Intellectually speaking, I appear to be working my way back through time. When I first went to Australia from the U.S. in the mid-1980s, my plan was to write a dissertation on contemporary Australian literature. I quickly discovered, however, that in order to understand Australian fiction, I had to know something about Australian history, and that, in turn, led me to the history of the Pacific region generally.
My first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was an attempt to make sense of colonial encounters in New Zealand (and elsewhere) in the late 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But it was also the story of how I went to the Pacific as a young woman and returned to the U.S. with a Maori husband and, eventually, three sons.
One chapter in that book touched on an even longer and deeper history, which would eventually become the subject of my second book. Thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the Pacific, ancient voyagers sailing in double-hulled canoes had already expanded into the largest expanse of water on the planet.
They had located virtually all its islands and settled those that were habitable, and, in so doing, they had established the largest single culture area (geographically speaking) in the pre-modern world. They had no compasses or logbooks, no writing or metal tools—none of the things that later navigators would depend upon—and yet they succeeded in colonizing an area of more than ten million square miles. They were, I think it is safe to say, the greatest seafarers of all time.
In 2010 I set out to try and understand this story. And that is how we came to be making this mad dash across the Pacific: 5 people, 8 weeks, 11 islands. For me, it was a chance to see places I had never seen and to gather material; for Seven and the boys—who are after all Polynesian—it was a chance to see what “Polynesian” might mean on the ground.
The upshot of it all—Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia—is due out from Harper in March 2019.