‘WHERE WE ONCE BELONGED’ BY SIA FIGIEL

‘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.

where-we-once-belonged

Summary

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.

Review

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?

A CHAT WITH… PAULA QUINENE

Paula Quinene has been known for writing about…food; Chamorro food to be more precise. Her two cookbooks will definitely make your mouth water, but her debut novel – an erotic historical romance entitled ‘Conquered’ – will leave your mouth wide open. Interested to know more? Just read the interview.

paula-quinene

Pasifika Tales: Up until now you were focused on Chamorro recipes cookbooks. What inspired you to write a novel?

Paula Quinene: I was in the midst of working on my two Guam cookbooks. The first was a pure cookbook, the second was a cookbook and memoir book. The idea for the novel was to combine food, memories, and history. I was so mahȧlang, or homesick, that it seemed like the natural progression in my string of Guam books.

PT: The story is set in 1940s. Was it your idea right from the beginning? Why didn’t you choose a contemporary setting?

PQ: Yes, it was my idea from the start. Guam’s liberation is so important to the Chamorros, the natives of Guam and the Mariana Islands. Our liberation from the Japanese by the Americans during WWII has been celebrated on Guam and around the world for decades. When most folks think of WWII in the Pacific, they think Pearl Harbor. I felt it was important to share that after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Japanese bombed and occupied Guam for almost three years.

PT: How did you come up with the plot?

PQ: During one of my visits to Guam, I spent some time at my sister-in-law’s house. Her backyard was so beautiful. It was the inspiration for the main setting in ‘Conquered’. I had to find a military unit that came as close to that area of Guam so that he would somehow bump into my heroine. The main plot revolves around the movement of that particular unit. For the subplots, I wanted gut-wrenching, emotional scenes to develop the romance, the sex, and to showcase the Chamorro culture.

PT: Do you think that your book may help get readers interested in Guam’s history?

PQ: The short excerpt I had sent to my then potential editor, Stacey Donovan, definitely got her interested. Those who don’t know much about Guam will learn a ton. Some Chamorros reading the novel will have a handful of ‘aha’ moments. History buffs may be motivated to dig further into Guam’s past as there are references to both the Spanish and American colonization’s before WWII.

PT: ‘Conquered’ is not only a purely historical novel; it is actually an erotic historical romance. I’d say it’s a bold combination. Do you agree?

PQ: Yes. My senior paper in high school was ‘Conformity vs Non-Conformity’, and I was all for being a non-conformist. I believe in pushing the limits, in go big or go home, as long as no one gets hurt.

PT: Why did you decide to venture into the erotic romance genre?

PQ: The romance novels I read as a teen and young adult just didn’t have enough erotic scenes, but they were always loving and romantic. Besides, by the time of ‘Conquered’s publication, it was a plus that explicit books were more acceptable. Sex was so taboo for adults to talk about while I was growing up. Even the loving, romantic kind. Coming from a very cultural and Catholic background, I wanted to say, ‘Hey, sex can be full of love, fun, and pleasure. It will enhance a marriage if you are open and accepting of mutually acceptable activities.’

PT: Was it difficult to handle the erotic scenes without crossing the line of good taste?

PQ: Initially, I used too many somewhat lewd words for that time period. I took my editor’s advice and changed the words. The sex scenes in romance novels I read in the past were in very good taste. I don’t remember the details of such scenes, but I remember words like womanhood and manhood.

PT: Do you plan to further explore the world of literary fiction? Is there a new novel on the horizon?

PQ: Literary fiction? No. I’ve been on the fence with another erotic romance novel since 2014, working on it a tiny, tiny bit here and there. It will bring Guam’s history into a more recent decade, but will be a while before the story is ready for an editor. The heroine of my novel-in-the-works is the granddaughter of the heroine in ‘Conquered’.

PT: Now, because you are an expert when it comes to Chamorro cuisine, would you mind sharing your favourite Chamorro recipe?

PQ: I love a lot of Chamorro food, but boñelos aga’ is my favorite because I can remember it from forever ago as a child. It’s also something my mom taught me how to make, scooping the batter with my hand and dropping it into the oil between my thumb and index finger. My life is so grounded because of the culture and traditions I was brought up in, much of which was family life around food. My kids love this dessert, and it’s something they can pass on to their children.

Boñelos Aga’ [Banana doughnuts]

This will yield a small batch of boñelos, which should be quite soft even after it has completely cooled. Making boñelos aga requires minimal adjustments to the dough depending on how much water is in the bananas. Do not add more flour than listed.

Makes about 40 doughnuts.

INGREDIENTS

SET 1

3 cups overripe, smashed bananas (previously frozen and thawed to room temperature is best)

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

SET 2

2½ cups flour (¼ cup more may be needed)

2 teaspoons baking powder

SET 3

Vegetable oil for deep frying

Tools: large pot, ladle with holes, medium bowl, colander, napkins, long butter knife

DIRECTIONS

Fill the large pot halfway with oil. Heat the oil on medium heat.

