Current Issue #487

Victoria Hannan on Kokomo, home and relationships:
‘I wanted to write a love letter to friendship’

Elize Strydom

Kokomo, the first novel from Adelaide-born, Melbourne-based author Victoria Hannan, is one of the year’s most anticipated Australian debuts.

After winning the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (VPLA) for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2019, Hannan swiftly landed an agent and a two-book deal with Hachette. But despite all that hype, our interview begins as most casual conversations between South Australian peers do: with the exchange of suburb names. Hannan’s parents, naturally, live only a few kilometres down the road from me.

It is a fitting way to begin talking about a book that is in many ways about being torn between places. Kokomo’s central character, Mina, is in London, leading a cosmopolitan life and advancing her career in advertising, when she receives a phone call from her best friend, Kira. Mina’s mother, Elaine, has suddenly – and for no obvious reason – been seen leaving the house for the first time in 12 years. Mina rushes home in the hope of understanding what has changed, and why.

The idea for Kokomo came to Hannan in a moment of inspiration, scribbling down the initial premise before sitting on it “for months”. When a first draft did come, it burst onto the page in the space of four short weeks. While she says the subsequent moulding and editing took time, Hannan used the closing date for VPLA submissions to set herself a hard deadline. The pressure obviously worked, and for her second book Hannan jokes about trying to disprove the old publishers’ tale that no second novelist meets their manuscript deadline.

This sense of pace and restless movement is also the case away from Hannan’s life outside writing. Having left Adelaide at the age of 20 (although “Adelaide will always be home with a capital H”) she has gone on to live in Brisbane, London and now Melbourne. It has meant that – like Mina – she is “always wondering where home is and questioning the idea of home and what it means”.

“I have spent a lot of my life thinking ‘maybe everything would be better if I live in New York or LA and all of a sudden I’ll be a new person where everything goes right all the time’.”

Victoria Hannan

“I have spent a lot of my life thinking ‘maybe everything would be better if I live in New York or LA and all of a sudden I’ll be a new person where everything goes right all the time’,” she says. “[As if] that’s the thing that’s wrong here, is the place I’m living. But after moving around so much, it’s become pretty obvious to me that that’s not the way it works.”

We speak of this being a very common experience for people from Adelaide, who leave for employment opportunities, and then often spend their 30s reconciling the person they’ve become and where they belong.

“You can kind of reinvent yourself a little bit in each place but you’re still you, and you’re still carrying your history and baggage and mental health issues with you,” she says. “When I moved back to Australia five years ago that was playing on my mind a lot, and I also thought that it was really relatable. I wanted to use writing this book to unpack some of my own ideas about it.”

Kokomo also explores the way our relationships mature not only as we age, but also as we leave and return. Mina and Kira have been best friends since childhood, and while their friendship is tested by Mina’s sudden return, the support Kira provides carries a tangible tenderness.

“So many of the women in this book are making some bad decisions about heterosexual romantic love in their lives, but the things that have stayed truest for them are their female friendships.”

Victoria Hannan

“When I started to write this book I wanted to write a love letter to friendship,” she explains. “So many of the women in this book are making some bad decisions about heterosexual romantic love in their lives, but the things that have stayed truest for them are their female friendships.”

Hannan’s portrayal of friendship is refreshing in that her characters are not only, as she says, “warm and loving to each other”, but that they “still speak when they need to”.

“[They are] truthful and honest with each other [and have] the kind of relationships that I wanted everyone to come away [from reading the book] thinking ‘those are good, beautiful, strong relationships’.”

Kokomo as a place is of course not the idyllic paradise The Beach Boys sold us on. As the title for this novel, it acts as a fitting starting point for thinking about the places we put on pedestals, just as we might people or lifestyles. If Kokomo is home, is it the Caribbean island “off the Florida Keys”? Or is it the small city deep in the Rust Belt of Indiana?

After all her consideration of places and the relationships that make them special, all the extensive travel she has been fortunate enough to do, I ask Hannan what home means to her right now.

“It’s an interesting question to answer at this point where I haven’t really left my house in about five weeks,” she replies. “Home to me is where my friends are. I think it’s that simple.”

Kokomo (Hachette) is out now

Kylie Maslen

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Kylie Maslen is a writer and critic from Kaurna/Adelaide, and the author of Show Me Where it Hurts: Living with Invisible Illness (Text Publishing).

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