Brannavan Gnanalingam and Murdoch Stephens discuss Sprigs and Rat King Landlord

Murdoch Stephens: Last year we were invited to the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement. We were only guests of course, not recipients. But it was just another one of those moments where you realise that after many years of writing and publishing, we were becoming part of the establishment. If you were offered a knighthood, would you accept it?

Brannavan Gnanalingam: Lol, as if I’d be up for anything resembling an honour. If I were though, when I’m old and crusty and politically neutralised, there’s no way in good conscience that I could accept a colonial title.

M: On that note, let us begin!


M: Your first announcement about Sprigs got quite a lot of love on social media. How do you feel about the role that twitter and self-promotion play in contemporary writing, especially given the nostalgic dip into a long-passed world that we both had when reading Bruce Benderson’s critique of this model in ‘America's New Networkers’ from Sex and Isolation?

B: It's a tricky one because there’s so few opportunities for writers to hawk their wares in mainstream media. I think other models are necessary as a result, and social media does play some role. I think New Zealanders in general though hate the idea of people trying too hard to sell themselves. Greasing up to people is fake and pointless. It’s New Zealand: what power does a writer really have? I think we’re much better when friends help friends out and trying to build solidarity that way.

M: Totally. I can imagine in forty years me writing a crotchety essay about how in my day writers were content with crafting a few fine tweets to promote their works rather than have their army of virtual publicists invade the nightly dreams of the potential reading public (or whatever future means people have for promoting their work, which will seem crass). Anyway, Sprigs is a story, first about teenagers and second about the adults in their lives that interfere, guide and protect. Are the adults just a garnish, or is their ‘circling of the wagons’ – as the back cover puts it – the real moral of the story?

B: I wanted to capture a sense of teenagers being adults and adults being teenagers. The adults are definitely the key part of the story, because they had the power to deal with things fairly but instead reputation, self-interest, and ignorance take over. I’ve always been fascinated by the way institutions create their own rules and logic, and I think any institution with any sense of exclusivity is prone to these sorts of things happening / being suppressed.

M: Do you have any reflections on institutions that have avoided this exclusivity in any manner and how they do that? Or are these institutions far less visible because of this lack of conspicuous positioning?

B: These issues are certainly not exclusive to exclusive institutions. I think I’m cynical enough to think that this sort of behaviour could happen in any institution. Certainly, one of the interesting things about the current BLM protests is just how exposed most institutions are when it comes to their role in upholding structural inequalities. You can send out whatever pithy press release or tweet you want to try to bandwagon onto a social cause, but if you’re not constantly doing the work, then you need to start.

M: You've talked before - in interviews and at literary events - about your own experiences of abuse. Given sexual abuse is a central topic of Sprigs do you feel comfortable telling your readers any more of the lived experiences of abuse that have fed into this book?

B: One of the central questions I was working through as I was writing Sprigs was “what is the nature of testimony”? Does testimony have a place in stories of abuse? I conceived of this book before #MeToo became a global mass media phenomenon, but the question of testimony became more magnified.
One of the key conclusions, I think, from the book is survivors need space to decide whether or not they want to talk about their experiences of abuse. The justice system, the media environment, and social media don’t give survivors that space – stories of abuse are to be told on their terms, not the survivor’s terms. And, as a result, these stories become all too readily co-opted by the institutions who can afford PR and threats of defamation, shitty partisan politics, MRAs, friends of the abusers, the sheer chaos of the internet. However, (and this ties to one of Tarana Burke’s original reasons for the campaign) is that from my experience, I gained enormous solidarity from knowing I wasn’t alone, that other people had gone through what I had gone through.
But in terms of specifics, I don’t want to have to re-tell my story over and over again. I wanted to write about trauma, because my experience remains horrifically relevant to my life as a 36 year old, but I also don’t want to talk about it, if that makes sense. I want to decide who I tell it to and when, and at my own pace (if I tell people at all). I know people will be desperate to read this book as autobiography, and sure, the trauma side of things is based on my experience, but I also wanted to add layers of distance in the narrative because I don’t want to talk about my trauma over and over again.
A secondary question I was working through in the book was how do brown bodies move in white spaces in New Zealand – I think this is a direct consequence of the abuse (my abuse was specifically racially coded, although it happened overseas). It also is tied into the other part of the book, where I interrogate what it is to be socialised as a male in New Zealand and how, as men, we need to work to unwind some of the toxic narratives that are assumed to be normal. Do brown bodies get a second half in New Zealand? Can we make comebacks from mistakes, stuff-ups etc.?