While it’s heating, combine the smashed bananas, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl.

Add 2½ cups flour and baking powder. Mix thoroughly.

Depending on the ripeness of the bananas or if they were previously frozen, you may or may not need the remaining ¼ cup of flour.

Check the thickness of the ‘cake mix-like’ batter. The batter should be a bit thicker than cake mix, but not at all like bread dough. Take a scoop in your hand. Drop it into the rest of the mixture. The scoop should retain some of its shape without completely blending into the mix. It will flatten out, but you should be able to see the outline.

If you are not sure, leave out the extra flour for now.

Test your ‘batter dropping’ technique. Scoop a small amount of batter into the palm of your dominant hand. Make a circle with your thumb and fingers. Turn your ‘circled fingers’ to drop some batter back into the bowl. This takes a little bit of practice. If you can squeeze the batter out and let the trail of batter fall onto itself in the oil, your doughnuts have a good chance of turning out round. If not, and the boñelos has a tail, more crunchy parts to eat! You can always use two small spoons, or a small cookie-dough scoop.

When the oil is hot, drop about a teaspoon of batter into the oil. The dough should turn into a puffy ball. The batter may fall to the bottom of the pot, but rises as it cooks. It will only stay at the bottom a few seconds. If it sits longer, the oil is not hot enough. Use a butter knife to tease the doughnut from the bottom of the pot, and discard. Wait five minutes for the oil to continue to heat.

Test a bigger doughnut. Scoop enough batter in your hand to form one doughnut. Position your hand about an inch above the surface of the oil then squeeze the batter through your thumb and fingers. If the batter falls to the bottom of the pot, let it cook for two minutes. If it doesn’t rise after two minutes, nudge it free with a long utensil.

The oil should be hot enough to cook the center of the boñelos and brown the outside of the doughnut within 15 minutes.

Cool the larger test doughnut on a napkin. Open the doughnut and check to see if it is cooked. Check carefully as there will be chunks of banana in the boñelos. If in doubt whether there is enough flour, go ahead and add the remaining ¼ cup of flour. Mix this very well.

Continue to squeeze batter into the oil without overcrowding the pot. The entire first batch of doughnuts may need nudging from the bottom of the pot.

The doughnuts in the remaining batches should float to the surface of the oil on their own.

Drain doughnuts in a colander then transfer to a napkin-lined dish.

‘CONQUERED’ BY PAULA QUINENE

‘Conquered’, Paula Quinene’s debut novel, is a historical erotic romance set in Guam. It follows Jesi, a young Chamorro woman, who finds love and happiness amid the turbulence of war.

conquered

Summary

Ever since the Japanese invaded her homeland, Jesi has been forced to hide in a cave. Her father and brother left the safe place a week ago. They told her they would return, but they still haven’t shown up. Suffering from loneliness and afraid that something might have happened to them, Jesi decides she needs to start her search.

As she battles her way through the island, her worst nightmare of being captured by the Japs comes true. She desperately tries to fight, but they are stronger. She begins to lose consciousness when someone manages to save her.

Not wanting to leave the rescued girl all alone, Johan Landers, an American soldier, follows her to the cave. The little time they get to spend together is enough for them to fall in love with each other.

Review

An erotic novel written by a Pacific author? That doesn’t happen very often. Sex is still considered a difficult, embarrassing, and forbidden subject amongst Pacific communities, so discussing it publicly – in a book – is quite a rarity. However, there are writers bold enough to try to break down this taboo. Paula Quinene is definitely one of them.

‘Conquered’ is a novel in which eroticism is prominent, but not overly so. You might be surprised how little is actually described. Sex doesn’t fill the pages of the book to the brim – it is only an addition to the plot, not its main focus. I have to admit that the author handled all the lovemaking scenes very gracefully, minding the language but not sparing the juicy details. As befits a historical romance – let’s don’t forget the story is set in the 1940s – the book contains no lewd phrases. Ms Quinene maintained the highest standards of eloquence, choosing her words with due regard to the time period, setting, and the nature of her tale. Your cheeks probably won’t turn red, but your heart might start beating a little bit faster than usual.

The plot itself is extremely engaging, but it also feels slightly rushed. Everything happens very quickly, and you are not given enough time to savour the moments. Of course, not all readers will find this unappealing. The storyline flows smoothly from one event to another, and because it never slows down, there is no chance of getting bored. Yet still, most people crave depth and complexity, at least to some extent. In this novel both are virtually non-existent. The briefness of the scenes and the narrative as a whole is – unfortunately – more irritating than pleasing.

One thing Paula Quinene didn’t skimp on is Guam. References to the Chamorro culture are omnipresent. Each chapter unravels the beauty of the local customs and traditions, letting you either discover the exotic and foreign world or come back to the place you already perfectly know. What is more, the book serves as a fantastic history lesson which brings to life the tragic and painful period in Guam’s past – the Japanese occupation of the island. We tend to forget that World War II in the Blue Continent was not limited to Hawaii only. This title is a wonderful reminder. Wonderful and well-researched. The author made sure to check the facts, so this part of the story is very believable and convincing.

