‘Tutuila’ is a collection of eight short stories written by Ze Lin Xiao, a Computer Science graduate from Stanford University. The book was inspired by her life in American Samoa.
The reality of the Samoan Archipelago can be harsh and brutal. People – both young and old – are chasing their dreams, trying to satisfy their deepest desires and needs. But there are tribulations, and troubles, and everyday struggles they have to deal with. There is a young girl who tells the story of her family, an eight-year-old boy listening to the old Samoan legend, a pair of relatives attending a funeral, a teenager who discovers the importance of family, a palagi woman who gets into an argument with another female, and a Chinese boy who moves to a prettier place across the ocean.
I’ll be honest here, ‘Tutuila’ is definitely not a masterpiece. The book is extremely short. Two of the stories are about three or four paragraphs long. They end before they even start, and you, as a reader, are left wanting to know more. But bear in mind that this narratives were created by a very young woman with no writing experience. Taking this into account,
I think she did a really good job.
The compilation revolves around American Samoa, and the country is ‘somewhat’ described. Not very vividly and rather cursorily. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you do not learn anything about the islands. You do. Through the eyes of the characters, through their personal stories, you get a sense what it feels to live in the corner of the globe most people consider a slice of heaven. But do you get acquainted with the country’s culture? Not really. Can you imagine the settings? Only scarcely. So if this is what you’re hoping to find in a book about the South Pacific, you should look for it somewhere else.
When it comes to the language, it is quite simple and rather plain. There is absolutely no poetry here; there are no beautiful phrases. Everything is very ‘raw’ and realistic, which is actually a big plus as it makes each story highly believable. I must say that authenticity is unquestionably the main strength of the book. Readers get to know the real place (at a very superficial level), not a tropical paradise from a glossy travel brochure. And, let me tell you, that place can be scary. Poverty, violence, diseases – in ‘Tutuila’, it’s all part of the package. But don’t get depressed. There are a few rays of light that dispel this gloominess. There is hope. And faith for a better tomorrow. There is also some humor that may bring a smile to your face. If you search carefully, I’m sure you’ll discover all these ‘treats’.
Is ‘Tutuila’ worth reading? Personally, I think it is. Ze Lin Xiao appears to be a very insightful observer; some of her depictions are quite interesting, especially for people fascinated with Pasifika. Maybe you won’t be struck by this book, but you might like a story or two. So, give it a try.