A distinct voice, uncovering others Selina Tusitala Marsh

where we once belonged
Sia Figiel
Pasifica Press, $24.95, ISBN 0 908597 27 4

It’s all about giving voice to a whole generation that is voiceless,” Sia Figiel has said about where we once belonged. 1 And voices we hear. Figiel weaves people’s lives together, plaiting in miniplots and histories, causing voices to overlap, intertwine and become interdependent. The fibres of people’s lives are stretched by traditional “norms”, sometimes made more beautiful from its disciplined artistry, sometimes snapping in rebellion under pressure. Together, these strands are threaded into a fine mat that in its creation and completion is symbolic of Samoan society and its communal identity as based upon the ’aiga (extended family) and the village. Each character is woven together as one, as the communal Samoan “we”, where:

“I” does not exist.
I am not.
My self belongs not to me because “I” does not exist.
“I” is always “we”,
is a part of the ’aiga…
…a part of the nu’u,
a part of Samoa.

Figiel then holds up the beautiful, continuous, silken ia toga that is Samoa, and exposes its underside. 2 Left exposed are: knots, hidden, ugly and unfinished; broken fibres, discarded, ragged and exposed; split strands tied together to form one strand again; sections conspicuously designed and parted; thread ends weaving in feathers; rough edges tucked in and away. This side of the mat is off-limits to public eyes.

It is this side and the process of unravelling these layers that Figiel seems most interested in. For this precise reason, Figiel’s first book has been controversial in Samoa for many Samoans. Through the eyes of 13-year-old Alofa Filiga, where we once belonged exposes the “taboo” issues of pre- and post-adolescent sexuality, menstruation, suicide, societal conformity pressures, domestic violence and abuse, adultery, incest, death, the supernatural, women’s hygiene, pre-Christian beliefs and mythology, pregnancy, abortion, miscarriage and infertility. Many of these issues had not previously been aired in such depth from the perspective of a young female adolescent.

Through these issues Figiel unravels the fibres of people’s lives in order to expose and explore strands of individuality and voices that stand alone. In particular it is Alofa’s journey towards the “I”, towards self-realisation within her communal identity, that forms the thrust of the book.

Tensions often arise in “Alofa-we”, the communal consciousness that Alofa needs desperately to be a part of — and apart from. Alofa and her circle of friends, Lili and Moa (otherwise known as Charlie’s angels: “Kelly”, “Sabrina” and “Jill”), serve as a microcosm of the larger metaphysical circle that is Samoa — the all-seeing, all-knowing community, its cyclical flow of people’s lives into each other’s, its circulation of life stories and minute daily details, its rhythmic interweaving of history and mythology into the present, its enveloping constancy. Through these girls we catch a glimpse of contemporary Samoan girlhood as they learn the implicit “rules” for girls, as they indigenise American popular culture and experience the advent of western technology (when the first television set arrives in Malaefou). All this occurs within the continuous swirl of girl-stories and girl-gossip, ghost-stories and fagogo, 3 girl’s thoughts of boys and their first loves and first hates, girl-games and girl-secrets and girls dealing with grown-up truths. It is clear that this is a girl-dominated worldview where girls are the centre, not the margin. In this world girls are seen AND heard AND listened to.

Alofa, the main character, views herself as a hopeless “in-between”. She is neither “good” like the angelic “Makaoleafi” nor “bad” like “Lili” who provided more “services” than just cleaning house for the palagi Mr Brown who called her “my Samoan sheila”. But as Alofa later discovers, neither girl is what she is projected and commonly accepted as being. As the book progresses other layers are peeled away and exposed. Like most “in-betweens”, Alofa suffers from lack of freedom. The “extremes” are beyond societal norms and expectations. They are seen either as “good, good, girls” and thus not in need of societal monitoring (Makaoleafi), or as “lost” causes and outside social standards of “respectability” (Lili/Siniva). Alofa, as “in-between”, is sometimes good and sometimes bad. She remains closely monitored and controlled. As neither good nor bad, Alofa is, however, able to negotiate the space between the “we” and the “I”.

