Frangipani: Mothers, daughters, and quiet revolutions

Frangipani, Célestine Hitiura Vaite, 2004

  • French Polynesia, #3
  • Paperback, borrowed from Brent Library, London
  • Read: July 2015
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: feminists on beach vacations

“In the Mahi family you’re never going to hear a woman say about another woman that the reason she cleans houses for a living is because she’s got rocks in her head, that she’s stupid.
“For the Mahi women, cleaning is one of the best jobs to have and it is as good as any job in an office if not better.
“Cleaning houses helps you be independent (you don’t have to rely on your man’s pay so much) and what’s more, you’re your own boss. You walk into a house, you clean and you get out. There are no papers to sign.”

Frangipani 4
Frangipani flowers, 2007

Frangipani tracks the gradual evolution of Materena Mahi as she raises three children and realizes her own independence within a changing Tahitian society. It’s a charming book, written in a gentle, engaging, even simplistic style. It would be easy to dismiss it as a sort of fun and whimsical summer read, but there are important issues at its center that, I think, bear further scrutiny.

When we first meet Materena, she has an infant son and is begging her boyfriend to let her pick up his paycheck so she has some money for household expenses. She is not alone in her predicament: “When a woman doesn’t collect her man’s pay,” the story begins, “she gets zero francs because her man goes to the bar with his colleagues and you know how it is, eh?” Women in her world are solely responsible for the running of life–for keeping food in the cupboard and kerosene in the stove and all the washing and cleaning and maintenance–but they are given no resources to do it.

Materena, in the face of this conundrum and pregnant with her second child, eventually finds work as a house cleaner. It is a position that affords her a great deal of personal pride. Throughout the story, she emphasizes that she is a professional cleaner, even correcting people if they fail to include the “professional” part. It is the “professional” aspect that is important to her, and cleaning is more than just a job in her eyes. It is the first step toward gaining her independence, toward having the ability to pursue her own goals on her own terms.

Frangipani 3
Frangipani, 2007

But what really catalyzes her transformation, what pushes her to examine Tahitian society and her role within it, is her relationship with her smart, stubborn daughter Leilani, who grows up constantly challenging her mother, questioning the status quo, accepting nothing at face value. Leilani is exasperating and unbending, but in seeing herself through her daughter’s eyes, and in thinking about what she wants for Leilani as she grows up, Materena is forced to explore her own desires and examine her own goals in life.

Punctuating Materena’s changing attitudes are several moments where traditional Tahitian wisdom is due to be passed on. When Leilani is born, Materena dutifully sticks to the rules for childbirth–including no crying, shouting, or cursing during labor because it will turn the baby into an angry, sad, or frightened person (as someone who is two months away from giving birth myself, I find it very hard to imagine following these proscriptions. I plan to do all three of those things in abundance). But by the time Leilani gets her first period at thirteen, the conventional “Welcome to Womanhood” talk seems outdated and ridiculous to both Materena and her no-nonsense daughter. Though Materena gamely starts on the traditional words (“Don’t wash your hair during your period, otherwise your blood is going to turn into ice and you’re going to be mad”), Leilani literally laughs her into silence, and Materena, realizing the ridiculousness of the advice, dissolves into laughter along with her. In the end, Materena waits until Leilani has gone to bed and then records a new talk for her daughter, a jumble of recipes, etiquette, and advice on everything from decorating to dating, which incorporates elements both traditional and modern.

frangipani1
Frangipani, 2007

The shift between these two seminal moments illustrates how Materena changes over the course of the story: at first she unquestioningly accepts the status quo, however difficult it makes her life, but gradually she comes to embrace the elements of tradition and modernity that work for her, and is able to cast aside the ones that don’t. Her rebellion is a quiet one. Leilani is the one who embraces feminism as an ideology, who questions the prescribed role for women in Tahitian society. Materena doesn’t think much about principles or equality; she just wants to be in charge of her own life, and to provide for her children, and these are the desires that prompt her gradual evolution. She wants Leilani to grow into a “woman who knows what she wants and makes it happen”; in pursuing this goal for her daughter, she must find her own agency as well.

This book is about relationships between women; part of the reason Materena’s gentle version of feminism is successful is that she exists within a strongly matriarchal society, where she is supported by mothers, cousins, and female friends. Men are peripheral in the story and in Materena’s life; they may be loved, but they can never be depended upon, and the bond between lovers is far less important than that between mother and daughter.

There are surprisingly challenging ideas buried in this apparent beach read. Like its protagonist, Frangipani is sweet and gentle with an unexpectedly steely core.

frangipani 2
Frangipani flower, 2007

 

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