M: Sprigs, like Sodden Downstream, features a Tamil New Zealander as the main protagonist. Do you feel pulled between writing with one eye on the Tamil communities here, and one on the expectations of New Zealand's literary communities around a character who is from a migrant background?

B: It's a very complicated situation of who do you write for and the burden of representation that minority artists feel. I don’t know if my books are read by the Tamil community, if they want to read them, or if people want to acknowledge that they exist – but I think I’m buying into essentialist ideas that a specific monolithic community actually exists. I think all I can do is speak from my own experience (or my characters’ experience) and not be required to speak for all Tamils. The best thing we can do is boost as many other Tamil creatives as possible, so there is a diversity of stories being told.
I’ve also come to accept my books aren’t for everyone, and I certainly think people shouldn’t feel obliged to read Sprigs (as a publisher, you’re probably going to disown me). I think you’re on a fool’s errand if you write for any presumed audience, as there’ll never be a perfect reader. So I write to satisfy myself and then just hope, someone, will take something from it.

M: Sprigs is your longest book by far - more than twice the word count of Sodden - were there any special things that you did to make sure the book held together over those pages?

B: I conceived of this book as having a three-act structure, but with two third acts. I think a story needs to be as long as it needs to be, so in some cases, it can be as short as Sodden or in other cases, as long as Sprigs. I was working through a number of ideas, building a detailed framework, and working with a gigantic (for me) cast of characters – it almost had to be this long, and possibly could even have been longer.

M: Fans of your previous book will be relieved to see the recurrence of the character The Vulture who has appeared in all of your recent books. Is there something comforting or playful about having a recurring character, or is there something grander in your use of him?

B: One of my favourite writers is Balzac and I love the way he uses recurring characters throughout La Comédie Humaine – in some books they’re the protagonists, in others, they’re peripheral characters. It allowed Balzac to create this hugely dense and rich world, and have characters who spoke to different stories. Because I set my books in the contemporary, it makes it easier to do. In this book alone, John Burt, Rupert Campbell-Black, the Vulture, and Vasuda Aunty have appeared in previous books.
Maybe by the end of my writing career, I’ll have created this dense web of Wellington and the Hutt Valley, like Balzac and Zola, or if not, given something for my handful of fans to track through. It also means that I haven’t conceived of Sprigs as being a standalone book – to me, it ties into the concerns about Islamophobia, white supremacy, and a fear of brown bodies that I looked at in A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse, the class concerns and precariousness of minority lives under capitalism in Sodden Downstream, the desperation for privilege and preserving reputation at all costs in Credit in the Straight World, and class segregation and wilful ignorance as being precursors to violence in You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here.

M: Any shout outs to future PhD students trawling through the minutiae of your works and interviews to decode it all?

B: You can get to my concerns via my film taste – I am as influenced by film and music as I am by books. The film that influenced this book the most tonally would be Kira Muratova’s Melody for a Street Organ.

M: I borrowed one of your writing methods for this book - choosing a song or two to put you in a frame of mind for your writing and listening to them on repeat. Are there any other little tricks of the trade that have cropped up in recent writing?

B: Choose carefully who you get feedback from – i.e. you need to trust their taste / intelligence / life experience – and then listen to them. I think there is a tendency to get feedback from too many people (I never went to workshops, but the one time I did, I must admit I thought, “who are you, and why should I listen to you on this very specific minority experience that I’ve just talked about”). There is also an opposing tendency to think you’ve written the greatest thing in the world and that reader you’ve entrusted to read it, can’t possibly be right. It’s a tough balance between holding your ground if need be and dropping the ego. I think I accept 99% of what people I’ve entrusted to read my book tell me to change.

M: There aren’t a lot of love stories in your novels, whereas I would feel comfortable saying that love is a central theme to many of my own works. Have I got this right? And if so, could you imagine writing a book with romantic affection as the central plot device (not that mine do this, but nevertheless, could you)?

B: Hey, I have familial love! I guess you’re right – I have botched attempts at romance, terrible sex, and in this book, toxic behaviours. I don’t know why that is or what that means. Are you a romantic at heart, Murdoch? I guess the Soviet 1920s filmmakers didn’t bother with romance in their Soviet propaganda. That said, there’s going to be romance in my next book, but more tied around the Bataillean idea of excess.

