I’ve been fascinated by the title of this book for some time, after hearing the author interviewed on Radio National’s Book Show. An intriguing title, I thought, but rather long and unwieldy. But having now read the book, I can see the nuances in the choice of title, and I think it a good one.
But I came to read this book immediately after reading Caroline Jones’ Through a Glass Darkly and here again, I find myself confronted by a book that is not just an autobiography taking a life lived across a long period of time, but instead a slice of the author’s life that examines a dilemma or situation faced by the author. In this case, Thompson writes of her marriage to Seven, a Maori man and the three children she has with him. She is an American academic, based in Melbourne to write her doctoral thesis, and when she meets and marries Seven, she finds herself enmeshed in Maori family and community obligations that she both observes and critiques as a border-crosser. She is quite open about the fact that there are values and responses that she does not share, or even completely understand, and she feels conflicted about the historical trajectory that has seen her New England family amass wealth and status over another disenfranchised people, the American native. She can see the parallels in her own story, and that of the history of Seven’s family and culture.
I liked the way that in several chapters, she chooses an emblematic episode or object and uses it as a focus around which to embroider observations, history and politics. Her story ranges across the world- New Zealand, New England, Melbourne, Hawaii, and explores different aspects of border-crossing and contacts. I’m not completely convinced by her writing style, though. It is certainly readable enough, but in spite of the general notes at the back – not too academic lest they frighten the reader- the book veers between accessibility and colloquial chattiness. She is obviously a careful observer and incisive yet wide-ranging thinker, but it’s as if she has subjugated her erudition- perhaps at her publisher’s suggestion? Or is it perhaps a reflection of the compromise she has had to make more generally in her life?
For her academic career and her marriage seem two completely disconnected, compartmentalized aspects of her life. She hops from one postdoctoral fellowship to another, and obviously has a respected if not lucrative academic career. Academia is often peripatetic by nature, but there’s also an element of nonchalance that Seven seems to bring to this as well. I am unsettled by the whole precept of the book and her foreword, where she explains that she has changed the names of Seven’s family but not other aspects of the story, suggests an uneasiness on her part as well. What is the authority by which she writes this book? Is there an element of trophyism and appropriation going on here? And, as with Caroline Jones’ book, I ask myself: do I have any right to criticize the choice that another person makes, just because I would have chosen differently? But a part of me answers: but SHE wrote this, she put it out here into the public domain, she has invited her readers to observe her and, by extension, critique what they find.
The quote from which the book takes its title is from Charles Darwin who, tired and homesick after his long journey on the Beagle, misquotes from journals during Cook’s voyage written decades earlier. Cook and Banks realised that the taunt “Come on shore and we will kill you” was a performance and a posturing stance towards any stranger that a Maori group might encounter, and was not necessarily acted upon. The suggestion of cannibalism was added by Darwin himself. It works well as the title for this book: it too is a challenge, and reveals layers of truth, representation and contact between cultures at the political and personal level as well.