Adele Dumont reviews The Archipelago of Us by Renee Pettitt-Schipp

The Archipelago of Us

by Renee Pettitt-Schipp

Freemantle Press

Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
Renee-Pettitt Schipp first journeys to Christmas Island in early 2011, arriving in the immediate aftermath of a boat tragedy which has claimed the lives of some fifty asylum seekers. Some of the victims, she assumes, would have become her students. What strikes her, foremost, is the silence surrounding the incident. Nobody ever informs her which of her new students have lost family members in the accident; at the memorial service, no asylum seekers are even present – they’ve been ‘carefully edited out of official versions of their own story’ (158). Nor is she permitted to talk about her teaching experiences: ‘my class full of children bursting with life was not to be spoken of, never to be named’ (130). By the time Pettitt-Schipp returns to the island, in 2016, the island’s detention centre facilities have either been drastically scaled down, or vanished without trace. This pattern of concealment, of strange suppression and disappearance is, of course, in keeping with Australia’s maritime border policies, and the excision of Indian Ocean Territories from Australia’s migration zone and from our sovereign obligations. It is this silencing which Pettitt-Schipp wishes to redress; she wants to ‘resist the forces of forgetting’ (76).

The Archipelago of Us is mostly framed as a present-tense narrative, unfolding over the ten days of Pettitt-Schipp’s return trip to Christmas Island (and then Cocos (Keeling) Islands, where she subsequently worked). But the past intrudes into her present: in the opening chapters, she repeatedly alludes to what she has ‘witnessed’ on the island, which was the reason for her departure, and which troubles her deeply, still. This creates a real curiosity, on the reader’s part, to know what, exactly, she has borne witness to. But before sating this curiosity, Pettitt-Schipp provides extended (at times over-written) descriptions of place – of birdlife and sealife and graveyards; factual information about the British Phosphate Commission and the island’s local residents; and details of her own present-day health scare. This stalling of the narrative might be attributed to the author’s understandable resistance to revisiting certain memories, stirred up by being in situ. As a readerly experience though, this with-holding is somewhat frustrating. 

Once interviews with various island residents are underway, the book finds its rhythm. Christmas Island is typically viewed in terms of its remoteness from the mainland; the book’s own blurb describes it as ‘out of sight and out of mind’. But it is also its own place, and so it’s refreshing that Pettitt-Schipp centres the voices of locals, for whom the island is home. Several of her interviewees describe the island’s appeal in similar terms: it’s a place where life is pared back; ‘raw and elemental… there’s not a buffer here… It is not very often that you are really up against things in such an immediate way on the mainland’ (147). As a narrator, and as an interviewer, Pettitt-Schipp is sensitive, always ready to reconsider her own beliefs and preconceptions. Zainal Majad (President of the local Islamic Council and mine-worker), for example, sees value in the island’s white, Chinese, and Malay populations being distinct, and maintaining their cultural integrity; Pettitt-Schipp admits her surprise, for she had assumed integration was the ideal. For Zainal, mining on the island is a source of employment and of future prosperity, giving the island ‘vitality and holding the community together’ (118), whereas Pettitt-Schipp had only ever equated the industry with devastation of the local ecosystem. 

And while in the (mainland) Australian imagination island territories like Christmas Island are typically viewed through the lens of ‘border protection’, we’re reminded of the island’s broader history and cultural makeup. Peter Wei Cheon Ch’ng, for example, recalls the hostility he faced as a Chinese person growing up here in the 70s: for a period, ‘Asians’ were not allowed to swim in the ‘white’ swimming pool; white people could call the police if an ‘Asian’ so much as walked through Settlement. Pettitt-Schipp’s return visit coincides with the Festival of the Hungry Ghost. The tables of food, a man tells her, ‘are for the people who were buried but do not have a grave’ (139): at one level, this description might be read as a subtle honouring of those who’ve lost their lives at sea, but at another, it provides a window onto the local Chinese community, and their Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Pettitt-Schipp’s vignettes of the natural world serve a literary function in providing a helpful reprieve for the reader from some of the book’s heavier contents, but they are also quite simply a reminder of the island’s rich biodiversity. She describes the lichen and mosses, mineral formations, mist, and the ‘glinting cerulean plain’ (88) of the ocean. Hughs Dale is ‘a place of beauty expressed in the extreme’ (86), and the Blowholes have a ‘striking, mythical feel’ (102). The book’s twinning of present and past timelines complicates the island’s depiction; though its darkness haunts the author, she concludes that ‘perhaps this place has reclaimed a measure of what seems like a former innocence, a side of this island I was previously unable to see’ (143). 

