Revisiting My Sister Sif

‘Will Sarah stay with my grandmother?’

‘Sometimes,’ I said warily.

‘Mummy won’t talk about her.  Is she upset because Granny is a brown lady?’

‘Maybe.’

A sailor falls in love with a beautiful Islander woman.  The relationship breaks down over cultural differences; their children struggle to find a place in the world.

A sailor falls in love with a mermaid.  The relationship breaks down because he’s an alcoholic and she is crippled on land; their children struggle to find a place in the world.

Despite the mermaids, My Sister Sif is science fiction.  Published in 1991 and set in 2000, this is the story of Sif and Erika, the youngest children of the marriage between the sailor and the mermaid.  Sif, 17, is dreamy and gentle; Erika is a pushy 14 year old with a cynical streak as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

Following the death of their father, they’ve been living with their older sister Joanna in Sydney.  Joanna is a land-dweller through and through, determined to reject every aspect of her heritage, even their Scandinavian names.  (Erika is the only child with an Islander name — her family call her Riko, short for Rikoriko, but she identifies as Erika.)

Knowing that Sif will never adapt to life in Sydney, Erika schemes to send her home to the Pacific island of Rongo, and makes the trip herself a few weeks after.  But a stranger is coming to Rongo, too, a young American scientist who falls in love with Sif.  Erika hates him, but the real threat to her family is something far more abstract and dangerous.

When I first read My Sister Sif, I was twelve.  I’m pretty certain it was the very first genre book I read where the heroine was a person of colour.  I picked it up on a weekend with my family — my old copy was lurking on my brother’s bookshelf — and wondered if re-reading it now would destroy all my memories of a book I had loved.  The late Ruth Park was a white author, after all, and all the good intentions in the world can’t save you from accidental racism.

The good news is, I didn’t finish the book feeling horribly disappointed and disillusioned.  The bad news is, that’s partially because I don’t know much about Pacific Islanders, their culture or how they’re portrayed in the media.  Well, there’s Chris Lilley‘s Jonah (a delinquent Islander boy played by Lilley in brownface), but that’s about it.  Google brought me a variety of blog posts by New Zealanders, arguing that Pacific Islanders are frequently portrayed as violent, alcoholic and not too bright.  (Sad fact: even racist New Zealand media is more diverse than Australia’s — I’m thinking of the ad where a Maori kid prevents his Islander friend from driving drunk.)

This post is most reflective of Park’s portrayal of Islanders:

Pacific Islanders—particularly Polynesians—are portrayed as a simple people lacking in complexity, intellect, or ambition. Acting always as a group, Pacific characters can be seen running, fishing, eating, or playing with little or no differentiation between one individual and another.

That’s about it for My Sister Sif.  Aside from the mixed race Magnus sisters, the Islander we see most of is Mummy Ti, who, though not their biological parent, is effectively their mother.  Erika’s homecoming:

Soon I was in the small flowery shed behind the airstrip, and there was Sif, eyes sparkling in a brown face, and Mummy Ti, crowned with yellow hibiscus, and yelling with happiness.

Fat, floral and loud.  These traits conform to stereotypes, but they also mark Mummy Ti instantly as a safe person, in contrast to the slender, chilly Joanna.  Late in the book, Mummy Ti sets aside her cuddly persona to confront the girls’ mother, Matira, who wants to take Sif away:

Mummy Ti insisted on accompanying us.  I watched her dress, in the old style — the flowing flowery dress called a Mother Hubbard, her beautiful black hair down her back, and a crown of orange hibiscus flowers on her head.  She was majestic, like a Tahitian princess of ancient days.  Her face was fierce.  I knew she would fight Matira for Sif, if it came to that.  I remembered her words, that she would not allow bad things to happen to us.

Whatever was in her mind — pagan spells or Christian prayers — was powerful.  She said nothing, crouched on the sand above high tidemark, her eyes fixed upon Stig and our mother.  Just the look of her made me uneasy.  I was thankful it was not me she disliked.

