Where We Once Belonged: Rejecting the Polynesian Paradise

Where We Once Belonged, Sia Figiel, 1997

  • Samoa, #3
  • Borrowed from SF library
  • Read December 2015
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Recommended for: Women who have been groped by Donald Trump

First of all: a status update. I am currently finishing up Melanesian literature, having rounded the corner in Papua New Guinea, and the end of the South Pacific is in sight. I just have to get through Micronesia (Nauru, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and Palau) and then I’ll be on to Asia, which I am frankly looking forward to because I’m hoping that once I get into countries with larger populations and longer histories of written literature, I might encounter more consistently enjoyable books. Much of my recent reading has been a long determined slog through works that range from ok to terrible. One effect of this has been that I am finding it difficult to judge and rate my books on the same scale that I would rate the things I usually read. I find myself handing out a lot of three star ratings to books that, outside the scope of this project, I probably wouldn’t even have bothered to finish. But one way to check myself is to ask: would I read this book if I hadn’t assigned it to myself? Would I enjoy it?

In the case of Where We Once Belonged, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. I think it’s entirely possible that I’ll read it again someday. I found it beautiful, believable, and original.

The book adapts the participative Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefiloi to tell the story of Alofa Filiga, an adolescent girl navigating Samoan society and the treacherous waters of near-adulthood. Su’ifefiloi means a woven garland of flowers. As a narrative technique, it refers to the stringing together of individual stories or episodes, each separate and unrelated like flower blossoms, but coming together to create a cohesive whole. In Where We Once Belonged, unlike in a traditional bildungsroman with its characteristic single transformative episode, anecdotes and poetry follow one another without regard to order or continuity. The story emerges slowly, and there are a multitude of turning points. This piecemeal style is particularly well-suited to a portrayal of adolescence, teetering on the edge of adulthood, the battery of experience juxtaposed with a sustained innocence, the difficulties of becoming an adult, and more specifically of becoming a woman, revealed slowly and partially.

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Los Angeles, 2005

This book, more than any of the other Samoan novels I read, is self-consciously concerned with Samoan culture, and with the contrast between the Samoan experience and the way Polynesians have been portrayed and perceived by Western observers. Sometimes these comparisons are voiced by the story’s characters, such as Alofa’s cousin who studies in New Zealand and returns a feminist and anti-colonialist (she starts harassing white tourists, yelling “Go back to where you came from, you fucking ghosts! Gauguin is dead! There is no paradise!”). Alofa herself expresses this conflict, meditating, for instance, on the difficulties of explaining communal Samoan life to her Western teacher: “You were always with someone,” she explains, “…Nothing was witnessed alone. Nothing was witnessed in the ‘I’ form…‘I’ does not exist, Miss Cunningham. ‘I’ is ‘we’…always.”

Many of the contrasts center around sexuality and the role of women and girls in Samoan society; Figiel imagined the book as a response to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. As a rebuttal to Mead’s depiction of a permissive society with a sort of prelapsarian laxity toward teenage sexuality, Figiel offers a portrait of a society where women and girls are powerless, unable to prevent themselves from being sexually exploited and then made to pay for allowing themselves to be exploited (so…not as different from American society as we might hope). Alofa’s father sleeps around without compunction, going through three wives in the hope of begetting a son; his daughters, on the other hand, are punished with physical abuse and public humiliation for such heinous crimes as being winked at by male acquaintances in church. It’s hardly the sexual paradise that Mead described half a century earlier.

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Los Angeles, 2004

This isn’t the first time in my readings that accounts by westerners have been at odds with the stories told by Pacific Islanders. In Les Immémoriaux, for instance, Segalen’s Tahitian characters are non-monogamous and engage in sexual activity both for fun and transactionally (one love-lorn European character cannot understand why his Tahitian wife keeps sleeping with sailors; she can’t understand why he finds it such a big deal). This is in marked contrast to later works by Polynesian authors, L’Île des rêves écrasés and Frangipani, both of which clearly reveal love to be of primary importance to their authors; though sex outside of marriage is perfectly acceptable, the relationships portrayed in these works are deeply loving and for the most part profoundly monogamous.