When it comes to detention-related material – which is likely what will draw readers to this story – the memoir contains one particularly powerful interview with “Tom”, who gives a first-hand account of watching the Janga boat tragedy unfold. Here, and elsewhere in the book, Pettitt-Schipp retreats, resisting the urge to provide too much commentary or response; ‘I don’t move, don’t make a sound, just try to hold, to contain the weight of what he has just told me’ (79). She also summons memories of some of the children in her charge, skilfully conveying the intimacy of the classroom, all the more precious for being situated in an otherwise hostile environment. When, newly returned, she has to drive past the turn-off to the North-West Point Detention Centre, ‘even the thought fills me with rage, and I thump the steering wheel, feel my shoulders tense’ (83). In fact, recollections of her time inside the centres are scant. The scenes she includes instead focus on the instances when she was able to organise for two asylum seekers, Massom and Ehsan, to leave the centre for a few hours. In one poignant scene, Massom hand-feeds pieces of coconut-meat to a crab; in another, they happen upon a girl in a bikini standing under a waterfall. Each time she takes Massom out, Pettitt-Schipp tells us:

He stood taller, his eyes became animated, responding more and more to the world around him. I was heartened. It was breathtaking to watch, a confronting power to own. For just a moment, I was able to gift another human being their freedom… I had never seen Massom look so alive and was moved that something so simple could bring so much pleasure to another human being (97).

It’s an interesting artistic decision, on the author’s part, to depict asylum seekers outside the centre in this way, given this was such an extremely rare occurrence and one that the overwhelming majority of detainees were denied. Was she unwilling to revisit distressing memories of detention head-on? Or did she decide not to add to the stock of narratives, reports, and inquiries published, which all already testify to the damage that prolonged detention can wreak? Is it, after all, more humanising to depict incarcerated people momentarily unburdened? Whatever the reasoning, her decision means the usual tropes of books set in detention (guards, razor wire, security cameras) are mostly avoided, and the reader is entrusted with more imaginative work. 

Cocos (Keeling) Islands is a ‘similarly excised world’ (200) to Christmas Island. When Pettitt-Schipp first moves there in 2012, the arrival of asylum seekers is virtually unheard of. The tone of the island changes, though, once boats do begin to arrive: the locals have seen what played out on Christmas Island, and the price that small community paid when swamped by transient workers. What impels the author to return to Cocos, on her 2016 trip, is not what she witnessed in the two ‘largely peaceful’ (191) years she spent teaching there, but rather a ‘vague need to address what I had experienced as an unsettling silence, in part when inquiring about the atoll’s history’ (191). Her focus in this latter section of the book is on the Clunies-Ross family, who were the original settlers of the island, and who have a reputation as caring colonalists. Elder Nek Su tells Pettitt-Schipp a starkly different story though: the family with-held education from the Coco Malay people, severely limiting their freedom of movement and communication. 

Throughout her memoir, Pettitt-Schipp is overwhelmed by her own ‘powerlessness’ (121) and ‘impotence’ (123) in the face of such ‘pointless suffering’ (125), and she concludes that ‘even in their diversity, these stories point to the common conclusion that our present hostilities at the border are not an aberration… ‘Fair Go’ Australia is a myth’ (289). Despite this, The Archipelago of Us remains a quietly optimistic book, for in the individuals she interviews, Pettitt-Schipp finds immense generosity, courage, and open-ness. In her doctoral thesis (out of which this book grew) Pettitt-Schipp refers to the field of ‘tidalectics’, an approach which challenges traditional binaries such as land and sea; self and other. The Archipelago of Us encapsulates this approach in its shifts between the natural and the historical; its organic interview style; and its blurring of the author’s past and present worlds, such that nothing and no-one is ever fenced in, and all is fluid. 

ADELE DUMONT is the author of No Man is an Island. Her second book, The Pulling, is forthcoming with Scribe in early 2024.