Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Language and memories (and the power beyond words)

Sia Figiel’s artful and poignant book, They Who Do Not Grieve, seeks an intimate connection with the reader through its form and unconventional employment of language. It serves as a marked contrast with Albert Wendt’s intentionally disorienting novel, Black Rainbow, though Figiel was inspired by Wendt. While I was constantly trying to find a ‘way in’ to Black Rainbow—that is, a way into the internal logic and characters’ perspectives, which, admittedly, was really difficult—with They Who Do Not Grieve, I couldn’t separate myself emotionally from the characters. I think this is entirely a product of Figiel’s expert use of language. Figiel writes, “Language binds us together. Language and memories… Memories. Secrets. Secrets that we alone know. That we will carry to our graves, to our graves” (165). This application of language is exactly what the characters use to seek communion with each other, and it is the same approach that Figiel herself uses to tie us to the book.
Figiel’s language is in no way confined by the implied style or traditional form of ‘novel’; she molds the medium to express what might only seem possible through oral tradition. Figiel telling us this story is much like Tausi’s late-night divulgences to Alofa, when Tausi spun a “sinnet of memories” (142) while Alofa sat, physically present but with her imagination souring and soul elevated out of her material presence. Since the book is full of imagery and skips around through time to tell these women’s stories, the act of reading feels like a memory a dream. As different layers of their pasts are revealed, we as readers are being entrusted with these secrets and do become bound together with the women by learning their stories. Based on the acknowledgments page at the beginning of the book, I assume that these stories are not personal accounts of individual Samoan women, but are collective, collaborative memory—which means that we as readers are invited into the tradition through virtue of knowing these stories.

The power of the unspoken thought and word is also a huge force of movement within the book. Even when we don’t know exactly what’s going on (though we keep reading, hoping to find out), we can react emotionally. There is a fascinating connection created through not quite knowing the truth, but feeling the meaning regardless. It is like life—and this piece of literature models that imagery, emotion and meaning can be conveyed more often through what is not said. As we come to understand the truth through direct revelation, we often realize what we have known all along without needing to be told. Upon finishing this book, I feel more comfortable saying that I experienced it than that I read it, just as a personal memory often holds more meaning than can be adequately put into words. 

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