This Dystopian Novel Turns the South Island Into Disturbing Farm Prisons
We spoke to Wellington author Rhydian Thomas about critiquing New Zealand politics and fetishising cows in his first book.
In his first novel, Wellington author Rhydian Thomas takes us on a tour of the bizarre dystopian future New Zealand that is Milk Island. Reading the book is like waking up from a six-year coma and finding the Kiwi she'll-be-right-attitude, agricultural-focused economic strategies and Hobbit-centred tourism initiatives are all on steroids. It's now 2023 and the fifth term National government is rebuilding itself through a series of public-private dairying and correctional initiatives called Agri-prisons. Milk Island, formerly known as the South Island, becomes home to these Agri-prisons after a series of disastrous earthquakes.
With such a crazy premise, Milk Island is undeniably a 252-page piss-take of New Zealand politics. However, behind the Lord of the Rings inspired prison cells and the nation's favourite genetically modified cow, Milky Moo (who may or may not have no asshole), the book is "hopefully a semi-serious critique of our justice and agricultural policies" says Thomas. "I was just looking at the intersection of politics, media, activism and what these means in our current day. What it means to fight back and how we can."
Milk Island is being launched tonight at Pegasus Books in Wellington, with some celebratory (non-dairy) drinks. VICE sat down with Rhydian Thomas before the launch to figure out what is going on in this novel.
What sparked the crazy idea for Milk Island ?
It started as a stupid joke maybe five years ago. We were doing a kind of arts exhibition on Garrett St and I put in a fake souvenirs kit from a fake parliament. I met Murdoch Stevens there, he's the publisher of Lawrence and Gibson. It was kind of a joke that the exhibition was funded by a group called the Sensible Farmers and it was going to fund a giant prison island on the South Island. Murdoch was like, "Oh, I'd read a book about that". Slowly the joke turned into a serious book.
In terms of timing, have you timed the release with the upcoming election this year?
No. I wanted to get it out a lot sooner actually. It almost felt like it had passed the point where it was relevant and useful. Especially considering some of the major political shakeups of the last couple of years, like the prime minister resigning. It's kind of come back around to a time where maybe it is relevant and useful now, but that's purely coincidental.
Milk Island touches on issues such as water quality, weed legalisation and Māori land rights. Was this purposeful?
Yes. I guess I've tried to capture the current political climate and lots of issues around that. Part of that is about water quality and about agricultural practices in New Zealand. I didn't set out with specific things I wanted to talk about but in making fun of political culture everything was fair game.
Growing up, did you have any connection to dairy farming?
No actually. I'm not actually from New Zealand, I'm an immigrant from Wales. I am from a rural background in Wales though, I lived in a small town and grew up playing on farms but I've never worked on a farm. I've worked in politics so come across these issues there and am just quite passionate about a range of issues.
Do you think future New Zealand is going to be anything like Milk Island ?
I want to say no, hopefully no and fuck no. But I think given the mood of the country and the status quo that we're all quite invested in, it's not looking too bright. Not super 100 percent pure. I'd like to think it wouldn't be as bad as Milk Island but this was just taking the current status quo and making it into the most absurd conclusion it could have.
Okay. Let's be optimistic about New Zealand's future now, what do you see?
We definitely need to broadly assess the country's economic strategy, relying totally on industrial dairying isn't sustainable and it's leading to the degradation of rivers and our environment. This election, the biggest issues for people will be housing, education and health. Those are all important things to me as well but I think climate change kind of trumps everything at the moment. If that's not at the forefront of policy making, we're in trouble.
I don't really know how to talk about the sexualisation of the cow because it's just so fucked up.
There were many New Zealand icons mentioned in the book, for example Richie McCaw was mentioned in passing. How did you choose which New Zealand icons should make it in?
I don't know what it is about Richie. He embodies the calm and reasonable southern man's approach to New Zealand's problems. During the writing of this, one of the big things that happened was the Kaikoura earthquakes and Richie was there pointing at solutions. I could see him being the face of a private farming tourism initiative.
There's also a lot of weird cow fetish stuff with the nation's favourite genetically modified cow, Milky Moo. Please explain.
I don't really know how to talk about the sexualisation of the cow because it's just so fucked up. I guess it's like the absurdity, the reduction and satire of political desire. The idea is a perfect cow who can produce a ridiculous amount of milk. The fetishisation kind of comes after that, that's a part of just having a laugh. I feel a bit guilty and gross writing about it because it's just so ridiculous but it's a metaphorical thing about desire. Milky Moo is just an innocent participant in this tragic opera.
Are you worried at all about backlash from farmers?
I'm a little bit worried about farmers in general because they are famously not nice to people who criticise their industry. I assume this novel would drop and no one will give a flying fuck but you just never know and you never know what will offend people. We've seen it in the way farmers have reacted to people like Mike Joy, even scientists in the field and any nay-sayers. They love the word nay-sayer and I guess I'm a nay-sayer. I don't mean to say nay but I don't have anything else to say.
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