Sia Figiel’s Free Love

mailife - - Contents - By SEONA SMILES Photo by JONE LU­VEN­I­TOGA

Samoa’s Sia Figiel is a large pres­ence any­where, es­pe­cially in the world of writ­ing. She was in Fiji re­cently to talk about her lat­est book, Freelove, pub­lished this year by lit­tle is­land press in Auck­land. Al­though her voice was last heard in Fiji more than 17 years ago, it can­not be mis­taken – ei­ther when she speaks or when she writes. She told avid au­di­ences at sev­eral read­ings at the Univer­sity of the South Pa­cific and a Spo­ken Word event at Traps that she wrote Freelove in six al­most sleep­less weeks, but it had been a long time com­ing. About 18 years, in fact. The hia­tus was pos­si­bly due to an­other big project she had on the go – her ‘lit­tle boy’ Pua­namu, now l8 and even taller than his six foot some­thing mum, and his ‘lit­tle’ brother who is about two years younger. They now stay with their mother on her farm in Samoa, learn­ing to live off the land and con­se­quently be­com­ing mostly veg­e­tar­ian…an­other rea­son Figiel’s phys­i­cal pres­ence has grown a lit­tle less than pre­vi­ously. She lost her par­ents to di­a­betes and has per­son­ally strug­gled, mostly in se­cret, with this killer con­di­tion that af­flicts so many in the Pa­cific Is­land re­gion. She now main­tains a care­ful diet, mostly veg­e­tar­ian, and not long ago walked across Amer­ica to pub­li­cise this per­va­sive health prob­lem, los­ing a great deal of weight and gain­ing many friends and ad­mir­ers on the way. Pua­namu was just a babe in arms when Figiel was last in Fiji, at a time when her first novel, Where We Once Be­longed, had won the 1997 re­gional Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers Prize for Best First Book and the sec­ond book in what she sees as a se­ries of com­ing of age nov­els, The Girl in the Moon Cir­cle had al­ready been pub­lished. The in­ter­ven­ing years have ac­tu­ally been filled with more writ­ing in­clud­ing Tere­n­e­sia, a CD of am­pli­fied po­etry and songs with Tere­sia Teaiwa, and a busy pro­gramme of ex­ten­sive travel rep­re­sent­ing Samoa and the Pa­cific Is­lands at in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, con­fer­ences, uni­ver­si­ties, half way houses and high schools. Freelove is the third, and she says fi­nal one, of Figiel’s com­ing of age nov­els that ex­plores sex­u­al­ity and ta­boo themes that, as it says on the flyleaf, pi­o­neers a fe­male nar­ra­tive that has in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of Samoan and Pa­cific writ­ers in the re­gion and else­where. Cer­tainly there is the bit­ter wit and anger that showed up so bril­liantly in her ear­lier works, which in­deed seems to have freed younger writ­ers to ex­press them­selves more ve­he­mently and coura­geously than in the past. Freelove has a short Samoan vo­cab­u­lary list which will pos­si­bly help read­ers reach fur­ther into a deeper un­der­stand­ing. Cer­tainly the fore­word by the late Alan Alo Va’ai, one of those memo­ri­alised in a sad list of ‘dear friends who gave love so freely’, is wor­thy of a read be­fore start­ing. It gives in­sight into how the main char­ac­ter, Inosia, is able to tra­verse the bound­aries be­tween “her old na­tive world and the dom­i­nant hege­mony con­struc­tions of her Samoan so­ci­ety” as she ex­plores sex and ‘in­tel­lec­tual love­mak­ing’. Inosia’s` first foray into sex is, of course, her mother’s fault. As Figiel puts it in her ir­re­press­ible, dis­tinc­tive voice: “I’d come to the con­clu­sion that my mother would only lis­ten to me when one thing was cer­tain; when I was dead.” As a re­sult she goes to the shop to buy white thread for her mother, and meets her fate – Mr Vil­iamu, her favourite teacher, pas­tor’s son, a vil­lage brother. In his old red pick-up truck. The novel is con­structed in two parts. Part one, more than three quar­ters of the book, cov­ers just a day but con­veys gen­er­a­tions of lives and worlds of be­liefs and per­cep­tions. Figiel weaves her story through di­gres­sions and gos­sip, taboos and ter­rors, tales of ex­pe­ri­ences and emo­tions that im­pel Inosia and ul­ti­mately free her to use her own agency to di­rect her life. Part two con­sists of love let­ters that con­vey emo­tional depths that tran­scend bound­aries, be­liefs, bor­ders and oceans. Figiel’s writ­ing is de­scribed as po­etic and dream­like, but it never loses the bit­ing hu­mour and an au­then­tic­ity that twangs the senses, no mat­ter from what cul­ture the reader is com­ing. There is a note in the front of the book that says: Con­tains sex­ual in­nu­endo and ex­plicit lan­guage. Hardly a sur­prise in a vol­ume ti­tled Freelove. The English class Form Six vo­cab­u­lary list on P5 will give a sug­ges­tion of what is cov­ered within, in the colour­ful, com­pelling lan­guage of Figiel. Voice cant’ be mis­taken, still as it was 20 years ago. Big book been a long time com­ing, but then she had an­other big project on the go – her ‘lit­tle boy’ Pua­namu, now 18 and taller than his six foot some­thing mum. He was a babe in arms last time they were in Fiji when Figiel’s first novel, where we once were what what, had just won the Com­mon­wealth first novel prize for 19?? And she had just pub­lished ‘The Girl in the Moon Cir­cle’ Sia Figiel has writ­ten po­ems and nov­els and a CD of per­for­mance-po­etry with Tere­sia Teaiwa. Her first novel, Where we Once Be­longed, won the 1997 re­gional Com­momwealth Writ­ers Prize Best First Book and has been trans­lated to Ger­man, French, Span­ish, Cata­lan and Dutch. Freelove is be­ing trans­lated to French through Avent Iles, Tahiti. Sia lives in Samoa.

Figiel with her lat­est book, Freelove.

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