You write a book. You send it out to agents with a hopeful heart. It gets rejected. Your hopeful heart gets a little bruised. You publish the book yourself. You send it out to the world with a terrified but hopeful heart. Some people read it. Some people like it. Some people hate it. You rejoice because your book is real. And its being read. And then your book is chosen as a literary text of study at a university. Or two. Wow. You reel with the shock of it. As an English Lit degree graduate, you can’t believe that there’s actually enough literary ‘stuff’ in your book for real University students to discuss, analyze and write about. And then, you get sent a copy of a final essay paper written by a fierce, brilliant woman. An essay she wrote on your book. An essay she got an A grade for. You read it. You are stunned. ( You are also feeling kinda dumb because you’re trying to follow the discussion and realizing its been a LOOOOONG time since you were in University, writing and reading critical lit stuff. Wow.) You try not to fall on the floor with the awesomeness of it all. Because its really real. Its truly true. Jessica J.Perez-Jackson studied my book Telesa at the University of Guam, wrote a paper on it for her ‘Pacific Women Writer’s’ course. It’s long. It’s fiercely awesome. And I am honored and beyond thrilled to share it with you here.
Thank you Jessica.
“Preserving Samoan-ness through Popular Fiction”:
A Researched Analysis of YA Literature in Lani Wendt Young’s Telesā: the Covenant Keeper
Submitted by Jessica J. Perez-Jackson
In her paper, “Experiencing Samoa through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place,” Samantha Lichtenberg writes that “language is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of a culture. It is the holder of cultural knowledge and preserver of tradition” (10). In her book, Telesā: the Covenant Keeper, Lani Wendt Young preserves a bit of Samoan legend, culture, and language, and provides a refreshing take on Young Adult (YA) literature. Young, an avid reader of the Twilight series, brings Samoan culture to the forefront of a booming industry that caters to young adults eager for an escape into the world of the supernatural (Sleepless in Samoa). In a business dominated by youthful, Caucasian, male characters like Harry Potter and Edward Cullen, Young’s Samoan-Caucasian protagonist Leila Folger, holds her own as she sets out to discover the unknown other half of her heritage. As Leila unravels the truth about her unexplained past and family history, a world of magic, spirituality, and nature erupts and jolts her into a foreign and unfamiliar reality.
In her article, “Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Seas Crossings,” Ann Colley writes that Stevenson “was conscious of the ways a Western presence altered, rather than simply destroyed, island cultures [and] the ways in which native life affected the thoughts and conduct of Europeans residing in the South Seas” (Colley 1). Additionally, Colley notes that “encounters between Westerners and indigenous peoples created ‘hybrids’ that were neither completely European nor completely native, and through which the balance of power could be easily unsettled.” Young’s character, Leila, encompasses both the islander and the American, and shows how easily this balance of power can be unsettled as Leila embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Young explores numerous issues that surround mixing, or hybridity, specifically that of the palagi, which means “white person ‘sky burster’ in English,” and the Samoan (Sleepless in Samoa). To initiate readers of YA literature into Samoan culture, Young introduces the afakasi character, which means half palangi and half Samoan. Leila is afakasi, and through her, the author juxtaposes the Samoan with the Westerner. Lani Wendt Young uses the element of hybridity, which is woven throughout the book in areas of identity, medicine, and religion, as a means to convince her Samoan and Pacific Islander readers that there is value in their cultures, and that, although different in the traditional sense, both the palangi Westerner and the Samoan Pacific Islander can respectfully coexist in today’s society. Young takes the YA genre by storm with her novel Telesā, as she cements Samoan-ness into popular Young Adult fiction.
In search of their identity, American youth today follow popular fads from dying their hair radical colors to permanently branding their bodies with trendy tattoos. In Telesā, Young examines the commonly rebellious teenage activity of tattooing, but within the context of traditional Samoan culture. In the middle of the book Leila openly cringes when Daniel tells her that he will get a sogaimiti, a traditional, full body tattoo. Daniel explains that he is “afakasi [and he] can’t escape [it and is] tired of being ashamed” of his half-ness, so he designed a tattoo for himself that “incorporates symbols from all” his cultures (189). As Daniel explains each symbol, their significance with how he identifies himself, and the traditional purpose of a sogaimiti, Young subtly provides a contrast between the Samoan practice of tattooing with the trendy American version. In his article, “A Social History of Youth in Samoa: Religion, Capitalism, and Cultural Disenfranchisement,” James Cote explains that “when his tattooing was complete, the young male became a member of the ‘aumaga” a member of the group of “untitled men” in the village, and a respected member of the majority (Cote 1). Cote further explains that a “man who was not tattooed … was not respected,” and it was a sort of rite of passage in which sixteen year old young men were anxious to participate (qtd. in Cote 1). Daniel’s decision to get a sogaimiti is not based on wanting to keep up with a trend, but for the purpose of claiming his identity as his ancestors did. He refuses to apologize for his afakasi-ness and asserts his Samoan-ness through the practice of tattooing.
