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April 3, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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Where We Once Belonged — Sia Figiel

It’s a strange feeling reading stories set in contemporary Samoa. Having read books almost exclusively set in America or England, a defining aspect of the fictional world was that I never saw my real world in there. My fiction never had Aoga Faifeau, Pili (Tagaloa’s son), the makeki fou, and characters with names like Filemuepeiolelupeuatulelauolivemalueleonononafaauoiaue. The novel uses both prose and poetry, with Samoan mythology intertwined, and it feels as if you’re moving between the real and the imaginary, disrupting my understanding of fiction.

The jarring experience of reading about places, people, and cultural nuances that I thought didn’t belong in books (especially books studied at university) is made moreso by Figiel’s matter-of-fact tone. The opening line reads: “When I saw the insides of a woman’s vagina for the first time I was not alone.” Far from being titillating, Figiel’s prose is aggressively confronting and it isn’t until you reach the chapters that are poetry that you find some room to breathe.

This book describes a Samoa that is very similar to my experience of living in the village, but also brings new narratives that I’ve never seen or read about. It predicates the aspects of Samoan society that I took for granted in a form that allows it to be questioned: older men (often a family member) sexually preying on younger women, the pursuit of a palagi spouse because that’s seen as a rise in the social order, the extent of the beatings children receive from parents and other adults, and how “good-natured” mocking can quickly turn into bullying. The novel doesn’t overtly condemn these aspects, but describes them as just the way things are. At first I accepted them as merely realistic descriptions to set the scene. But these background details soon became the subject matters in the forefront.

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