Back when I was a teacher at a high school here in Samoa, I attended a workshop for English teachers at which they gave out a list of texts recommended for studying with senior students. I noted that a favourite author of mine was missing from the list, so I asked if Sia Figiel’s books could be included – ‘Where we Once Belonged’ and ‘Girl in the Moon Circle.’
The room went quiet and the co-ordinator gave me a look. She said, “Of course you’re welcome to use her books in the classroom, but a true tama’ita’i Samoa ( a real Samoan woman) would not want to read such things or talk about them with students.” Everyone shook their heads vehemently in agreement, throwing me sideways glances of disdainful shock, ewww I can’t believe you even asked that question!
I was embarrassed, very young and very new to the teaching profession. So I didn’t argue or even ask why. I assumed it must be because Figiel’s book contains sex and graphic (rich) descriptions of a woman’s body (including her vagina). As well as mentions of incest, and the shattering effects of child abuse.
I wanted to ask why Albert Wendt’s book was on the list – when he’s also a Samoan who writes books with sex in them. Or why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was on the list – when it has racism and rape in it. Or why Macbeth is on the list – when it has mass murder and witchcraft in it. Or why…
I could go on, but hopefully you get the point.
I didnt ask. I said nothing.
But I did go back to my classroom and introduce my students to Figiel’s work anyway. And just like I knew they would – they loved it.
That’s not the only time I’ve had people shudder and #yuckFace about Figiel’s books, specifically the sex. Another time, a woman refused to send her daughter to a workshop for young writers because Figiel was going to be the keynote speaker. “The woman writes about vaginas on the first few pages of her book and says the F word a lot. No way will I allow my daughter to go.” Another time, a university lecturer talked about her unwillingness to touch Figiel’s work in her classes, because of the ‘unnecessary sexuality’. (Because sex is unnecessary, didn’t you know? Especially in Samoan literature. )
These are all examples from a local Samoan context. And from some years ago. Perhaps its different now. I hope so, but I doubt it.
Figiel’s books are studied in many countries, especially whenever Pacific Literature is being critiqued. I find it quite telling that a landmark work like Figiel’s, doesnt seem to be more widely read among those who she writes about. And when it is read, I’m intrigued by the responses to the sex (in all its forms and expressions in the books, both positive and negative) from Samoan women and men.
I know that when Albert Wendt’s first books came out, they were banned in a few places. People were shocked about some of the material – Im guessing the sex was a big part of that. Perhaps time has helped to lessen the discomfort for local teachers who might want to take on reading and discussing his books with their students? Or perhaps it’s easier to cope with sex and intimacy when its written from a male perspective?
What does it tell us when we are more accepting of a Samoan man writing a sex scene – then we are about a Samoan woman writing sex, writing about a woman’s body, naming and detailing a vagina for example? Or when a palagi writes about sex/love/romance – does that make it more acceptable literary study material?
What are some of our prevailing attitudes towards sex and the Samoan woman that might underlie this? A couple of examples that stand out for me – as summed up by social media…
1. The Teuila Blakely ‘sex tape’. The most virulent and hateful reactions to an adult, single Samoan woman engaging in a sex act with an adult, single Tongan man – were from the Pasifika community in NZ. Many Samoans there fell over themselves in their eager haste to condemn Ms Blakely for
a. dating a much younger man
b. having oral sex in a car
c. Either allowing her date to film the act OR being too focused on the activity that she didnt notice she was being filmed
d. Not being sorry enough or repentant enough when her date shared it on social media
The disgust and antagonism for Ms Blakely as a Samoan woman who appeared confident and unashamed about her sexuality and her choices in the bedroom (or in the car), did not seem to extend to the Tongan man who had been a co-participant. Even when it was apparent the
creep man had violated her trust by sharing the tape. People slammed her for being a poor example of a tama’ita’i Samoa, for bringing shame on the Samoan community, and for being that most lethal of Samoan designations, a pa’umuku, a slut. They said she should have been at home with her son, being a ‘good mother.’ A few said quite blatantly, “She should just die.” The degree of viciousness and hate was disturbing.