Again, there is a strong element of stereotype, but reading this as a child, it was only the second time I had ever encountered a description of non-white majesty.

The first was in this very book, a few chapters earlier, and, of course, it’s Matira herself:

Just then our mother rose like a brown wraith out of the lagoon.  Though she was old, she was not old like a landwoman.  Her hair was a metre long, cloudy in the water like dark weed.  On her head was an ornament of blue staghorn coral.

…Always when her arms were around me I forgot that Matira had run off to live with her own people when I was four, leaving me to my father and Dockie to bring up.  There was enough seaperson in me to understand her homesickness.

Two powerful women, both mothers to the heroines.  What’s remarkable here is that Erika loves and empathises with both of them, even the selfish and imperious Matira.  Erika and Sif’s mother is criticised for her self-aborption, but she’s never demonised for it.

Nevertheless, the portrayal of the islanders as a whole is stereotypical and two dimensional.  The only (human) islander we see much of is Mummy Ti; the rest are an amorphous crowd who enjoy movies, sweet food and a good joke.  The other Rongo-dwelling humans with whom Erika interacts are Dockie, Mummy Ti’s alcoholic Scottish husband, and the local missionary, the Reverend Mr Spry.  Good characters, but very much white dudes.

There is, however, a second group of nonhuman islanders in the mix:  the menehune.  They have their origin in Hawaiian mythology, dwarf-like people who are skilled builders and craftsmen.  Like the mermaids, they aren’t magical fantasy people here, but an indigenous people dealing with colonisation, loss of culture and the destructive effects of climate change.  Erika’s best friend is a young menehune boy named Pig, who is attempting to embrace modern culture:

Pig wore jeans, which he had stolen from a clothes line down in the village.  The legs were too wide for his muscular limbs, so he had slit them up the seams.  The jeans now flapped around his legs like the cowboy chaps you see in ancient Western photographs.  Pig was unbearably arrogant about his jeans.  He was convinced they were magic and could turn him into a modern boy.  He was that rare creature, a menehune who wished to join the rest of the world.  So he caused great anxiety in his tribe.

Pig worries his father by wearing his hair in spikes, eating too much sugar and messing about with human stuff, and he’s closely allied with fellow-outsider Erika.  Erika, in turn, respects his culture while acknowledging, and worrying about, his differences.  The menehune are facing extinction — fewer and fewer girls are being born, and the changing climate is affecting their traditional homes.  This parallels Pig’s attempt to turn away from his heritage, without judging his personal choice.

Reading My Sister Sif as an adult, I found it problematic but still engaging and powerful.  As a kid, I found the environmental subplot tedious and heavy-handed; as an adult who is aware that the Pacific Islands will be the first to suffer the effects of climate change, I found it chilling.  Yet it ends on an ultimately hopeful note, even if my eyes were blurred by tears by the time I hit the final page.

One interesting feature:  the parallels between My Sister Sif and Ruth Park’s most famous novel, The Harp in the South.   Published in 1948, that was a controversial depiction of life among the urban poor of Sydney.  It, too, centred around two sisters, one shy and delicate and the other brash and too clever for her own good.  And it, too, featured a character of mixed race who has trouble finding his place in society.  In that case, the character is Charlie Rothe, a man of Aboriginal descent, a member of the Stolen Generation, who ultimately marries Roie, one of the heroines.  (It’s a portrayal with some fairly racist clunkers, as you’d expect from 1948, but also — a man of colour marries a heroine.  Actually, he marries both of them, Roie ultimately dying from poverty-related complications in childbirth.  In the ’40s and ’50s.  He was totally played by a white guy in the TV adaptations of the ’80s, so well done, Australia.)

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linkspam for a rainy day

Rainy first day of the week links:

Radio National asks: Is Voluntourism the New Colonialism?

Despite the title, this article at the Australian does contain some nuance: Asian Slaves to the Australian Sex Industry

Rani Pramesti at Peril with Chinese Whispers: an artistic response to the context in which I live (disclaimer: Steph is involved in expanding this project)

If you’re in Melbourne, check out the 18C exhibition at Blak Dot Gallery until Sunday 27 April (at which point the works will be submitted to the RDA review).