M: At heart? At heart I am a romantic, at heart I am a romantic man, I seek love, I seek intimacy, I have no shame, I seek pleasure, I am a romantic artist and at heart I am a meta-aware masochist seeking self-annihilation in the belly of this vile epoch. Okay? Ha! You ask me a question now, I liked that.

B: But how can we seek pleasure, ethically, in this age of over-consumption? What can we get pleasure in?

M: To be fair, I was riffing off the over-abundant text of Patti Smith's 'Babelogue' which is a rollicking intro (on Easter) to her most, uh, problematic song. You know the one. I think there is plenty of pleasure to be obtained on the margins of consumption - in OpShops, in the rubbish on the side of the road, in found art, on a sunny day. At the same time, we can get pleasure from one another... humans surprise us. If my first answer is resplendent in DIY pleasures, then my second is all about doing it together.


B: Given you founded Lawrence and Gibson with a number of friends 15 years ago, has its ethos or DIY attitude changed too much for your liking?

M: DIY is super important, but so is working within the limits and desires of other members of the collective. To be honest, I would prefer if we were even more raggedy. I would like to find a way to source ink in bulk and be able to really get to know a printer and what keeps it going, service it and make it run smoothly. I feel like I have got that way with Bindey the binder, and Guillie the guillotine - there's an intimacy there of knowing the sounds, ticks, errors and efficiencies of a machine. But then again, so much of DIY is surrounded by masculine ethics and I'd rather the collective genuinely functioned on shared desires rather than having old autocrat Murdoch telling it how it is. How about you? You've come on as a much more central organiser for the collective in the last five years. How would you like to see the ethos and attitude evolve?

B: I think any organisation / institution needs to constantly consider whether its model or approach is exclusionary. L&G’s model is great and I love being in charge of the production side of things. However, I’ve found it more difficult to maintain since becoming a parent – DIY requires time and patience, and certain approaches have the potential to exclude those without that time. But, I think L&G’s ethos holds overall. One thing that has been nice in the last few years is that we’ve built a collection of collaborators and friends, so it continues to feel less like 'author with a capital A' and more like a community. There is so much great writing out there so it’d be nice to expand further, and I have a real interest in trying to promote writing from the margins, and minority writers, if possible.

Anyway, I see your book as belonging to the same world as Milk Island – speculative but deeply political and grounded in existing struggles. Do you agree?

M: I'd agree: the rat becomes the landlord just as Milky Moo seduces a nation. Both books reach their climax in the abject relation of humans to animals.

B: Lawrence and Gibson is unashamedly political in its output – what would you say to a writer who submits a book that is less engaged with the social?

M: Maybe this is a time to point to the distinction between politics and the political because I fear people read 'political' as something that happens outside of their world, in the beehive and at protests... but for me to say that we're unashamedly political is to say that we seek works that offer a robust and unique description of all social life. A romance novel can be political. Sci-fi can be political. There are political relations in every single book - for me the question is really if they're written about well, or poorly. And the poor ones are the derivative texts that lean on easily established tropes - and not just of the conservative but also the liberal and even radical modes. So this is one reason I am enjoying a lot of queer and trans writers at the moment - the freshness of experience is, books like Sung Yim's What About the Rest of Your Life, McKenzie Wark's Reverse Cowgirl or Paul Preciado’s and Virginie Despentes' works.

B: One thing I think we both work through in our books is how we build solidarity - how do you build solidarity when it can so easily be co-opted by commercial interests or people with no actual interest in solidarity?

M: Rat King Landlord began life as a weird challenge to friends. I asked them to write short pieces on something I presented as world-historical, but which might actually seem trifling: a rat becomes your landlord leading to the abolition of the practice of renting and landlording. So I...

B: ... But can the centre hold given how badly the centre has been exposed post-GFC and post-Covid?

M: Capitalism is elastic... that's the knowing, rueful response of the post-Marxists: the centre is never supposed to hold, it churns. It's Lacanian - the centre is an absence. It is liquid, malleable. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, that institutions clamber to be it. I'm not 100% sure I understand what you mean: so does my answer make sense?

B: Yes it does, I was just throwing in some poetry to annoy you.

M: Anyhow... yes... in terms of actual solidarity (which was a few questions back) this pointed little observation was on my mind. Maybe I'm just more the kind of socialist that sees spontaneity as more efficacious than the sorts of political organisations I've seen close up. So to build solidarity, for me, is to work off of the concept of mutual aid and see co-operation, then solidarity, as something that is easy and everywhere and rarely the preserve of meetings and plans, but of a love for humanity that is cosmopolitan and universal, but which is also easily cloistered and sequestered into a place of fear and loathing.

