Skip to content
Koea, Shonagh
Writer's File

Shonagh Koea

Auckland - Tāmaki Makaurau
Koea, Shonagh
In brief
Shonagh Koea has published numerous short story collections and novels. She worked initially as a journalist, and then moved to write fiction, going on to win many significant awards and prizes for her work. Koea’s subject matter ranges in focus, though women’s and men’s roles and relationships play a key role in her narratives. The Kindness of Strangers (Kitchen Memoirs), published in 2007, is a collection of Koea's memories from her various roles as daughter, wife, mother, journalist and novelist.
  • Primary publisher
    Random House NZ
  • Rights enquiries
    Random House NZ, Private Bag 102950, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland 1310
  • Publicity enquiries
    As above


Koea, Shonagh, fiction writer, was born in Taranaki and grew up in Hawkes Bay. An assiduous writer as a child, at the age of 8 she won two guineas in a Woman’s Weekly competition. She became a journalist, and in her late teens married a fellow journalist, later editor of the Taranaki Herald. He died suddenly in 1987 and three years later Koea left New Plymouth and moved to Kingsland, Auckland, pursuing her interest in antiques and paintings, which had already resulted in a number of articles.

Koea’s fiction was first published when she was in her early 30s. In 1981 she won the Air New Zealand Short Story Competition and since then, stories have appeared regularly, several being anthologised. Now a full-time writer still living in Auckland, she has published two collections of short stories and three novels, and has won three major literary grants.*

In 1993 she was writing fellow at Auckland University, completing the short story collection Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight (1993) and her third novel, Sing To Me, Dreamer (1994). A fourth novel, The Wedding at Bueno-Vista, was published in 1996.

A contrast between domestic misery and various forms of withdrawal or escape recurs in Koea’s fiction. Several stories in her first collection, The Woman Who Never Went Home and Other Stories (1987), describe the lives of women who escape spiteful families and sanctimonious friends by fleeing to romantic locations. Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight, her second collection, contains comedies of manners and tales of everyday cruelty alongside stories of great poignance; ‘Good Order and Naval Discipline’ and ‘The Magic Way’ evoke Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson, filtering familiar characters, situations and language through a late-twentieth-century sensibility.

Koea’s first novel, The Grandiflora Tree (1989), describes the protagonist coming to terms with the death of her husband. Hindered by his self-absorbed friends, her sense of emptiness is worsened by the discovery of his youthful diaries, which cause her to revaluate her understanding of their life together. Fending off unwanted attention of all sorts, she finally withdraws to anonymous isolation.

The title of Staying Home and Being Rotten (1992), Koea’s second novel, refers to the efforts of the protagonist to escape her past following the death of her husband. After being lured to London by a cruel and incorrigible seducer, she returns dispirited and impoverished to New Zealand to her tiny city cottage and her cat.

Coming to an arrangement with a wealthy businessman, she finds the promise of real autonomy through her knowledge of paintings and work as an art dealer; her stock initially comes from her own crowded walls.

In Koea’s fiction, male characters are sometimes oppressive, and the women correspondingly humiliated and helpless; her female characters often go to great lengths to maintain their composure in the face of intolerable bullying. After a period of helplessness, however, they ultimately take charge of their own lives. Koea’s third novel, Sing to Me, Dreamer (1994), revisits the territory of the apparently defenceless woman alone. After years living in India as a Maharaja’s consort, the unworldly Margaret Harris returns to the composite city of Hillingdon to sort out her mother’s rambling estate. Installing an elephant in her back garden, she holds out against plundering neighbours and a rapacious lawyer, finally triumphing through calculated resistance.


* Please note, since The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature was published in 1998, Koea has published several further books and collections, detailed in the Additional Information section below.


Shonagh Koea has published three collections of short stories and seven novel. She was awarded the Auckland University Literary Fellowship in 1993, and the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship in 1997.

The Lonely Margins of the Sea (Random House, 1998) was runner up for the Deutz Medal for Fiction in the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Time for Killing (Random House, 2001) is a picaresque and light-hearted tilt at prostitution, the Mafia, real estate and the supernatural.

Yet Another Ghastly Christmas (Random House, 2003). December 25th is approaching rapidly, and Evelyn's so-called friends are getting anxious about where and with whom she is going to spend Christmas. All Evelyn wants to do is to be left alone to attend her small garden and finish reading her novel about the soldier who killed himself. The novel is a crafted commentary on humanity from the inside.

The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} (Random House, 2007) is a collection of Koea's memories from her various roles as daughter, wife, mother, journalist and novelist. This is a unique record of New Zealand history over the past 50 years, called, 'A truly delectable read' by Graeme Lay, in the New Zealand Listener, August 25-31 2007.

Sing to Me, Dreamer, originally published in 1994, was reissued by Random House in 2009. This new edition includes four short stories, an introduction written by Shonagh Koea, and also a Question and Answer section about why and how the novel was originally written.