The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington (Penguin Random House NZ, 2017), 285 pp., $38
The Earth Cries Out is the story of young Kiwi girl whose family moves from Nelson to Irian Jaya (now known as West Papua). It is written by Bonnie Etherington, a young New Zealand author who, when she was a little girl, moved with her family from Nelson to Irian Jaya. Initially I feared this strong basis in autobiography was not a good sign, but Etherington manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of typical first novels.
The Earth Cries Out is narrated by Ruth Glass. In the main narrative Ruth relates her experiences as a child aged about eight. This is interspersed with scrapbook-like additions that Ruth has added later, vignettes themed around the flora of Irian Jaya: breadfruit and plane crashes in the Second World War, betel nut sold on the roadside by women in Apebura, Abok trading pandanus oil in the 1920s, ferns and witch hunts in the early twenty-first century, stories of environmental degradation and civil war. The risk of this kind of post-modern polyphonic technique is that you lose the flow of the narrative and thus the reader’s emotional engagement with the story. In this case, although it does slow things down, overall I found that it worked. It enables Etherington to give the reader a richer, broader sense of Irian Jaya’s culture and history than would be possible through the eyes of a child protagonist. And she keeps the vignettes brief enough that you’re never away from the young Ruth long enough to stop caring about her.
Most of the story takes place in the village of Yuvut in a remote area of Irian Jaya. Ruth’s father has brought his wife and daughter all the way out there to escape from the pain of their bereavement: Julia, Ruth’s younger sister, has died. Ruth’s father is trying to build a hospital. He is not a missionary, precisely, but his project is backed and funded by the Anglican Church. He gives out pamphlets about diseases:
They were filled with black and white sketches of people who were supposed to look like the people in Yuvut, and the words were written in a language that was a cousin to their language but not the same … No one read the pamphlets about sicknesses. Susumina’s grandmother used them to start her cooking fire, and the woman who lived in the hut next door used hers to block a leak in the thatch of her roof.
Ruth’s mother counts down the days until they can return to New Zealand and refuses to engage with local culture beyond the bare minimum. Only Ruth herself makes friends with the local children (particularly Susumina), becomes part of village life, and learns the language: ‘It was like one day the world was only one language, could be talked of only in black and white, and the next all was colour because the extra words made it so. I had been given the gift of extra senses.’
Ruth reflects on how she came to a sense of her own racial identity as a white person, and learned that her whiteness was not neutral.
Susumina and her friends called … people from other Indonesian islands ‘straight-hairs’ because their hair was straight, while Yuvut and other Papuan people had curly hair … We are not Indonesian, said Susumina when I asked her about this. And I tugged at my own hair, in between curly and straight, and squirmed in my own lighter skin … I had to choose [which group I belonged to], but I was not from Yuvut and my parents were not from Yuvut and we did not mean to stay in this village forever either … We all had to choose.
Etherington is obviously very conscious that she is a white person writing characters of colour and telling the stories of other cultures. It’s a hot topic in literary circles at the moment, and the point at which fiction becomes cultural appropriation is difficult to pinpoint. Etherington addresses this issue by having her protagonist explicitly consider where she fitted into life in Yuvut and who gets to tell which stories. ‘I felt like I was stealing the stories, using them to say something about myself … There would always be something missing that I did not know how to tell, could not know how to tell and should not.’ In an interview on Radio New Zealand Etherington said, ‘I know [my book] can’t speak for Papua and I don’t want to do that, but [I] just [want it] to give some suggestions of what we might see if we listen.’
Although The Earth Cries Out is centred around the white experience, Etherington is careful to acknowledge that Ruth and her family are largely incidental to life in Yuvut. ‘Susumina’s timeline was not my timeline and I was not a protagonist in her story or song – just a small girl fighting for space in some of her … chapters.’ Ruth considers Sonya, a villager who Ruth’s parents have hired to do domestic work: ‘I knew only a corner of Sonya’s life … She did not need me or her job to be Sonya, to exist.’
The difficulty in bringing these kinds of issues to the fore in the context of a novel is that you risk becoming stilted or po-faced, and there are times when the words Etherington puts into Ruth’s mouth come out sounding irritatingly pat. But overall the technique of having the protagonist deliberately and explicitly step back from interpreting the narratives of the indigenous characters works, perhaps because the whole novel is based on Etherington’s real-life experiences.
Another aspect of storytelling that Etherington has Ruth repeatedly bring up is this idea of narrating one’s own life, and blurring the line between what is remembered and what is invented. Because of the framing device of the novel – Ruth reflecting as an adult on the time she spent in Irian Jaya as a child – the main narrative of The Earth Cries Out comprises Ruth interrogating her own memories: ‘I forget which version is the truth.’ Throughout the novel she tries to make sense of her little sister’s death: ‘There was what was true and what I only thought was true about Julia dying, and I tried to sort out which was which. Piles of facts on one side; piles of possibilities on the other. But they overlapped and crossed, wouldn’t let themselves be neatly divided.’ Ruth craves – but is always denied – a neat ending; redemption for having outlived her little sister.
Before I left New Zealand I was learning about plots in stories and how they might look like a mountain if you drew them out, and how stories usually finished once they got to the top of the mountain, their most exciting point, or soon after. I wondered if this … was supposed to be the Big Thing that happened during our time in Yuvut, the one that would … make us healed … [but] we were taking part in a different story.
The Earth Cries Out is an ambitious first novel that seeks not only to tell a good story but also to consider and critique the process of storytelling itself. Etherington manages to weave in these intellectual themes without ever becoming dry or self-indulgent. Ruth is a sympathetic and engaging narrator, and the frequent breaks into other perspectives add to the story without detracting too much from the narrative tension. I am eager to see what Etherington does next.
ELIZABETH HERITAGE is a Pākehā book reviewer, arts journalist and freelance publishing professional. She is based in Wellington and online at www.elizabethheritage.co.nz.