This is mostly a book review rather than a 101 on writing someone else’s face, so we’re going book review first, issues town second.
The Book: My Island Homicide by Catherine Titasey (2013, UQP)
[Mild spoilers to follow but nothing about the crime or anything]
My Island Homicide is the first novel by Catherine Titasey, not quite a crime novel set on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, though I received it under the guise of being a crime novel. I would not describe it as a crime novel, though the crime is there and looms large: it’s more a slice of life, and it’s kind of fun.
There are not that many fiction books about the Torres Strait, and there are even fewer books that end happily (as it were); that have an Islander protagonist; that are this great slice of Torres Strait Life that I wanted to just keep on keeping on. I loved the minutiae in the book. I loved the Sissys getting more and more animals as Jack palmed them off. I loved everyone’s casual acceptance of maydh (a curse), and the mostly natural weaving in of the local Broken English, and I loved loved loved the protag’s mum coming home to Thursday Island and finding herself again.
And I wanted to love it as a book. But it reads weird. It was billed as a mystery (and it is), but it’s also a romance and it’s also a slice of life. On pg 138, almost halfway through the book, there’s suddenly a family mystery! At times it seems as if the pedestrian plodding of the story – not of the plot, but the pace of the book itself – is a reflection of life on Thursday Island, just going with the flow and letting it happen, but at other times it simply felt like uninspired pedestrian writing. I wish that the book had been able to settle into what it wanted to be, rather than hopping back and forth.
My Island Homicide talks about all sorts of issues, but only briefly. It mentions in passing the predominant local crimes (assault and theft) and their causes (alcohol, hunger). It makes a major plot point of the lack of education in the Torres Strait, and how easy it is to pretend like the white man is doing something when really he isn’t. It laughs away DV and assault, and it’s hard to tell when it’s poking fun with versus when it’s poking fun at the things that happen in island life. These are major issues in the Torres Strait and also incredibly damaging stereotypes when seen through non-TSI eyes, and I wish more had been done to flag this as not okay.
There’s a lot of unquestioned behaviour and acts which seem less than ideal. A white person describes the abuse they’re suffering from a black person as ‘racist,’ with no looking at the fact that it’s not possible (due to the equation of privilege + power = racism). There was some super dodgy stuff going on around the young gentleman who was unable to talk (sometimes it was implied he had suffered brain damage, sometimes just that he couldn’t speak and refused to sign) in terms of attitudes.
The book keeps making jokes at the expense of Gen Y, followed by some vegan hate, which didn’t endear it to me. (At one point a member of Gen Y declares they don’t know what Twister the board game is, which, I call nope). This is obviously less critical than the class and social issues in the Torres Strait, but also totally not cool!
Thea’s mother thinks Thea’s under maydh, and though Thea is unsure she goes with it, being treated for the curse and in the end she recovers with two answers: a western medicine answer, and a maydh answer. I love this resolution. Of course there’s a western medicine answer, because western medicine is always trying to quantify non-western traditional methods and outcomes. But there’s a ‘traditional’ outcome and solution too, and we’re never told which one is right in the context of the text. It just is.
It was really nice to read a book set in the Thursday Islands, and to be reading a book that was trying so hard to do justice to the Torres Strait and to this part of Australia’s population and culture. But it wasn’t a great book, and I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it to you. It was fun and easy to read, but it took me about 100 pages before I was actually into it. If I was handed another book by this author I would consider reading it, and I would certainly support what she’s doing (writing about Torres Strait Islander communities) but I wouldn’t leap to read it. Three out of five jiaozi.
If you want to read the book, let me know, there’s a possibility this copy is mine.
People as Food
Milk chocolate. Almond. Burnt honey. Olive. Dark olive. Peanut brown. Nut brown.
I made a list of the ways brown people are described in My Island Homicide. I recoiled at that last one, particularly as it was the last sentence of the novel, used to described Thea’s (the POV character) baby. Note Thea describes herself as light brown. (Her mother is milk chocolate)
Hey you know what we are not? We are not a menu. We are not food items or items for export or exploitation or fetishisation, even after you give birth to us, much like many of these items were (or still are). Coffee and cocoa in particular, with their slave labour connotations and the indigenous exploitation inherent within, makes these comparisons, even when unintentional, totally on the dodgy side.
It is not a compliment to describe brown characters in food terms.
Working with (and Reading) Someone Else’s Culture
This blog post is not a cultural appropriation primer or anything like that, because I don’t have the time nor the patience, and also because many other people have done that work, though maybe not from an Australian point of view. So maybe that’ll come another day.
My Island Homicide is very firmly a book set in the Torres Strait. It is on Thursday Island and Horn Island and a couple of tiny dotted islands in between. Titasey is white; though she is married to a Torres Strait Islander with TSI children, and has lived on Thursday Island for 20 years.
The POV character is a half-Islander, half-Caucasian woman whose family moved away from the Torres Strait and now she’s come back, wanting to live her stereotypical idyllic island lifestyle and maybe along the way she’ll learn some things. This worked for the most part as a frame for explaining things about the culture to an assumed non-Torres Strait audience. Thea learning Broken English was woven with shame (at not knowing it) and embarrassment and also naturally into the text, in a way that didn’t throw me out and that was awesome. Things were explained where explanations worked, but the text didn’t assume the reader was completely lacking in knowledge (except, inexplicably, when it explains that Billabong is a surf company).
You can tell, when you’re reading My Island Homicide, that Titasey is an outsider but has worked to not be an outsider. She presents this culture that isn’t hers as respectfully as she can, and though I wish it’d been better written I really appreciated that.