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on October 18, 2002
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.
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on March 16, 2000
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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on January 19, 2000
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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on May 5, 2000
Excellent book-a must read and an outstanding book for university class romms. Ms. Figiel, while touching artfully on the specifics of Samoan life, has illuminated the Human Condition with warmth and clarity.
An outstanding treatment of women, class, sexuality and ethinicity. The book is a delight to read--an amazing lyric voice for such a young writer--and a book to be shared.
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on July 6, 2000
This book really let me into the life of the character. It is undeniably realistic. As a student, I am planning on studying in Samoa for a semsester and this book did a great job with portraying yet another perspective on the Samoan way of life. And the perspective of a teenage girl going through adolescent confusion is always fascinating!
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on May 18, 1999
This book is beautifully written! Sia Figiel's style is unique and fresh. The issues addressed in this book were universal but the Samoan flare was also what made this novel amazing.
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