‘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?’
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.)