The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 288-290
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Breadfruit, by Célestine Hitiura Vaite. Sydney: Bantam, 2000. ISBN 1-86325-244-4; 324 pages. Paper, A$19.95, NZ$24.95, US$22.50.
Célestine Hitiura Vaite's first novel, Breadfruit, is an impressive debut for this Australia-based Tahitian writer. Vaite dedicates Breadfruit to her mother, "who taught me that love is the greatest motive of all," and her godmother, "who taught me to believe in will power and to get up after each fall." As a writer, Vaite illustrates in Breadfruit that their advice was not ignored. The reader is introduced to the challenges, complications, disappointments, and unbounded joy that love, romance, and day-to-day life in contemporary Tahiti presents for Materena and her extended family.
Told through the all-perceiving eye of the third person, this story unfolds, flows, and shifts through the weaving together of a series of anecdotes from an array of colorful unforgettable characters. The work is written with immense insight, warmth, and humor, her style and use of language refreshingly simple and direct. This approach works well. It allows even serious social problems affecting contemporary Tahitian culture and life to be touched on without detracting from the story, diminishing the issues, or changing the relaxed tone of the novel.
The central themes in Breadfruit are universal: "Women who want romance, men who won't commit, interfering in-laws, making ends meet." Although the novel is set in Tahiti, I soon discovered that as a woman, and more particularly as a Pacific Islander, I could easily identify with, relate to, and laugh wholeheartedly at many aspects of the story. The work focuses on womanhood: the bonds between mothers and daughters, ancestral ties, independent women, absent fathers, and women who yearn for meaningful expressions of love from the men in their lives. We discover Tahitian families living on and under the breadline, and come to admire the ways in which the women characters strive to make ends meet. We find out how these women find value and satisfaction in the small treasures that come their way--treasures that are often other people's throw-outs. Invariably readers are given a window through which to glimpse a different side of contemporary Tahiti that is not often enough exposed. Here, through light-hearted story, popular western notions and stereotypes of life in a "tropical paradise" are challenged. In addition, issues such as colonization, dislocation, migration, identity, class, gender, sexuality, and religion shape and inform the stories within the narrative. [End Page 288]
In "The Proposal," Materena reflects on the day she met her man, Pito. At sweet sixteen, she gains a job working at the local snack bar during the school holidays. While there, she first sets her eyes and heart on Pito. Materena's girlish antics whenever Pito enters the snack bar lead her boss to observe that Pito's presence "was making Materena soft in the head."
Risking the wrath of her mother, Loana, a protective single parent, Materena begins sneaking out at night to rendezvous with Pito. Under the frangipani tree with Pito, Loana's good Catholic girl first "discover[s] sexy loving." A short time passes, then Pito tells Materena that he is off to France to serve in the military for two years. Heartbroken, Materena pledges to remain faithful and wait for him to return. When he does return to Tahiti he does not inform her, and if it were not for a chance sighting she would have been none the wiser. Whereas she is excited to see him around town, he seems indifferent toward her. Only after she plucks up the courage to ask him "Are you doing anything tonight?" do they begin to engage in sexy loving once again under the frangipani tree.
Materena becomes pregnant, and Loana immediately marches her off to confront Pito and his mother, Mama Roti, but again Pito seems indifferent, and marriage is certainly not on his mind. In time, Pito gradually accepts his responsibilities toward Materena. When baby Tamatoa is born, Pito moves in with Materena...