At Junkee, An Entire Suburb In Sydney is Being Evicted.

The Rover is a new movie starring Guy Pearce, it looks like an Australian Dystopia but maybe it is too white? We shall see.

Steph has an article up at The Toast! A Look at Australia’s Climate Change Dystopia, using CSIRO’s projections. OUR DYSTOPIA IS REAL AND IT IS COMING FOR YOU. Also here at No Award we love Australia-centric (or non-USA-centric) SFF.

Not Australian, still v relevant and interesting:

Diversity is not enough: Race, Power and Publishing by Daniel Jose Older

Spicy, by Priya Alika Elias, on food and culture.

Hannah Gadsby’s OZ, Episode 1: Interrogating the White View of Australian Colonial Art History

You know what we don’t talk enough about here on No Award? ART. Actual art, hanging in galleries! Here is Hayley to fix that problem, with a three part review of Hannah Gadsby’s OZ, which recently aired on Our ABC. Hayley has a degree in art history, and we occasionally play ‘who knows more about art’ at NGV (she usually wins). What with the art, and with the birds, Hayley is gonna have to have her own tag on No Award!  

Recently comedian Hannah Gadsby made a three part series on the history of Australian art for Our ABC. Hannah has a degree in art history (like me!) and has for years been taking jokes to art in the form of her guided tours of the National Gallery of Victoria during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

I greatly enjoyed the series, to the point that I started to get fretful about the fact that it didn’t seem as if many got around to watching it. That concerned me, because Gadsby’s series was not just about art. You can take it from the title alone: this a series about the Australia she sees reflected back to us through our popular conception of art history, and the things about Australia that aren’t the dominant narratives within Australian cultural identity. It is an unapologetic exploration of the art of women, indigenous artists, and those who portray ignored Australian perspectives. It’s WELL POLITICAL, and even just in the context of art history it covers a lot of really clever, important stuff that isn’t even touched on in university art history courses (believe me, I know).

Daniel Boyd, We Call Them Pirates Out Here
ed note: THE GREATEST AUSTRALIAN PAINTING OF ALL TIME?! Also known as Daniel Boyd’s We Call Them Pirates Out Here

This episode looks to white Australia’s first artistic expressions in the form of colonial art, what these artists were saying about the new colony, what they weren’t saying, and how various contemporary artists are dealing with reinterpreting these colonial images in their own works.

Australian cultural identity is for the most part very one-note, and doesn’t allow for multiple viewpoints. As Hannah says “If you’re not a white man in a hat, you may struggle to see yourself in the Australian art story.” And if you’re not any of those things, you tend to struggle with feelings of belonging and displacement within Australian society. This is a dichotomy that has been present since colonial settlement, and the art of this period can shed light on how the first settlers viewed Australia, how they wanted the colony portrayed, and how we ended up with these stringent ideas of what constitutes Australia.

The biggest thing to address is how white settler artists viewed the indigenous people who had been living in the country for thousands of years. The “subjective baggage” of first contact art such as that produced by the Port Jackson Painter – one of the first western painters in the first years of the colony of New South Wales, now thought to be the work of several unidentified artists – shows that throughout these visual narratives only one (white) perspective is given, and in elevating these works in the narrative of Australian art, indigenous perspectives are knowingly blotted out.

Balloderree
Balloderree by the Port Jackson Painter

Hannah talks to Daniel Boyd, an indigenous artist who has been the artist in residence at the Natural History Museum in London, where many of the Port Jackson Painter’s works are kept as part of their First Fleet collection. Boyd’s work challenges Western viewpoints in terms of the first contact with indigenous Australians, and the way museums have historically been complicit in the theft of indigenous culture and the dehumanisation of indigenous peoples. His art is also a means of challenging the accuracy of these first colonial works – whose story are they telling?

