NEA Literature Fellowships

Christina Thompson

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(2010 - Prose)

From the creative nonfiction piece "Hawaiki"

The oldest words in any Polynesian language, the core that every migrating group carried with it from the ancestral lands--the elemental lexicon--are words for sea creatures, fishing techniques, various parts of canoes. One might almost reconstruct a complete history of the Polynesian diaspora on the evidence of fishhooks alone. For early Polynesians, the ocean, far from being a "trackless waste," as so many Victorians had it, was crisscrossed by sea-roads and pathways. Over every horizon lay islands, some near, some far, some big enough to colonize, some barely big enough to offer respite on the way to somewhere else. For two thousand years knowledge of these islands, where they lay and how to reach them, constituted the core of their arcana. Traveling in large, double-hulled sailing canoes, they navigated by the stars and the ocean currents, the winds, the swells, the birds, the look and feel of the sky and water. They knew hundreds of constellations, identified dozens of winds, could feel the interaction of as many as five different swells through the deck of an ocean-going canoe. They knew which birds flew out from land in the morning and returned to it at dusk. They knew that a high island would disrupt the trade winds, and that the lagoon of a low island would cast a greenish glow on the underbelly of the clouds.

They traveled over the ocean the way we traveled over the land, with all our belongings bumping along beside us, with our breeding stock and our favorite seedlings, a Bible and a change of clothes. They carried paste made from taro and breadfruit, dried fish, young coconuts, and water stored in gourds. They shipped cargoes of flint stone and seed tubers, sacred stones and feathers, parrots and piglets and dogs. Stories in the Maori tradition tell of babies born on long voyages, of disputes that erupted over sailing directions, of canoes that were wrecked on atolls or wandered into dangerous regions of the sea. Few of the voyages are without incident: canoes get sucked into giant whirlpools, swamped by terrible storms, cast away upon islands that have since disappeared beneath the surface of the sea. Sometimes the voyagers are guided by whales or birds, or by taniwha, mythical sea monsters. Often there are supernatural components, and yet the detail of these stories is too prosaic--words to be said while bailing water, lists of members of the crew--to be mistaken for myth.

And then, about six or seven hundred years ago, long-distance voyaging ceased. Although Polynesians continued to build canoes and make short, inter-island and coastal voyages, they never ventured out onto the sea-roads again. Ka kotia te tai tapu ke Hawaiki, they say in New Zealand. "The tapu sea to Hawaiki is cut off." All over Polynesia the specific memory of where they had come from and how to get there disappeared, leaving no more than an echo, a myth of an ancestral homeland reachable only by supernatural means. In the Maori tradition this land is known as Hawaiki, a name that was carried throughout the islands by the earliest migrants and appears in every Polynesian language in some cognate form. The land of Hawaiki is an otherworldly place, sometimes in the east, sometimes in the west, sometimes in the sky or underwater. It is a land of origin and a source of life, a place of plenty, a paradise. But it is also a place of death and separation, and those who pass over to Hawaiki are lost to this world.

In three places the name has been given to actual islands. The first is Savai'i in Samoa, thought to be the original of them all, in part because Samoans are the only Polynesians who do not describe themselves as having originally come from someplace else. The second is a highly tapu or sacred island in the Society Islands more commonly known as Raiatea. And the third is the Big Island of Hawaii. Settled late in Polynesian prehistory, Hawaii is not the Hawaiki of myth, but an echo or reflection of it. Like Plymouth or Essex or New England, it was named, perhaps hopefully, perhaps nostalgically, in remembrance of a former home.

Christina Thompson is the author of a historical memoir called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story (Bloomsbury, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2009 Douglas Stewart Prize. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the American Scholar, Salmagundi, Manoa, the Journal of Pacific History, and Best Australian Essays 1999, 2000, and 2006. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Melbourne, she teaches in the Writing Program at Harvard University Extension and edits Harvard Review.

Photo by Marshall Clemens

Author's Statement

Ten years ago I received a modest grant from the NEA's equivalent in Australia to begin the book that became Come on Shore. In the decade that followed a great deal of living went on: I got a job, raised three children, saw my father through his final years. But one thing I didn't do was travel. In fact, for ten years I didn't even get on a plane. Now for the past two or three years I have been thinking about a second book, set not merely in the antipodes but in Remote Oceania. Actually getting there would have been quite out of the question, given my circumstances, and I had begun to consider how best to incorporate the limitations of the "armchair" point of view. In this context, the news of the NEA Fellowship and, in an embarrassment of riches, a companion grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council, is like the return of the trade winds to one becalmed. I am very excited and grateful and looking forward to my trip.