Telesa: The Covenant Keeper (Boy meets girl meets fa’afafine)

Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, Lani Wendt Young, 2011

  • Samoa, #4
  • Kindle, $2.99
  • Read December 2015
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: Harry Potter/Insurgent crossover fanfic authors

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If we can break out of our boxes

I had this review mostly written when the US election happened and completely derailed me. I spent November 10 trying to locate the nearest fallout shelter and figure out exactly how much of San Francisco would be underwater if the world’s average temperature rises by 4 degrees instead of 2. I was (and am) worried about what sort of world my six-month-old daughter will inherit, and whether there will be anything left of our country or whether we will descend into an Octavia Butler-style dystopia  before she hits puberty. And writing about books seemed like the least important thing I could be doing with my time. This review was especially difficult; I wanted to use Lani Wendt Young’s fun and frivolous YA romance novel, Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, as a springboard to talk about fa’afafine, Samoa’s third gender. Whenever I tried to come back to it, I was overwhelmed by what a terrifying time it is to be gender nonconforming in America and in the world, as the forces of ignorance and intolerance seem to be welling up and drowning out the voices of reason and acceptance. It seemed stupid and pointless for me to be writing about fictional characters in a fantasy romance in Samoa when real people, in my own country, live in fear that their rights will be stripped away, of knowing that half the country at best doesn’t care and at worst actively endorses such an event, and that hatred and bigotry have been emboldened to the extent that their physical safety, never guaranteed, is under an even more real and constant threat.

At the same time, I believe that fictional representation is important. Reading, watching, or listening to people who are unlike the people we meet in our day-to-day lives is a way to gain understanding and empathy for them, and to understand that the world is more than what we encounter within the borders of our own experience.  So I’m going to forge ahead with this post, and in the future I’m going to make even more of an effort to locate and publicize marginalized voices from all around the world.

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Help each other to rise

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an occasional consumer of young adult literature, but far from a genre fanatic. My main complaint is the often formulaic nature of the stories; sometimes it feels like the authors have a checklist of standard tropes and plot devices which they just endlessly combine in different ways. Telesa definitely achieves YA bingo: a “normal” girl (who is clearly conventionally attractive despite her self-loathing description of her own looks), suddenly orphaned, discovers that she is, in fact, extra special; a smart, popular, attractive, and unattainable boy falls head over heels for her despite the overt hostility with which she treats him; there is an unconvincing love triangle, plus lots of unnecessary secrets and angst. Think Twilight with a little dash of X-men. Despite all this, I found it a fairly enjoyable read, due largely to its engagement with Samoan culture.

Wendt Young’s story draws on the legend of the Teine Sa, beautiful spirits that protect the land and punish wrongdoers (for more about Wendt Young’s inspiration, see this delightfully exuberant interview). When eighteen-year-old Leila’s father dies, she heads to Samoa in search of answers about the mother she has never known. Staying with her conservative aunt and uncle, she very quickly runs up against the misogyny of Samoan society and the strict rules by which Samoan girls must live (as illuminated in depressing detail in Where We Once Belonged). Despite having graduated from high school in the States, she has to enroll in classes again in Samoa, to avoid the indecency of being a young girl without an occupation (of course, it’s a good thing she does or she would never have met heartthrob good boy Daniel…well, I suppose it’s not a YA romance without the hunk). It’s very interesting to see Samoan society from an American perspective, as imagined by a Samoan author. To her credit, Wendt Young does a good job of making Leila a believable American teen, and it’s an effective device for making a story set in Samoa more accessible to an international audience.

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Recognize the beauty that resides in all living things

One of the concepts Wendt Young introduces is the three-gender system of Samoa, embodied by Leila’s feisty fa’afafine friend, Simone. Simone is the second fa’afafine character (third gender nonconforming one) in my survey of Polynesian literature, the other two being Sugar Shirley in Where We Once Belonged and Cousin Georgette in Frangipani. I haven’t found an entirely accurate definition of fa’afafine (and I think that trying to strictly categorize people, by gender identity or by anything else, is the source of a lot of societal problems that could be avoided if we weren’t so quick to sum up and dismiss with a precise definition), nor is the history entirely clear (many sources claim that in families with too many sons, the parents would choose to raise one of the younger sons as a girl to help with the housework and other women’s duties, but this is refuted by other sources and by many modern-day Samoans, nor is it true of any of the fictional characters discussed here). I ran across one Samoan internet message board that was full of deeply conservative Christian rhetoric and was also deeply transphobic and dismissive of fa’afafine. All three of the fictional characters encounter some degree of gender-based harassment: One of Georgette’s cousins calls her a “hairy man;” Simone’s principal refuses to call her anything but Simon; Shirley physically assaults a woman who repeatedly and deliberately misgenders her. But in all cases, the characters are accepted and defended by the vast majority of their peers. The stories offer a perspective of mainstream acceptance that is, I think, generally lacking in American society. In light of the current climate of transphobia and conservative backlash in the US, I find it heartening to remember that there are other societies where the configuration of genders is not strictly binary; it is a reminder of just how much gender is a social construct. It gives me hope that we will at some point be able to break down that construct and allow people to just live their fucking lives, without trying to force their identities into tight little boxes, and punishing those who don’t fit.

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We will realize, at last, the blinding brilliance of the world we inhabit
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