Thompson Publishes Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story

Hemment with GSAS student
Christina Thompson's new book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, is due out in July. Photo credit: Meg Birnbaum.

In the 1980s Christina Thompson was an American graduate student studying literature at the University of Melbourne when, vacationing in New Zealand, she met her husband-to-be. What makes her story unusual is that he was a Maori and the two were, culturally speaking, complete opposites. He was a tradesman from a background of rural poverty, she was an upper-middle-class intellectual. He was a "native," while she descended from European colonizers. Thompson has taken her personal story and combined it with her extensive knowledge of New Zealand's culture and colonial past to pen Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, a book that is part history, part anthropology, part memoir.

Thompson, editor of the literary journal Harvard Review, drew inspiration for Come on Shore from a theme in her doctoral dissertation, which involved the complex and violent history of contact between Maoris and Europeans during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She wanted to depict the significance of cross-cultural contact and the history of Europeans in the South Pacific, going back to Abel Tasman's discovery of New Zealand in 1642.

"I never turned my dissertation into a book, so I felt there were certain things I still wanted to say," she explains. "For example, I wanted to address the European representation of Maoris as a belligerent people—the idea that, as Charles Darwin put it, the Maoris were quite possibly the most warlike people on earth. I thought it was important to try to figure out what this actually meant and to look at what kinds of consequences such a notion might have had for the Maori people over time."

The book's title, in fact, comes from the passage in Darwin's Beagle journal in which he describes the warlike nature of the Maoris. "Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all" is what, according to Darwin, Cook claimed that the Maoris said when they first encountered Europeans. "It's probably not quite right, though," says Thompson. "They definitely said something like, ‘Come ashore and we'll kill you,’ but they probably didn't mention anyone being eaten. This appears to be something Darwin interpolated."

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Come on Shore explores the European representation of the Maoris as a belligerent people, intertwining New Zealand's history with Thompson's own personal story.

Thompson draws the reader in to the story by intertwining New Zealand's history with an anecdotal account of her own relationship with her husband and his family, describing how the two met and married, had three sons, traveled together, and lived in several different parts of the world, including Australia and Hawaii, before settling in Boston.

Thompson began Come on Shore in 1999, after moving back from the Pacific to the U.S. After putting it aside for several years, she wrote most of it over the course of two years. She is already planning her next book exploring Maori language and culture, in which she hopes to call attention to disappearing languages by documenting the process of learning one. Thompson says she is good with languages, but because her husband is not a fluent speaker of Maori, she may have to travel as far as Hawaii to find a teacher.

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All will be published by Bloomsbury USA in the United States in July and by Bloomsbury in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand in August. A German edition will be published by Pendo Verlag in July.

Thompson's essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including the American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Mānoa, and the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays. An essay from the book entitled "Smoked Heads" on moko, or Maori facial tattooing, can be found online through the New Zealand Electronic Text Center at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

Thompson retains strong ties to New Zealand and, in fact, the upcoming fall 2008 issue of Harvard Review will include a special section dedicated to that country's literature, a fact proudly referenced by Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, in a speech given at the country's literary awards ceremony last fall.