Sia Figiel’s Free Love
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.