the darkened corners.
Your novel Purgatory re-imagines the 1865 Otahuhu murders. What draws you to historical fiction?
The mystery. Those darkened corners I mentioned. I find a piece of information that resonates with something inside of myself. I feel empathy, curiosity, and desire to find out more. So, I allow the writing to be the place where I process my thoughts about the people, the place, and the time, all-the-while overlaying the issues and experiences on my own life. To be honest, I’m figuring out who I am within those pages, just as much as I am learning about my characters and their time/cultures.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books from this place?
Read NZ means supporting the New Zealand writing community by purchasing books, ideally from local bookstores. Our culture is multifaceted in this country, and the written word is one place where voice can be explored and celebrated. Whether the book is situated inside, or outside New Zealand, the perspective of our writers is quite often unique, and brave, and well worth reading.
This year, you are the Creative NZ/University of Waikato Writer in Residence in Hamilton. How has this opportunity changed your writing life?
The residency gives me time to focus on the new novel. I am attempting something different, and being here gives me the mental and physical space to experiment with it. Living in Hamilton is a new experience for me. I grew up in the provinces, so it reminds me a great deal of that time. The beauty of the natural environment is so close. The campus is so pretty, set around two lakes it has the feel of aspects of the Hamilton Gardens. Every Monday is movie night as part of the Hamilton Film Society where I meet people like Doug, a retired scientist who paints portraits in watercolour and writes stories of his own. Monday to Friday I have an office that is growing messier by the week, where I shut myself away to write. I live in a semi-rural cottage where a golden Labrador called Bella comes to visit first thing in the morning, and for a good hour in the evening. Life is good.
Is there anything about historical novels written in NZ that sets them apart do you think?
This is a question that has no simple answer because of the many facets that are enveloped within the overarching New Zealand culture. Perhaps this is what sets historical novels written here apart – the multi-dimensional aspect of it. Maori history here is long. European history here is short. The newer migrant history here is even shorter. But all have a voice, and all have importance. All have embodied histories brought to, and experienced within this country that carries tales of adventure, discovery, trauma, and overcoming. I think, generally speaking, New Zealanders are bold and brave, and this comes through in our writing.
Which New Zealand books/writers have been special to you in your life?
Janet Frame – Everything she ever wrote!
Paula Morris – Rangatira
Catherine Chidgey – The Wish Child
Elizabeth Knox – The Vintner’s Luck
Hamish Clayton – Wulf
Lloyd Jones – Mr Pip
Tina Makereti – Where the Rekohu bone sings
I could go on. And on.
If you were going to recommend local writing to other New Zealanders, which pieces or authors would you choose?
See the list above and more. We have such wealth of writers in this country, don’t we?!
What’s next in store for you?
A novel that’s closer to home. Hawkes Bay in fact, in the time of Muldoon. He is such a polarising character, even today. At the moment, this novel is very different from anything I have written before. I’m in the early stages so it could change, nothing is fixed, it all develops in the process of writing.