This negotiation is most significant in Alofa’s relationship with Siniva. Siniva held the hopes and dreams of the villagers when she was accepted for a government scholarship to a New Zealand university. Siniva’s intelligence would put Samoa on the map (again). Her achievements, overseas experiences, success in higher education and endless employment opportunities would be a source of immense pride and would elevate her’aiga’s status. But Siniva turned out to be a bitter disappointment and source of shame when she returns “changed”. Siniva is now armed with the knowledge of colonialism and its legacy of cultural and material imperialism. She finds herself unable to fit back into the circle of Samoa that revolves around christianity with its spiritual “light” shining into the pagan “darkness” of ancient Samoa. No longer can she share in the value-systems partly based on the accumulation of things — material and ideological — from America, Australia or New Zealand (whether it be relatives, television sets or degrees). Consequently she is labelled “mad” and shoved under the societal “mat”. Siniva is unable to assimilate her ideas with the present. Rejecting present reality, she returns to a purer past, an alternate reality:

Siniva tasted mythologies in the shell of the egg. She drank legends, too, in the yolk of the egg… licking fagogo… tasting the adventures of Sina and Tigilau… tasting eels, turtles, owls, sharks and other war gods worshipped in the Light… worshipped by all of Samoa. (p187)

Siniva lives in the memory of a purer mythological past. She becomes a memory herself and dies a myth. She is resurrected on dark nights, as young girls such as Alofa sit in their circles and re-tell her story.

Alofa and Siniva have a similar insight, similar mystic experiences with mythology and pre-christian realities. “Alofa-I” is resurrected only in miti (dreams):

Leaves talk to me at night, when “I” exist… Agaga is the soul that each man and woman has. Agaga lives in people’s bodies. And leaves the body only when one faints, loses consciousness or dies. My body dies at nights, when a flying cloud hovers like a war-shell over the malae of Malaefou… And “I”? “I” become a god… “I” am… “I” exist. (pp185-8)

In her miti Alofa “dies” to the community-self and experiences freedom in a cosmic, mythical/mystical sub-consciousness. In this world Alofa travels through time and reality into a mythic surrealism where she encounters Samoan cosmogonic myths and legends. Here she experiences her origins and the gods and goddesses whose passions in love and war gave birth to the islands of Samoa — the centre of the universe. In miti Alofa journeys on the waves of fagogo and mythology, blown by the winds of past histories and present concerns, weaving together nature, myth and reality.

But it is Alofa’s “in-between-ness” that saves her from a similar essentialist/absolutist state and doomed fate. Siniva fails to distinguish herself from the “we” of the past. Many other characters in the book fail to distinguish themselves from the “we” of the present. Alofa does not tread the same suicidal path as Siniva nor as the book progresses does she continue to follow the crowd of her community without question. While recognising herself as part of the communal “we” of past and present, Alofa vitally distinguishes herself as an “I”. By the end, unlike Siniva, Alofa no longer needs this mythic world to claim the freedom to be herself. Alofa makes her own choice not to follow a romanticised/mythologised past, nor to escape from her social and moral responsibilities by being merely one of many. Alofa negotiates the space between the “we” and the “I” to create a profound sense of self and universe, past and present.

Through Alofa we experience a circle of community set in Samoa, but it could be anywhere. She becomes more than someone’s daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister, school friend. Alofa, breaking out of the “self” solely defined by her relationships and Samoan societal dictates, becomes aware of herself as an individual.

In humour, pathos and tragedy, through the eyes and ears of a young girl bordering on womanhood, Figiel also explores the effects of colonialism. Figiel has a poignant scene that reveals the often unquestioned indoctrination of Pacific islands schoolchildren in a Eurocentric education. Children are taught to value material from “outside” as opposed to seeking value (and relevance) from indigenous material. Alofa’s class must learn English poetry by heart “although we didn’t understand a word of what we recited”. (p167) The children of Falelua primary school wander throughout their villages reciting Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” until Alofa is confronted by another pupil:

“So what’s a daffodil, Alofa?” Semisi asked me one day… Mrs Samasoni never told us what a daffodil was. None of us had the guts to ever ask her… “It’s a dancer isn’t it?” I said, with both hands pointing to the sky. “A daffodil is a dancer that lives in the sky.” (pp167-8)

where we once belonged addresses the increasing need for indigenous relevance in education. It also provides an alternative by which to redress the problem. Figiel’s last trip to New Zealand involved an extensive tour to west and south Auckland schools (which have large Pacific islands populations). Figiel’s work proved immensely popular. She described to me the reaction of the students as like “birds at dawn”. The constant celebratory laughter, intermittent chatter, screams and heavy silences arose from an intense identification with the material — a first for many of the students. Some pupils later reported (Figiel told me) that they didn’t know Polynesians could even write “proper” books. 5 In this text Alofa’s world and that of Samoa is the centre of reality, not the periphery. Significantly, this world is portrayed by someone who stands within the culture, rather than on the outside curiously looking in.

