A sinking feeling

ON March 6, 2010 Renee Pettitt-Schipp wrote a searing account of the previous day’s activities on Christmas Island, where she was working as a teacher.

“Yesterday we went to the memorial service for the people involved in the boat tragedy in December,” she wrote.

Fifty asylum seekers had lost their lives when the boat known as Siev-221 hit the island’s rocky coastline and sank, the event triggering Australia’s much-maligned ‘Pacific Solution’.

“The first speaker talked about the bravery of the rescue teams,” Pettitt-Schipp continued.

“Politicians made their speeches.

“Still no refugee people.

“Regret and sorrow were expressed.

“There were no refugee people.”

• Siev-221 hits the coast of Christmas Island. Photo WA coroner

She was later told most of those involved had been put on a plane that morning – as officials were busy getting ready to commemorate their rescue with a plaque.

“If that’s true it means I never got to say goodbye to my students, and the people of Christmas Island missed a unique opportunity to share their sorrow as well as their overcoming in the worst tragedy in the island’s history.”

Fast-forward five years and Pettitt-Schipp was drawn back to the island, partly by the ghosts of her past and partly by its famed beauty.

Usually known as a poet, her non-fiction account of that return The Archipelago of Us was published recently by Fremantle Press.

Schipp said she went back to try and make sense of how she now saw Australia after her experiences.

“I literally take the reader with me getting onto the plane and going back to the islands, to be as honest as I can possibly be, about what I witnessed and saw,” she says.

“Teaching on the island gave me this unique insight that most Australians would never have; to have little eight-year-olds in my classroom who had sometimes, just the day before, arrived on a boat from Indonesia, and only just survived their journeys was the most extraordinary and moving experience. 

“Teaching gave me that gift into a very secretive world.”

• Poet and author Renee Pettitt-Schipp

The history of the Indian Ocean Territories is often overshadowed by boat tragedy and stories of asylum seekers trying to make Australia home, by Pettitt-Schipp wants to give readers a taste of that as well.

“In this story, I was trying to weave through my very personal experiences of the islands with the bigger picture of the historical background of the islands, which many people don’t know about. 

“They only tend to know the more sensational elements of what took place on the islands, especially the boat tragedy.

“It was just a joy to be able to research the islands and to understand them deeply and then put my experiences within that bigger context.

The Archipelago of Us was written as part of Pettitt-Schipp’s PhD at Curtin University, where she studied media, creative arts and social inquiry. 

“I was grateful to do it as part of the PhD, so I had the support of supervisors and colleagues,” she said.

While the beauty of the Islands shines through her very personal story, it also reflects deeper issues to make readers think about the connections between history, the environment and what is means to be human. 

“We are diverse, interesting and fascinating, but we all are so essentially human, and could deeply understand that fact through the sharing of personal story.

“I really wanted the reader to see how beautiful and biodiversity these islands are but also how incredibly vulnerable they are to climate change and phosphate mining over there.”

The Archipelago of Us
Renee Pettitt-Schipp
Fremantle Press

by Ariana Rosenberg

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