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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000) 384-386
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Where We Once Belonged
Where We Once Belonged. By Sia Figiel. New York: Kaya Press, 1999.
Hailed as the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States, Where We Once Belonged is both a coming-of-age story that focuses on a young girl named Alofa Filiga and a narrative that explores the legacy of colonialism in Samoa. The novel's structure employs the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su'ifefiloi (linked vignettes), and Figiel takes advantage of its flexibility by mixing prose with poetry, fiction with mythology. Samoan words and phrases blend with English slang. The lyrical and comical are often juxtaposed and shot through with fresh imagery: "We laughed whenever Sugar Shirley, the fa'afafige, walked around Malaefou with nothing but Tausi's panties and bra stuffed with coconuts. These incidents filled our days with butterflies and grasshoppers." (6)
The fluidity of Figiel's prose in many ways mirrors the ways in which the characters seem to flow into one another. Indeed, it is the inseparability of the [End Page 384] individual from the social landscape--constituted by fellow townspeople, the myths of the culture and the history of Samoa itself--that provides one of the novel's major themes. The title, Where We Once Belonged, refers not only to a place that has been claimed by Christian missionaries and Western pop culture, but also references the ways in which the collective "we" is being steadily replaced by the singular "I." At school, where Miss Cunningham tries to get her students to write about the experiences of that individual "I," Alofa resists, puzzled. To her, to speak of a singular experience of the "I" is to be alone: "You were always with someone . . . . Nothing was witnessed alone. Nothing was witnessed in the 'I' form--nothing but penises and ghosts. 'I' does not exist, Miss Cunningham. 'I' is 'we' . . . . always." (136, 137)
One of this novel's real strengths, however, is that Samoans, Samoan culture and Samoan history are not simply fetishized in their precolonial forms; Figiel resists an easy nostalgia that would reduce her characters to agentless victims of the evils of Westernization. One of the many characters in the novel, Siniva, Alofa's aunt, returns to Samoa from New Zealand after receiving her bachelor's and master's degrees in history. It is 1972, and Siniva comes back armed with an afro, Jimmy Hendrix t-shirt, and an analysis of the effects of Western capitalism and religious colonialism upon Samoa. She privileges the old religion of ancient Samoa, refuses to eat non-native and imported foods. "We kill ourselves slowly," she says. "Every day, every Sunday. Each prayer to Jesus means a nail in our own coffin. Each time we switch something ON (radio, lamps, TV, ignitions . . . ) means a nail in our coffin. And agaga [soul] as we once knew it dies in our still biologically functionable bodies, full of junk food . . . darkness-food . . . white-food . . . death food." (238) But like Cassandra, Siniva is ignored and shunned by the community. Tellingly, she becomes blind and eventually commits suicide. While she can see what is happening to her community, she cannot see that the solution does not lie in clinging to a static dream of a pure past.
As Alofa and her friends navigate the difficult dialectic between cultural consumption and cultural production--pretending to be Charlie's Angels, but also modifying the roles to suit their purposes--they illustrate the complex relationship between colonialism, commodification and sexuality. While Alofa, Moa, and Lili are nosing around Mr. Brown's house (an economist with the Bank of Western Samoa who refers to Lili as "my Samoan Sheila" ), Alofa comes across a box of cornflakes. She is fascinated: "I had never seen cornflakes in real life. I'd always seen them on TV . . . . Cornflakes made palagi [white] people happy. I wanted to see what it could do to Moa and me." (9-10) Cornflakes become the emblem of a consumer desire fueled by the...