An Interview with Christina Thompson
Suzanne Kamata: What made you decide to go to Australia in the first place?
Christina Thompson: I’d been working as a secretary at a newspaper in Seattle and I wanted to go back to school, but I also wanted to do something exciting. I’d seen a lot of Australian movies and there was a certain amount of fascination with Australia in the U.S. — this was the early 1980s — so I got the idea to apply for an international fellowship to study in Australia. It was kind of a crazy idea; I didn’t really know anything about Australia. But I got lucky: I actually got two different fellowships, one from the Institute of International Education in New York and one from the Australian Federation of University Women (QLD). So off I went.
SK: What compelled you to write this book?
CT: I have felt for a long time as though there were things about contact history and colonialism in general, and about the history of New Zealand in particular, that I wanted to communicate to an audience of non-specialists. I felt that the best way to do that was to explain, as much as possible, not only these issues, but the reason that they interested me — in the hope that that would help other people become interested in them too.
My interest in New Zealand and its history really took root during my graduate work at the University of Melbourne. I was enrolled for a PhD in English focusing on what various types of Europeans had written about the Pacific over quite a few centuries. The subject ending up crossing out of the traditional field of English and into both history and anthropology. My dissertation covered a really wide swath of material, including the Pacific writers like Conrad, Melville, and Stevenson, anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, early voyagers like Cook and Banks, and a number of Australian writers, including Randolph Stow and Patrick White.
SK: How long did it take you to write Come on Shore?
CT: Years and years. I first started working on this book about 10 years ago, but I didn’t really know at that point what I was trying to do. Then I put it down for a while, then I picked it up and worked on it slowly for a few years. Then I decided to try and sell it, and then even after I had a contract for the book, I had about 18 months when I didn’t do anything — when I was sort of paralyzed. Then I finally finished it rather fast.
SK: What was it that kept you from writing and how did you overcome that paralysis?
CT: I think I sort of felt that once I’d sold the book, I’d actually finished it when in reality there was still a huge amount of work to do to make a coherent narrative. Also, it was a difficult time in my family: my father died just a few days before I sold the book. I think there was also an element of fear. It was all a lot more real at that point; I wasn’t just dabbling any more. I’d actually taken the money, and so the stakes had definitely been raised.
But it was also fear that helped me solve the problem. One day my editor called and said, “Look, either it’s going into the spring catalogue or it’s not.” I knew at that point they were running out of patience, and I was afraid of what might happen. That was when I buckled down and finished the manuscript in about seven months.
SK: In Come on Shore you write that you found looking after a baby easy. Could you elaborate on this a bit? How did you manage to work while taking care of an infant?
CT: What I really meant by that was that I was not a nervous mother. I felt that I understood my babies and that I could always manage them without being anxious in the way some new mothers are. I was surprised by this because I really had no experience with babies or even little children. I had been the youngest in my family and had never had any little cousins around or anything. So I really had no idea what it would be like. But I was just very comfortable with them.
This is not to say, however, that I wanted to be a full-time mom. I always wanted to work, to be involved with other adults, and to have an active life of the mind. All my children were in some form of daycare from the time they were about 18 months, even if it was just regular babysitting, so that I could do something on my own. I was always trying to balance my children’s need for my attention with my own need to do something that interested me intellectually, and then, of course, there was the need to make some money. It was definitely hard to juggle all three.
SK: How did you make it work?
CT: One thing that helped is that my children are spaced between 3 and 4 years apart, so I never had a toddler and an infant, for example. Also, I accepted the fact that I was going to be broke. That was another price we paid because I didn’t think I could give the children what they needed and also do full-time work. So I worked part-time (teaching and then editing) and put the kids in daycare and then clawed back a little bit of time for myself in which to write. That’s really why it took me so long to write this book. Because for years I was doing it in the interstices, between everything else. But these spaces did get bigger as the children got older and didn’t need me to mind them quite so much.
SK: You mentioned that the Maoris you knew “were warm and affectionate but they never hovered over their kids.” What are some of the other differences between child-rearing practices in the Maori culture and American culture?
SK: At first I thought a lot of the differences between say, the way my husband’s siblings raised their kids and the way mine did were based in cultural differences, i.e., American versus Maori views about children, but I later came to think of a lot of this as class-based differences.
I think it is generally fair to say that middle-class child rearing practices are somewhat different from working-class child rearing practices: working-class parents tend to be more authoritarian and to value obedience and cooperativeness more highly than middle-class parents, who value independence and creativity in their children. There are some very interesting studies on this subject by people who know much more about it than I do, but in general this was one of the areas where I felt there were substantial differences between me and my husband. In my family we were more likely to ask our children what they wanted to do; in my husband’s family they were more likely to tell their children what to do.
