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Shannon M. Sonenstein

Study Abroad Participant, Samoa, Fall 1999

The aim of this project was to attempt to write honestly from a completely different cultural perspective — that of a Samoan girl. Writers are always warned that to write successfully, they need to write what they know. My question was: could I do enough research to be able to write truthfully from a new perspective? I used participant observation and conducted in-depth interviews as a means of gathering information about Samoan girls in their late teens and early twenties. The result is a collection of short stories that are based on both my interpretations of my informants’ experiences, and my own.

PROLOGUE I have always been fascinated by performance, and the fine line where the written and spoken word blend together. Because the many legends, songs, and history of Samoa are
rooted in oral tradition, it is fitting that these pieces are performance oriented. Everything I have written is meant to be read aloud, rolled around on the tongue, played with. It is for the ear as much as for the eye. I tried to follow the pathway that Samoan author Sia Figiel1
(1996a, 1996b, 1998, 1999) has carved out before me, using her works for inspiration, while at the same time striving to make my own way. This collection marks my attempt to not only bring alive the voices of young Samoans, but to find my own as well.

There’s a cracked mirror on the wall over the bed. If I stare at it hard enough, from where I’m standing, the room fills up with me’s. Each carbon copy trapped within glass cracks. But, no matter how many I’s fill the room, we are still alone. In Samoa, you are never alone. In Samoa, I am never alone. In Samoa, there are words to prevent me from feeling lonely: Uso Aiga Lotu Nu’u. Uso Aiga Lotu Nu’u. Uso Aiga Lotu Nu’u. Like a rhythm for me, for us, to live by. A covenant that says just like no one in this world is born alone, Samoans will never live alone and they’ll never die alone. Our old people aren’t shut away in homes. Our sick aren’t left to rot in hospitals. Once I heard a story about a palagi (a White person) who died in a hospital in New York City. Alone. He just slipped
through the cracks. And suddenly, I’m afraid I might slip through the cracks. Right through the cracks of a glass mirror. Mirrors are a funny concept. They’re supposed to reflect back who you are. Yesterday,
when I looked in the mirror, it showed me someone’s sister, daughter, niece, girlfriend. Today, all I see is one person, cracked and split, with five pairs of frightened eyes staring out. In different directions.
Some days I feel I have no direction. I barely remember getting here. Signing papers, saying goodbyes, packing all my possessions into one suitcase. And leaving. I can’t remember how many people I’ve told that this is whatIwantedwhatIdreamedofwhatIchose. But today, standing in the doorway of this empty bedroom — confronted: By naked walls. Shelves.
Desks. And bed — I feel like a sleepwalker who wakes up to find herself far from the safe warmth of her family’s bodies. Who wakes up to find herself disoriented. And alone. I feel completely disoriented. Awash with new sensations. Like guilt. I am so lucky to be here, to be experiencing this, to have this opportunity. The first girl from my aiga (Samoan
family) to win a scholarship. To leave the island. “It’s a big world out there,” the old lady says, sewing a 20 tala note into the pocket of my shirt. “Take this for emergencies and don’t forget who you are — you’re a Samoan.” Now, clutching a worthless 20 tala note, I stare into the mirror and I wonder what that means. Who am I? What is my legacy? But the mirror remains silent, reflecting back only the distorted image of a girl. Frozen. In an empty doorway.

“Touch me.” That’s what the palagi in the movies say. And it always makes me wonder, wonder what it would be like to have to ask someone. To reach out. To not feel connected. To anyone. To not have sisters to comb my hair and pick out the uku. To not have mothers and aunties to give me a quick rap or a shove. Not hard enough to hurt. Hard enough to let me know what I’m doing matters. That I matter. It’s tough to imagine not having to carry around somebody’s baby. I’ve always had a weight in my arms, a body linking itself to mine. Linked. That’s how I am with my girlfriends when we savavali. Each of us protecting another’s arm in the safe circle of her own. That image of a safe circle never leaves me. When
I close my eyes at night, I see it imprinted on the backs of my eyelids. Through the dark I feel the soft bodies of my cousins curling into my side. So close, so close their heat intermingles with mine. That’s how we live in my family. Intermingled. Sharing our space, our air, our touch. And it makes sense, because from the beginning of time, that’s the way we’ve healed, through the laying on of hands. Touch. And I am so very sad for people who don’t know what that feels like; what a family feels like. Who go through life having to say, “Touch me.”

