13 Jun 2017

Fighting words from the writer subverting the story of Auckland

12:08 pm on 13 June 2017

He's had his battles. Now he's tasting success


Writer Dominic Hoey

Dominic Hoey Photo: Supplied

Before Dominic Hoey was an author, he was a rapper and a poet.

He went by Tourettes, and was once part of the fiercely independent and infamous Breakin’ Wreckwordz crew. He went on to become a leading voice in the local slam poetry scene.

Hoey is an artist who stays true to his vision and message, unwilling to compromise for the sake of money or fame. There have been times when it’s cost him opportunities, but it’s never stopped him creating.   

His battles haven’t only been with MCs, purse-string holders and other authorities. Becoming a wordsmith meant overcoming dyslexia and in recent years he’s been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that kept him bedridden for months.

But Hoey has never stopped creating - and lately he’s been prolific. He’s releasing his debut novel Iceland this week, has a short film called Happy Birthday screening at the Palm Springs Film Festival in California later this month, and is next month unveiling a new stage show, Your Heart Looks Like A Vagina.

On top of that, until recently he’s been working with kids who have been excluded from the education system, mentoring young writers as part of the Ngā Rangatahi Toa programme, and is now teaching high school kids mindfulness with The Kindness Institute.

I spoke to Hoey about how he went from a being kid who teachers didn’t want to take a chance on to a bonafide man of letters.

Before writing this novel, you’d built up a career as a rapper and poet. How many years have you been writing for?

I guess I started writing when I was 12, but I wasn’t really given any direction. I think I was trying to write poetry, but if someone had sat me down and said “this is a metaphor, this is anaphora, these are all these techniques”, I would have probably run with that, but no one did.

So, rapping kind of came along and made more sense because it was a lot more obvious what the structures were, whereas I think with poetry you need to be guided a bit more. Also, because I’d been listening to hip hop my whole life, you kind of learn by osmosis.

By breaking down your favourite tracks?

Yeah! By rapping along. I remember I’d write out the lyrics to rap songs from the likes of Public Enemy, that type of shit, until I knew them all off by heart.

Do you remember the first words that you ever performed for an audience?

Umm, I think it would have been at intermediate. They had a rapping class which, I mean, was pretty terrible, and then we did a rap about the school. But me and my friend were already writing shitty raps at that point and I think ours was a little bit better than a lot of them.

Do you remember anything about what you said in the rap?

Nah, nah, my memory is so shit, haha. I know it was terrible, I remember even thinking at the time that it was fucking terrible.

Going from poetry and rapping to writing a novel seems like a pretty massive leap, how did you tackle that challenge? And what made you decide to make that leap in the first place?

I always wanted to write a novel, I don’t know why, it’s just always felt like something I wanted to do. And the story of Iceland, I’d sort of been playing around with various forms. Initially, I thought it could maybe be a film and then I realised I didn’t really know anything about film at the time.

I guess I assumed, and it turned out that I was right, that writing a novel is just like anything else, it’s just a process and you got to figure out what that is and then just do it. And I think having made albums, which really takes fucking forever, I had been through making long projects and sticking to things for years at a time. I think that was probably quite good practice for that.

Would you say that you still have dyslexia, or that growing up you were dyslexic?

Oh yeah, you never get rid of it. I think you learn coping mechanisms, you get better at disguising it using word processors or using Google with spell checker, and all that kind of stuff. I can hide it pretty well now if I’m using a computer, but it’s always there and it’s just like, it affects everyone quite differently.

For me, I can’t read maps and stuff when we’re on tour. And seeing as I can’t drive, I’m always the one using the map and we just get lost.

How does that affect your approach to writing?

What it really did was it meant that no one took it seriously when I was younger. I know that like had I not had dyslexia - I mean maybe not, because I went to a really shitty school - but had I not had dyslexia I’m sure someone would have been like “look, there’s this kid who’s having a hard time, let’s help him”.

But no one did that and I think maybe it was like “fuck you, kid can’t even spell his own name, I don’t have time to be teaching him this stuff”.

I think it definitely slowed me down at first but I think when i realised that no one was going to help I kind of took it all - did it all myself. Every time I met someone who was a writer I would just ask them a million questions. And I read every book there was about writing. And did every night course I could find.

