Rapper-turned-author Tourettes writes a book about his old Auckland life

Poet, rapper and now novelist Dominic Hoey’s debut novel, Iceland, paints a picture of contemporary Auckland in decline – and gentrification as the enemy.

Auckland looms like a malevolent deity over Iceland, its dysfunction sinuously entwined into the dysfunction of its characters’ lives. Thirty-nine-year-old author Dominic Hoey (also known as rapper Tourettes) was brought up in a pre-gentrified Grey Lynn and lived there for as long as its rising rents allowed. The book reflects his own experience of the city. He started writing the novel five years ago, and much has changed for him in that time, not least an arthritis diagnosis, a pivot away from hip-hop, and the satisfaction he gets from his work as a mentor for kids kicked out of mainstream education.

Mentoring, arthritis, and the yoga he uses to treat it – these might not sound like identifiers of the angry young writer who began Iceland years ago. But Hoey, as anyone who has seen him perform his poetry recently will know, is still frustrated. If he has mellowed at all, that’s just because he now feels resigned to some of the problems faced by his home town, which I found out one Sunday evening as we chatted over a beer on Karangahape Road – “What’s wrong with this city?” he asked, after we tried three bars before finding an open one.

JAMES BORROWDALE: You’ve had a lot of success with your other creative
endeavours, such as hip-hop and poetry. Why write a novel?

DOMINIC HOEY: I’ve always been meaning to, for a long time, so I started writing short
stories and novellas but I never really did much with those – I think maybe one of them
got published – but it was more just to get practice at writing prose. I guess I just had
that story [Iceland] to tell and I didn’t feel there was another medium I could tell it in.
I’d always been writing prose and always been writing poetry while I was writing rap music, but it just took a back seat because rap was going quite well for a minute.

What is it you think you were trying to say in Iceland?
When you write something, you’re just trying to express yourself, you don’t really have this great grand scheme, but in the end, when you look back on it, I suppose I was trying to shine a light on this life and community that I’ve been part of that has, you know, allowed me to do all this amazing stuff but has also kind of been detrimental in a way. I wanted to show the lives of the people who don’t normally get attention, and how there is beauty and hilarity in all that, as well as the other stuff.

Iceland conflates the story of its two main characters, Hamish and Zlata, with a story of a city in decline. Can you tell me about the Auckland you have portrayed?
In my mind, it’s set around 2009 when I was still living in Grey Lynn, but only just.
We were living in this flat that was falling to pieces, with plants growing through the
walls, but that was the only way we could afford to live there still. I knew that our days
were up but I saw so many of my friends still trying to live in that area – and not
because of the cafes, or the convenience, it’s just where people had always lived and
they had so much sentimentality towards it. Everyone I was around at that time was an
artist, similar to in the book. I just sort of took all those ideas, and thought about what
it was going to be like in a couple of years, and where it could go as an extreme.

I want to say it feels “pre-apocalyptic” – the city in the book seems on the verge
of some kind of collapse. And your book is full of spaces where characters are
trying to hide, be that illegally or through art and music.
It felt kinda doomed at the time, and I tried to put that in the book. Everything was
always closing down and changing. [The characters] put all their eggs in the basket
of this art working out – then what happens when it doesn’t and you’ve never done
anything else? Which was very much my personal experience and the experience of a
lot of my friends. What happens when you don’t become famous? Suddenly you’re in
this world where you haven’t had a job and your CV is full of holes.

Where do you see your characters sitting in today’s Auckland?
Their drugs and hedonistic lifestyle, it doesn’t tend to end well. People hit a wall, and I think that probably would’ve happened to a lot of them.

Drugs are a big part of this novel.
Yeah, I didn’t actually realise that until I read one of the drafts a little while ago. I was like, ‘I guess I took a lot of drugs back then’.

Is that another way these characters try to find their own space in society, if only temporarily, by taking whatever they can get their hands on?
It’s just getting by, like surviving however you can. I think when you have poor people
dealing with trauma and poor people dealing with alienation and you don’t have
access to therapy and you don’t have access to meditation courses or whatever – even
doctors a lot of time – you do just end up taking cough medicine, prescription pills,
whatever.

The most striking aspect about this book, for me, is just the overwhelming isolation of its characters – everyone just seems completely lost. Is that how you felt back then?
That’s how I feel now. I think that’s why people have children, because it makes you
commit to society. When you get older you see the cyclical nature of everything, whether
that’s communities being destroyed, or arts communities building up and then collapsing
because money comes in. It also just seems like things are getting worse, with right-wing
populism. And even here. More people die in this country from suicide than car crashes
now. And a lot of people die from car crashes in this country, so that’s fucking crazy.

People familiar with your poetry will pick up on a familiar theme in the novel, of the effects of gentrification on communities. Given you began writing the novel some time ago, is it something that still concerns you?
Less so, because it just seems like such a losing battle. I also want to escape the city.
I’m learning to drive so I don’t have to live in the city any more. I feel really bad for young people, people who are in their late teens or early 20s now. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, because it was difficult for me, and I could always get a room in Grey Lynn for $70 a week, and I still struggled. And where are they supposed to hang out? There’s like four good bars in the central city, and two of them might be closing down soon. That’s the people I feel the worst for. Because I’ve seen this for so long, I’m numb to it.

You do a lot of mentoring with rangatahi excluded from mainstream education,
working with The Kindness Institute, which obviously means that the pessimism
evident in your work hasn’t discouraged you from personally taking a stake in the future of Aotearoa?
It’s just lots of us giving them hugs and telling them they’re awesome, and the kids
are achieving amazing stuff. If we’d had stuff like this when we were young, so much of
the stuff we went through discovering what we wanted to do or whatever, would’ve been
avoided. It’s so amazing to see that happen for some kids. One of the kids I’m working
with now wants to be a rapper so I’m helping him get beats and get recorded and get a job. It’s up to us as individuals to do our part.

How does it feel, doing press for the book, to have to throw your contemporary self back into the thoughts and attitudes of your five-year-ago self?
It’s really weird. Especially with getting sick – that changed my life so much. As soon
as I finished the first draft, I got sick [with arthritis]. So, there’s this line in the sand and
now I’m on the other side. This is fiction, but some of the stuff is based on what happened to me. It’s like, ‘did I really used to live like that?’

And you did?
Yeah. I had a few conversations with the publisher, and she was like, ‘this isn’t realistic’.
I’m like, ‘that happened. It totally happened to me’. A lot of stuff to do with drugs. One
character takes morphine and 12 hours later they’re still high, and she thought it would’ve worn off. I was like, ‘na, not if you take enough’. We had never met, so I think that she thought that I was just some Masters student who was just writing about some edgy stuff, you know? Then we met, and it was like, ‘oh, you’re actually that’.

Iceland by Dominic Hoey is published by Steele Roberts, RRP $34.99, and is out now.