The work that Boyd has put together at the Natural History Museum, called Tracing the Past, incorporates old boxes that the museum used to store human remains – it’s interesting that it seems that Boyd got a hold of these boxes as the museum was upgrading its curatorial practices, not that the remains were being repatriated back to their communities and descendants. Indeed the Museum still holds Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains in their collection, so there’s a disturbing thing for you to ruminate on. This work is a refusal to allow the Museum and similar institutions forget their complicity in harming indigenous peoples, and opens the conversation in terms of reassessing how museums view their collections, ensuring that there is a dialogue rather than the imposition of a one-sided interpretation.

Boyd also remixes paintings from the white tradition of Australian art. Emmanuel Phillip Fox’s 1902 painting The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 becomes We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006) (at the top of this post), with Cook reimagined as a pirate complete with eyepatch and a skull and crossbones Union flag. I would hope, dear reader, that the subtext is obvious to you. The piece is also a reminder that much of the art produced during the colonial period was a deliberate ploy towards “flogging Australia as a prime piece of real estate.”

Joseph Lycette, The Sugarloaf Mountain, near Newcastle, New South Wales. (boring)
Joseph Lycette, The Sugarloaf Mountain, near Newcastle, New South Wales. (boring)

Take the work of Joseph Lycett, a convict painter who created deliberately false images of Australian landscapes in order to increase its appeal as a thriving colony to British settlers. His pictures include white settlers and indigenous people co-existing, although the indigenous people are invariably shown leaving the picture, while the white folk gesture expansively over the vistas, indicating ownership and expansion. The images could then act as evidence to potential settlers that, not to worry! We have this native population in hand, and isn’t it a nice coincidence how European Australia looks?

Gadsby then shifts focus to Tasmania, where she grew up and, as the most concentrated arena for the eradication of indigenous Australians in colonial times, a place that holds particular significance in terms of white settler and indigenous dialogues.

Bea Maddock’s panoramic work that depicts a topographical circumnavigation of Tasmania’s coast, Terra Spiritus… with a darker shade of pale (1993-1998), is an exploration of both English and indigenous geographical names. Particularly haunting is the presence of Aboriginal place names that directly confront the wholesale genocide of Tasmania’s original inhabitants and the theft of their land. “For a Tasmanian, that is a fact that is too easily forgotten.”

Bea Maddock's Terra Spiritus (detail)

John Glover was one of the first free settler artists, and settled in Tasmania. The intriguing thing about his work is that he insisted on painting pastoral scenes of “Aboriginal arcadias of a people untouched by Western civilisation,” some 20 years after the genocide of Tasmania’s indigenous population began. Yet despite his apparent fascination with indigenous people, like Lycett’s work his paintings edit out some very sobering truths that problematises his art. He could not have witnessed the scenes he depicted, and what is shown is idealised imaginings of what indigenous life was like prior to white settlement.

Julie Gough, a Tasmanian Aboriginal artist, offers indigenous insight into how Glover’s paintings can be viewed – they are important for the fact that a white artist depicted Aboriginal life at all, but troubling as he was nostalgic for a period that he did not bear witness to, and also concurrently produced works that depicted farming and the land forging enacted by white settlers. Glover was interested in an indigenous past, but the present depicted in his works is resolutely white.

It’s interesting that when talking of Gough’s own artwork, which directly tackles the uneasy colonial relationship between indigenous peoples and white settlement, Gadsby makes note of the fact that while Glover’s work at the National Gallery of Australia is housed in the mainstream Australian art section, Gough’s work is displayed on a separate level with the specifically designated indigenous art. Is this is a deliberate curatorial decision to avoid these sort of dialogues from occurring among gallery patrons?

Ben Quilty – as Hannah says possibly Australia’s best known contemporary artist – is obsessed by identity, and how the past shapes an individual’s self-expression. Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012) depicts a beauty spot near Quilty’s home that was also the site of a massacre of indigenous people during colonial times. The wholesale murder of indigenous people is a shameful secret among non-indigenous Australians – we acknowledge on a basic level that killings occurred, but the full extent remains shrouded and unacknowledged. Gadsby makes the pertinent point that when the Port Arthur massacre occurred in 1996, it gained immediate recognition and memorialisation, whereas the hundreds of sites across the nation of indigenous genocide for the most part remain unmarked.

