How to Loiter in a Literature Revolution: A review of Coco Solid's HTLIATW
Reviewing Coco Solid's How to Loiter in a Turf War, Damien Levi (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) marvels on the innovative novel that is giving a voice to the lived experiences of urban Māori and Pasifika. Through unpacking its themes and triumphs, a literary revolution on the rise is revealed, one that we need to get behind to transform the Aotearoa publishing industry for the better.
Traditional New Zealand fiction is awash with Pākehā perspectives. On the off-chance Māori are featured, it is usually through a Pākehā lens or focused on the struggle against adversity. Times are changing, however slowly, and there is a cohort of contemporary titles that evoke a palpable sense of evolution in the publishing industry. It is a change I am excited about and eager to be a part of. Jessica Hansell’s (Coco Solid) How to Loiter in a Turf War (PRHNZ, 2022) stands out as a cultural marker and a story in which queer Māori individuals like myself can see our authentic lived experiences, in a similar vein to Rebecca K Reilly’s 2021 novel, Greta & Valdin (THWUP).
It could be my naïveté or lack of exploration into non-traditional narrative forms, but How to Loiter in a Turf War, by subverting my expectations and perception of contemporary storytelling, radically challenged my conception of what fiction can be. I was so accustomed to traditional narrative structures and writing tropes that form held no excitement for me. Hansell’s work, however, weaves the expected fiction form into academic essays, poetry, illustrations and text message style dialogue, evoking the oral storytelling traditions of Māori and Pasifika peoples in which stories are living things. They evolve, change, and revert over time, and Hansell’s novel reflects this tradition in a contemporary form. Realising this was confronting for me. My expectations of what fiction should be were constructed by the decades of white writers I had consumed. Contemporary writers of colour have helped me to tear down these expectations and encouraged me to decolonise my mind in regard to literature.
Being able to express herself in a variety of ways through the novel allows Hansell’s multi-disciplinary talents to shine. The traditional narrative form pushes the story forward; the essays (fictional, but grounded on real scholarship) frame and add legitimacy to the book’s themes; the poetry provides insight into the characters’ deeper feelings; and the illustrations provide a visual reference of their perception of their world. All this, packed into 175 pages without feeling rushed or poorly paced, shows Hansell is an adept storyteller with a clear vision of how she wants to present her ideas to the world. Through my work on bad apple with emerging writers this past year, I have found that How to Loiter in a Turf War is reflective of the works these emerging minority voices are producing. They are writing poetry and short stories and creating their own art and photography. This mixing of art and literature to create work that is genre-bending yet cohesive encourages me to explore publishing more works that challenge traditional ideas of narrative, especially by underrepresented groups.
There is often an expectation for books by minorities to hyper-focus on the struggles or ‘underdog successes’ of the group. How to Loiter in a Turf War doesn’t fall into that trap. Although race, gender and sexuality are key to the story, they are facets of characters’ identities, not their sole identifiers. Te Hoia, Rosina and Q are not tugged along by the story’s themes; instead, the themes evolve from the lived experiences of these characters. This is significant to me when examining how the book and others like it fit into the Aotearoa New Zealand publishing landscape, and Hansell herself acknowledges the lack of diversity in the industry in an interview with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ’s Nine to Noon.
Developed through the themes of Auckland’s ongoing gentrification and racial tension, How to Loiter in a Turf War is an unapologetic critique of Pākehā society and its impact on established Māori and Pacific communities. It is a bold move for Penguin Random House NZ to publish it, considering that commercial success for most books in New Zealand predominantly relies on Pākehā purchasing habits. I have observed this critique of colonised society by Indigenous individuals in many other types of media, as well as literature from overseas, but have found it lacking in the local publishing of multinational publishers. PRHNZ deserves credit for platforming and supporting an important Indigenous voice in Aotearoa. In reading How to Loiter in a Turf War I feel galvanised in my goals to platform and create space for more diverse voices in the Aotearoa literary landscape.
In September, I was fortunate enough to attend a book club at Unity Books Auckland for How to Loiter in a Turf War with Hansell in attendance. In discussion of the book, she brought up how reviewers and readers felt dissatisfied with how the book concludes. That, despite a lot of difficult things happening to the main characters, at the end of the day they were ultimately okay. Unpacking this critique, Hansell talked about how the characters – regardless of the inequalities and struggles they face – have a sense of belonging, of friendship. They know their cultures and who it is they want to be. For a lot of minorities in Aotearoa, having the resilience and mana to keep moving forward is necessary in an environment stacked against them. Through this discussion, I was able to reflect on my own whānau, the lasting and continuing impact of colonisation on them, and how a sense of community and connection is vital for our success in the future.
Indigenous experiences are not a monolith. At times, we must wrestle with uncomfortable realisations about the role we play in the hurt of others. For me, this confrontation came in acknowledging my role as an active participant in the ongoing process of gentrification on rohe that is not my own. How to Loiter in a Turf War is centred around gentrification in Tāmaki Makaurau and its impacts on the existing communities in affected suburbs. We see it through Rosina’s art show taking place in a gallery that replaced her grandfather’s uniform shop, the phasing out of public transport as wealthier residents with cars move in, and the disappearance of local landmarks.
As a young adult moving to Tāmaki Makaurau for university, I was oblivious and ignorant to the history of the places I lived in. I settled in Grey Lynn, an area known for once being a hub of Pasifika immigrant families who suffered disgusting injustice and racial prejudice at the hands of the police and the New Zealand government during the Dawn Raids. Giving some background to the novel, Hansell has spoken about losing her grandmother’s home in Grey Lynn and the separation anxiety between her cultural connections and history with the area. Gentrification is an ongoing process: it expands and grows into new areas, pushing out long-established families and communities. Although I have greater awareness now, How to Loiter in a Turf War is a potent reminder of my participation in the practice, and how I must continue to reckon with how to navigate the issue.
Ultimately, How to Loiter in a Turf War has challenged my existing understanding of what a New Zealand fictional novel can be. It subverts the traditional narrative structure, moves fluidly through artistic forms, presents confrontational themes to a majority Pākehā market and allows its main characters to exist as more than their ethnicity, sexuality and gender. This book reflects a future I want to see in Aotearoa New Zealand publishing and it is my dream to be a part of this shift in the industry. Reading How to Loiter in a Turf War made me feel like change is happening and my goals are achievable. Kei ōku ringaringa te ao.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
Damien Levi (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) is a recent graduate of Whitireia's Diploma in Publishing and one of three recipients of the 2023 Creative New Zealand National Publishing Internships Initiative. As editor of badapple.gay, he has received funding from Copyright Licensing New Zealand to publish a collection of poetry in 2023.