Additionally, after Leila learns about the reasons behind tattooing in Samoa, she is still hesitant to fully embrace the idea of submitting oneself to intense, unnecessary pain. However, as Leila begins to acknowledge her heritage and accept her identity, she surrenders herself to her calling as telesā and agrees to go through with the next step in the initiation process – getting a malu. According to Young’s description:
A malu is a tattoo given to women in Samoa. It is applied using hand instruments. Mini chisels and adzes with razor sharp edges made from animal bone are used to repeatedly tap and cut the skin open while hands pull the skin taut and tight […] while the tattooist does their work [women] sing songs of [the recipient’s] ancestors. They tell stories of the women who walked before her. […] They trace her lineage back to Nafanua the war goddess. Back to Tangaloa-lagi, god of the earth. […] When the pain builds […] threatening to overwhelm her, they will hold her […] firmly to the earth, holding her captive to consciousness […] firmly anchored to this mind-numbing agony. They will not let her escape it. But they will her the strength to endure. (249)
By explaining the significance and history of the Samoan tattoo, and describing in detail the agonizing and deeply moving ritual that takes days to complete, Young contrasts the traditional art of Samoan tattooing with the pop cultural trend among young Americans today. While the two cultures value tattoos in entirely different ways, the hybrid identity found in both Daniel’s and Leila’s afakasi characters, connects readers, both Western and Samoan, through their experiences with the Samoan tattoo ritual. Western readers of Telesā gain significant insight on a practice that is sacred and full of meaning whereas, Pacific Islanders whose cultures involve tattooing, gain a sense of validation as a part of their culture is shared with the world through Young’s popular YA novel.
Just as young adults yearn to express themselves through colorful plumage or other outward expressions of their inner quest for identity, drugs, medicines, and beauty products of all kinds can be added to the list of their demands. From Botox and face creams to diet pills and energy drinks, Western science and medicine continue to pump out products to meet the needs of the Hollywood-adoring generation of today. In Telesā, Young answers her readers’ request for new and miraculous herbs and plant remedies that will give them longer life, better skin, or even heal the most devastating of illnesses. According to Margaret Haapoja’s article, “Samoa’s Rain Forest Savior – Looking for a cure for Breast Cancer, Paul Cox Harnessed the Wisdom of Women in the Forest He Loved and Discovered a Promising Anti-HIV Compound Instead,” “Samoan healing is a tradition of considerable antiquity [and] most Samoan herbalists are women whose knowledge has been acquired from their mothers or grandmothers” (qtd. in Happoja). In Telesā, Leila’s mother Nafanua, the covenant keeper and most powerful of the telesā, reveals her age to Leila. Nafanua is described as looking young and beautiful; however, she is 116 years old. According to Nafanua, “All telesā have a gift with plants. We are healers [and] know what plants will cure diseases, soothe discomforts, heal all sicknesses and prolong life […] If more people adhered to a truly natural and organic diet and lifestyle – then more people would live healthier and longer lives” (213). Nafanua reveals things that most people know today, but, because Young gives her an incredible age, the impact that plants and natural foods have on Nafanua’s body makes the revelation significant. Additionally, Young makes it a point to have it be Leila’s mother who reveals this knowledge about native plants, just as Happoja explains in her article, that the knowledge is passed down from mothers and grandmothers.