Some times the old women would tell us things, in whispers. Secrets. That we were never to fully understand until we looked back and remembered. Years later. In my clearest memory of my grandmother I am a little, little girl picking the uku from her hair the day she decided to tell me the secret. Of beauty. She said beautiful is how a girl moves in the siva Samoa. Fluid, but restrained. It’s the way a woman holds herself when she
walks. Through the village. Beauty is hospitality. Sharing. Everything. Always. It’s the mother with her hand on Lafi Pa’a Kuka’s hot forehead. The same woman who spends the day scraping, peeling stirring,
boiling, bent over a fire, preparing the food. For us. Beautiful is the fa’asamoa. Our way of life. As I sit by her carefully tended grave so many years later, I can see her in my mind’s eye as she looked on that day. The lines on her face, the cracked brown skin, the faded lavalava,
the missing toenails, and those two large clear eyes. And I know now I was in the presence of beauty.

I think that most people take belonging for granted. It’s not the kind of thing you earn; you’re just born into it. Into people who have the same history, traditions, hair, and skin as you. It’s not something anyone questions, or even thinks about. Only afakasi. Like me. I think about it every time I walk through Apia and people call me palagi. Every time
the street kids run after me, trying to sell their matches. Every time people start talking about me in Samoan. Right in front of me. Because they think I don’t understand. Every time. Always.
My mom says we’re floaters, voyagers like my ancestors, sailing to a new island and starting over again. And maybe, for her, it’s like that. Maybe, for her. But I don’t come from any place else. I can’t adapt when I’ve never even been given the chance to belong. To anything. Sometimes I feel like the definition of afakasi should be: “trapped between two worlds,”
between two peoples. Part of both, belonging to neither. And when my grandfather, my very own grandfather, speaks to me slowly, so slowly, because he thinks I don’t understand. Samoan. My first language. When my aunties don’t push me to siva with the other girls because they assume I don’t know how to move that way. Like a Samoan girl. I wonder if I’m going to spend the rest of my life as a visitor in my own home.
But I heard about this other island. It’s to the southeast of here. It’s a long way off in the distance and no one’s ever been there before. No one living now. But that’s where we all come from. That’s the real homeland. And someday, I’m going to sail back there and claim it. Back to the beginning. Back to where there’s a place for everyone. Back to where we can all belong.

Tonight we are all gathered around the video machine my uncle sent from New Zealand last Christmas, watching “Fa’aipoipoga O Muriel” (Muriel’s Wedding). Sisters, brothers, aunties, babies, uncles, mother, father, and me. All packed against each other. Breathing together. Outside, the doorway is jammed with bodies, noses pressed against our window.
People fitting themselves together in the too small space in the too hot air to gawk at the silly palagi in her white dress. White. Like her skin. We laugh long and loud when Muriel trips and falls in her fancy clothes. We sing along when “Dancing Queen” comes on. We pepper my sister, Eseta, with questions, because she won the prize in form eight English class. My
father ssshing everyone so Eseta can translate the hard parts. “O le a Eseka? What happened? What did she say?” And Eseta pausing a moment before answering, just to make sure you really want to know.
Only I know Eseta’s full of it. I figured it out. She didn’t understand a word more then I did. It’s not like Eseta said. Muriel’s not dying to get married. Muriel is smarter then that. Smarter. I believe in Muriel because she has red hair and a microwave. Why would Muriel want to be like my sister Sita who’s 19 and can’t take a shit without asking her husband, Lafi.
When Sita wants to leave the house, she asks Lafi. When Sita wants to talk to a friend, she asks Lafi. Sita isn’t here tonight because Lafi said, “No. No Sita. Nofo i le fale.” But, if she had come, would she tell Muriel what she always tells me: to enjoy the single life for as long as you can? Sometimes I wonder about Sita. I wonder if she feels trapped by her life. By Lafi, Love, Marriage, and her own body. Which swells up bigger and bigger as the days get hotter and hotter. I wonder if she ever wakes up in the night. Struggling just to breathe. But what Sita does at night remains a mystery. And during the day she will only laugh at
me, at my crazy ideas, and tell me it’s the fa’asamoa. Father is head of the family. Women’s bodies and lives are shaped by offspring, sweat, and spouses. That’s life. That’s our life. But then she adds in a voice only I can hear: Stay single as long as you can, Muriel. Stay single as long as you can.”

My cousins and I are roaming the village tonight. Looking for excitement. And it’s everywhere. Everywhere. Tonight is Thursday night, bingo night. And all our mothers and fathers are at the bingo. Littering the pastor’s front lawn with their bodies. Bent in silent concentration over the paper cards that will later decorate the faleuila. And that leaves us free. Free to savavali with our arms linked. To sing our song at the top of our voices:
Savalivali means go for a walk Tautalatala means too much talk
Alofa ia te ‘oe means I love you Take it easy faifai lemu.
From the darkness of the side of the road voices answer back. “I love you, too, Sarona.”“Sala loves Kirifi.” The boys own the side of the road at night, sitting in their close talking clusters of threes and fours. Calling to us through the half dark, “I said I love you Sarona!” “Cheeky tama!,” we shout. Laughing until tears roll down our faces, until we start to sing again. And everyone we meet asks us, “A e alu I fea?” As we wind our way up and down the street. And I’m thinking there’s nowhere else I’d rather be on these clear nights. Nowhere. When I see Ana drop back a bit and Sione come out of the woods to meet her. And even
though I’m laughing and singing, the sides of my eyes are watching them hang farther and farther back until we round the corner and they’re gone. Swallowed up. By road. By bushes. By night.

