A countless number of Brisbane readers may discover glimpses of themselves in a work of fiction entitled Between and written by Wendy Glassby. These are the descendants of Tong Ah Ying from Hainan China and Medor Santas from Java who met and married in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Today, the descendants of their six children are many, living both in Australia and in PNG.
Glassby’s Between does not tell the Tong/Santas story, but one of a much smaller and purely fictional family, the Seetos, whose connection to Papua New Guinea begins when a young Malay woman Koti Pereira leaves her island home of Ambon and spends the rest of her life in the Papua New Guinea town of Rabaul on the island of New Britain. Five generations on and thirty-five years after Papua New Guinea Independence, those of Koti’s descendants who migrated to Brisbane are rapidly losing their connection to their former homeland.
There is however a link between the real and the fictional families. When Wendy, the author of Between, was writing up her research for a PhD thesis in Perth, her sister Robin was taking on an equally (if not greater) challenge in Cairns. On behalf of her husband Benedict Tam, Robin was compiling a volume of the descendants of Tong Ah Ying and Medor Santas for a planned family reunion. Wendy noticed the extent of her sister’s project. She recognised that documented the lives of Ben’s family would provide a marvellous alternate history that to this day is still silent, the story of over a century of life in PNG among the Chinese and ethnically blended communities of Rabaul.
Undocumented, these stories can only be told by those within the community. However, this goes against their cultural tendency for privacy. And of course Wendy is not part of the community. Instead, Wendy’s own experience of living in Rabaul plus considerable research has aided her creation of the imaginary Seeto family and their own specific history. While key moments in national and regional history underpin the fiction, Between adopts the norms of its genre by following individual journeys through war, volcanic eruption, migration, loss, separation, and love in a search to understand themselves. As former ABC Correspondent Sean Dorney says in his foreword: ‘This novel is a thoroughly good read and, importantly, tells the story of a community that has given an extra richness to both countries–Australia and Papua New Guinea.’