Wednesday, October 16, 2013

They Who Lose Their Culture, and We Who Replace It

The dialogue of the first book of Sia Fiegel’s novel They Who Do Not Grieve, immediately introduces the reader to the unfamiliar orality of the Samoan culture.  Protagonists Malu and Lalolagi live in a world where wisdom is imparted through story telling and nothing is written down.  Dates and times cannot be recalled in years, months, or hours, but are instead remembered by the stories that have been passed down from previous generations.  “Ask me when I was born, Malu, and I won’t be able to give you a date...But I could tell you this, Malu-girl.  I was born in the middle of a bloodstorm” (7-8).  This system of time keeping, though seemingly provincial by western standards, allows the reader to understand the Samoan preference for the spoken, rather than the written language.
After a hiatus in book two, book three returns to the story of Malu and Lalolagi, but this time, the dialogue follows western practices of complete sentences with proper grammar and punctuation.  Gone are the repetitious mantras and hyperbolic stories that graced the pages of the novel’s first book.  Even the date-keeping becomes “modernized” and more aligned with western standards, “The lines on Lalolagi’s face are history in themselves...The lines above her eyebrows were born in 1942, a year after her affair with the tattooist, two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor...” (247).  The loss of oral culture in the third part of the novel is devastating, as the characters we came to know and love no longer seem like themselves.  It is through this sense of loss that Fiegel truly finalizes her message.  The disappearance of the spoken language is mimetic.  The novel’s structure allows the reader to feel the same dissatisfaction felt by the Samoan people during the process of colonization.

The final pages of the novel leave us with a grim reality.  Not only is Malu’s family history repeating itself, but the birth of Mr. Winterson’s child will be a physical representation of the American presence in Samoa.  With Lalolagi dead, and this child on the way, we see the perpetual loss of Samoan culture being replaced yet again by something from the western world.   

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