Saturday, April 26, 2014

Finding Her Voice

I have been fortunate to read and learn a lot of things I did not before from some of the best women writers in the Pacific.

In Sia Figiel’s Girl in the Moon Circle, the journey of Ana Samoana from her childhood to adolescence and making the transition to the world of adults and responsibility is highlighted.  In her two books Where We Once Belong and The Girl in the Moon Circle, Figiel explores the world of two young girls.

 In The Girl in the Moon Circle Figiel explores the adolescence world of ten year old Ana Samoana, whose experiences of growing up in Samoa allegorizes the coming of age story in many Pacific Island societies. Ana’s story is about school, church, friends, family, violence, having refrigerators and television for the first time, chunky cat food, a Made in Taiwan Jesus, payday, cricket, crushes on boys, incest, legends, and many other things.

Through the eyes and experiences of Ana, Figiel depicts the Samoan world struggling to wrestle with the influences of both the indigenous traditions and the introduced modern systems, between the Samoan patriarchal tradition and the introduce system of Christianity. The world of Ana is the world in which Figiel uncovers “the mirror and look into it” and sees her own self.

The mirror serves the purpose of an allegory. Figiel sees Ana as a universal character in every society. A 10 year old who is “raised to believe in—in an honest/open/natural way” everything around her and in her society. Figiel wants to show that “children are more honest about their feelings and about their experiences, and they are very quick to admit it or to say without censorship.” A pre-teenager girl who takes the world for granted, but who can become a victim of the male dominated world as she loses the connection to the world of her elder siblings and female members.

Pacific writers continuously return to the cultural metaphors, mythology, collective memory and history of their societies in order to construct their narratives as representative voices of the past, the present, and the future. Figiel’s literary works attempt to capture the experiences of young women and their perspectives in a largely male described society. The relationship between the Ana and her father Pili stands out in the novel, though Figiel is more comfortable with exploring the relationship between the family in an ideal Samoan situation.

Figiel’s search is for a kind of ideal structure that speaks about relationships. She discovers that the relationships between children and parents, between men and women, and those based on old traditions and new traditions are different, yet are important aspects of Pacific peoples, cultures, and history. In fictionalizing these relationships Figiel is able to explore them freely without limiting herself within one monolithic perspective: “It took me 10 years to finally ‘find my voice’ and that had a lot to do with living away from Samoa and being exposed to other writers and other traditions which surprisingly are different from my own, like American writers Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisnero.”

 Michelle Keown observes that Figiel’s novels “contain adolescent and teenage narrators whose na├»ve perspectives alternate with those of a mature, unnamed narrative voice, allowing Figiel to explore the ‘coming of age’ of Samoan women from various points of view.”

Another important Pacific women writer is Professor Caroline Sinavaiana. In her collection of poetry, Alchemies of Distance, Sinavaiana situates the collection within the many journeys she took in finding her voices and inspirations. The metaphorical sense of journeys is all too familiar as it is captured in numerous works of literature, whether creative or intellectual, penned by Pacific writers themselves. These journeys are captured in their writings as characters making these journeys or utterances that reflect this experience in their poetry, short stories or essays.

It is not so much the journey home or outward but the journey within their lived experiences that are significant. The journeys begin somewhere, most probably from their immediate past to one imagined or even beyond the experience of reality, in the mythical and dream world.

The best illustration of this process is explained in Sinavaina’s own words: “In the mythology game, the hero (ine) has to go on a journey. It could be an inner journey; it could be going inside herself. The point is she has to move into unknown territory”  (2001: 22). In the same way, the discovery of oneself or one’s place or one’s history is revealed through the various encounters, challenges, and what one makes out of that experience. 

Sinavaiana’s poetry and prose “reflects extensively upon her experiences as a diasporic American Samoan. In a series of autobiographical prose pieces, she describes her life as a succession of journey: born in American Samoa, she grew up on a military base in Florida (where here father was stationed), later travelling back to American Samoa as a teacher and finally securing an academic position at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She describes her life as characterized by “distances, leave-takings and arrivals somewhere else’, arguing that travelling is part of her genetic makeup, carried in her ‘Polynesian navigator DNA’ (Keown 2007: 195). To cross these distances Sinavaiana evokes the concept of vaa: “In Samoan epistemology, the space between things is called the “va”. Relationships are the va, the space between I and thou. In friendship we cultivate the va like a shared garden, that patch of ground between us we planted with bananas and strawberries. Teu le va. Cultivate the space between us, our relationship” (Sinavaiana-Gabbard 2001: 20).

Pacific women writers recognize the temporal and spatial nature of their total journeys. These journeys are characteristically realized in their temporal nature or within given spaces in the Pacific. In temporal space where such journeys are made we see Pacific characters making so many memorable journeys through various epochs of history, whether through a past or through a significant moment in time that changed the destiny of the character or the writer’s own life.

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