B: What lessons did you learn from the Double the Quota Refugee Campaign in terms of social change and activism?

M: One of the key things was being clear from the outset if you're aiming to change a policy or change the public. Once that is clear, the path forward can be gauged: time and money commitments that may be required. Being clear about those commitments is super important for allies and accomplices because it can be so easy to step away from campaigns if you're not living them every day. I mean the book I wrote for BWB on this was far more on these lessons than on making the case for the quota to be doubled.

B: One thing I’m interested is the way certain cities have been ‘taken’ over by rich kids and yuppies, basically pushing out the rebels and artists who used to be able to afford to live there.  Does this sense of a changing city (which is a global phenomenon, typified by increasing inequality, AirBnB taking over rental space, increasing wage precarity) feed in Rat King Landlord?

M: Cities change all the time, and perhaps we're the fools for thinking that simply by living in a place we are able to neutralise the forces of capital. We settle in, create communities of kinship, love and solidarity and then get flustered when we realise that the thing we've identified with - Wellington - doesn't care for us. It is so very easy to reject the banal nationalism behind the state, but at the same time so seductive to think that a more localised version of the state might somehow provide the necessities of life for all people regardless of their bank balances. So it is these realisations that sit behind Rat King Landlord. We can, of course, point to the easy leeches of the system – property management companies – and write a satire about those gauche profiteers. But the real challenge for a community is how to self-rule beyond the easy villains. And in that space, I have no answers, only this speculative book.

B: You wrote this while you were away from Wellington, while travelling the world. Could you have written this while living in Wellington, or did you need the space away from the city to see its flaws?

M: Actually, this is the first novel I have ever written at home. Every Meros book has been written overseas in moments of beautiful semi-isolation. I think my writing style has changed a lot recently and doing a PhD and writing about 40 opinion editorials for the Double the Quota campaign may have made me more elastic. That said, I was in a place earlier this year where I had a lot of time to write and think and this was the book that came out.

B: This is a more traditional narrative to the Richard Meros work – was this a deliberate shift to match the name change, or did the name change necessarily follow? Did you feel icky writing a traditional narrative?

M: Easy Whistle Solo was quite a traditional narrative, apart from one little hoodwinking near the end and my book Doing Our Bit: the campaign to double the refugee quota was not only traditional, but almost a memoir. So I've had a lot of recent experience in changing the forms that I write in, and this one I came to after a friend lent me a Richard Brautigan book and it taught me a little about the joy of short chapters. But as you well know there are three other novels that I wrote in between my Meros days and this new book and each of those was in a bit of a different style too. Another book I should gesture to is The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free which is a fan fiction anarchist story set in Tintin's world where a workers’ revolution takes place. I love it in the book (spoiler alert) how everything is a build up until the last few pages where the workers finally unite, overthrow the repressive forces of the state and finally take on the challenge of self-organisation.

B: I was also thinking Jasienski’s I Burn Paris, which ends with solidarity and communism following a global pandemic.

M: Yes! This too! Fantastic, beautiful book! Maybe there is a maxim we could make from this: the more prescriptive the novel, the more it should ape traditional forms; the more aesthetic a novel, the more it should revolutionise form and style... what do you think?

B: Well, I feel like we’d be back in arguments that were run in 1920s Soviet theory and/or French writing in the ‘60s. One thing I’ve been struggling with is reading and writing is already the domain of exclusivity and middle-class values. This is in terms of who gets to write (e.g. time / money) and be published. This is also about who the presumed audiences of books will be too. How do you see publishing breaking beyond those ‘market expectations’? Can revolutionary art be made when writing / publishing / distribution is so restrictive.

M: Literacy is higher than it has ever been. So the means of accessing ideas through the written form are there. And even in the kind of post-literacy that we see in countries like New Zealand - where people have the ability to read, but choose not to – I still think that ideas and imagination have enormous potential to revolutionise the world. For example, we only sold 1000 or so copies of On the conditions and possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her young lover, but everyone who bought a copy of that book immediately went out in search of an intergenerational erotic intrigue. Or something like that.

B: I’m interested in your shift from Meros – do you think some of your artistic / philosophical considerations have shifted from Richard Meros to Murdoch Stephens. Or in other words, can you draw a connecting line between your works, like I draw a line between my works?