That was probably actually a really good way to do it in retrospect because I think you do get a really good scope of what’s out there and what’s possible, and good work practices.

I think that’s probably my strongest thing - that I think my work practice is really solid, which allows me to do things like novels and plays and films and move through different genres, because I had that really worked out.

Have you had a mentor, or have there been writers out there that have had been real influence on you?

Yeah, locally I think Olwen Stewart, who’s the mother of a bunch of my friends. She’s a really incredible poet, and she’s someone that I really looked up to and helped me out early on, especially with editing and stuff like that.

Ian Wedde, who’s another quite well known poet. I was in one of his lectures and he approached me and said that I should consider doing the Master's at Auckland Uni, and I was like “oh, actually, I’m going to Iceland to write a novel” and he was like “nah, fuck this, that's better”.

He actually read the early draft of the novel and was like “this kind of sucks, but you’ve got something”, which was really cool. And that gave me a lot of confidence early on, and for him to take that time was pretty awesome.

How hard was it going from that first draft of your first novel to getting it done and ready to go out into the world?

Not having done something like that before, I didn’t really know how far I had to go. I ended up doing about 15, maybe even 19 drafts. A lot of drafts.

The first couple were cool, because the mistakes were so obvious, but after that  … I was showing it to other writers and working out what needed to be done, and then I got the publishing deal.

They actually sent it to a manuscript assessor, who gave me some quite good feedback as well.

What was the most valuable piece of feedback that you got while you were going through those drafts?

There’s two main characters and one’s a woman, and one of my friends, early on, said this female character just isn’t realistic enough. Y’know, “she’s in her late twenties but you’re writing her like she’s in her early twenties,” just a few pointers like that which really helped.

I think they’re things I probably would have picked up on eventually anyway, but it was quite cool getting that feedback early on, because she kind of carries a lot of the book, so she had to be really solid.

Can you describe who the two main characters are and the world they live in?

Yeah, so there’s Zlata - she’s sort of from a middle class, or lower middle class family. I guess she has the aspirations you’d normally find in a white central Aucklander from that kind of background. You know she’s been to university, she’s got an office job. But she’s also a musician, and she wants to pursue that career.

And then she meets Hamish, who’s much more bottom of society and is from a really dysfunctional family and grew up doing lots of crime and sells drugs and does graffiti, and I guess he’s sort of been dragged, kicking and screaming, towards becoming a fine artist by his friends.

So they meet, and he really loves the stability and kindness that she displays, and she really loves the danger and madness of his world and, I guess, it’s just sort of like an alternate reality of Grey Lynn set five or six years ago, but basically now for all intents and purposes.

It reads like a world that you know really well and that you possibly lived, or witnessed. Is it a little bit autobiographical?

The whole plot is completely fiction, and everything that happens in there is fictionalised but things like that have happened to me, or people close to me, so yeah, it was definitely writing from experience.

In saying that, it’s not an autobiography. I already I get people asking me “oh, who’s this character meant to be?”. And I’m like “it’s someone I made up with my mind, because I’m clever - these aren’t all people.”

I guess a big thing for me was that I don’t feel that people who live those kinds of lives, especially the poorer characters ever get written about, or ever get talked about in a respectful way, and I don’t think that the positive things about living on that strata of society ever get expressed - that I’ve ever seen.

Maybe some people do it, but I haven’t really seen it that much in New Zealand. I get so bored of hearing all these aspirational middle class stories that don’t mean anything to me.

Who did you write the book for? Was it the Hamishes and Zlatas of the world, or is for the people who don’t know about them?

I think first and foremost it’s for the people who are trying to find a way to exist in this society, who either because they’re poor, or because they’re artists, find it quite difficult. If people do read it and it opens their eyes to what’s going on in their city - because this is happening everywhere, not just in Auckland - then that’s cool.

There’s a guy I went to school with, who I often think about, who was the most talented kid in our class by far but he was a poor young brown kid and didn’t get given those opportunities and probably went too far down that crime path too early on.

Even if those opportunities where there, it was too late for him. I think about that a lot.