‘Where We Once Belonged’ is Sia Figiel’s debut novel. This coming-of-age story of a Samoan girl won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Best First Book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region.
Alofa Filiga is a typical teenager who tries to navigate her way through the transition from being a girl to becoming a woman. Together with her friends she explores the new and exciting world of adulthood while gossiping about boys, love, lust, and all the things that grown-ups do.
Although for Alofa life is never boring, it isn’t always as good as she would want it to be. She quickly discovers that the bumpy road of adolescence gets even bumpier when one lives in a place where two cultures collide. Reconciling tradition with modernity seems to be virtually impossible, especially for a young and naïve girl succumbed to the will of other people.
The first sentence of this novel is about a woman’s vagina. Pacific authors hardly ever write about vaginas. This shows, right off the bat, how brave Sia Figiel is. And you already know that the book you’re holding in your hands is going to be groundbreaking.
When you think about coming-of-age titles about Samoa, or Pacific Islands in general, you probably have this instant thought coming to your mind: Margaret Mead. Her study of the Samoan youth is indeed an anthropological classic. But, let’s be honest here, what can a white woman from some faraway country know about living and growing up in Polynesia? Is she really more knowledgeable than someone from within that culture? I dare to say she isn’t. Sia Figiel, on the contrary, provides readers with the first-hand account. Having been brought up in the Samoan Archipelago, she demonstrates competence as well as thorough understanding of what she is writing about.
The substance of her novel might be quite shocking to some people, especially those not familiar with Pacific cultures. The author’s honesty in describing Samoans’ attitudes towards sex, relationships, love, and human body seems almost too brutal to believe. The myth of promiscuity and sexual freedom that Margaret Mead established in her book gets debunked. Sia Figiel unravels a completely different reality, in which a girl is beaten up for having a dirty magazine in her bag; in which absolute obedience to parents and other family members is a fact of life; in which punishment for…for what really?…is as sure as the sun rises every morning. ‘People see surfaces only, and that’s all’. These wise words from the first chapter steer readers in the right direction. Appearances can be deceptive, but there is no doubt what the life of a Samoan teenager is really like. Each and every page shows very clearly that adolescents are free only if nobody’s watching. The problem is that in such close-knit communities there’s always someone watching.
Much of the book’s power and plausibility lies in its characters: strong, intriguing, complex. They are a mixed bag of different personalities – some of whom you adore, some of whom you hate. If you analyse closely, you can notice that they represent typical Samoan traits: conformity; abasement; dominance; humbleness; kindness; attachment to tradition. Despite their apparent similarities, they couldn’t be less alike. The story lays bare a striking generation gap between older and younger Islanders – the former treat their culture as immutable; the latter try to reconcile ancestral values with the pleasures of modernity. And it seems that this silent battle can have only one winner. In Samoa, triumph comes with age.
Sia Figiel’s exposure of growing up in Pasifika is written in the most impressive way possible. The style, the rhythm, the pace make the words flow like the ocean waves. The novel has virtually no action, yet it doesn’t fail to engage the reader. This is largely the result of vivid descriptions, which let you find yourself in the middle of a buzzling market, at a girly meetup gossiping about boys, or in Mr Brown’s house looking at the box of Cornflakes (which supposedly make palagi people happy). And although you may feel that the atmosphere is a bit heavy, the occasional bouts of humour bring a wonderful (and much-needed) sense of playfulness. These are the tropics, after all. Dark clouds might cover the sky, but the rays of light are still there.
‘Where We Once Belonged’ is a big surprise. This delightful collection of vignettes shows a place trapped between the past and the present. A place where ‘we’ means ‘I’ and ‘I’ simply doesn’t exist; where some should be seen and not heard. This is Samoa far from paradise. Real, unembellished, alluring. So, are you interested in paying a visit?