10 Questions with Richard Shaw


Q1: Readers of The Conversation will know your pieces of commentary and observation but a book such as The Forgotten Coast, with its elements of memoir, family history and reckoning is of another order altogether. Did it feel like a risk?

Not to begin with, because I didn’t really set out to write this particular book! I began with a vague idea that I could pull something together that would tackle my relationship with Dad and tell a story about my great-uncle, Dick. (Those two first met in the TB ward of Masterton Hospital when Dad was a young boy and Dick was not long back from the Irish College in Rome, but Dick was dead by the time Dad married his niece.) In the early stages of writing Andrew — Dick’s father and my great-grandfather — did not feature at all. At some point, however, he quietly hove into view — and then the book changed into something else entirely. It became increasingly clear that the thing linking these three men, and that I needed to address, was the land that Andrew, Kate and their sons farmed. Those three family farms were part of the swathe of Taranaki land confiscated by the colonial state in 1865 and subsequently sold (or leased) to settler farmers. The moment the book became about that, the sense of risk kicked in . . .


Q2: What was at stake?

Several things. The first was the question about what the book was trying to achieve. I think it is about trying to make sense of things which are uncomfortable and challenging (for me anyway): relationships between fathers and sons; family histories; the consequences of the colonial past for the present and future of this country. A second thing, which speaks to the first, is that the book necessarily touches on family stories, and sometimes that can get you in hot water. Finally, and most significantly for me, in writing the book I discovered that my great-grandfather participated in the invasion of Parihaka on 5th November 1881, and then returned to farm land that had previously been confiscated from Taranaki Māori. That history is not only fraught, it continues to have present-day consequences — and when I stumbled across it the stakes were raised considerably.


Q3: It’s an ambitious project for any writer — a three-parter essentially, interrogating many lives and ranging from coastal Taranaki to the Vatican. How difficult was it for you to keep so many balls in the air and hold a steady course?

I wrote the book over a period of two or three years and it emerged in a fairly roundabout sort of way, so I never really felt as if I had more than one ball in the air at a time (although sometimes it did feel as if the various balls were being picked up and put down pretty rapidly). Also, when I began I didn’t have a narrative structure in mind — instead, what I really wanted was to write something that looked (even a little) bit like Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman in The City, which is a beautiful collage of seemingly disconnected vignettes based on a life very well lived. For all sorts of reasons (including that while Gornick is an actual writer I am not) The Forgotten Coast is not like that. But it is guided by a sense of place, and perhaps that helps keep the disparate parts together.


Q4:  Gruelling at times? Or exhilarating?

Mostly the latter, at least as far as Dick was concerned. Dick has long fascinated me but I knew very about him, so the process of seeing him emerge into the light was certainly rewarding. With Dad it was different: the conversation I had in my head with him as I worked on those sections was quiet and reflective — it was a kind of putting to rights. And there was nothing exhilarating about approaching Andrew: I found that very sobering and was alarmed by the extent of my own ignorance regarding both the process of land alienation in Taranaki and the extent to which I have benefited from that.


Q5: And the rewards?

Greater clarity on a few things. I see Dad more clearly now than I once did, and am more at ease with that relationship (which continues, regardless of the fact that he died a decade ago) than I once was. I have recovered some of Dick’s story and given him more substance than he had — and that gives me great pleasure. And I have a sharper understanding now of the connection between my sense of self and the colonial history of Taranaki, which feels — perhaps paradoxically — both long overdue and like a job tolerably well done.


Q6: Those raised as Catholics will take particular Interest in your interrogation of the sad story of your uncle Dick. Those interested in family dynamics couldn’t help but be affected by the story of your father’s childhood in a children’s home. But the zeitgeist will drive many readers to your secret family history: the family farms were on land the Crown confiscated from Parihaka and then sold to settler farmers, including your great-grandfather. That place, that history, is so resonant: you must have approached it with trepidation?

Very much so. Taranaki is a place of power, and I constantly worried (and worry) about doing further violence through my writing. I am slowly learning, too (and for this I am especially grateful to Rachel Buchanan, whose work I have been profoundly influenced by), that there are some things that are not mine to know, and some stories that are not mine to tell. I often felt I was walking a lot of lines, all of them fine, and I am exceptionally grateful for the patient, generous guidance I received at various times from Māori friends and colleagues.


Q7: But you could not avoid going there?

No. I wanted to learn a history I had not been taught and that was the only way I could do it.


Q8: Is The Forgotten Coast a form of atonement?

I’m not sure. The word ‘atonement’ suggests that reparation is made for past wrongs, and I would feel uncomfortable claiming that status for the book. But I would say that The Forgotten Coast is my best shot at addressing my personal ignorance of significant aspects of my family history. Rachel Buchanan makes the point that remaining ignorant of a thing requires constant work. I agree: in my case, for many years that meant constantly choosing not to look too closely at things I suspected would be uncomfortable. On balance, then, I would like to think that the book is my contribution to a difficult conversation — one that is gathering steam across the nation — about things which some (but far from all) Pākehā would still rather forget.


Q9: Pākehā are slowly coming to face the stains on our national narrative. Descendants of old settler families such as yours have a unique role to play in helping other Pākehā see the truth of our history. Is this a role you welcome?

Not really, because I can only tell the truth of my own history. In fact, I can’t even say that The Forgotten Coast is the truth as far as my family is concerned — other members of my famiy have their own versions of this story, and I don’t speak for them (or anyone else, for that matter). There are many Pākehā stories, and mine is just one — but if others find it helpful in any way, I will be glad of that. One other thing: there are plenty of Pākehā who have been doing this sort of work for far longer than I have — I’m just a late-comer.


Q10: What’s one thing this book could help shift that would make you feel it was worth the hard work of writing it?

This book will have been worth writing if it helps one person to reflect on the consequences of our colonial past for people living today — and to do so without being stymied by feelings of shame, fear or guilt.