Fiction Addiction

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Fiction Addiction: Love and violence in a Pacific paradise

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Scottish immigrant Madeleine Tobert has written a book about how she met her Fijian husband.
Photo / File
Scottish immigrant Madeleine Tobert has written a book about how she met her Fijian husband. Photo / File

The story of how Scottish immigrant Madeleine Tobert met her Fijian husband is worthy of a Mills and Boon. The marriage she constructs in her debut novel The Sea On Our Skin is anything but. In Tobert's words, it's "the story of an imperfect marriage on a perfect island in the Pacific".

Set on an unnamed tropical island, it begins with the wedding of the restless Ioane Matate and the younger and sheltered Amalia Hoko. A series of bad omens mark the ceremony, and the marriage continues accordingly, as Amalia discovers her new husband's tendency to violence and cruelty.

In our Q&A with Auckland-based Tobert, she reveals how a Scottish woman ended up writing so intimately about the Pacific and shares that swoon-worthy hook-up story.

Q: You're originally from Scotland, you studied in England, you married a Fijian, you live in Auckland, and you've spent several years in the Pacific Islands.

How did you end up setting your first novel in the Pacific?

A: It's really common for young Brits to head to Australia when they leave school. It's a fun, cheap gap year. So, there I was, 18-years-old, following the crowd on my way to Oz, but with a two-week stopover planned for Tonga. Two weeks turned to three, then to one month, another and another until the best part of my year was gone and I had a notebook full of stories.

Q: How did the story evolve?

A: I started writing a diary in Tonga; just noting down all the strange and wonderful things that happened every day. Then I noticed that lots of the stories I was putting into my diary hadn't happened at all. Why was I lying? The answer came to me when I was back in Scotland and couldn't stop creating my own Pacific. Of course - it was a novel! And it's always had a mind of its own - it seemed to evolve without my guidance or permission, the characters just did what they wanted and I obeyed.

Q: The setting is so evocative that I imagine you reclining on a beach in the Pacific Islands while you wrote this. Cliched, I know - but did you?

A: Yes! Well, I started writing in Tonga and the book was alive - the village jumped straight into it. But then university took me back to the UK and while good things did happened to the characters and the structure while I was there, the setting started to wither; I was forgetting what a warm wind felt like, the taste of fresh coconut, the particular smell of the Pacific Ocean. As soon as I was able to I ran back - to Tonga, Samoa, French Polynesia, Tuvalu, until I eventually landed in Fiji and found a perfect little spot on a beach where I could write and watch the waves.

Q: Did you feel uncomfortable about writing so intimately and confrontationally about a culture so different from the one you were born into?

A: When I started writing I had no idea that my work would ever see the light of day. Later I did an MA in Creative Writing and it was drummed into me how difficult it is to get a publisher. So I didn't think about having readers, I just wrote the book that was inside me, about the place that excited me more than any other and tried to make it as good as I possibly could.

Then I got a publishing contract - amazing - and was in whirl of excitement. It took a long time before I realised that this meant that people would read my novel. And not just any people, Pacific people. Then, yes, I felt uncomfortable. But I immediately showed it to my husband who is passionately Fijian (and hates reading) and waited for his damning judgement. It didn't come.

Q: Your characters live on an unnamed Pacific island of your own creation, in an invented village called Moana. Why did you feel you needed to invent an island rather than set the story on an existing one?

A: I think you have an amazing responsibility if you're writing about a place that is real, to be 100 per cent true to it, to double - even triple - check all your facts, to show each side of the culture in a balanced, fair way. You need to know the minutiae of the country. As you've said, I'm from the other side of the world. I feel that after years in the Pacific I really understand the spirit of the place and I can write my Pacific (a cross between Tonga, Fiji and the world) authentically.

But, for example, could I write about Fiji? Could I do justice to the chiefly system, the tribes, the coups, the Indian influx, the British legacy? Could I get across in writing the complex relationships between family members - those you respect, those you laugh with, those you can't talk to, those you must tease? How could I explain each clan's totems - the ones who represent them and the one which are taboo? I could go on. There is so much I'm learning and so much I don't know.

Q: How did you meet your husband, and end up in New Zealand?

A: Fiji is very hot, so on my first day there I did very little. This meant that at night I was full of restless energy. I was staying on an island with no electricity and even though at midnight there were only a few stars to guide my way and I still had town girl eyes, I decided to go for a walk. I stumbled down the beach, further and further away from my bed and the people I knew. I saw a flash of silver, realised it was a machete and must be in some way connected to the pair of teeth I could also make out shinning in the darkness. My (now) husband was catching eels. I joined in.

We stayed in Fiji for years, but eventually I started missing giant book shops, night life, using first-language vocabulary. I began to feel like the foreigner I was. It was time to leave. So my husband and I looked for a country where both of us; two people with startlingly different cultures might feel at home - Auckland.

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