Once upon a time there was a universe, and inside that universe there was a planet. Planet,” I say, pointing to the brightest star in the sky. “Smart girl,” he replies. Someday I’m going to win a scholarship to Fiji, or maybe even New Zealand. Somewhere far away from this island, from this village, from this bush.” “Why?” he asks. But his mouth
covers mine and I can’t answer. And inside that planet there was an ocean. Don’t you ever feel trapped by the ocean? Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to fly over it, to get away from this. This role, these rules? This relationship,” I add silently. Without pushing him away.
And inside that ocean there was an island. Tonight I feel like an island. Surrounded by sounds: ta’avale, pua’a, sami, tamaiti.
Shouts. Singing. And now Sighs. I am being touched on all sides by the leaves of a bush, by the hands of an ocean. And inside that island there was a village. I need to see what’s outside the village. I want Xena to be my best friend and Hercules to be my boyfriend. I want to know them. I want them to know me. New Zealand. Fiji. Australia. America. I want it. NOW! And inside the village there was a family. Don’t you want a family?” His voice for the first time in a while. A family. Yes. Of course. Someday. After New Zealand. After the journey. But not now, not tonight.
And inside the family there was a girl.But it’s as if I’m watching myself. As if I’m floating above another girl, boy, bush. And I wonder how did she lose me? Lose it? The village’s dream. The family’s dream. And me. My
dream too. And inside that girl there was a baby. Everyone has a dream.
Once upon a time.

It happens every Saturday night. Polishing, slicking, combing, ironing, all to the tune of Jesus Loves Me,” whistled between the teeth. “The boys are getting ready to hit the town to turn Apia upside down.” My brother chants softly, studying his reflection in our small family mirror.
And while he chants, my sister begs. Please Mom. Please Dad. Can I go for just one night? Fa’amolemole. I’m a good girl. You know I’m a good girl.” “Exactly,” my father says, “You’re a girl.” And that ends the
discussion. Except for tonight. Tonight my sister doesn’t go back to her sewing. “But he’s younger then me, Dad. He’s two years younger. I’ll even stay glued to his side. I promise.”
“Lagi!” My mother’s voice comes like a slap. A warning. My father continues fiddling with the TV, not even looking up. But, it’s as if my sister cannot hear, or else she’s lost her mind. And all of us stand frozen, waiting for the storm as she continues. “But it’s not fair,
half my friends are married with babies and I can’t go out once. It’s not fair that he can stay out, impregnating girls all night if he wants to. I just want to go for one night. One night fa’amolemole . . . .”
She never finishes as my father very deliberately stands up, turns around, and begins to hit my sister. Slapping her mouth over and over again. “Is that what you want, huh? To go
to the nightclub and act like some sort of pamutu? All this talk about babies and impregnating. What the hell kind of a girl did I raise? You little slut. Don’t you ever talk back to me again. Ever!”
He leaves then. And my sister remains in the middle of the floor. Crumpled. Her mouth bright red, like the lipstick on my brother’s collar when he returns. At 4 a.m.

In school we learned that most of the earth’s surface is made up of water. It’s funny to think of it that way because all Mr. Smith, my teacher, the pisikoa, ever talks about, focuses on, is the land. I’ve heard the human body is like that too. Even though I can’t see it, can’t
imagine it, I’m mostly water. Fluid. Flowing. Liquid and changing rather then confined to a solid. Mold. Role. Form. As I’ve been trained to think.
Do you know what else I learned today? There are more women on earth than men. I told that to my sister and she laughed at me. She asked, “If there are more women, than why
do we only learn about men — what they do? what they think?” And I tried to tell her that women must be like the ocean. Deep. Unexplored. Fluid. And it would make sense then that the body’s mostly water because that’s where we come from. When I think of my sisters, I think of water. Of nighttime. After supper when we gather under the pipe in the yard and bathe together. All of us sleek and shiny with water. Lavalavas
clinging, scrubbing our underpants together. Sharing the water and blowing soap bubbles. Helping each other wash our long, long hair. Surrounded always by water. That’s how I think of Samoa too. Of being nourished, washed, wiped clean by the ocean. Kissed on all sides by her waves. Protected from the rest of the world. Safe in the ocean’s
womb. That’s how I feel after school when all of us girls run to the beach to cool down in our sami, our sea. Safe. Protected. Rocked. Calmed. And surrounded . . . by my sisters.