Figiel de-romanticises the past for both Samoans and non-Samoans. While recalling powerful female goddesses, she does not lose sight of the present nor of the strength and power of present-day women. Deconstructing stereotypes of Samoan women as solely exotic, erotic sexual beings or domestic slaves, Figiel presents complex characters in a complex society that could be any society.

Figiel claims that she is a performance poet first and foremost. She views herself as a “link” in a long tradition of oral histories, fagogo and skilled and entertaining storytelling and for her stories and words are living entities. Like Aolele “Wandering Cloud”, daughter from the marriage of Earth god Laueleele and Fe’e, the Octopus, who “sewed songs like flowers, stringing one to another and another”, (p140) Figiel “strings”/stitches together her stories. Figiel has adapted the art of su’ifefeloi 4 and uses it as a metaphor for her particular art of storytelling. In this light, Figiel “composes” stories more than she “writes” them. This becomes obvious when you hear Figiel read, chant and sing her work in live performance, bringing paged words to life. Upon hearing Figiel for the first time, one student at her talk in March this year responded: “When you read it’s like music.”

The connection to Samoan oral traditions continues in Figiel’s literary structure. Unlike a more traditional eurocentric literary structure where plot is prioritised — with beginning, characterisation, conflict, middle, climax, ent — Figiel’s compositions, like the woven fibres of a mat, touch upon other stories, merge into other lives. Whereas some critics might judge the plot in this structure to be “digressive”, in this culturally adapted context, it is the journey, not the destination (climax), which is of primary importance.

Figiel’s composition is also heavily influenced by oral traditions. The sound of each word and sentence must be able to roll off the tongue before it is committed to paper, she told me in an interview on 10 November 1996. It must be written as it is said. For example, in where we once belonged the repetition of lines or phrases originates from Samoan “speakerly” in which phrases are often repeated. It also stems from the practicalities of living in a pre-literate, oral culture where certain methods were used to impart information and events and ensure they were remembered. Figiel also uses the colloquial, speakerly “k” dialect as opposed to the formalised “t” dialect to reflect accurately daily reality in Samoa and maintain relevance for a younger generation of Samoans. Figiel also incorporates “Pacificised” English words (part-English, part-Samoan) which would resonate with humorous identification throughout the Pacific islands community.

Such culturally significant specificities of language betray a skilful composition beneath the seemingly casual narrative of a young girl. Such rhythmic qualities of language and delivery are indicative of indigenous forms of expression successfully “woven” in with the western tradition of writing and the English language. Similarly, Figiel’s culturally-centred thematic treatment of girlhood and womanhood reinforces the intent of her dedication:

For the women
(who are always a step or two ahead),
and the girls
(who know everything there is to know).

Like Alofa, as a performance poet, writer and woman of Pacific islands origin, Figiel has woven her own distinct “voice” into the literary world. In doing so, she uncovers a multitude of other, previously unheard voices.


Selina Tusitala Marsh is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University. Her thesis explores the intersection of race, gender and colonialism in the creative writing of Pacific islands women. She is a Fulbright scholar and has recently returned from researching in Hawai’i where she was an East-West Centre participant. 


• where we once belonged won the prestigious Booker Prize Award for First Book in the Asia/Pacific region and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Public reading/talk in creative writing class, Auckland University, 18 March 1997.

Fine mat, made of natural fibres and are customarily used for ceremonial exchanges between aiga and villages, that is, weddings, funerals. The finer the weave, the older the mat, the more precious. The preparation and weaving of this material wealth is carried out by women of the village.

Roughly equivalent to “bedtime” stories (with an inherent lesson or moral) and usually told to children by elderly in the ’aiga.

This occurs when a “new” longer song is created by singing a continuous chain of different songs – see interview in the back of Girl in the Moon Circle (Suva:Mana Publications, 1996) Figiel’s second book.

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