from the editor's desk

Review of ‘The Archipelago of Us: a search for our identity in Australia’s most remote territories’ by Reneé Pettitt-Schipp

Pettitt-Schipp, Reneé. The Archipelago of Us: a search for our identity in Australia’s most remote territories. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2023. RRP: $32.99, 312pp, ISBN: 9781760992224.

Shaeden Berry

How do we reconcile Australia’s ‘fair go’ attitude with governmental policies, or with public perceptions towards asylum seekers, which so clearly contradict it? This is the question at the core of Reneé Pettitt-Schipp’s The Archipelago of Us, a work that intertwines travel memoir with Australian history and offers a thought-provoking examination of the complicated legacy of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The book recounts Pettitt-Schipp’s return to the islands, five years after leaving her post there as a teacher for refugee children in detention centres. On her return, she is haunted by the memories of her experience, and she continues to grapple with the things she saw and heard.

Pettitt-Schipp points out that, for many Australians, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands exist on the periphery—out of sight, out of mind. There is confusion over the very nature of asylum seekers too: a misguided belief persists that they are somehow illegal or ‘bothersome’, a narrative often pushed by political figureheads and repeated by the media. On returning to the islands, Pettitt-Schipp hopes to separate fact from fiction, to explore the complicated history of both islands, and to reconcile her own experiences against a wider context.

There is a pivotal moment at the beginning of the book, as Pettitt-Schipp’s plane descends towards Christmas Island: ‘[A]t first the scene is hidden, then abruptly the thick clouds part and the island’s image is revealed’ (19). This description of clouds parting to expose the island seems pertinent given the book is an exploration of Pettitt-Schipp pulling back the façade to reveal a gritty underbelly and an unspoken history. For Pettitt-Schipp, these ‘parting clouds’ are the shedding of her own naivety, her frank confrontation of her government’s damaging policies, and Australian society’s complicity in furthering them.

Pettitt-Schipp points to the ‘idealised singular image’ (155) that Australians often have of themselves, one that is often borderline isolationist and heavily rooted in xenophobia. There is a poignant moment towards the end of the book where she is confronted by a car adorned with a familiar sticker—‘FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL’—and is seized with rage: ‘I had seen for myself the dire consequences for those who do not fall within the embrace of our definition of “Australian” […] I could not let the inherently hateful slur go’ (155).

Pettit-Schipp does not shy away from Australia’s dark history or past atrocities. In particularly heartbreaking moments, she explores the tragedies of both the sinking of the SIEV 221 on 15 December 2010, that resulted in the drowning of fifty people including women and children, and the SIEV X incident, which saw the drowning deaths of 353 people. Pettitt-Schipp’s conversations with islanders who witnessed the tragedies are some of the more challenging parts of the book, but also where it is at its most eye-opening and revealing.

Pettitt-Schipp herself occupies an interesting space in her own travel narrative. Given that this non-fiction work is, in part, an exploration of history and society, she becomes both observer and participant. There is a central story around her own experiences, including a through-line of a health-scare that follows her throughout the entire trip, and she also includes the stories of those she encounters.

In her search to build a picture of the history of the islands both past and present, Pettitt-Schipp interviews a number of friends and island inhabitants. This provides an important counterpoint to her own perspective as a white woman from Australia. In these moments, Pettitt-Schipp seems to let the words of her interview subjects speak for themselves; the attempt is one of listening without judgement; she recounts stories for her readers with a frankness that allows them to draw their own conclusions.

The book is interspersed with visceral and vivid descriptions of the landscape, heady with sensory explorations of the islands themselves. This makes sense given Pettitt-Schipp’s own interpretation of Christmas Island as ‘always trying to return its structure to the earth, covering walls in black mould, filling gutters with fernery’ (29). That ‘black mould’ can be reframed as nature reclaiming its space is a powerful, even delightful, inversion.

A broader theme of contradiction is prevalent—a beautiful island scene like the aforementioned begins, described in breath-taking detail, only to be interrupted with reality: ‘[S]uddenly, silently, from behind the point, comes the dark angular shape of a Border Force vessel’ (57). The implication of these moments is clear: Pettitt-Schipp is done with Australians burying their heads in the sand: we should not continue to feign ignorance to the wrongs we have committed.

The contradictions become more complex as Pettitt-Schipp learns more and speaks to more locals. Islanders will describe growing up with racially segregated swimming pools, classrooms and houses, an apartheid-like situation rooted in British colonialism from when the islands were first settled. Within the same conversation they will express gratitude for the opportunities they’ve been granted by the Australian government—the one that colonised their island, underpaid them and divided their island by race in the first place. And she hears from those who, when asked about the histories of racial segregation on the islands, seem largely unruffled by it. A Christmas Islander even suggests that they ‘like the different, distinct communities’ (116), and then surprises her by elaborating that ‘the distinctness of the communities helps […] maintain the cultural integrity of the Christmas Malay people’ (117).

Pettitt-Schipp’s willingness to admit ignorance is one of the strongest elements of The Archipelago of Us. She does not pretend to know everything about her subject matter, nor does she profess, at the conclusion, to have all the answers to her own questions. And it is here, at the book’s end, that we perhaps should reflect on words spoken at its beginning, on how holding seemingly contrary realities, knowing both to be true, is the only way forward: ‘What was incredible and what was beautiful simply sat alongside what was evil and dark, and both things remained true but couldn’t quite speak to each other’ (64).

Shaeden Berry is a writer from Boorloo with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Murdoch University. She has written for Kill Your DarlingsRefinery29, MamaMia and Fashion Journal. Her short stories will be featured in the upcoming anthologies: The Unexpected Party by Fremantle Press, and Strange by MidnightSun Publishing.

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