Writing about another culture presents the author with the potential trap of
misrepresentation. This has been an issue for the Pacific Islands, in particular, as writers of both fiction and nonfiction have often produced false images, guided by their own Western fantasies of the people and their lifestyle. I came to Samoa wanting to write fiction. Not just
any fiction but specifically about girls on the brink of adulthood — what they were facing, doing, thinking. I wanted to see Samoa from their perspective and put that perspective into my own words. The result is a series of short sketches based on my personal experiences in
Samoa and those of my informants.

One of the greatest challenges I faced with this project was trying to write from a completely foreign perspective. And so began the research. I conducted six in-depth interviews with Samoan girls between the ages of 17 and 22. Four came from Upolu, and two from Savaii. The girls represented a spectrum of different economic and educational backgrounds. The range extended from one who had spent two years studying in New Zealand, to another whose education had ended after secondary school. Although the second girl was a year
younger, she was already married and pregnant with her first child. Two other girls I interviewed had entered the workforce. The last two girls were finishing secondary school. They both planned to try for a scholarship to continue their education outside of Samoa. If
that did not work, they expressed interest in finding jobs. All of the girls I interviewed, with the exception of the one who was married and the two in secondary school, lived at home with their families. The two students spend the week living in Apia attending school and
return home for the weekends. Interviews usually lasted from one to two hours. They included a variety of questions ranging from, “Tell me about your close female friends,” to “What makes a woman
beautiful?” I usually let the flow of conversation direct the interview, using a pre-set list of questions as a guide for myself.
I also utilized the method of participant observation to gather the data. I spent 11 days living in the village of Lotofaga with a host family. My ten-plus sisters allowed me to accompany them on their nightly walks, and to be part of their conversation before bed. From them, I was able to gather a more complete picture of what it means to be 20 years old
and living in a Samoan village.

The sample I interviewed is obviously small, but it provides an in-depth look at the lives of a few individuals. I did not speak Samoan well and the language barrier limited the women I could work with. It restricted me to interviewing only girls with strong enough English
skills to communicate their ideas to me. This generally represents a high level of education. In a few of the interviews I conducted, our language differences presented a significant issue. As a result, I am sure I missed some of the subtle undercurrents that exist in every conversation. Going into this project, I foresaw that language might be a problem but I
chose not to have a translator. I wanted the information I gathered to be in the girls’ own words, not someone else’s. I also realized that having a third person present during interviews would change the dynamic of the situation and possibly affect the information I
was gathering. Using my transcribed interviews along with notes I took during my participant observation experiences, I tried to pull out themes. My goal was to let the issues that the girls revealed direct and influence my writing. Each sketch is written in the first person. This, combined with the fact that certain characters, such as Ana and Sione, reappear throughout different pieces, might lead the reader to believe that this is one girl’s story. That is not the case. While writing, I envisioned
“I” as a series of girls, rather then an individual. I liked the idea of using certain characters multiple times to further develop them over the course of the collection. All of my “I’s” are connected. I think of them as part of the same aiga, telling different aspects of their collective
story. The events portrayed in these stories are my own creations. They are my versions of the lives and feelings of my informants.

Through this writing I try to offer my reader a window into Samoan culture. These sketches are my attempt to bring to life the issues girls face: pregnancy, violence, sexism,family life, etc. The stories are also meant to be read as a celebration of Samoan culture. It is
my hope that between the lines on each page, the reader will be able to catch a glimpse of what it means to be a Samoan girl.

1. Sia Figiel is the 1997 recipient of the Asia-Pacific Commonwealth Best First Book of
Fiction award for her novel, where we once belonged, published in 1996.
Figiel, Sia. 1996a. where we once belonged. Auckland, New Zealand: Pasifika Press.
—————. 1996b. The Girl in the Moon Circle. Suva, Fiji: Mana Publications.
-—————. 1998. To A Young Artist in Contemplation. Suva, Fiji: USP Pacific Writing
—————. Spring 1999. Tatou Tusi Tala Let’s Write Stories: An Anthology of Samoan
Writings. Vol. 1. Hawaii: Samoan Language and Culture Club.
Teaiwa, T and V. Hereniko. 1993. Last Virgin in Paradise. Suva, Fiji: Mana Publications.
Informant 1. September 21, 1999. Safua, Savaii.
Informant 2. September 23, 1999. Safua, Savaii.
Informant 3. October 6, 1999. Lotofaga, Upolu.
Informant 4. October 9, 1999. Lotofaga, Upolu.
Informant 5. November 4, 1999. Apia, Upolu.
Informant 6. November 15, 1999. Apia, Upolu.

Photosource: janeresture