Can the same be said of the characters? Absolutely. Both Jesi and Johan are richly developed protagonists who change considerably throughout the course of the novel.

Jesi, although young and inexperienced, is a real fighter. The cruelty she witnessed during the occupation has toughen her up, shaping her adult personality. Being Chamorro, she has the utmost respect for her parents, yet she is not afraid to do things her own way. A gentle rebel of sorts who impresses with bravery and resilience.

Johan, on the other hand, is a mature man. He battles his own demons and is well aware of the fact that life is no bed of roses. Having lost his wife and desire to live, he has dedicated himself to serving his country – he fights, so he can forget. It is not until he meets Jesi that he rediscovers the purpose of his existence and the power of love. He starts to understand that the commitment made to the US Army cannot be more important than the commitment made to his significant other.

We all must agree that Paula Quinene did something quite extraordinary with this novel – she proved that with a little creativity you can tackle even the most taboo topics. Reading ‘Conquered’ is a very pleasant experience. It’s a daring book any fan of Pacific literature will appreciate and enjoy.

THROUGH MY EYES: ‘MAHÅLANGNESS – THE FUEL THAT FED MY WRITING FIRE’ BY PAULA QUINENE

‘How long have you been away from home?’ I asked an army friend.

‘Thirteen years,’ he replied.

And to myself, I said, How could anyone be away from Guam for 13 years? It’s simple really. When was the last time you checked on ticket prices to an island half way around the world? Imagine the expense for a college student from the lower end of the middle class.

So it began, the winter of 1993. I started college at the University of Oregon, away from my family, away from Guam, and very mahȧlang. In Chamorro, mahȧlang means homesick. My parents bent over backwards to bring me home in the summers of 1993 and 1994. During my second full year of school, I decided that I would wait to go home. I didn’t want to ask my parents for another $1,800 ticket. And even with my multiple jobs as a college student, I couldn’t afford that ticket, not after paying for rent, books, and food. I could wait three years to go home. Truth was, I was very mahȧlang listening to JD Crutch, and cooking Guam food. I almost left college in 1995 without graduating. But I realized how hard my parents were working to send their oldest child to school. So I stopped listening to Chamorro music, and focused even more on my studies.

It was the summer of 1996, and low and behold, I had only one year of college left – then I fell in love with a Chamorro boy in the army, got married, graduated, and was whisked away to Germany. I cried almost every day my first year overseas. What did I do? I was supposed to go home!

In the span of 20 years, I had been to Guam only three times – 1999, 2006, and 2013. The pain in my heart, in my very being, gave life to my cookbooks, ‘A Taste of Guam’ and ‘Remember Guam’, and my novel, ‘Conquered’. My mahȧlangness was the fuel that fed my writing fire.

During my sophomore year at Simon Sanchez High School, I felt I had a destiny with my island. It was in 2006, while I was working on my cookbooks and my novel that I realized exactly what I was meant to do. And that was to write about Guam. If I had returned to Guam, I wouldn’t have been mahȧlang, and I wouldn’t have written my books.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve built my website, Paulaq.com, and my supporting social media presence, because I am very mahȧlang. Denial works sometimes – that I’m OK being away from home. However, writing about Guam keeps me connected to the land and the family that raised me. Writing has proven to be more productive and useful than hiding from the pain.

Fortunately, I’ve been home twice within the past three years, and am now able to continue that trend. I’m still homesick, but the pain is more bearable.

While I’ve been working on another Guam food book on and off since 2012, I thought I was done writing novels. Yet she calls to me. Her plight. Her fight. Her struggle to reclaim what was taken by colonizing forces, ‘Write for me. Let your love now feed your writing fire.’

From whatever island you are from, embrace your love and your homesickness. Allow it to help you share and preserve the richness of your heritage.

A CHAT WITH… STEPHEN TENORIO JR.

Stephen Tenorio Jr. is a multi-talented person. He is a writer, painter, attorney, and a former JAG officer. He comes from the Marianas, a place so close to his heart that it provided the setting for his novel, ‘An Ocean in a Cup’. Do you want to know more about the book? Read the interview.

STEPHEN TENORIO JR

Pasifika Tales:  If you were to summarize the plot of your book, ‘An Ocean in a Cup’, in just a few sentences, what would you say?

Stephen Tenorio Jr.: A story cataloging a young and good-hearted man’s life in the beautiful Marianas islands, tribulations of human behavior in small islands, and the haunted state he endures caused by an unknown illness that often overwhelms him with despair, anxiety, and fear. Beneath the general plot, there is layer of consciousness, and then other layers beneath.

PT: Tomas, the protagonist of the book, is a very interesting character. Who or what was your inspiration?

STJ: Tomas is somebody many young islanders in the mid to late 70s on Guam were encouraged to be – respectful, humble, a hard worker, and helpful. In some ways, maybe he is Charon for the reader, or a demurred Beatrice or Virgil.

