Featured in Capital #81. Subscribe to get the real thing here.
Writers Mandy and Nicky Hager tell Sarah Lang about the shaping of their social consciences – and their relationship as siblings.
Mandy Hager is a prolific, multi-award-winning author, primarily of young-adult novels, as well as adult fiction, non-fiction, a picture book, and many educational resources. Her most recent book is Protest! Shaping Aotearoa.
We grew up in Levin. Our father established a clothing factory there. Our mother initially had four of us under five: Debbie, then Nicky, then me, then Belinda. There weren’t really any big-sister or big-brother dynamics, because we were so close in age. We had a lot of freedom and spent a lot of time at the river and the beach. We played imaginary games, and built forts. We were really close as a family. Our parents, Kurt and Barbara Hager, were only children, so it was important to them to create a tight family unit.
We grew up with a strong social conscience, instilled by our parents. Our father escaped Austria with his parents as a refugee of the Hitler era. Our mother, a New Zealander, was raised in Zanzibar, where her father was a doctor. Those experiences hugely influenced the way they both viewed the world. They both had incredibly strong beliefs about social justice, human rights and the environment. They always modelled how to behave in a kind, generous, and empathetic way. They encouraged us to ask questions, discuss important things, and notice what was going on in the world.
During our childhood, they invited people who needed respite into our house. We had unmarried mothers having babies. We had gay couples when it was still illegal. We had people who were having breakdowns. I think my parents heard about these people in need from friends of friends. We were too young to understand too much.
The arts and culture were very important to them, and we were exposed to all sorts: classical music, opera, contemporary theatre, dance. We went to performances. We had a huge home library and walls filled with original art. We girls were encouraged to go to university and experience the world without gender restrictions. Sometimes people gave our parents a hard time about the work Nicky was doing, but they backed him 100%.
Nicky is my role model. He’s always been completely clear about what needs doing, and what needs to be written about – and he’s done that calmly, ethically, and with integrity. He doesn’t only do difficult work, and stand up to people, but he’s also an amazing father, and a loving, kind person.
My first husband died when my kids were little, and the support that Nicky gave me, and gave my kids as a male role model, was extraordinary and I’m very grateful. If I need somebody to bounce ideas off, or to get my head around something, he’ll give me a really reasoned response. I can be overly emotional, such as with my recent despair over climate change, whereas Nicky is calm, reasoned, and logical.
Writing is the way I’m most comfortable expressing myself, and how I get out how I’m feeling. During a teenage-angst stage, I only communicated to my parents via notes! I’m quite shy if I don’t know people well, so I’ve found public speaking a strain.
I’m currently finishing a young-adult novel. Next up is a crime novel for adults. I’m also President of the New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa Inc. We’re working on issues such as lobbying for authors’ rights regarding copyright.
My sister Debbie is a public-health educator and researcher at the University of Auckland who advocates for the disabled, and works on preventing violence against women.
My sister Belinda is a jewellery maker, who has exhibited, curated, and run Quoil gallery, and is now a qualified metal conservator. Belinda recently moved to Waikanae, which means she’s pretty close to me in Raumati.
My son Thom lives next door with his partner and children, aged three and seven. My daughter Rose lives 10 minutes away in Paraparaumu, so I feel honoured that they want to live near me and my husband [Brian Laird].
My sisters and I frequently get called “Nicky”. I recently spoke at an event and said “I’m the lesser-known Hager”. Afterwards someone walked up to me and said “Hi Nicky” by accident. We all joke about it. We’re in touch sporadically, but we’re all close. We each love gardening, cooking, and family gatherings at Christmas and other times.
I feel particularly proud of Nicky when his books come out. He’s got an unusual ability to put negative comments about him aside. Judith Collins [who was featured in his books The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics] said in public that he “needs to meet his maker”. That’s not okay.
Nicky Hager is an author and investigative journalist who has written seven books about subjects including the military, intelligence agencies, and the unseen sides of politics. He also writes occasional investigative articles in the media.
When we were kids, the four of us hunted as a pack. We were a team. We were naughty sometimes. Once we ran away from home when our grandmother was babysitting us. We only made it to the back of the garden.
My siblings and I are all products of our upbringing. We had our Austrian father, Kurt, with his strong accent, and our dynamic Zanzibar-born mother, Barbara. They had a strong sense of social justice and an empathy for others. Our mother had a degree in horticulture, which was quite unusual then. While we were growing up, she spent 11 years doing extramural study and got a BA in social work. She became a family counsellor and a district councillor.
Our mother came from a line of doctors, for whom serving other people is what life is about. An old saying among her family was “You never regret your generosity” – words I think of often. Our father, having as a refugee escaped extreme danger from Hitler, spent his life showing respect and care for others. They brought us up on Dr Seuss values like “A person’s a person, no matter how small”.
With our parents, it was probably inevitable that we’d feel different in Levin. Feeling different can be difficult as a child but I think it’s also a gift – it allows you to plot your own course.
From age 12 to 16, I went to boarding school, so became a slightly more remote member of the family for those years. When I was a teenager, my father asked me if I’d like to take over the family clothing factory, but I don’t think he expected a yes. It would have been obvious that my life was going in a different direction.
When people ask why I do what I do, and why I am who I am, I say, “Let me introduce me you to my three sisters’. I’m proud of them all. Debbie recently launched her report for the Human Rights Commission about the violence and abuse experienced by disabled people including tāngata whaikaha Māori [Māori people with disabilities]. Meanwhile Belinda is in Antarctica, using her metal-conservation skills to help maintain historic sites.
Mandy is brave, loving, and wise. She doesn’t always realise how special she is. She cares deeply about her family, her readers, and the ideas and issues that underpin her books. Issues don’t always make good books, but Mandy combines them with telling a good story. I don’t know anyone who works as hard as she does.
Mandy is one of my greatest supporters. When I’m attacked in public, she leaps to my defence privately and publicly. She’s fiercely loyal. It’s a great thing to have your sisters on your side.
Currently, I’m in an in-between phase book-wise, which means I’m writing some articles in the media when I’ve got interesting information. With books, I never say what my projects are in advance for two reasons. Firstly, so they don’t get hindered in some way; plus the worst thing is to boast you’ve got a piece of work coming then not manage to do it.
Yes, what I earn is minimal, but it’s a privilege to do what you want with your life. If the price of that is not earning much, then it’s trivial as long as I get by. I live in the same house I’ve been living in for 30 years. It’s very Wellington in that there are more than 150 steps. I enjoy being part of a choir and tramping. My daughter Julia, 30, lives in Wellington. We’re very close.
I get approached by a lot of people in need. Over the past few years I’ve helped some Afghan refugees – who are some of the most marginalised people on earth – come to New Zealand. They’re now safe at last. It took a huge effort and I expect they and their families will give back to New Zealand ten-fold for being given a home.
Often people say to me “Don’t you agree that the world is doomed?” and I say, “No, that’s not fair” – because we owe it to people, particularly young people, to do our best to confront what is before us and make a better world.
I think many people try to answer the question about how they can make a difference and be useful in the world. I’d say that I, Mandy, and our sisters have been working on that question all our lives so far. We’ve tried to find ways that we can help people the most and to help with important things the most. It’s that simple.