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Where We Once Belonged [Paperback]

Sia Figiel
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
Price: CDN$ 14.95 & FREE Shipping on orders over CDN$ 25. Details
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Book Description

Nov. 2 1999 1885030274 978-1885030276
Fiction. A bestseller in New Zealand and winner of the prestigious Commonwealth Prize, Sia Figiel's debut marks the first time a novel by a Samoan woman has been published in the United States. Figiel uses the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su'ifefiloi to talk back to Western anthropological studies on Samoan women and culture. Told in a series of linked episodes, this powerful and highly original narrative follows thirteen-year-old Alofa Filiga as she navigates the mores and restrictions of her village and comes to terms with her own search for identity.

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From Kirkus Reviews

A lively debut portrays a Samoan girls coming of age through a series of linked stories, awarded the Commonwealth Prize for Best Novel (Southeast Asia/South Pacific region). Adolescence is a rich period for writers everywhere, but Samoa has been famous for little else since Margaret Mead published her famous 1928 study of it (Coming of Age in Samoa). Figiels approach is more personal than Meads, of course, and she manages to create a far clearer portrait of Samoan customs and society from the inside out. She adopts a light, impressionistic tone that nicely conveys the simultaneous confusion and excitement felt by 13-year-old Alofa as she makes her first attempts to look at her world as an adult. Many of the episodes, such as Buzzing . . . Everywhere (a prank played on a prissy classmate goes too far and lands the girl in trouble), emphasize the inexplicable tensions between guilt and cruelty felt by girls of Alofas age, while others (In the Wind, In the Dark) simply show the navet of children who are still utterly dependent on their families. Much of the overall tale is told in a sort of Anglo-Samoan patois, and though the usual teenage loves and crushes that are part of adolescence the world over make up a great part of the narrative, even these sections are tinged with a regional color (as in Poem of the Sea & Breaking Baby Promises) that tends to render the whole here more evocative of place rather than people. Figiels focus is soft and her prose rather elliptical, but even so she does provide a nice climax in which tragedy brings Alofa to an awareness that innocence is a fragile and unreliable quality to carry into the adult world. A bit too heavy on atmosphere, but finely detailed and delicately constructed: a welcome surprise from an unexpected quarter of the world. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Review

"A story of Samoan PUBERTY BLUES, in which Gauguin is dead but Elvis lives on" -- Vogue Australia

"A storytelling triumph" -- Elle Australia

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Different and rewarding Oct. 18 2002
By higa
Format:Paperback
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful female coming of age story March 16 2000
Format:Paperback
This is a powerful and moving evocation of Samoan culture and the experience of being a young woman coming of age in that culture. It is funny and cruel, and the thread of narrative is sustained beautifully thorugh the linking stories. I found the use of Samoan words and phrases was poetic and grounded the story in the culture, as does the repitition which Fiegel also uses. The grudging surprise with which other reviewers have admitted that in spite of the unworthy subject matter the book is wonderful reflects the fact that young women's coming of age stories have not been treated with the importance of those by young men. Women's stories are important and this is not a repititive example. It is not simply an anglo culture coming of age set in unfamiliar territory. There is a wonderful exploration of very different Samoan approaches to body smells and a sense of cultures clashing that many of us who have shifted through different cultures in our lives will enjoy. (And if you are an academic reader this book is a moving counterpoint to the debates on Margaret Mead and D.Freeman)
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3.0 out of 5 stars An above-average first novel Jan. 19 2000
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
While this is a fine first effort, it's not the great Samoan novel that the other reviewers seem to think it is. It's definitely written for a Samoan audience--much of the cultural and linguistic info is not adequately explained for palagis (that's Samoan for white folk). I'm a palagi who lived in Samoa for two years, so I was able to follow and understand some of the fa'aSamoa aspects of the book, but I think most non-Samoans would find much of the novel baffling. That said, it is nicely written, and the fairly predictable coming-of-age story rings true. I look forward to reading future works by the author, who will no doubt mature into a better Samoan writer than the grand old man of Samoan lit, Albert Wendt. As a palagi observer of Polynesia, I'm happy to see that a new generation of Samoan authors are continuing to add to the written tradition of what was once a purely oral culture.
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