Come On Shore
A new book by Christina Thompson
Q & A with Christina
Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is an unusual and compelling combination of history and memoir, inspired by the author, Christina Thompsonís relationship with her Maori husband. We sat down with her to find out more.
This is the story of how you met your husband, who is a member of New Zealandís indigenous population. Can you tell us a little about who the Maoris are and where they came from?
The Maori people are Polynesians. They are closely related to Tahitians, Hawaiians, Cook Islanders, Samoans, Tongans, and the other Polynesian peoples of the Pacific. They are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, and over the course of some few thousand years they island-hopped their way across the Pacific to central Polynesia. About 1000 years ago, in the final stage of one of the greatest migrations in human history, they pushed north to Hawaii, east to Easter Island, and south to New Zealand, across thousands of miles of open ocean in voyaging canoes. And then, for reasons that remain unknown, their long-distance voyaging came to an end. So that when the Europeans first arrived in New Zealand in the seventeenth century, the Maoris had lived there in isolation for about a thousand years.
Youíre an American. How did you come to be in New Zealand?
I grew up in Boston and after attending college in New England I moved to the west coast, where I worked for a couple of years as a secretary. The jobs were so boring that I decided Iíd better go to graduate school and somehow I got the idea of applying for a fellowship to study in Australia. I enrolled for a Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne and I was about two years into the program when I made a trip back to the States to visit my family. On my return I stopped in New Zealand just to have a holiday and see what it was like.
And that was when you met your husband?
Yes, I was staying in a little town in the Bay of Islands and the night before I was supposed to leave I went over to the local pub. I was just hanging out there, talking to people, when suddenly this fight broke out between a white guy and a Maori. I was quite startled by it—it hadnít seemed like that sort of place—and I turned to the guy standing next to me and asked him what it was all about. That, as it happens, was the fellow I eventually married.
This is not the only fight in the book. The early encounters between Maoris and Europeans appear to have been quite violent. Can you talk a little about that?
One of the interesting things about Maoris is that, unlike a lot of Polynesians—Tahitians, say, or Hawaiians, whom we tend to think of as island beauties and dancers—Maoris have traditionally been described as extremely aggressive. Darwin, for example, called them ďthe worldís most warlike people.Ē And it is certainly true that they attacked the first Europeans they encountered. Cook, who was really the first navigator to get to know the Maoris in any degree, claimed that whenever they saw a European ship they would come out in their canoes and wave their weapons in the air and yell out: ďCome here, come ashore, and we will kill you.Ē But the Europeans were not shy of fighting either and, as most people are aware, it was the Maoris who suffered most in the long run.
What about the Maoris you encountered, and particularly your husband, what were they like?
One of the things I wanted to do with this book was to look at the past through the lens of the present, and to look at the present through the lens of the past. So, for example, the fact that Maoris (and particularly Maori men) were said to be notoriously fierce struck me as oddly ironic, given that my husband was such a gentle person. He is very large and strong and certainly could be dangerous if push came to shove, but he is remarkably good-natured. He is even-tempered, wonderful with children, and very easy to be with.
But isnít that another stereotype about Polynesians, that they are really laid back?
Indeed it is, and this too has clear roots both in the ideas that Europeans brought with them into the Pacific and in the specific things that happened when they got there. In some sense this is really what the book is about: how these ideas and events continue to influence the lives of people in the Pacific today, and specifically how Iíve seen and felt them in my own life. There are times when my husband seems to me to embody some of the most obvious clichés, in his unwillingness to plan, for example, his spontaneity, or his (to me) occasionally wacky worldview. But I also often seem to myself like a caricature of ďEuropeanĒ attributes, in my preoccupation with projects, and my focus on the future, and my rigidly analytic point of view.
So what about your own background? Is that part of the story too?
I could hardly ask all these questions about my husbandís people without turning them back upon myself. And there is a chapter in the book towards the end in which I look at the history of my motherís family, who were settlers on the Minnesota frontier. I hadnít given this connection much thought, however, until we started having children of our own.
There is a letter in the book addressed to your children in which you say,ďin each of you is a little bit of the conqueror and the conquered, the colonizer and the colonized.Ē What doest this mean for you?
There are innumerable challenges to raising children in a cross-cultural marriage, and I was always afraid that they were being deprived of the benefits of full membership in either community. But what I really wanted them to understand was what they did have: which is an incredibly interesting story. Itís much more than that, of course, itís a story of great complexity and sadness. My people dispossessed their fatherís people. Their fatherís people did their best to resist. But my people were too many for them and the consequences for the Maoris have been hard. And yet it seemed to me that they themselves are proof of the redemptive potential of even so tragic a story as this.
Your children are still too young to appreciate this, but what does your husband think about the book?
Well, actually, he didnít read it until after it was published. Iím not sure he realized how largely he figured in it, since I always said I was writing a history (which was how I thought of it) and not a memoir. But it never occurred to me that he wouldnít like it, and Iím happy to report that heís a fan.