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Monday, July 28, 2008

"Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all"

My vote for the most attention-gripping title to come out this season is Christina Thompson's Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story," published by Bloomsbury USA this month, and due to be launched in New Zealand within the next couple of months or so.

Back in the eighties, Christina was a graduate student in Melbourne, and on the way back to Australia after a vacation with her folks in Boston, Mass., she decided to spend a few days in the Bay of Islands. There, in a reprise of what happened to Captain James Cook and Captain Dumont de Surville about a couple of centuries earlier, she had her first contact with the Maori people. The difference is that while they were both killed by Polynesians, she married one she met in a pub.

It was quite a contrast in cultures. He was a tradesman from a background of rural poverty, she was an upper-middle-class intellectual: He was a “native,” while she descended from European colonizers. She was a 90-pound blonde, and he was a 200-lb Maori. For a candid and revealing Q&A session with Christina, see:

While the book is about those aggressive first contacts between European and Maori warriors (according to Darwin's journal on the Beagle, he was informed that they shouted out something like the words of the title in ritual challenge), Thompson draws the reader in to the story by intertwining New Zealand’s history with an anecdotal account of her own relationship with her husband and his family, describing how the two met and married, had three sons, traveled together, and lived in several different parts of the world, including Australia and Hawaii, before settling in Boston.

Thompson began Come on Shore in 1999, after moving back from the Pacific to the U.S. After putting it aside for several years, she wrote most of it over the course of two years. Apparently her husband had no input, and has not even read it, which demonstrates a great deal of trust in her good taste and judgement, but is also a pity, as it would have been very interesting to learn something about his cultural memories of those first contacts -- not to mention his feelings and being transported to Boston.

Christina Thompson is already planning her next book, which will explore Maori language and culture, in which she hopes to call attention to disappearing languages by documenting the process of learning one. Luckily, she is good with languages, but because her husband is not a fluent speaker of Maori, she says she may have to travel as far as Hawaii to find a teacher.

As far as Hawaii? How odd. Why not New Zealand? While Polynesian dialects have a common root, Hawaiians and speakers of te reo Maori have quite a lot of trouble understanding each other -- or so I have been assured by experts. Hopefully, we will see her here. And it would be great to hear a few words from her husband, too.

Christina Thompson has strong links with New Zealand, quite apart from her very interesting souvenir. She is now the editor of the prestigious Harvard Review, and in the fall issue will include a special section dedicated to that country’s literature. Well, Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, said so, in a speech given at the country’s literary awards ceremony last fall.

For last weekend's New York Times review in the book review section, see:

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