SK: This book is in many ways about your children’s dual heritage. Do you follow any Maori customs at home in Massachusetts? Did you do anything to instill Maori culture in your sons?
CT: No, we don’t. My husband doesn’t even speak to them in Maori — though he did a little with my first son. We have been in the U.S. with little contact (except by phone) with his family for more than 10 years now, and I think the children are very solidly American, which is a bit of a shame. But I’m hoping that when they are old enough to start their own voyages of discovery that they will set out to learn about their father’s heritage on their own. I’m a big believer in this kind of self-paced discovery; I think you should find things out when you want to find them out, rather than when someone else thinks you should find out about them.
SK: How do your sons feel about their mixed heritage? Are they undergoing any sort of identity crisis?
CT: I think my boys are very proud of their heritage, in the sense that they understand themselves to be sort of special. Where we live, there is really no stigma whatsoever to mixed ethnicity; on the contrary I believe it has a sort of cachet. Also, their father is a very cool guy and lots and lots of people really like him, so I think that the children have always been proud of him and proud to be related to him. Also, it is not easy to tell what they are just by looking at them: they could be any number of backgrounds, so they are never obliged to explain themselves in any way. They “pass” in all kinds of different environments.
SK: How have your Maori and American relatives responded to this book?
CT: My husband and his sister were both very positive about it, which made me very happy. He didn’t read it until after she had, so she was the first person in the family who really gave me the thumbs up and I’m very pleased about that. My mother-in-law had certain reservations about my use of certain names and the way some people were depicted. No one much likes being depicted in a book; it’s almost always problematic from the point of view of the person who is being described. But in my defense and that of many other writers who have run up against this problem: I was never trying to tell anyone’s story but my own and I only ever depicted my relatives as I saw them — not as they are in some absolute sense.
SK: How did you, an American, come to be the editor of Meanjin, an established Australian literary journal?
CT: Looking back on it, I think it was just very lucky. It was a wonderful job and it got me started doing what I have done ever since, so I have always been enormously grateful for the opportunity I was given.
I think that going into it, I had a lot of good ideas and I was rather more “literary” in my tastes and impulses than the editor I was succeeding — Meanjin tends to swing from the cultural/political to the literary and back again — and I have always been kind of an instinctual editor. But I was also pretty inexperienced and in those first few years I made a lot of mistakes.
There was definitely some grumbling, however, about the fact that I was American. And while it may have meant a certain freshness of approach, it is certainly true that there were always cultural things about Australia that I didn’t really grasp. It’s kind of a trade-off, you know. Sometimes in a comparatively small country an outsider can be a breath of fresh air; but they’re always still outsiders.
SK: Did you always feel like an outsider while you were there?
CT: I always had some feeling of what you might call “difference” in Australia. I hadn’t watched the same TV shows growing up or eaten the same candy bars, and there were aspects of Australian politics I never fully understood. Since I lived there for nearly 15 years, though, I became pretty well acclimated over time. Now, of course, I live back in the United States where I grew up and where I feel like a complete insider.
SK: You became an Australian citizen. Was that decision a matter of convenience, or did you have a more romantic reason?
CT: I had been living in Australia as a permanent resident for about 13 years by then — a couple of those years we’d been overseas, in Hawaii and Boston, but basically I had come to think of Melbourne as my home. But then my father became ill, and I decided that if we were going to spend any time with him as a family we would have to move back to the States. I had earned my Australian citizenship by then, and I was concerned about being able to return to Australia later, so that is when I applied for an Australian passport. My husband is a New Zealander, which means that he can travel in and out of Australia easily and work there and so on, but it’s not so easy for Americans. So basically, I wanted to make sure that I could go back.
SK: What kind of ties do you have to Australia now?
CT: I still have a lot of friends in Australia with whom I keep up, and with the publication of this book I seem to be back on the radar of the literary world. The Australian press has been very positive about Come on Shore, and it was very widely and very well reviewed. I feel, in some way, that the Australians have understood the book better than almost anyone, and perhaps that’s because my sensibility was really formed there. I guess I am, in some sense, an Australian writer. It is certainly true that when I first started this book, I imagined that I was writing for an Australian readership, and it was only after I had been back in the U.S. for several years that I began to think about writing for an American audience.
SK: What’s your next project?
CT: I was hoping to set myself the task of learning the Maori language and documenting the experience; but this would require some time in New Zealand, and I’m not sure about whether or not we can pull that off. In the meantime I’m going to write a couple of short pieces about living with my mother.