Sia Figiel is Samoas’ first woman novelist, a visionary, a free spirit and force to be reckoned with. Her energy and joie de vivre is boundless and her influence and inspiration is global.
Born in Samoa in 1967 to a Samoan mother and Polish American father her upbringing was quintessentially as a village girl in Upolu.
“My mother is Vaigalepa Moana Toomalatai Figiel and she was the first woman from her village to marry a palagi, my father, a US Naval Officer of Polish-American ancestory, Galumalemana Stanislaus ‘Stan’ Figiel.
They owned Fiafia Steak House in Vaivase back in the 70’s and I had no idea then why they’d name a restaurant Fiafia, but I know now. My parents enjoyed seeing people enjoy themselves and having a good time and that’s what I wanted to do similarly with Freelove…to write a feast that gives pleasure to all the senses.”
“I grew up partly in Tanugamanono, Vaivase and our homestead Matautu Tai, where I ruled Aoga Faifeau and Aoga Aso Sa. It was no easy feat winning first place every year. The mind is sharp when it comes to the Bible and the culture, especially in our village.
And I love it! I mean I really revelled in my abilities to contribute to the expansion of our Bible collection after every Aoga Faifeau exam. It’s such a pity that we don’t have that these days; that reverence for the acquisition of indigenous knowledge.
But when I was growing up, I was excited about going to Aoga Faifeau and Aoga Aso Sa! It was the biggest thrill of my life. I realize that I had such a deep respect for our Faifeau Gafatali Tuatagaloa and his faletua Ida. They were in every sense my true spiritual parents. They had such a strong influence on me and on all of us who grew up under their tutelage. They have passed on but their memory remains with me, always.”
Figiel recollects these vibrant memories and observations of village life keenly bringing them into her richly woven vignettes of Samoan life in all its varied dimensions, the good the bad and the ugly. These observations are rich fodder for a novelist, a poet, a performance poet, a painter and an advocate for diabetes. Wherever she goes reaches out to Pacific Island people.
Figiels’ first book, where we once belonged (1996), won the Best First Book award in the South East Asia/South Pacific region of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997. Her second novel is They who do not grieve (1999) and she has also published two volumes of prose poetry, Girl in the Moon Circle (1996), and To a Young Artist in Contemplation (1998). Her poetry won the 1994 Polynesian Literary Competition.
After some years of absence Figiel has exploded back into the literary world with a novel “Freelove” that was recently released on Kindle. There have been numerous fascinating reviews about Freelove on Amazon but for this article I decided to ask Figiel directly about her ground breaking, passionate and provocative novel. The interview is presented without edits.
VT. How did you conceive Freelove, has this story been fermenting in your brain for a while or was it spontaneously born?
SF. The concept has been floating in my world of ideas for the last 25 years. Since my college days when a professor asked me after a discussion on Manifest Destiny and the US acquisition of Guam, Puerto Rico and American Samoa, Mead or Freeman? Who got it right? I hadn’t read either. But I felt uncomfortable at the sniggering among fellow students and their whisperings about ‘free love,’ which confused me.
I didn’t remember this particular Samoa and I remember not only becoming angered but offended that my home was known not because of something I or another Samoan had said, but because of what outsiders decided to say.
The story came to me after a chance meeting with a friend who came to Florida while I was living there a few months ago. We are friends because we have the same name. But then our mutual friend said, Tell her your full name. And Inosia was ashamed of her name, preferring to be called Sia. That weighed on me. And I explained to her the idea of thinking in opposites…that Inosia perhaps masks her mother or her grandmother’s love for her. Inosia i.e the ‘despised’, is to protect her from being vain (she’s very beautiful and humble), or from being unloved and actually means to be loved, fully and unconditionally. These were just some pointers I wanted to give her because she was ashamed of her name and I wanted her not to be. To have a different understanding of her name. To love it. To own it. The protagonist was thus born out of that encounter.
VT. Tell me about the process of writing this novel, daily, time framework etc.?
SF. I was working for a small non-profit organization that had relocated from the heart of the black community to an industrial complex which meant that I didn’t have the workload I used to have, that is, working directly with low-income and homeless people, which I missed terribly but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was alone in a warehouse. It was quiet. All I had to do was upkeep social media and my boss basically gave me free agency to write.
I am forever grateful to her for this gift because it allowed me to write day and night. The only breaks I had were bathroom breaks. Other than that, I was writing. Took me 6 weeks to complete the first draft. I can’t explain it but it was an other-worldly experience that enveloped me, body and soul.
VT. Was the story autobiographical or based on a number of shared experiences from your teenage friends back in the day?
