I was very sad to hear that Ruth Park died this week. Recently as part of a job application (sort of) I had to write an essay on a book that influenced me. I picked Park’s My Sister Sif, a lovely book that’s not very well-known compared to her Playing Beattie Bow or Harp in the South. However it’s my favourite. I didn’t get the job, but I thought I’d re-post this in her memory.
When deciding what book to write about, the book I would use to introduce myself, as it were, I was torn between so many of my childhood milestones. The first book I have clear memories of reading: The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. The first New Zealand book I remember reading: Jellybean, by Tessa Duder. My first science fiction: Doomfire on Venus, by Ken Catran, followed speedily by rapid consumption of Isaac Asimov’s work. The first book I saved up for: The Invasion, by K. A. Applegate, the first novel in one of Scholastic’s pulpy science fiction series, Animorphs. My mother refused to pay for it; luckily, it was cheap. My first book of short stories: The Door in the Air, Margaret Mahy’s enduringly wonderful collection. Other influential series and characters sprang to mind: the Alex quartet, Tamora Pierce’s spunky fantasy heroines, my first adult book (The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, snuck in with its teenaged protagonists) and the first book I hated (The Fat Man, by Maurice Gee, disliked mostly, and unfairly, for its utter lack of resemblance to the O trilogy!) In the end, though, one stuck out for not being a milestone book, not being the first of its kind, but nevertheless being a book I remember with great clarity and affection: My Sister Sif, by New Zealand-Australian novelist Ruth Park.
My Sister Sif is set on an imaginary Pacific island in the near future. Its protagonist is Riko, the daughter of a Scandinavian merchant-seaman and a Polynesian seawoman – a mermaid, simply. Riko returns to the island after being at school in Sydney to find pollution destroying the local environment. Torn between the landpeople and the seapeople, Riko and her sister, Sif, have to choose whether to go with their migrating sea family or stay and try to change things on land. The encroaching pollution and tortured earth eventually kill Sif, while Riko remains to try to change landpeople’s dsetructive ways.
My Sister Sif‘s themes are straightforward, and its principal, conservation, although topical, is not unusual (even for 1986, when it was first published). Its writing is workmanlike but not moving; occasionally, it is preachy. I struggled to figure out why My Sister Sif spoke to me, and continued speaking to me through repeated re-reads. Little about My Sister Sif was new to me. I had read books with angry, lonely protagonists like Riko before; I had read books with conservationist themes, science-fiction novels, books set in the South Pacific. It was, perhaps, the first time a fictional death had moved me, certainly the first time a fantasy novel had moved me. But what struck me about My Sister Sif, and what endeared it to me, was the fact that it combined all of these. It was science fiction, but not set in outer space; it was conservationist, but it included mermaids; and, perhaps most importantly, its protagonist was an Islander, not a coloniser, and the reality in which it was set was close to mine, but not too close – an urban (well, island) fantasy, rather than a portal fantasy. Reading My Sister Sif for the first time was the first time I understood that a book didn’t have to be any one thing, and that characters in books didn’t have to be or act a certain way in response to the kind of book they were in.
Before I read My Sister Sif, I had had a very rigid understanding of genre. New Zealand novels involved sports, or possibly serious illnesses meant to teach readers a lesson. Fantasy novels were set in something like mediaeval Europe, or in England, or in another world entirely. Science fiction meant space opera. There weren’t many female protagonists, and the ones that were, were preoccupied with their own femininity. Conservation novels were all written by Jean Craighead George and involved boys living in trees. My Sister Sif changed all that for me. I found out that fantasy novels could ask serious questions about the real environment; fantasy novels could make you cry. Although its treatment of colonialisation is shallow, perhaps for that reason I understood My Sister Sif much better than I understood the oblique discussions of the same in the works of New Zealand writers (despite the fact that their writing was more immediately relevant to me, growing up Pākehā in a Wellington suburb).
Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover opens with its protagonist, Laura, reading the back of a shampoo bottle.
Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris and had a picture of a beautiful girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture. Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu. Just for a moment Laura had had a dream of washing her hair and coming out … to find she was not only marvellously beautiful but also trasported to Paris. However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu.
Mahy has written about The Changeover as her first New Zealand book, and about the cultural cringe that made it difficult for her to set her material in the country she lived in. This must be especially true for fantasy: so much about the genre conditions readers to think that fantasy landscapes and characters look and speak a certain way – European. Like My Sister Sif, The Changeover reimagines an ordinary landscape into a fantastic one, and it does so with a New Zealand landscape, not an English one. My Sister Sif goes further by also reimagining its protagonist as part Islander, and reimagining the fantastic landscape as peopled by menuhene, rather than elves, and Polynesian mermaids rather than the familiar pale blondes. Reading about Riko, I understood that, just as Ruth Park had done in the Pacific Islands, someone could easily write a New Zealand fantasy that didn’t draw on the European canon, and wouldn’t require Pākehā protagonists.
Probably every New Zealander has had the experience of reading the book that first showed them books could really be set in New Zealand, without the requisite cultural cringe. Oddly, although My Sister Sif is not set in New Zealand and was not the first New Zealand book I read, it performed the same function for me. Since I read My Sister Sif, I have come across Gaelyn Gordon’s Stonelight, Mindfire and Tripswitch,Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider and The Sky Dancer, and more recently Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead and David Hair’s The Bone Tiki. I am happy to say that it is no longer new or surprising to me when fantasy novels are set in New Zealand, or when they incorporate elements of Māori myth rather than the stock-standard European style. Some of these are probably better books; they are undoubtedly more sophisticated in terms of their prose and in terms of their respectful incorporation of myth and legend. But My Sister Sif was, in the end, a complicated kind of first for me, and it’s stuck with me for fifteen years.