When asked how he reconciles living a privileged life adjacent to a place that was a scene of horror for indigenous people, Quilty baldly replies that he cannot. The spectre of white guilt, the fact that in mainstream Australian education we are still taught that ‘real’ Australian history began when Cook stepped off the Endeavour, is highly troubling to him. Quilty’s piece becomes about being born Australian, loving Australia, yet constantly questioning one’s belonging and the white-washed construction of our history in “a haunted landscape.”

The colonial view of Australia as painted by the likes of Lycett, Glover and their ilk are “devoid of scar tissue.” When we look at colonial art, we need to be consciously thinking of the voices they omit, what values they are espousing, and how we ourselves may have benefitted from a nationhood construction that leaves so many without representation. The past is not only behind us; it is constantly impacting on our present, something that contemporary Australian artists, both indigenous and white, are keenly aware of. Like Gadsby, I’m pleasantly gratified that so many contemporary Australian artists are willing to grapple with these issues and actively interrogate our colonial past.

Ben Quilty's Fairy Bower Rorschach
Ben Quilty’s Fairy Bower Rorschach

Next time! Hannah looks at the history of women artists in Australia, and how they offer an alternate vision of the extremely masculine Australia that our art history narrative has popularly pushed forward. Watch out, blokes in hats, we’re coming for you.

Secrets & Lies & WHAT I CANNOT EVEN

A few weeks ago I blogged about Secrets & Lies, an Australian crime drama set in Brisbane.  I summed up the first episode thusly:

Manpain. No sympathetic adult women.  One person of colour, unsympathetic.  The hero has never read a detective novel ever, and is following the How To Look Totally Suss playbook. Nevertheless, the mystery is interesting and I like the setting, so I’m probably going to keep watching.

I thought this series ran for 10 episodes, but it turns out that, no, that’s just the US remake.  The Australian series only goes for six episodes — which means it’s done, it’s finished, and I’m about to spoil it for you.

Are you ready?

Because chances are, this is the ending for the US version as well.

Sure?

Okay.  The hero’s young daughter did it.

It’s not made clear how old Eva is meant to be, but “between eight and 12” is the range.  She wears her hair in two pigtails, is devoted to her dad, and is the only female character who is both sympathetic to him and not sleeping with him.  (Thank God.)  She’s an adorable moppet, so of course she killed a five-year-old boy to drive his mum from their street.  Of course.

Now, the thing about crime fiction in any medium is that if you’re going to go dark — and child-murderers is very dark — you need to make the story worthwhile.  You can’t just chuck it in as a shocking twist that also conveniently punishes the kid’s mother for not loving the hero enough.  The actress was incredibly good at portraying both Adorable Moppet and Child Sociopath, but the writing didn’t justify it.

Of course, I really wanted the hero, Ben Gundelach, to be guilty.  I wanted this whole thing to be his unreliable narrative of denial mixed with guilt mixed with actualfax murderous intent, because that was the only way his characterisation would make any sense.  Because in the wake of finding the body of the child, Thom, he goes on a rampage of lying to police, hiding evidence, accusing neighbours, assaulting grown men, assaulting teenage boys, and more.  In the final episode, he breaks into the home of the bereaved mother armed with a shovel.

His behaviour was actually scary!  And sending out all sorts of red flags in terms of potential for violence and irrational rage.  Yet the narrative was all, “Well, you know how hard it is for men when they’re accused of murder…”

Now, I don’t need characters to be squeaky clean.  One of the most tragic and compelling moments in Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing is when Theis Birk Larsen, the father of the murdered girl at the centre of the plot, has his cronies abduct a teacher from her school and torture him into confessing.  It’s absolutely clear how Thies’s behaviour is driven by guilt and fear — but we’re not meant to cheer him on.  And at the end of the series, he goes to jail.

