where we once belonged
Pasifica Press, $24.95, ISBN 0 908597 27 4
When I heard Sia Figiel in 1995, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Auckland University English department common room, read/tell the second story in this collection I was entranced by her powerful, funny, yet moving voice that vividly created the sense of being a girl in Samoa. When I read the stories last year I knew she was an important new voice in Pacific literature and that this was the most exciting book published in New Zealand recently. I’ve already given several copies to friends, saying, “You must read this book”. I haven’t done that since the bone people.
I write about these stories as an outsider to the culture they depict — a culture which, as a resident of Auckland, the largest Polynesian city, I should know about but do not. Figiel makes me aware of my marginality as a palagi reader — there are so many words and terms that she does not translate — and yet her skill is such that she held me fascinated and intrigued by her stories. The collection begins with stories of being part of a community, belonging to a village, to an ’aiga, to Samoa. When Alofa, the child narrator of “We” writes an essay for Miss Cunningham, the American peacecorps, on “my pet”, she writes:
“My family has a pet. his name is Piki. Piki is born last week. Piki is white and black too. He likes eating pegu. My sisters and me loves him. We loves him because he is good. He is a good piki and he likes to play with us. he is a good piki and we are going to eat him when he grows up.”
“Who does the piggy belong to?” asked Miss Cunningham as she handed me back my essay.
“He is belongs to me, and to my sisters, and to my brothers, and to my ‘aiga. He is our piki,” I replied.
“Oh!” said Miss Cunningham … “I thought you were going to write about your pet, your piggy? Do you have anything else that doesn’t belong to your sisters too?” …
Nothing was witnessed alone. Nothing was witnessed in the “I” form — nothing but penises and ghosts.
“I” does not exist, Miss Cunningham. “I” is “we” always.
This is a simple story. The stories vary in complexity and in style. Figiel moves easily between realism and myth, incorporating contradictory accounts of the creation of Samoa — was Moa a man as in her first telling, or a woman as in her second? And in the later stories there’s the figure of Siniva, beautiful and large-brained, who returned from New Zealand with a BA and MA and who attacked christianity and “went around reminding the aualama of Tagaloa’alagi and the cosmos of ancient Samoa and the old religion too”. She takes on a mythical resonance of the village fool who is also a warrior, waving at palagis: “‘Go back to where you come from, you fucking ghosts! Gauguin is dead! There is no paradise.’” The community rejects her, as she attacks their belief and their adaptation of palagi ways. The collection ends with her suicide and the narrator’s comment, “For the first time I am alone”, and her realisation that Malaefou, her village, is the “place where ‘we’ once belonged”.
As the stories accumulate the picture they give is not one of an idyllic island paradise. The teenagers of the early stories model themselves on American television programmes and videos and family pride is based on the number of relatives overseas and the amount of money and possessions they send home. But the most powerful theme running through the stories is that of a culture which is male-dominated, authoritarian and violent. Alofa’s father Filiga’s first wife has committed suicide because she was barren and he sends his second back to her relatives when he takes up with his third. He is celebrated for the severity of his beatings and parents send their children to him for punishment.
Being beaten up is alofa — love. Real love. Real love is when children are beaten up bad by their parents. Teach the child while he’s a child so he will know when he becomes a man. This is in the bible. This, too, is written in the earth of Malaefou. To beat a child is to give her respect, to teach her how to behave, to teach her to be humble, to listen, to obey, to love her.
One of the successes of where we once belonged is the delicate line Figiel walks between exposing the double standard of this patriarchal violence (Filiga has many illegitimate children yet beats his daughter up and shaves her head for attempting to have sex) and yet suggesting the authenticity of this expression of love.
The stories again and again show a society where women’s autonomy and intelligence are punished. Filifi, “the village genius”, is in the psychiatric ward at Motootua Mental Hospital, after being forced to have an abortion by her mother because of the shame. Alofa fakes being stupid — “My whole childhood was lived in the fear of being too smart, too clever” — because of stories of what happens to smart women. Filiga’s wives are all shown as suffering and being totally at their husband’s mercy. Sugar Shirley, the fa’afafige, is loved and respected and when a woman from another island calls her “him” and Shirley Boy she is beaten up, first by Shirley girl and then by her husband.
The stories of Malaefou build up a multiplicity of personalities, of stories, of foods and clothing and habits which create the sense of a vital and vibrant culture. Particularly, it’s a culture with a strong oral storytelling tradition. The girls sit round recounting relatives, children make up rude songs about Alofa’s almost-affair, events of the village become mythical and myths become part of Alofa’s tales. The first story is a good example of this: what begins as a story of teenage girls’ friendship and hostility to the “too-good” girl changes effortlessly into a poetic celebration of womanhood.
Birds flew out of her belly button. Bees and ants and other small insects danced between her fingers, in her armpits, on her toes. Moist, too, was the fern on her nipples, on her neck. And a small river fell from the triangle of her pubic hair.
Yes, there I was suddenly, confronted with Afi’s scent. She now smelled of gardenia…. even though it was not gardenia season.
And I asked myself, “Is that why boys and men wanted to look at her brown panties and bra? Because they found the gardenia season there, all year round? In the brownness of her crotch? In the bush of her armpits?” Gardenia which we girls mistook for bats and lack of soap?”
I’m not sure how this passage reads out of context, but as part of a very funny story about first menstruation and a very powerful story about Afi’s violent punishment for the pornographic magazine Alofa and her friends planted on her, it’s very effective. Figiel’s style is as unique, as complex, as multiple and as delicately balanced as her subject. where we once belonged is important — as a first publication by a talented story-teller, as the first collection of short stories by a Samoan woman and as a vivid portrayal of girl’s and women’s lives in Pacific islands culture. Read it.
Aorewa McLeod is a senior lecturer in English at Auckland University, at present an associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Centre in Massachusetts.