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  Where we once belonged by Sia Figiel (Pasifika Press, 1996)

Winner of the Asia-Pacific regional Commonwealth Best First Book of Fiction Award, author Sia Figiel gives us a literary insight into the life of a young Samoan woman brought up in the fictitious village of Malaefou. It is a tale torn between the joys of young camaraderie, and the social restrictions of family and place in the intensely patriarchal culture of Samoa.

Alofa Filiga, the thirteen year old protagonist, divides her time between home, school, village life and the split life of her father. Figiel shifts her focus from character to character throughout the novel. Where We Once BelongedAt times Alofa almost appears to act as a participant observing in the mode of Malinowski or Mead, although of course it is an easy comparison and belies the anthropological digs and the literary nature of this work. Her father, Filiga, is the dark pole of the story, lionised by his elderly mother who doesn't bat an eye when he turfs out his second wife for a more attractive woman, and who mentally tortures Alofa by forcing her to keep the secret of his affair with her schoolteacher.

The incident early in the novel where he shaves Makaoleafi's head and gives her a black eye for finding a porno magazine in her schoolbag, when it really belonged to the palagi, Mr Brown, introduces us to Filiga and the themes he represents. Mr Brown as a white man is as responsible for the material (and the culture) entering the country as he is for the girls who planted the magazine in their friend's bag, that is, responsible for them losing their cultural virginity. Alofa, for instance, had never seen cornflakes before. This is far from the society of free-love that Mead would have the west believe. Free love costs. In black eyes, and the price of a magazine. Alofa's name, meaning love, and her surname, Filiga, underlines the feminine-masculine chasm within the Samoan culture of this novel. The opening page's image of a vagina is a vivid pointer to the narrator's side of the argument.

This reviewer had hoped to interview Figiel while she was in New Zealand recently. Alas, it was not to be. Some questions I would have liked to ask her are the following: is the village of Malaefou fictitious? How could she be so brave to write this work, given that she continues to live within Western Samoa and must be subject to the closeness of the people there, who presumably must recognise characters within it (one woman I spoke to who was also brought up in the country claimed to recognise people)? So how does she cope with the feelings of the people around her? Another question I would have asked is who are her main influences? One can see the influence, or 'mellifluence', of the African-American writer Toni Morrison. I was pleased to read later in the interview following her second book, The Girl in the Moon Circle, that Morrison was indeed a mentor.

Of course Albert Wendt must have influenced the novelist. His trail-blazing presence in Samoan literature must have lightened the burden on Figiel's shoulders. In Wendt's 1980 Pacific anthology he is listed as the only Samoan prose writer. Their relationship will be an interesting one to follow, and one I would like to question her about.

Figiel makes many humorous touches as well as deft strokes of the pen. Like: "Spiritually - or rather, religiously - Soia never misses morning mass, afternoon mass and evening mass, confessing the same sins over and over again for the last thirty years with black beaded rosary slipping through her fat fingers. "She makes sins up just to have something interesting to say. Like, she spied on two dogs doing it last week, next to her husband's grave. "'Is this a sign, Father...or a sign for something?'..."

This first novel is promising. It didn't move me like John Pule's The shark that ate the sun, or impress me as much as Leaves of the Banyan Tree with its Marquez-like fluidity of language, but I did feel that this novelist was holding something in reserve, that we are yet to see her best - she was never stretched. There was one character that made brief incisive appearances, a woman who had returned from academic studies in the west and who refused to accept the comfort of a government job and who instead lived life on the edge. Figiel wrote of her like I was reading the best Keri Hulme. She, Figiel, is young. Given the comprehensive intelligence, the natural structure, and the mature development of inherently emotional subjects in this book it augurs well. This book is compulsory buying (or library borrowing) for all readers of Pacific, and New Zealand, literature.

—Robert Sullivan
   © 1997