Moses McKenzie is a Bristol-based writer whose debut novel, An Olive Grove in Ends, is inspired by the area in Bristol where he grew up. Delving into a whole host of sociopolitical issues that envelop the lives of the Hughes family, principally protagonist, Sayon, and his cousin, Cuba, McKenzie has created a conceivably intrepid world, with characters that feel fully fleshed, living, breathing, and most importantly, loving.
Sayon Hughes longs to escape the world of his volatile Bristol neighbourhood, known as ‘Ends’, and create a better life with Shona, the girl he grew up with. However, deceit, lies and family loyalty are all holding him back, and through this we get a sense of McKenzie’s ability to create real characters within fathomable worlds.
Moses McKenzie spoke with SNACK about how he started out and what drives him as a writer, as well as what he is currently reading.
This is your debut novel, but how did you start out writing, Moses?
So, I started writing prose in 2017. Before that I’d write song lyrics, and I wrote three manuscripts before I wrote An Olive Grove in Ends. Yes, three manuscripts and then a screenplay. And they were all of varying quality; the premises had varying ideas, some of them good, some of them bad. And then some of them were poorly executed. All of them were poorly executed! But yeah, then I wrote An Olive Grove in Ends in 2019.
Where did the inspiration for the novel originally come from?
I set the novel in the area I was raised in. So the inspiration is just the area itself, you know, my home is the inspiration. I don’t mean my home as in my literal house. My home, as in my area and then the neighbouring area. I didn’t have to sit down and think about setting and place because that was what I lived. And then I wrote it for my little cousin.
It’s a novel about class and status as well as race and religion: this covers a great deal of socio-political scope. Was this the intention?
Yeah, definitely. But I think it’s difficult to separate them. If you are a Black person, writing about class, you will be writing about race. It’s inextricably tied, connected. The book has little to nothing to do with race, other than the fact that all characters are Black, in a majority white country. Like you say, I’m sure if I’m depicting the working class, then I’ll be talking about race or there’ll be discussion about race as well. I think they’re my favourite topic, religion and God, whether together or apart, that’s my favourite. I think everything I write, in some way, is an exploration of God; or maybe the two religions Christianity and Islam, because they’re the two religions I know most about and which have impacted me the most.
And at the core of it is this relationship between Sayon and Shona, so pivotal to the story and the decisions that Sayon must make. A classic story of two people from different paths in life, which adds moral ground and understanding to the protagonist’s direction: Shona being a rock, almost flawless. Did you ever feel tempted to pull Shona into the darker sides of the novel?
No, because having her as that character reminds people that Sayon is very much an unreliable narrator. Shona is probably the most limited character in the book, because she’s limited by Sayon’s perspective of her and he needs her to be perfect, he needs to have her on this pedestal in order to give him hope, or like, a vision or a clear path or a way out.
Sayon has such complexities, someone we feel we can touch, with internal conflicts and a sense of duality, it’s easy to find something to relate to in him, as well as root for him as we continue through the novel. Have you written about Sayon before in previous works?
As in any of the other manuscripts? Oh, no, no, no. He’s a character that was invented just for this.
Cuba, on the other hand, is very intense, and I understand this to come from his actual lack of presence in the tale. Most of him seems to be formed within Sayon’s internal dialogue – was this a deliberate technique in terms of the portrayal?
Yeah, I wanted it to be very internal. And even in the firstdraft it was very meandering. We spend a lot of time in Sayon’s world, in his mind, and everything is limited by his perception of things and of people. But Cuba is my favourite character by far. He’s the character that I have the most time for, the most compassion for, that I had to remind myself not to be too compassionate about. But I think portraying their relationship was one of the best things about writing the novel for me. That was intentional as well: perspective limiting or limiting what we see.
And what compelled you to give Sayon this ending?
I like open-ended stories a lot, depending on what it is. With this story I thought it needed to be open-ended. There’s like a lot of criminality in the world surrounding Sayon, which he perpetuates, but the law is never much of a real presence in the book. Punishment is just kind of glossed over and skipped over even when it does happen, which is very intentional, because it’s not about that: it’s about the possibility of potential punishment in the hereafter. And that’s what all these characters are concerned about, or not concerned about: they’re not even really thinking about earthly punishment. And, as I’ve written it, the language that I’ve written it in, it’s like the biblical conception of heaven, and then as he [Sayon] is walking down Stapes Road, in the second chapter, it’s hell on earth. And then in the final chapter, when he’s walking down Stapes Road, again, it’s the Qur’anic version of heaven. Because all they want to do is just find the little slice of heaven, you know, find something that he can own and claim and be proud of.
I would be keen to meet both Shona and Sayon again in the future; do you think you might bring them into future novels, considering how you concluded it?
No, I can’t imagine writing about any of the characters again, but I’m adapting it into a screenplay at the moment. But regarding writing another book, I’ve got too many ideas I want to do outside of this, rather than revisit this.
What are you currently reading, yourself?
I’m currently reading A Dictionary of Symbols. I just finished Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. What else am I reading? I’m reading the Qur’an. I’m reading Don Quixote as well at the moment, but I mean, I love books, and I just finished Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, which is insane.
An Olive Grove in Ends is out now, published by Headline
Photo credit: Gee Photography