PT: Did you also have your sources of inspiration for supporting characters? Because I must admit they are as intriguing as Tomas.

STJ: Most of the characters are based off actual people I’ve met or knew about, even the bad ones. Some of the dialogue are comments or perceptions I remembered, and human interaction that were brought to my attention or I observed first hand.

PT: You’ll probably agree that your novel is not an easy read. It’s a multi-layered story that every reader might interpret differently. Was this your aim from the beginning?

STJ: I thought that the ‘multi-layering’ would have been apparent the first time I tried to get it out in the public because the novel is entrenched with rows of symbolism and prose. I think the first chapter was demonstrative of the level of reading the reader had to manage. Interestingly, several years after publication, I met three people (by happenstance, at different times) on Guam who read my book and all went to a US college in the east coast. They all conveyed they were familiar with my literary style of writing because their studies included a list of interpretive fiction. Since, I’ve had this liberal presumption that interpretive fiction has a wider audience on the east coast in the US.

Interpretive fiction is not new with respect to literature but like calculus it is distinct from its brethren within its own discipline. And like calculus, interpretive fiction will attract only those invested into its critical and complex nature because it is taxing on the mind.

Generally, the feedback has been consistent in that the novel reads as interpretive fiction. Interpretive fiction separates from the ‘escapism’ type of work most people are familiar because it requires the reader to ‘stop, think, and reflect’.  Even a simple online search is telling: interpretive literature is described as a fictitious narrative to illustrate one or more practical truths, moral principles or codes of ethics. Unfortunately, its anatomy is incapable of being an ‘easy read’.

I’ve had some college students tell me that the novel seems like a collection of short stories, each chapter having its own parable or moral lesson. I regard that as a good perspective that explains the novel’s multi-faceted structure.

At times, I get comments that the novel’s level and nature of reading is similar to Joyce, Proust, Faulkner. Others tell me the layering reminds them of theological narratives dense with passages that are heavy with symbolism. Again, the consistency towards interpretive fiction surfaces.

I intended my work to be full with euphony. I wanted the aesthetic of each paragraph or chapter to be able to survive independently in a coherent literary state without the support of the novel in its entirety. I wanted the reader to be able to tear a page or chapter out and that page or chapter, in itself, would contain layers of literary pieces that would offer the reader value.

But above all, I wrote for the student – when I was a literature teacher, I realized there wasn’t enough good Pacific Literature pieces that challenged the reader to truly reflect on human nature and engage their critical thinking skills from narratives that represented the Marianas. So yes, the design included multi-layers, aesthetics, euphony, and symbolism as pillars of the composition.

Interestingly, I offered some teachers free novels – they just didn’t take them, even a classroom set for resource. I only had one high school teacher take me up on the offer. Ironically, this was a type of experience that would have likely made it into the novel. (So if you know a teacher interested in a class set, I think I have one or two I could send).

I didn’t set out to write interpretive fiction. I just wanted to tell a story in an artistic way. Like a child, the novel matured on its own.

PT: What should readers take away from Tomas’s story? Is there a message you wanted to convey?

STJ: I think the ‘take-away’ to finishing the novel is similar to the internal take-away you may get from completing a marathon or summiting a mountain. The satisfaction you get from accomplishing such a challenging task is the reward of completing something difficult while not being so verbose about the fibers of the achievement. This novel is like a marathon for the mind or a mountain for an introspective person.

A friend once said about my novel – ‘There are some things that made me really think about stuff. Some paragraphs I kept reading over and over because it made me re-think about how we see things back home.’ Interestingly she told me it took her about three-in-half months to finish the book, because she kept going back to re-read the marked paragraphs and taking her time before moving on to the next page. She seemed solemn about her reflections — I think her experience hit it right on the nail for me about how to finish the novel.

Often I do get specific comments about how some parts remind readers about certain hypocrisies of island life, a couple of times I’ve been told some of the characters reminded a reader of their grandparents as to the values they held – or mentors that advocated a principle about life they prized. One professor noted that I described ‘Chamorro-isms’ in my novel. In these instances, I am happy that some of my readers connected the fiction to their personal life or thoughts. These revelations are on target. It’s a great feeling to know these connections are surfacing.

Finally, I have those who just like reading passages and have no regard for the novel as a whole. They describe my work as flowery and poetic. They might not know the story at all or discovered any revelation in the novel, but instead were just entertained or affected by the euphony and prose. It’s fun to hear this type of feedback discussing the aesthetic appeal about the prose. The comments are beautiful layered frostings on a plain cupcake.

PT: Your book is set in the Marianas and is beautifully adorned with Chamorro words, which add authenticity to the whole story. How important was it for you to incorporate the local language into the narrative?

STJ: The selection of Chamorro words was predominantly driven by euphony. Sometimes, I spent days reconstructing the preceding paragraphs before the introduction of a Chamorro word so the reader could experience the optimal pleasantness in learning or reading that Chamorro word.

For example, ‘gamson’ in Chamorro means octopus. It’s such a pleasant word to say and the definition brings an active and vivid image to front. I remember reconstructing the entire story of that section in the novel just so the Chamorro ‘gamson’ would appeal to the reader.

I wanted Chamorro words that somebody in some other country could read and experience enjoyment. A word that would stick in the mind because it was pleasant to say and rewarding to know what the word meant.

PT: You are from Guam. Would you agree with me that there are very few local authors recognized by a wider audience? Do you think this can be changed?

STJ: Most of the people I have met that enjoyed my novel and would discuss it in part were readers who yearned for that deep dive into ponderous thought and critical reflection. Coupled with the literary density of my novel, my presumption is that my novel won’t get much traction in the general audience because of its literary persona. Again, interpretive fiction is an acquired taste and the opposite of the more popular and welcomed ‘escapism’ fiction. So access to a wider audience for my work will always be challenging because although its good and valued reading it is not necessarily fun reading.

As for local authors — in general — I’ve experienced the challenges that lay ahead for them in the local community. Notably, there is enough fictional work on Guam to have a secondary curriculum dedicated. Yet in light of the available work, we are still far from getting anything established near the levels of other ethnic and cultural communities that promote their local authors on a consistent platform that impacts the ‘wider’ audiences. Unfortunately, I don’t have any point of reference to offer advice on how local authors can gain a wider audience outside of Guam.

Can it be changed – on Guam in getting a wider audience? I tried to change it, in some ways, but I had no success. Before leaving Guam, I had some good insight into what type of books appealed to the island, based on consumer data someone shared. Additionally, some seasoned librarians also shared with me their thoughts about the degree of penetration the libraries have on the island. This knowledge allowed me to have a new perspective about the challenges authors may have on Guam in promoting their work. It’s a labor of love.

PT: Which Pacific authors should people be reading?

STJ: I am a big fan of Jose Rizal. I have him up there with Steinbeck and Dickens.

‘AN OCEAN IN A CUP’ BY STEPHEN TENORIO JR.

‘An Ocean In a Cup’ is Stephen Tenorio Jr.’s debut novel. It is set in the Marianas in the late 1890s and focuses on the experiences of an islander boy.

AN OCEAN IN A CUP

Summary

Tomas, a very gifted young man, makes a living delivering goods throughout the island of Guam. Together with his karabao he travels from village to village, fulfilling his duties like a responsible adult he after all is.

But Tomas’s life is untroubled only on the surface. The boy is tormented by an inexplicable sickness that slowly weakens his body and mind. With each passing day the darkness that besets him becomes harder to withstand.

Review

Let me warn you right off the bat: ‘An Ocean In a Cup’ is not a light-hearted book you may enjoy on a lazy afternoon at home. It is a complex, multi-dimensional story that will require your undivided attention. Otherwise, you will most likely get lost in the thicket of the author’s words.

Yes, this is the trouble with so-called serious literature – it is not for everyone. Stephen Tenorio Jr.’s novel won’t let you escape. It won’t transport you to another world and it won’t let you live the lives of some made-up characters. It doesn’t offer fast-paced action that flows smoothly from one event to another. Actually, the narrative is terribly slow. But there is a good reason for that. Being full of symbolism and thick layers you have to peel away to get to the pure gold, it provokes critical thinking and paves the way for deeper reflection on human nature and the many facets of multiculturalism.

The author’s extensive exploration of the dynamics of small-island societies sheds light on how the past can affect the present and shape the characteristics of such close-knit communities. As Tenorio recalls the country’s colonial experience, he analyses interactions between individuals from different cultural backgrounds, creating an enthralling portrait of the relations among people in culturally diverse Guam.

The strong plot is supported by plausible and unbelievably well-developed characters. Tomas, the protagonist of the book, is the most intriguing leading figure you can imagine. On the surface, he is a kind of ideal young man: sincere, hard-working, talented. But there is more to him than meets the eye. Suffering from emotional distress, which may be seen as indicative of mental illness, he lives surrounded by darkness only some of us will be able to understand. He’s constantly fighting his demons, desperately trying to free himself from the clutches of his own existence.

Although Tomas is the focal point of the story, the author doesn’t concentrate exclusively on him. Secondary characters are no less interesting. They form a mixed bag of personalities, divergent in every possible way, whom you’ll either love or hate.

In addition to this extraordinary substance, ‘An Ocean In a Cup’ will give you another reason for admiration – Stephen Tenorio Jr.’s writing style. The novel is crafted in a beautiful manner reminiscent of some of the greatest names in literature. This is prose of the highest quality composed of elegance, unassuming lyricism, and sophisticated eloquence that will leave you completely in awe of the author’s talent.

No matter how many times you’ll read this book, you will always discover it anew. It is a real gem, and, as we all know, gems are priceless. So if you’re searching for something unusual, meaningful, and thought-provoking this title should be your choice.

MOST INTERESTING CHARACTERS IN PACIFIC LITERATURE (PART 1)

Simone, The Telesa Trilogy by Lani Wendt Young

Just imagine… An exuberant fa’afafine who is an absolute ideal of a best friend and who seems to always know what to say and do. Don’t you wish you had a person like this around you? Yes, Simone is…well…just shamazing!

Lani Wendt Young created a character who’s far more interesting and compelling than the protagonists of the novels, but – what’s important – doesn’t steal the whole spotlight. The bright and bubbly personality she bestowed upon him makes the occasionally serious story exude humour and Polynesian cheerfulness.

Materena, The Materena Mahi Trilogy by Célestine Hitiura Vaite

Materena is the real heroine of the trilogy. A devoted wife, an excellent mother, a star. She is, as teenagers would say, the coolest ever.

The author managed to develop a dynamic female character who is, first and foremost, a woman strong enough to fight for herself and do as she pleases. This powerful feminist voice is a reminder that you can never forget about your own needs; and that your dreams are just as important as everybody else’s.

Kiva, ‘Scar of the Bamboo Leaf’ by Sieni A.M.

The most fascinating people are the ones who have a story to tell; the ones who are not perfect (what does it mean to be perfect, anyway?); the ones who can teach us something. And because we usually want the novels to reflect the real world, the same goes for literary characters.

Kiva, the protagonist of Sieni A.M.’s book, instantly becomes your best friend. She isn’t flawless (although for me she is!), she has her struggles, and yet she is determined to lead a happy and meaningful life. She is a true role model every one of us – regardless of age – should look up to and at least try to emulate.

Tomas, ‘An Ocean In a Cup’ by Stephen Tenorio Jr.

Stephen Tenorio Jr’s literary debut, ‘An Ocean In a Cup’, is a wonderful example that it is indeed possible to create a multi-layered character who can not only attract but also hold readers’ attention.

Tomas is a leading figure of the book. Although at first he seems like an ordinary – extremely gifted, yes, nonetheless completely average – young man, you quickly realize there is more to his personality than what you see on the surface. The inexplicable darkness within him makes you contemplate psychological mechanisms that define human nature.

Uncle Kahana,  The Niuhi Shark Saga by Lehua Parker

In Middle Grade/YA genre characters are probably the most important element of the story. They may be an inspiring example for the youth; they may provide them with guidance; they may impart the words of wisdom. But most of all, they may entertain.

Uncle Kahana is a mysterious elder who knows more than he’s willing to show. Well versed in traditional knowledge, he represents ‘old Hawaii’, showing everyone that the ancient way of being is an integral part of the island life, and that indigenous culture simply must be respected.

‘ISLAND OF SHATTERED DREAMS’ BY CHANTAL T. SPITZ

‘Island of Shattered Dreams’, penned by Chantal T. Spitz, is a family saga set in the lush islands of French Polynesia. It is the first ever novel written by an indigenous Tahitian writer.

ISLAND OF SHATTERED DREAMS

Summary

Maevarua and Teuira lead a peaceful life on a serene island in French Polynesia until their son – Tematua – is recruited to fight for the Motherland during World War II. Much to the dismay of his parents, he agrees to leave his beloved country to go where he is needed.

Upon returning from Europe, Tematua doesn’t want to talk about his war experience. He slowly reacquaints himself with the islands when he meets beautiful Emere. Their love strikes like lightning.

As the years pass by, Tematua and Emere – now having three wonderful children – still delight in being together. But their comfortable and quiet existence is suddenly, and once again, disturbed by the arrival of white people from the Motherland.

Review

A family saga, love story, and a political statement of sorts woven into one continuous narrative is a highly risky combination. Unless your name is Chantal T. Spitz, and you are a prominent Tahitian writer bold enough to mix poetry with the gloomy and rather unpleasant subject of colonialism. Then such amalgamation turns out to be a truly winning combination.

I am not quite sure why, but whenever a novel is set in French Polynesia, it exudes such a delightful and unique atmosphere that you simply get lost in the world the author has created. Ms Spitz, too, managed to paint a vivid picture of idyllic, romantic islands, where Mā’ohi people enjoy their sheltered lives largely unaware of what’s beyond their shores. The little country seems to be a blissful microcosm of peace and tranquility, filled with warm-hearted and good-natured inhabitants. And do not think that this rosy portrayal of the archipelago is coincidental; or done to charm readers with the ambience of the place. Although the latter indeed works its magic, the very one-sided depiction serves a completely different purpose.

When a writer decides to broach a highly sensitive topic with the aim of eliciting a certain response, provoking a reaction, it needs to give the audience proper stimuli; something that will make them think and understand the message hidden between the lines. To do it, Chantal T. Spitz chose to juxtapose the perfect and unspoilt islands of French Polynesia with the imperialist, not-caring-for-anything-or-anybody Motherland. And she chose well. Her descriptions perfectly accentuate the polarity between the colonizers and the colonized. Even those who are not familiar with the subject matter will understand how great an impact France had on the small Pacific nation. From recruiting Polynesians to fight against the enemy during the Second World War to freely conducting nuclear tests on the pristine atolls to imposing Western values on the local communities, the European country significantly affected their overseas territory. For indigenous people, who consider their land almost sacred and take great pride in their ancient heritage, this piece of history still evokes a sense of injustice. That is why the novel oozes with concealed anger. But, quite honestly, you can’t really blame the author for that, can you?

Now, despite clearly highlighting the contrast between the righteous and the villains, Ms Spitz managed to avoid making generalizations. By developing complex and believable characters, such as mixed-race and thus torn between two cultures Emere (Emily) or Laura Lebrun, a sympathetic towards the natives French lady, she took the bias out of the story and made it even more fascinating and meaningful.

‘Island of Shattered Dreams’ is a historical romance, and as befits a book of this genre, even one set against a strongly political backdrop, the language and style simply delight. You cannot get enough of the lyrical tone and the pieces of poetry thrown here and there along with Tahitian words are the most splendid embellishment. The author’s elegant manner is full of ‘Polynesian vibe’; vibe that’s unparalleled and virtually impossible to imitate.

This slim novel is a must-read. It’s one of the most important titles in Pacific Literature; engaging, thought-provoking, and unbelievably beautifully written. For those who want to experience the allure of the South Seas…without the paradise layer.

A CHAT WITH… LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo is a name you should know. This very talented lady – proud of her Samoan blood – is an emerging writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, ‘Lovefolds of Our Upbringing’, is not only an engaging story but also a wonderful introduction to the Samoan culture. Are you interested in learning more about this title? Read on.

 LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

Pasifika Tales: ‘Lovefolds of Our Upbringing’ is the first instalment in the Aiga series. Aiga is a very important word for Samoans. Is this why you chose it to interlink your stories?

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo: ‘Lovefolds of Our Upbringing’ is my very first instalment focused on family life and customary norms in Samoa. Aiga means family in Samoan. Aiga is very important to the Samoan people. Whether it is a family that’s close-knitted or a crabs-in-a-bucket type of family, it is sacred and everyone belongs to one. The aiga in Samoa is also a core curriculum of its own, where a child experiences the good, the bad, the beautiful and the odds about family, but at the end of the day of course, ‘family’s all we got.’

PT: Could you describe briefly what the series is about?

LPA: This series is ultimately a reveling story about the Samoan life, a humble beginning and family values. It exhibits a humble upbringing of a Samoan family which depicts a relatable experience for most Samoans. My upbringing is a compendium of mannerisms, respect, strict discipline, the church, culture and a covenant of ‘family over everything’. ‘Lovefolds…’ depicts a viewpoint for each character about his or her upbringing, especially a close-knitted life in a Samoan family. This book is focused on the beginning especially. Which means every single extraordinary person got their start in a simple way. They all have something in common and that is the beginning.

The fluidity of Pintail ensembles a continuance of ‘Lovefolds…’, but differently in a way that when the children leaves home, they will adapt into the Westernized life in America. They will see places they’ve seen on TV commercials, huge airplanes, tall buildings and also experience a life without Mom and Dad nearby and open stores on Sundays – everything rare or doesn’t exist in the islands. ‘Pintail…’ describes a notable cliché that most Samoans have adapted to in a unique way. No matter where we are in this world – through distance, changes and Westernized influences, a foundation grounds us to remember that through it all, our lives were weaved from a structure of God, family and culture.

And then I have ‘Colorful deeds’ and ‘Blessings Unfold’ coming along which are going to be inspired by my adventures around the world.

PT: What (or who) was your inspiration?

LPA: My inspiration is truly my upbringing and the ones who gave me that upbringing. By observation, the love Samoan parents invest in to see their children grow, helped me to not only write but to adapt well in a melting pot of diverse cultures and changes when I left home. I wanted to move away from the archipelago to seek opportunities and travel the world. Joining the military became my foot-in-the-door opportunity to transfer a canvas of what I was seeing into a mosaic of different settings in my stories.

PT: The first book of the series introduces readers to the Tala family. The way you portrayed the characters is quite marvelous. Did you base them on real-life people?

LPA: I did base them on a real setting from encounters and experiences around friends as well as families. Like the character of Iulia – she’s a combination of many Samoan mothers and neighbors in my upbringing. Lectures and earful sessions are quite frankly a common norm for the Samoan mother and that particularly inspired my Iulia character. I wrote a lot of what I experienced into most of my characters too. From things I’ve heard and experienced myself, I was able to mold my characters well in this book. These particular moments and experiences written into each chapter became a relatable aha moment for my readers. Common experiences helped me to shape a lot of the events in my book, while other familiarities exhibits events still remarkably withheld under taboos.

PT: The story of the Tala family is solidly anchored in Samoan culture. Could you explain – especially for those readers who are not familiar with the islands – the values that constitute the core of Samoan way of being?

LPA: Samoan values are relatable to most in mannerisms and dogmatic practices which surfaces among people. Respect is common. Basic etiquettes and the respective way of treating people professionally and personally are also common. Love, respect, and honor goes beyond values people embrace in the Samoan culture. These values are a representation of us, our ancestors as well as the Samoan culture.

