A memoir of a literary friendship

Angelique Kasmara is the author of the stunning debut novel Isobar Precinct, published shortly before the country went into lockdown. I’ve known Angelique just over a year. We have had three long one-on-one conversations in this time. We exchange a lot of messages on messenger, usually after our kids are in bed, usually about books we’ve read. Things we have in common: single motherhood, a dislike of The Time Traveller’s Wife, a fear of upsetting people. This article contains everything I know about Angelique that will not upset anyone, aside from Audrey Niffenegger.

Angelique  was a mysterious figure for me for three years. Her name was whispered amongst us wannabes in the University of Auckland 2017 Master of Creative Writing Class. One of three A+ students from the year that preceded us, she was a mythical creature certain of a long and illustrious writing career. Forever an opportunist, I quickly befriended another A+ student, Ruby Porter, author of Attraction.

It would be a while before I got to know Angelique. Yet she’s a presence in the glamorous literary world of Tāmaki Makaurau, with its festivals, book launches and pub readings. Anything literary – and she’s likely to be there. But she doesn’t demand attention. If I am to picture her, she’s not talking, she’s listening, holding a glass of red wine, nodding, attentive. If someone says something she disagrees with, she goes very still and her lips tighten. She’s got a keen ear for other’s prejudices spoken between the lines.

I re-read our messages and discovered our interaction started with her asking me to write something for the T3 journal she edits. She nudged me a few times, and I said, “It’s coming!” And it never did because I forgot. She never raised it again.

Our burgeoning friendship was taken to the next level a few months later on a grey July afternoon at Ruby Porter’s house. Rubys house is a ramshackle Ponsonby Villa with a verandah and overgrown garden. The kind of home all serious writers aspire to. We sat on the floor huddled around a heater drinking bubbles and consuming cheese. My child played happily with Angelique’s child. We took Rubys dog Pablo, a bounding border collie, out for a walk across a neighbouring field. We talked about our lockdown obsession with worldometer, the books we were reading, and about the men in our lives, both past and present (information I won’t share here as it may upset people).

Angelique and I got to spend more time together recently, bought together by our esteemed mentor and advocate Paula Morris to help plan the Going West Writers Festival. I can report Angelique had excellent ideas for bringing people together on the stage, she writes great copy, and can come up with the perfect name for events. After a meeting in the school holidays, we took our kids for a trip to Titirangi beach, with its polluted shoreline, rundown playground and cold wind. We sat on a park bench and talked about the agony of writing book reviews, and bearing the hatred of another writer for the rest of our lives. While Angelique does not like to upset people, she’s no sycophant. She will not say something she does not mean. As a book reviewer, a rather talented one, this means she will upset people. This causes her some anxiety.

People around Angelique describe her as shy. She describes herself as shy. In a recent interview on readclose.com, Angelique said of her main character Lestari: “She isn’t much of a talker and gets annoyed with the inside of her own head.” I messaged her, “Is this how you’d describe yourself?” She replied, “Ha yes I guess Lestari and I do have things in common.”

But I’m wary of focusing too much on her shyness because though she speaks softly, she’s articulate, with a razor-sharp intellect. Janet Frame is often described as “pathologically shy”. But Frame was a prize-winning speaker at school, and on the debating team. If I want to discuss a book, Angelique is one of the first people I turn to. I know she’ll get whatever I’m trying to say and spin my garbled concerns (or praise) back to me in a way that makes sense.

She can speak well to all the major issues writers deal with: representations of race, gender, problematic story-telling — while knowing where the limits of her own knowledge lies. Though quiet people can often be mistaken for being aloof, there’s nothing conceited about her. Shes part of a Free West Papuagroup. Her care and empathy for people on the margins shows in Isobar Precinct, which deals with the homeless, the disconnected, the struggling, and asks as its central premise, how can we make our world more bearable?

Friends said to Angelique when Isobar Precinct was published, “You dark horse! I had no idea you were writing a book.”  Perhaps this says more about her friends than her, as she’d worked on Isobar Precinct on and off for nearly three years. But she rarely talks about herself. While the rest of us writers frantically jump on Twitter at every obscure mention of our names, she keeps quiet on her own achievements. Those who love her and know her talent have to share for her. I want to point out: Isobar Precinct is a smart page-turning literary thriller, deftly written. After reading it, I could see why it grabbed a tonne of attention before it even hit the printing press, winning the Wallace Foundation Prize, before being shortlisted for the Michael Gifkins Prize for an Unpublished novel, as judged by Patrica Grace.

I reviewed it for the Listener, and wrote about how three characters witness a grisly murder amongst the gravestones of Symonds Street Cemetery. “The group is traumatised, but where’s the evidence? There’s no body, not a drop of blood. A grainy video recorded on a phone the only indicator the whole thing was not a figment of their collective imagination…The story’s central mystery drives this well-paced book along with twists and turns through time. There’s not a single dull moment, and some gorgeous fantastical ones: tattoos crawl off bodies, storms appear from nowhere, snakes drink wine.”

The last time I saw Angelique was on a Zoom catch-up with Paula Morris and Rosetta Allan. I was disappointed by the lack of alcohol in our respective screens, but perhaps it was hidden away. We gossiped for a bit. Angelique zoomed from her kitchen, which was the first glimpse I had into her home life. Her kitchen has a red tile splash back, and a clamber of containers and jars. There were a lot of pots and pans hanging behind her. I suspect she is a culinary whiz.

Paula commented on another recent Zoom she’d attended, and how the other participants had nothing interesting to say. Angelique said quietly, “I’ve got nothing interesting to say.” Which was also what I was thinking of myself. We were both briefly paralysed by the knowledge of how boring we are.

When I told Angelique I would be writing something on her, she came back with a list of things I should not say. I said I would hate to upset anyone. She said she would also hate to upset anyone. We talked about people we admire, and how good they are at upsetting people.

Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara (Cuba Press, $37) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Amy McDaid is the author of Fake Baby (Penguin, 2020), longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand national book awards for best novel. She works in Auckland's Newborn Intensive Care Unit.

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