Whether or not we agree with the choice some people make to film themselves doing sex-things, why is it that we are so outraged by a Samoan woman who chooses to have sex and likes it?
2. The domestic violence case involving Brian Lima and Sina Retzlaff. When Ms Retzlaff went public with the assault and a photograph of her bruised face made headlines, there was an outpouring of support and outrage on her behalf. There was also strong condemnation of her. For speaking out and ‘airing their dirty laundry’ thus bringing shame on both families involved. Disapproval also came from those who said she deserved it because when the attack occurred, she was out on a date with another man. Ms Retzlaff and her ex-husband had been divorced for two years, but still critics blasted her on social media because, “she should be at home looking after her children” and “not going out having sex with other men”. (Never mind that the attack happened in a public place, outside a restaurant and nobody was having sex of any kind.)
The dynamics of domestic violence aside, I took particular note of those who criticized Ms Retzlaff for what they viewed as her sexually promiscuous behaviour. People cited her dating, as a divorced woman with children – as evidence that she “deserved” to get beaten up by her ex-husband. They delighted in pointing out that her date was a younger man. They implied Ms Retzlaff had been an unfaithful wife when she was married – more evidence she “deserved” to get beaten up. They said she was a pa’umuku, a slut. Someone said, “She should just die.”
Again, the degree of viciousness and hate was disturbing.
Again the double standard was evident. Nobody raised questions about Lima’s sexual conduct, either when he was married or in the years since. Nobody asked why he wasnt at home looking after his children.
Im reminded of a dear friend who, when she found out her husband was having an affair, was comforted by her mother, “Thats what men do. Dont worry about that other woman. You’re the one he’s married to, the one living in his house, the mother of his children. He only goes to her for sex. Because he has needs. You’re the wife.”
What attitudes towards sex and the Samoan woman are evident here? About what is “acceptable” for a Samoan man vs a Samoan woman? About what a wife ‘provides’ vs a lover #onTheSide?
What about for our fa’afafine sisters? Do they have the same expectations and codes of sexual conduct within our cultural context? I’ve seen a kind of envious awe from other Samoan women towards fa’afafine because ‘you can get away with so much more than we do!’ and ‘I wish I could be as flamboyant and fierce as you’ and ‘you get the best of both worlds’. But do they really?
I’m grateful to live in a country where fa’afafine are generally accepted and celebrated. (At least more so than in other countries.) Yet, while we have a more fluid view of gender than most of the palagi world, Christianity has done a good job at demonizing those who dont fit a rigid gender binary. The Bible’s take on homosexuality is quoted often. Yes, a woman can be villified for having any kind of sex outside the approved parameters (in a car with somebody much younger than you AND youre not married is a HELL NO!) But at least there’s some approved parameters for her to #getHerFreakOn. Fa’afafine dont have any. At least not according to our Christianized Samoan culture.
I’ve seen the heartache of some of my fa’afafine sisters as they are sexually objectified all while being treated as ‘less than’ or ‘incomplete’ because of who they are. I know of many Samoan men who have sex with a fa’afafine and then say – that doesnt count as cheating on their partner/wife because “she’s not a real woman…she’s just a fa’afafine.” Such dehumanizing is not only hurtful – it’s dangerous. It contributes to callous discrimination against fa’afafine and even violence. It needs to stop.
In today’s Samoan cultural context (whether here or abroad), does a woman/fa’afafine have the right to be a sensual being who celebrates and enjoys her body and all her body is capable of feeling? How do we as Samoans, feel about a woman/fa’afafine’s right to choose who she has sex with, the kind of sex she has, and when and where she has that sex? And how do we make sure we’re getting the right messages across to our young people as they seek to navigate turbulent emotions and powerful relationships – often without any guidance from parents who cant/wont talk about #sexStuff or #loveStuff or #bodyStuff?
As a mother, these questions are important to me as I try to raise daughters and sons who can treat others with respect regardless of what/who they are in this rainbow LGBT world, and who can make informed decisions about when/where/who to have healthy, fun and fabulous
sex relationships with.
