(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. At 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
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
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.