All I knew about Samoa before reading Sia Figiel's novel, Where We Once Belonged was:
1) Margaret Mead made her career writing about Samoan women, and
2) Samoan men are highly recruited as linemen for college football teams.
Rectifying that ignorance of my fellow Asian/Pacific Islanders was my initial impetus for picking up the novel, but it was Figiel's stunning storytelling and humor which carried me through to the end. The rewards of Where We Once Belonged is not only a sophisticated product of the storyteller's art, but also the honest and touching portrayal of a time and culture few of us know.
From the opening sentence, "When I saw the insides of a woman's vagina for the first time I was not alone," Where We Once Belonged plunges the reader honestly and unapologetically into an adolescent girl's world of guilt, desire, cultural confusion, and budding sexuality. Carried forward in a series of linked reflections and scenes, the novel is "told" to the reader through a variety of sophisticated narrative techniques including the informal "talk story," the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su'ifefiloi and more elegiac poetic reflections on the landscape of Samoa. The playfulness of the narrative underscores Figiel's somewhat darker concerns about the difficulties faced by young women growing up in Samoa. The strong pull of the church and its mores is juxtaposed alongside the images of women offered by up Hollywood, specifically, Charlie's Angels, after whom our narrator, Alofa also known as Jill, and her friends, Lili/Kelly and Moa/Sabrina, pattern themselves after. Gender roles are discussed, explored, witnessed and even rebelled against with often violent consequences. Wives are disposed at the whim of their husband, unmarried young women are banished for their "impure" pregnancies, and even Alofa is the victim of beatings and abuse that are given as "lessons" by her partriarchal community.
And yet in the midst of these brutal events, Figiel manages to combine humor into her narrative, as in the story of Elisa, who "remained pure, until her first check-up at the hospital when a metal instrument injured her hymen...All these years and she was saving it for a piece of metal." The richness of Samoa comes alive through Figiel's liberal use of Samoan creole and her amazing ability to describe a scene not only through sight but smell as well. She describes the central marketplace through its activity and through the smells of the different tobaccos smoked by the different types of people, The pervasive juxtaposition of native Samoan and western culture plays out in the food section where fish wrapped in taro leaves competes with imported animals like lamb and turkey.
Where We Once Belonged satisfies on many different levels: It can be read as an adolescent girl's "coming of age" story, an intimate portrait of Samoa, or even a sociological examination of the lingering effects of colonization and pervasive cultural hegemony of Hollywood. But Figiel, the product of a rich storytelling culture, weaves each of these threads into a richly patterned tale, leading us to an unforgettable ending and leaving an indelible experience of Samoa in our memories.