Secrets & Lies wanted us to be on Ben’s side.  And I just can’t do that.  And in real life, even white, middle-class male homeowners are charged with assault when they punch a teenage boy, even if the outcome is usually just a good behaviour bond and a fine.

So at the centre of this story, we have a deeply unpleasant hero, who isn’t even especially competent.  And he’s surrounded by women who should be really interesting female characters … except we’re meant to hate them.  A quick round up:

Christy, his wife.  As the series opens, she has just told him she’s leaving him.  But it’s not his fault he had an affair with Jess, the woman across the road and fathered her son!  (Yeah, I was totally right with that prediction, by the way.)  He only did it because Christy had had an abortion, and even though he said he was totally okay with it, he wasn’t!  And she is career-driven and terse, not vulnerable and sexually available like Jess!

Tasha, his teenage daughter.  She’s on the cusp of adulthood and independence, and is almost certainly sexually active, and she doesn’t buy her father’s bullshit for a second!  HOW DARE SHE?

Eva, the adorable moppet who loves her dad and blames women (Christy and Jess) for breaking up the family.  And she’s really sorry she killed Thom, because it caused her father manpain.

Jess, the Gundelachs’ neighbour, mother of Thom, occasional lover of Ben.  She’s perfect in every way — I mean, pretty much a doormat — until the second-last episode, when Ben discovers that she has bipolar disorder (!) and is occasionally paranoid (!!) and violent (!!!).  And she had an earlier daughter, who died of SIDS, and everyone knows that’s just code for “my mum’s a crazy bitch who killed me to death”.

After this SHOCKING REVELATION, Jess spends the rest of the series Being Crazy, rolling her eyes and laughing inappropriately and making false rape accusations against Ben.  I’d have ragequit on the spot, but with 19 minutes left of the entire series, I was in too deep.

They’re the main female characters.  There’s also Jess’s Sister, Who Doesn’t Take Ben Seriously For Some Reason, and the Bitchy, Slutshaming Older Neighbour, and the Neighbour Who Totally Hides That Her Husband Is A Paedophile.

All of these people are white, because this is set in a magical alternate Brisbane with no people of colour.  In six hours of TV, we had exactly two non-white characters:  a guy who appeared in one scene, was pissy to Ben for little things like NOT DOING HIS JOB and vanished; and an extra, who didn’t actually speak.  Both were in the first episode.  After that, it’s just a sea of white.  Even the taxi drivers are white, which is … demographically unlikely.

(Other ways this is set in a magical alternate universe version of Brisbane:  a week or so before Christmas, a character wears a puffy jacket because it’s raining.  Someone lives in Brisbane and OWNS a puffy jacket.  In the week between Christmas and NYE, people are wearing long pants.  It’s weird, is what I’m saying.)

In short, the series was a strange and off-putting exercise in accidentally demonstrating male privilege.  It wasn’t particularly well-written.  The mystery didn’t hang together cohesively.  The hero was repulsive.

The biggest mystery about the whole thing is that ABC (the American network, not Our ABC) were already producing a remake before this had even aired.  Have they thrown out the scripts and started again from scratch? Certainly they’ve made the characters’ names more Anglo-Saxon and less Western-European-Ethnic — “Gundelach” has become “Garner” and Corniell, the police detective, has become “Cornell”.  But said detective has ALSO been genderflipped, and is now played by Juliette Lewis, which intrigues me, and also goes a long way towards fixing the Women Problem.  (There’s also an African-American character, who I think is Cornell’s offsider or similar, but it doesn’t look like a big part.)

I wanted this to be successful, but also actually good.  It was neither, and I’m disappointed.

On the other hand, this is actually a good time for Australian TV.  This weekend sees the premiere of The Gods of Wheat Street, a magic-realist (!) series about an Aboriginal family (!!).  My hopes are high, people.  Showrunner Jon Bell has worked on Redfern Now, which is a hell of a better pedigree than Secrets & Lies had.