SF. I wish I could say it was. But it wasn’t. This is a work of fiction. One the muse brought to me on a silver pulu leaf, floating in the wind all the way from Samoa and my memory.
VT. You paint a picture of Samoa in the 1980’s that many of us knew well, do you think this Samoa still exists?
SF. Sadly, but no. The Samoa I write of is gone and exists only in my memory. The last time I was in Samoa was in 2012 and I felt like a stranger. I mean, the physical changes in themselves reflect the metaphysical changes, which are also tied to technology and the influx of new people and new ways of looking at the world.
VT. Do you think you have been brave and foolhardy writing such an intimate account of sexual awakening in a country where sexual matters are brushed under the falapapa?
SF. Brave? Hardly. There are women doing much braver things, like raising large families while working or fighting AIDS and diabetes and sexism in the workplace. Foolhardy? Hardly! I have conviction in what I write which goes all the way back to that college classroom 25 years ago. My work since has been to return the integrity of Samoan agency squarely to where it belongs which has been hijacked by cultural anthropologists, philandering artists and novelists and any other outsider who romanticises the experience of our humanity as Samoan and Pacific people.
That sexual matters are my forte should come as no surprise to anyone as that is the root of misrepresentation that has been perpetuated since the first French sailor got off the boat and decided to shoot the first Samoan at Massacre Bay. But that’s a whole other question about who writes history books. Which I suppose novelists do to a larger extend.
Freelove not only explores the agency of girls and women but it makes room for conversations that desperately need to take place regarding sexuality and the silences that continue to surround it despite the obviously problematic nature in which sexual crimes and violence against women continue to be handled in this country and throughout the Pacific Islands.
VT. The male character in the novel was somewhat inappropriate in his initial reaction to Sia getting in the car, yet later he is incredibly sensitive…do you see that as a contradiction?
SF. That’s where interpretation comes in. Remember also that 90% of the book takes place on a single day. I guess secretly, Mr. Ioane Viliamu was stirred by his gifted and most prized student. He was obviously the more sexually experienced of the two. Despite his confession that he didn’t plan what happened and he may very well be telling the truth, but it’s different when people are alone. He was also carrying a lot of baggage with his own past relationships and it had been a year since he was with someone, which perhaps explains why Inosia’s mere presence got him all excited. I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.
VT. While the love story could be seen as illicit do you see the love between Sia and Ioage to be based on more than simply physical love?
SF. The entire relationship is a marriage of the mind, soul and body. The sexual aspect was merely an expression of what they already shared which is an intellectual compatibility and that’s what makes their love enduring and eternal.
VT. Will their love be lasting?
SF. Lasting? Yes. But will they meet again? Ia ka’ilo. I don’t know. A girlfriend who is a Samoan engineer and trekkie has suggested Freelove: The Next Generation. Ha, ha. Maybe.
VT. Freelove is a novel about lust, desire and sexual fulfilment, it is equally about Samoa and Samoan cultural beliefs and behaviours, what was it like for you growing up in this Samoa? In a huge sense this was your Samoa?
SF. It really is Vanya. I mean, it’s the place I go to in my mind to find laughter and peace; and sometimes melancholy. I grew up in a household that consisted of close to 35 people. Growing up in a communal setting where everything was shared is something my sister and I try to gift our children here in the States. I’m responding from a cousin’s place in Seattle. My children are with my sister in Salt Lake City. My sons feel very much at home with my sister and call her mom and my sister’s children do the same with me. That’s how we grew up in Samoa. With many mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.
What I hoped to happen in Freelove is awareness for the reader of the organic relationships and in the case of Inosia and Ioage, relationships based on a marriage of the mind, soul and body which is a projection of my own idealism perhaps. That the alignment of those elements is what makes their love enduring and eternal regardless of the fact that there is a big open space in the end and we actually don’t know whether they will meet again or not but we do know for certain that their connection transcends time and space.
VT. What now Sia Figiel? Where is your life’s’ trajectory pointing – will we have to wait a long time for your next novel or have your creative juices been activated?
SF. I have a few things up my sleeves yet. Some things with translation that I’m working on and another narrative that has taken me a while to edit but one thing for sure, you won’t be waiting another 20 years for a novel from me; unless aliens kidnap my brain or something.
VT. When will you come to Samoa soon to see some of your many fans and friends?
SF. I’m looking at November. I want to check out the Jazz Festival there and I also want to visit Safotulafai where I taught eons ago. It would be amazing to meet up with former students who might still remember me but most of them are in New Zealand and Australia as I see from Facebook. Most importantly, I need to visit my parents’ graves. Tell them what’s happening with their grandchildren and why we’re living away from Samoa at the moment and hope they’ll understand.
Invictus - till then.