Similarly, in the Cook Islands I ran across two very different perceptions of women’s sexual freedom. The Island of Desire, written by American Robert Dean Frisbie in the early years of the twentieth century, affirms the stereotype of Polynesia as an Edenic sexual paradise, all innocent lust in the tropical moonlight:

…Christianity has made no substantial change in the sex tapu of the Polynesians, but it has taught the island people to conceive as sinful that which they formerly looked on as a natural and felicitous function of life…

We must not get the erroneous notion that people like the Danger Islanders live in a state of sexual saturnalia. Their sexual lives are no more active than those of the Londoners or the New Yorkers; it is rather that they approach the subject with more realism and that there are fewer inhibitions. When the youth go to the places of love they do not grab girls indiscriminately and drag them into the bushes to violate them. Many a night there may be no sexual relations; on other nights two or three pairs of lovers may slip away from the groups…Moreover, primitive boys are like civilized boys in that they fall in love. Often enough a lad will cleave to his first girl and marry her; it is exceptional for a lad to go through all available women before he chooses a mate. The girls are far more promiscuous than the boys; they seem less inclined to fix their affections on a single man. Perhaps they know intuitively, from some atavistic source, that this is their only period of complete freedom; after marriage they must settle down to household duties and nursing babies.

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Los Angeles, 2005

Compare this to Alistair Campbell’s assessment of Polynesian women in The Frigate Bird:

…nude sunbathing, widely accepted in many Western countries, is a serious offense in the islands.

I remember an old trader telling me that when he took up with a Tahitian girl it was a long time before she let him see her without any clothes. This was forty years ago when he was a young man, but I doubt if such things have changed very much since those days. There’s still a taboo in Penrhyn, for instance, on even distant cousins becoming too intimate, or being found in situations where intimacies can occur.

Could Frisbie and Campbell be reflecting the difference in the mores between the incredibly remote Pukapuka (distinct enough from the rest of the Cooks to have its own language) and the other Cook Islands? Could the passing of years have effected all of these profound cultural shifts? Mead, for instance, was conducting her research forty years before the setting of Where We Once Belonged, and seventy years before it was written; Segalen’s work predates the modern Tahitian novels by a century, and The Frigate Bird takes place sixty years after Frisbie’s youth in Pukapuka. Possibly in the Cook Islands and Samoa, Christian morality was internalized and straitened over the generations of the twentieth century, causing the changes seen between the earlier and later works.

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New Mexico, 2005

Campbell blames imported Christianity for the strict values of the Cook Islanders, recalling a society that was more sexually liberated before Western intrusion:

And yet what can be more sexually provocative than their dances? I have seen middle-aged couples dancing the hula and being greeted with howls of approving laughter, mostly from women, the more outrageous they became. The old gods were never entirely banished. Sometimes they leer from the shadows.

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New Mexico, 2005

Or is it more likely that Western observers have seen what they wanted to see, or what they expected to see, and that this accounts for the extreme divergence between their records and the perceptions of Polynesians themselves? Derek Freeman, in his rebuttal to Coming of Age in Samoa, asserted that several of Mead’s sources were simply pulling her leg, making up outrageous stories about using chicken blood to fake virginity, and that her entire thesis was based on false information. There’s probably a little bit of both going on here; certainly no culture can be seen as a monolith and we can’t expect that the insights of any one author can represent the entire culture as a whole. But these gaps illustrate, I think, how important it is to listen to indigenous voices from any foreign culture we would hope to understand. No matter how skilled and trained an outside observer is, there will always be aspects of culture that are better understood (perhaps that can only be understood) by people born and raised within that culture. That is why I’m going to stick with my slog through Melanesia and Micronesia, even if it isn’t always the most enjoyable reading. The voices of Pacific Islanders are heard far too little on the international stage; I want to know what they have to say.

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