Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Those We Leave Behind

          Sia Figiel does such a fine job of depicting and animating Samoan culture within the greater story of They Who Do Not Grieve I was genuinely surprised by moments where I forgot I was reading about Samoan culture completely. One such point comes at the beginning of Book Three, entitled "Bleeding Stars". Malu is provoked by Auntie Ela into speaking about the memory of her mother. In response, Malu offers a tirade full of passion, resentment, and hostile invective. One fact that becomes immediately clear is that this response on the part of Malu is not directed only at Aunti Ela; it is also directed towards her grandmother, towards the small memories of her mother and the concept of her father, and towards the community and culture-at-large that has left Malu an outcast. In a very real sense, Malu has not been forgotten by immediate family only: Malu has also become lost within the cultural structure of post-colonial Samoa. 
          It was during this long block of speech that I lost sight of the fact that I was reading the Samoan words of a Samoan woman. Because for all of the cultural specificities that make this novel unique, in a passage such as this one, Figiel writes with the language of the universally dispossessed and perpetually forgotten. There in Figiel's text was a conceptual resentment that I had seen before. A few semesters ago, I researched 16th and 17th century Irish language poetry. There I found poets whose anger and frustration focused more on their fellow Irish than it did on their English conquerors. These poets blamed their own people for the death of a homogenous culture, and for succumbing to the temptation of foreign wealth, comfort and opportunity. Consider lines such as "the once-proud men of this land have swapped / giving for gaining, culture for crap," and "but now my complexion has changed in their sight / and in my verse they can see nothing right". These are English translations of Irish verse, but as I read Figiel I am regularly reminded of the death of a culture that ultimately forced emigration upon my ancestors. 
          I think Figiel would agree that maybe the most perverse aspect of colonialism is that it introduces a concept of "the other" that in time destroys homogenous cultural identity. Even if the yolk of the new master is cast off in short order, the fact remains that some members of indigenous society will join with the conquerors. Others will follow in their stead, and even those who come back--such as Auntie Ela--are never the same. As a culture dies, those who stand by its side are ultimately left behind by those who claim to be moving "forward". There is no return from "progress". The reality that Figiel argues for--and that I find strikingly similar to ideas found in Irish verse--is that culture dies from within, and not from without. A culture is never stolen; it is given away freely. These are lessons well worth considering for an American body politic that regularly assumes that western political values are simply better for other nations than their own indigenous beliefs and practices. 
          Malu describes a rather harrowing vision of a possible future: one day she might become a mother, and in a life full of terrible adversity and certain poverty, Malu will nonetheless act the better of those around her. She will not seek out a better life elsewhere; Malu will not leave her daughter behind, as others have left her behind. Rather, she will tell her daughter to scream out, and the object of her screaming is nothing more than a broken social structure that will never be what it once was. Malu asserts that "you all may laugh at me but I know who I am". Figiel creates a world where that sort of personal identification with a culture means more than wealth and comfort. The tragedy is that the values Figiel describes might only exist in stories passed on from one generation to the next. 

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