Good Reading : November 2008
cover story those days everybody went by sea, so we were on this old P&O boat and we had two or three days in Honolulu before going on to San Francisco. I was absolutely entranced. The flower lei that the girls in their grass skirts gave us on the dock – I just thought it was the most exotic, beautiful thing. Then, when we were leaving, I burst into tears – they said you had to throw the lei overboard to make sure you came back. I was so reluctant to part with this lei of orchids, but I did, I threw it over the stern of the ship and watched it float away, I was broken-hearted! But I did get to go back.’ In fact Di went back with her first husband, Peter, who was finishing his master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. During my first interview with Di, in 2004, she described Peter as ‘authoritarian’ – but she insists that that is where the similarity between her own life and that of Catherine ends. ‘Before he [Peter] rejoined the State Department, before we could be posted overseas, I had to become a US citizen. So we had to stay in Hawaii for three years. In that time my daughter was born, I worked in television, I was a bride, and I was very involved in his life there. It was a very special time – but it has nothing to do with the book. I drew on some of those experiences, of course, but Bradley’s certainly not Peter!’ The story of Catherine and her emerging awareness of women’s changing roles in the 1970s reflects the social movements of the time. ‘The 70s was such an extraordinary period of change,’ says Di. ‘I went to Hawaii having been brought up to believe the woman’s role was to be a good wife and mother; you didn’t question authority; and your husband knew best. But of course, having read The Women’s Room and other things, you became aware of this great movement, and you did begin to think, “Wait a minute!” But Hawaii was not a hotbed of feminist agitation, shall we say; there was a very laid-back attitude.’ Di adds that the melting pot of cultures in Hawaii meant that ‘everyone had their own way of doing things’ and the issue of feminism was more of a ‘creeping realisation’ than a swift and monumental change. Catherine’s tentative exploration of independence leads her to the surfing scene, and to the alternative society of communes and ‘free love’. She becomes a photographer, working for the local newspaper, and learns to surf. I assumed that Di too is a used to be a beach shack here and now there’s a flipping high-rise standing there and the general public can’t get onto the beach,’ she tells me. Overall, the atmosphere invoked in The Islands is utterly bewitching. You’ll find yourself wanting to visit this exotic place and explore the outer islands in particular, away from the tourist hot spots. Di had a ball researching this book last year, but she’s already working on her next. Her novels always evolve from a particular landscape, and the book to come out of this research (Di is talking to me to me from Darwin) will be set in magical Kakadu. Meanwhile, life is turning up exciting new developments for one of Australia’s most popular novelists. At the end of ‘I went to Hawaii having been brought up to believe the woman’s role was to be a good wife and mother ... ’ surfer, as the descriptions of Catherine learning to surf are so convincing, but she disabuses me of that notion. ‘I was a child of the Puberty Blues era, where you sat on the beach and watched the boys,’ she laughs. ‘It didn’t occur to me to pick up a surfboard and get on it! I was a body surfer and a paddle boarder. But I’m a very good swimmer and body surfer, so I might yet take up surfboard riding!’ A graphic description of being caught in a rip, however, is based on a genuine – and very scary – experience. The Islands is a classic Morrissey tale: along the way the reader learns fascinating snippets about Hawaiian culture and history – in particular, the monumental changes that overtook the islands as the global tourism market took off and rich ‘mainlanders’ came to live in Hawaii. The commune Catherine gets to know, set in a lovely shack by a beach, is called ‘Nirvana’. Di says it’s a figment of her imagination, but that such places did flourish there in the 1970s. ‘People in Hawaii now reminisce about how there NOVEMBER 2008 i goodreading 11 November, Di’s first grandchild is due to be born. And as Di’s mother sadly died last year, her daughter Gabrielle pointed out that Di herself is now the matriarch of the family. Her immediate response was, ‘Oh God, I’m not old enough!’ But she can’t wait to welcome her granddaughter into the world. The Islands by Di Morrissey is published this month by Pan Macmillan, rrp $32.99.
December January 2009