They Who Do Not Grieve
by Sia Figiel
Review by Robert Seward
The terrifically talented Samoan writer Sia Figiel has penned an epic chant of a novel about three generations of Samoan women. At the heart of the story are the issues of gender, family and community that dominate Samoan life — at home and abroad, past and present. But tradition is not what Figiel makes her women follow even as it bears heavily on them.
The narrative focuses on Malu, her grandmother Lalolagi, and Auntie Ela – characters whose genuineness is not to be denied. The same can be said for Alofa and her grandmother Tausi. One family lives in Samoa, the other in New Zealand; across geographical borders, over generations, family history and Samoan legend are conveyed.
As these women swim in a mythical universe, their fates intertwine. Rivulets of narrative flow around them as first one character and then another rises to the surface to express fear, sadness, longing, hurt. The narrative has the ring of traditional myth, but it is not without the weight of contemporary reality. The women are present, now, and the horrifying beating that Malu undergoes at the hands of Lalolagi makes that clear. The violence is palpable.
“Chicken-shit girl,” “dog girl,” “rotten-pig girl,” “rat child,” and other less-than-gentle words for Malu are spat out of grandmother Lalolagi’s mouth. As Lalolagi shows her worst side, the author makes no attempt to moderate the picture. But while Lalolagi’s meanness is, to say the least, disturbing, we begin to sympathize with her. Malu’s puberty blues which seems to span most of the book are not even relieved by her deflowering.
Figiel is forthright about what in Samoa are unspeakable — adultery, incest, suicide and teen pregnancy. In Apia, this must register as shock. Can it be true, as a contemporary voice relates, that “real love is when children are beaten up bad by their parents”? We witness Alofa being beaten, too, her head shaved. Figiel gives us pause to wonder about the place of violence in Samoan family life.
Broken oaths, grief, forbidden love and shame are constants in this world, and Figiel is passionate and unsparing in her portrayal. Her women are full-blooded, although, alas, her men are mere ciphers.
Much has been made of Figiel, who also paints and has published two volumes of “prose poetry”: “Girl in the Moon Circle” and “To a Young Artist in Contemplation.” The novelistic form, however, seems to have been a bit of a stretch for her. Samoa is famous for its oratory and its “su’ifefiloi” storytelling style and one yearns to hear Figiel telling her story audibly, shifting tones and cadence as the tale unfolds. She has done this on extensive reading tours as a “performance poet” (you can hear her voice online); with her rich Samoan accent mixed with New Zealand English, “They Who Do No Grieve” holds much more together than it does in print.
Without the literal sound of her voice, with the postmodern pastiche style Figiel has adopted, half the time the reader has no idea who is talking. Was that Lalolagi or Tausi? Was that Malu or Alofa? Who was that …?
Perhaps it is more appropriate to view Figiel in the context of a Pacific traditional, circular narrative structure or in the context of oratory, where repetition is necessary.
“MAMA-MAMA-MAMA,” she whispered some more … Of leaves. Of leaves. Of grass. …Of water on stone. On stone. Flowing towards the sea. Sea-sea. See?”
But at 273 pages, this novel-length chant loses its impact (and strains one’s patience). “And that and that and that?” is that. Is that?
Still, where else are you going to hear a female Samoan voice intone in English about three generations of remarkable women? “They Who Do Not Grieve” are like Grandauntie Nusipepa’s toothache, haunting from the beginning to end; it just won’t go away.
“They Who Do Not Grieve” is published by Kaya Press, a small not-for-profit publisher in New York City. Sunyoung Lee and Juliana Koo are the press, and we have to thank them for bringing Figiel to American audiences. This is a departure from their focus on Asian American writers and interests. With this book, Pacific is put in their Asian/Asian Pacific line.