Saturday, June 28, 2008

Christina Thompson's "Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All"

Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, and reported the following:
Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is the story of two peoples: New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesians (the Maori) and the Europeans (principally British) who colonized them. But it is also the story of two individuals, one Maori and one American, whose experience both mocks and mirrors the history of encounters between these two groups. The key to the book is the oscillation between these two subjects, and on page 99 we find one of the many shifts between past and present that are intended to illuminate this relationship.

My husband (who is Maori) and I have just arrived in America, and I am seeing him for the first time in the context of my parents’ house.

I had never seen Seven before in an environment like this, dressed in his suit or a charcoal sweater, his hair now long and tied back in a ponytail, his skin a dusky brown from the summer we had just left. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of him against the plum-colored linen velvet of my mother’s sofa, the corner of a saffron cushion peeking out from behind his back, the big red Japanese painting on the wall behind him, and think, my God, it’s an Ingres.

The chapter examines one of the most persistent ideas about Polynesians, i.e., that they were a species of Noble Savage. And it was prompted by certain (to me humorous) similarities between my husband’s initial experience of America and that of Omai, a Raiatean native from the Society Islands (now French Polynesia), who was brought to England by Captain Furneaux in the late 18th century.

There was some initial anxiety that I might be misconstrued as representing the man I married as a sort of elegant, genial “natural gentleman.” But my point was rather that this was an astonishingly easy thing to do—even for someone like me who knew better. It was not simply that my husband manifested many of the same qualities as Omai (good humor, politeness, modesty, charm), but that everyone who met him was so ready to see him in this light. And the question was, therefore, not so much what this said about him as what it said about us.
Read excerpts from the book, and learn more about the author and her work at Christina Thompson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue