‘Freelove’ is Sia Figiel’s latest novel. It is set in Samoa in the 1980s and revolves around the first love experiences of a seventeen-year-old girl.
Inosia Alofafua Afatasi, an inquisitive student from the Village of the Sacred Owl, is sent by her mother to the capital to buy three giant white threads. As she’s waiting at the bus stop, her young teacher of Science and Math, Mr Ioane Viliamu, stops to offer her a ride in his car. Sia just knows that the minute she steps a foot into the truck, her life will change forever.
Sia Figiel is one of the best and most renowned Pacific writers, so whenever she publishes a book, you expect it to be at least very good. It was a long wait for ‘Freelove’ but, let me assure you, oh-so worthy, because the novel certainly does not disappoint.
It’s not a secret that Ms Figiel just loves breaking cultural taboos. She had done it in her earlier works and she did it again in ‘Freelove’. When it comes to the Pacific cultures, there are few greater taboos than those concerning human sexuality. Now, a person not familiar with Samoan or Pacific ways of being might think that this title is a coming-of-age story about young girl’s sexual awakening. But the truth is, this is just the outer layer – the most prominent one, yes; the most easily noticeable, yes; the most important, absolutely not.
The main characters’ relationship, although graphically described and thus attracting readers attention, serves a higher purpose. It’s nor there to shock people or make them blush. It’s not a cheap entertainment. It’s not even an attempt to contradict Margaret Mead’s studies. It is a way of showing the constantly changing culture, where tradition fights with modernity even though the two have already become closely intertwined – just like Sia’s and Ioane’s bodies.
The author managed to wonderfully expose Inosia’s journey in discovering her own identity, as both a Samoan and a woman. We observe her trying to remain a dutiful daughter while at the same time following her heart. It’s not easy to fulfil social expectations when you have your dreams and desires. Or maybe it’s not easy to fulfil your dreams when you’re restricted by social expectations.
Ioane, on the other hand, is a guide who leads Inosia through her journey of discovery. Not only does he show her a completely unknown world, he also throws a new light on the ancient traditions of the Samoan people. Ioane is Sia’s lover, soulmate, friend, teacher, and motivator. He encourages her to indulge her passions, but also reminds her to never forget her cultural roots.
What you might not see at first is the fact that the book is an encouragement for a dialogue. Sia Figiel created two truly fascinating protagonists, through whom she tried to convey her wisdom. By giving us Inosia – a somewhat naïve yet enormously clever girl with ambitions, who’s doing all she can to find herself in a collectivist society – and Ioane – a young but experienced man willing to sacrifice his future so that the girl he loves can lead the life she wants and deserves – she makes us ponder on the value on individualism and self-realization in a culture where ‘we’ is still more important than ‘I’.
The story itself is told in an unconventional and very poetic manner, which for some people might be a little overwhelming, if not purely irritating. The powerful prose indeed leaves readers in awe of the author’s talent and skills, but the occasional flowery descriptions might be unappealing. I should also mention that those of you who are not particularly romantic may find the second part of the book – where Sia and Ioane exchange love letters – quite annoying. I mean, how many times can you read somebody’s love confessions, especially if they are a bit exaggerated?
All in all, ‘Freelove’ is a wonderful novel, definitely worthy of your time and attention. It’s a highly perceptive, enlightening piece of literature, which provokes thinking and reflection on love, sex, personal growth, and – most of all – the importance of culture in a person’s life. It is a fairy-tale, but I won’t tell you if it’s with or without a happily ever after ending. You’ll have to find out for yourself.