M: There's something, to me, about what Giorgio Agamben calls the bare life of statelessness which can function as a kind of ground zero of meaning in the world. To me this was encapsulated in the 1000 photos of Afghan refugees that I found in an abandoned detention centre in Iran. Meros was perhaps more untethered than I am. He had no sense that base life could exist, that there could be some degree of material experience that could rival the experience of the mind. Meros, of course, was always a projection from myself, allowing myself to run unfettered through various oblique ideas.

B: The promise of obtaining property without any work / money is very appealing to your characters – why is owning property the New Zealand Dream, and to what extent has it become out of reach to ordinary New Zealanders?

M: We could go into the psycho-politics of the shift-less pākehā who populate the landscapes of my books. This seems to be a favourite theme of pākehā sociologists and has an Occam's razor simplicity to it. We know we are not tangata whenua so we seek security through land. But at the same time it is undeniable the property prices have risen in a manner in this country, compared to income, that is the worst in the OECD. This affects everyone, though there was already a substantial portion of the population that already felt locked out. We also have to see this angle of the housing crisis alongside the unaffordability of rents, the rising homelessness and the acceptance with which that previous much-rarer phenomenon is now greeted and all the run on social ills created by property and land speculation. There's a great new issue of Counterfutures that looks into many of these problems...

B: One of the things that’s interesting / concerning about your book, is how easily movements of social change – or the language of such movements – is very easily and quickly coopted by fascists. The rats get scapegoated quite quickly and that process of scapegoating is used to rally fascists. The Night of the Smooth Stones has the same ring as the Night of the Long Knives etc. In relation to that, I sense some pessimism in terms of the far right and their ‘savviness’ in their use of codes / language to gain a mass audience? To what extent are we fighting similar cultural battles of the 1930s?

M: I haven't closely studied these crossovers so will proceed with caution. I don't think the far-right are very savvy. I think they're scared little brutes. They're losers. They haven't adapted to the present age and so they lash out in resentment. I write a little about this in my article 'Copernicus the Chad v the virgin Flat Earthers'. At the same time I basically agree with the Mouffe/Laclau/Zizek premise that the unity of the working class as a signifier to challenge the status quo is not effective and so little moments of quilting need to be seized on to create new solidarities. So with no insurgent solidarities and no savviness on the right we have a strange kind of farcical rerun of the 1930s played out on twitter and youtube, but with all-too-real outcomes.
You are right to see a similarity in the way I have posed the night of the smooth stones to the night of the long knives, but it would be giving too much away - especially about the role of the petit-bourgeois in all of this - to tell the reader any more.

B: Your characters end up colluding too – the roots of fascism lie in the petit-bourgeois?

M: Of course! Ah, but roots? I don't know... certainly the green shoots, those impatient sprigs, come from the petit-bourgeois who ought to have sympathy with the working classes, but who have been conned into an identification with the state and the established classes. In my novel these class formations take the form of the renter, the owner-occupier and the landlord.

B: Can you please describe the rat’s transformation? How would you envisage him to be dressed as he gets more power – regal? Foppish? Like a bearded Wellington hipster?

M: In trying to find a cover for the book I definitely got into some fascinating imagery for rats from Russian fairy tales. It's the year of the rat, also, we can't forget. In the book, a bit like the pigs in Animal Farm, standing up right and using human tools is a signifier of the corruption of the rat. I think the rat would insist on clean but not very showy attire - crisp white shirts and regularly dry-cleaned suits.

B: According to their fans, rodents are misunderstood and sweet, whereas, according to their haters, they are carriers of pestilence and eat our food. Where do you sit on the spectrum? Would they make a good landlord?

M: There are no good landlords – not that there aren't nice people who are landlords in nice ways – but the landlord-tenant relation is indefensible. It defies any concept of freedom or justice. There are no good landlords, therefore there are no good rat landlords. I feel sympathy for the rat as I feel sympathy for the possum, the rabbit and the gorse. They are an animal with a habitat, with a home, somewhere, but humans deny it and oppose them as pests. Who can't have sympathy for the misunderstood and unloved? And yet, there is something a little eager about the rat that I don't find desirable as a companion species. So I am ambivalent - or neutral. Live and let live.


Rat King Landlord and Sprigs are/were released on 23 July at Unity Books, Wellington from 6pm with music from crone and a perfume from Of Body.