As a writer, these things are important to me, particularly as I create characters that (I hope) are multi-faceted, authentic and believable. Characters who have rich, messy and messed up relationships with others. In characters like Leila, Simone, Matile, Nafanua and Pele, I have tried to portray a diverse range of Samoan women in contemporary Samoa. Women who love and are loved, women who have different attitudes towards their sexuality. Mindful that Im not fa’afafine and cant know or understand firsthand what it is to be a young fa’afafine like Simone – I was apprehensive about writing her, but it was essential to have her voice in the TELESA Series and I hope I did her character justice. My next novel is not Young Adult. Its contemp romance with lots of tangled Samoan family drama and contains mature themes. In other words, its got love, sex, lies, loss and too much laughter in it. It’s been a whole new world of challenge for me to write this latest book.
It can be a struggle to write with honesty (particularly when love and sex are involved) and I can only write a “single story.” There are many other perspectives and theres no one true definition for what is a ‘real tama’ita’i Samoa’. My characters are not representative of an entire country or culture and it would be a mistake for anyone to expect them to be. (A plug there for more Samoan women to hurry up and write novels.)
Back to stories. And sex. And what do they have to do with each other?
Its vital that we can see ourselves represented in the stories around us – whether in our media or in our literature. Stories created by us, for us and about us can be powerful, especially when theres a range of complex stories that encompass the good and the bad. And everything in between.
Yes, we can be wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, matriarchs and matai. We also can be abused and the abusers, rape victims, child abuse survivors, battered wives, mothers who encourage sons to beat their partners, friends who tell you to perpetually forgive the perpetually cheating husband, and grandmothers who berate 13yr olds who get pregnant from their uncles.
But we are also sensual beings with sexual and emotional needs and desires. Some of us enjoy sex. Some of us dont. Some of us have amazing sex – all by ourselves. Some of us want to have sex – and cant. Because age or health or religion says no. Some of us are really good at it and luxuriate in engaging in all sorts of enticing and intricate techniques. Some of us dont. Some of us never find a person we want to be in the same room with – let alone have sex with. Some of us only have sex with other women. Some of us only have sex with men – like with boyfriends, husbands and lovers. (Sometimes we have sex with other people’s boyfriends, husbands and lovers.) Sometimes we make stupid choices and have sex when we shouldnt. Or with someone that we know we’ll regret. Some of us commit to one person – and its awful. Some of us commit to only ever having sex with one person for the rest of our lives – and it’s beautiful and so worth it.
And you know what? All of these are true for our fa’afafine sisters. And for men. So can we please stop with that rubbish about ‘Men have needs…its harder for men to control their sexual urges…men want it more than women…he did that because her dress was so revealing and immodest so he couldnt control himself…its too difficult for a man to be faithful to one woman because of his NEEDS… Everybody’s got needs dammit. Learn how to control yo’self and let’s all stop making excuses for shitty behaviour.
The list of sex people possibilities and experiences is endless. And yet, we are given so few of these varied stories in our literature and our media. Especially for women and fa’afafine. When there is only a limited and limiting representation of Samoan women – we continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and attitudes – which then play out in intimate partner relationships, in often very damaging ways.
We need more Samoan women writing books, blogs and poems. Making art, plays and films. Im thrilled to know several Samoan women who are working to complete their first novels, like Caroline Hunt, Sisilia Eteuati and Sita Leota. And Im excited about the ongoing success of South Seas Pictures which is telling powerful Samoan stories, like the film NOFOTANE and many more.
We need to see the many different realities of Samoan women’s experiences, represented and challenged. The norms and underlying attitudes questioned. Because as Chimamanda Adichie so beautifully expressed, in her TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’ :
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”
To all my Samoan sister storytellers out there, wherever you may be – Im looking at you. Be brave enough to question, challenge and re-define what it means to be Samoan women or fa’afafine. Speak your truth.Take control of the narratives about us and our sexuality, our intimate partner relationships – in all their rich diversity of experience. Tell stories, lots of different stories. Stories that will help empower and humanize.