PT: Would you say these values are still present in the everyday lives of Samoan people? As we all know, cultures constantly evolve.

LPA: I know that we are still able to practice and embrace our culture freely because of these core values. It has been 3000 years since the Samoan culture evolved around changes from the first explorer received on the shores to the European settlers who brought the word of Jesus Christ to the archipelagos. These values are very much present and still echo around the cultural functions, family events and ceremonies practiced by the Samoan people today.

PT: Now, your next book, the second instalment in the Aiga series, is due to be released in June. What can you reveal about it?

LPA: Yes, ‘Pintail Foundation’ is the second book of the Aiga Series. It is a continuation of the Tala Family’s voyage. Tala’s children are all leaving home, one after another, and most of their experiences is a cultural shock. I received several inquiries about its name. But it’s just my own modest title which follows a Samoan proverb. In Samoa, there’s a Samoan proverb that my people are well versed in that goes, ‘E lele le toloa ae ma’au I le vai.’ – ‘No matter where a gray duck flies, it will always return to its wetlands’. Wherever Samoans may pursue endeavors in this world, they will always remember the tides, biomes, and aura of their beginning. From cities, skyscrapers and countries afar… home remains unforgotten to Samoans.

PT: Apart from the Aiga series books, are you working on anything else at the moment?

LPA: I’m currently working on literary journals with my writer’s associations. Outside of that, I focus my writings on the growing issues in West Papua. I like to write blogs and short stories when time permits. Other times as a reviewer for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship, I review essays and stories by younger generations in our South Pacific ring, who shares stories and common goals about life as an Asian Pacific Islander and attending college.

‘LOVEFOLDS OF OUR UPBRINGING: A FAMILY’S JOURNEY IN LIFE’ BY LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

‘Lovefolds of Our Upbringing: A family’s journey in life’ is a contemporary fiction novel set in American Samoa. The book is Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo’s paperback debut and the first instalment in the Aiga series.

LOVEFOLDS OF OUR UPBRINGING

Summary

One cannot raise children without instiling within them a proper set of values. Helping youngsters establish their moral compass is a mission no parent can take lightly, and Iulia and Tala are keenly aware of that. With great passion and consequence they pass on the Samoan way of being to their sons and daughters, teaching them humility and respect for others in the hope that they will grow up to be considerate and caring people succeeding in their adult lives.

Review

As a writer you know that you only get one debut, and you should use it wisely. Create a book you will be proud of, and – preferably – a book people will want to read. Easier said than done, right? But if you are a Pacific writer (yes, you may just call me biased here), the chances are your debut will be fabulous; or even totally shamazing.

Such is the case with Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo, whose debut novel immediately shows what a gifted and engrossing storyteller she is. Part one of the Aiga series is so enjoyable and pleasant to read that it literally makes you impatient for the next title.

The story of an average Samoan family will resonate mainly with the author’s target audience. Pacific Islanders will surely find it easy to relate to the characters, their actions and behaviours. Being connected by cultures based on the same (or similar) values, they will understand each sentence significantly better, have more reasons to laugh and an excuse to cry. For them, this book will be a piece of home; something familiar, intimate, and recognizable. I cannot but take notice here, that despite the rising popularity of so-called ethnic literature, Pacific peoples are still under-represented in popular fiction genres. Why can’t we see in major bookstores bestsellers with a protagonist that comes from Samoa, Tonga, Niue, or Kiribati? Why can’t a person living in Europe or the East Coast of the United States pick up a novel with a Pohnpeian hero and not wonder what the word ‘Pohnpeian’ really means? (I will deliberately ignore the ignorance of some human beings, who don’t know – and what is worse don’t care – that on our planet Earth there is a region called Oceania, as that’s not the point here). Let me tell you why: because the very few Pacific books that get published are aimed primarily at Pasifika readers. Unfortunately, ‘Lovefolds of Our Upbringing’ is no exception in this regard.

I am all for incorporating indigenous vocabulary into stories, as this adds authenticity and is simply a beautiful adornment. However, if such book is to be accessible to a wider audience, the ‘foreign’ words and expressions should be translated. Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo uses Samoan almost as often as English, which – I want to emphasize this one more time – is utterly wonderful; for people who know both languages. If you don’t speak Samoan, you will have trouble comprehending a great number of lengthy passages. This is certainly a downside of this novel; the only one, nonetheless quite annoying.

Even though this first instalment of the series is bereft of a typical plot – where you can easily identify the purpose of the narrative – it draws you in. You feel as if you’ve been watching someone’s life through a peephole. The characters are remarkably plausible, their experiences solidly anchored in reality. As you travel through the pages, the principles of Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way) charmingly unfold before your eyes, enabling you to understand the peculiarities of this amazing culture.

Reading Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo’s books is a real pleasure. She is an excellent writer who refuses to forget about her roots. ‘Lovefolds of Our Upbringing’ is a dream opening of the Aiga series. You can’t help but wonder just how good the second instalment will be.