In another instance in which Young presents traditional Samoan healing, Leila’s palangi scientist friend, Jason, falls ill to a mysterious (and poisonous plant induced) sickness. Leila and Daniel go to Daniel’s grandmother, Salamasina, for help. Salamasina knows that Leila is telesā and before she provides the healing remedy for Jason, she interrogates Leila as to whether she drugged Daniel or “empotion[ed] him to love” her (372). This shows that Salamasina is just as knowledgeable about plants and healing as Nafanua, and as a result, Young reveals once more how this knowledge is possessed by a Samoan woman and native healer. The significance of Young’s choice is that she promotes native healing and the powers that the land holds for Samoans and Pacific Islanders alike. According to Paul Cox, “In this matrilineal knowledge system […] their knowledge is remarkable: some healers use up to one hundred different plant species in their formulations and can recognize over two hundred species by name” (Happoja). Cox further reveals that “countries that neither train their own ethnobotanists nor allow foreign ethnobotanists to do research are in effect guaranteeing that most of their traditional knowledge […] will vanish before ever being documented” (Happoja). Young may not mention the specific formulas or combinations of plants being used in her book, but the mere fact that she presents the knowledge that native healers do exist, are capable, and might possibly hold the key to many mysteries that Western science has failed to solve, she documents this practice, disperses this knowledge to many, and opens up the doors for a new generation of healers. Samoan and Pacific Islander youth who may have rejected the practices of their ancestors for the “modern” and more scientific way, may be drawn to this knowledge now that it is made popular by YA fiction. Likewise, Young gives her Western readers a piece of juicy information that may spark their interests and respect for native healing. Cox claims that “[Samoan] knowledge systems contain much of worth and beauty, and if their cultures disappear, the world will be far poorer for it” (Haapoja). Hybridizing the approach to medicine appears to be the solution that not only scientists, but also, young Americans today seek out.
Finally, Lani Wendt Young explores a controversial topic in her book Telesā, when she touches on religion and spirituality. According to the U.S. Department of State’s website on Samoa, 98.9% of Samoans are Christian, while the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveals that about 78% of Americans are Christian. Young displays this strong Christian faith through Aunty Matile’s collection of “pictures lining the walls [as] Christ looked down at [Leila] from every angle – all the sober, suffering pictures of Him [which show that] clearly in this house, Jesus was a serious matter” (11). Young further demonstrates Samoan Christian faith when Uncle Tuala explains that “This is a God-fearing house. This land does not belong to the spirits and myths of the past. We are Christians and we will not have anything to do with such beliefs here” (21). Although Aunty Matile and Uncle Tuala forbid speaking about “spirits and myths of the past,” Young, however, draws attention to these beliefs that were once comfortably Samoan, but are now myths that have been replaced or altered by Christianity. According to Samantha Lichtenberg’s paper, “Experiencing Samoa through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place”:
“The supernatural realm was a significant part of religious belief and deeply integrated with the earthly realm […] The earthly and supernatural realms were inextricably woven together. With the arrival of Christianity, the concept of aitu [or wandering spirit] did not disappear; rather its meaning was rearranged and reinterpreted. With these altered beliefs about aitu, it can be argued that the meaning of stories about aitu changed as well.” (Lichtenberg 17)
In order to reflect the tastes of Western society, Young alters Samoan legend a little bit by using the Hawaiian goddess Pe-le within the novel, and giving the spirit women, telesā, supernatural powers. Nafanua calls Leila “Pe-le” when she first meets her (127). According to Scott Leonard and Michael McClure’s Myth & Knowing: An Introduction to World Mythology, “Like the volcanic action that she embodies, Pe-le is a goddess of both life and death” (Leonard & McClure 124). Similarly, Leila is the telesā that can forge the bridge that determines the survival of the Samoan culture, or its death. Christianity is the main religion of Samoa, but as Leila discovers the ancient mythos of Samoa’s past, Young gives her readers “essential ingredients to understanding the Samoan way of life, fa’asamoa” (Lichtenberg 33-4). Lichtenberg further explains in her paper that, “Prior to missionary contact, Samoans relied on myth for an explanation about how the world came into existence. Myth served to explain the mysteries of life, the cornerstone of Samoan beliefs rooted in mythical stories” (qtd. in Lichtenberg 15). Through learning about telesā, Young’s readers discover that in Samoa, the land is sacred and divine, and telesā, according to Young, are “protectors [and] guardians of [the] land” (218).
Additionally, Nafanua in Samoan mythos is “the goddess of war […] buried in the earth to grow […] called from her home in the underworld of Pulotu to avenge her people [and] prophesied the coming of the Palagi and the new religion” (Avia 9). So it is fitting that Young’s portrayal of Nafanua binds her to both traditional Samoa and modern Samoa as the protector and savior of the land. Zita Martel, director of Samoa’s inbound tourism operator Polynesian Xplorer and matai (chief), briefly explains Nafanua’s position on Samoans today in her YouTube video “Zita Martel Speaks about Nafanua” (“Why Zita Martel Rocks”). According to Martel,“Our modernness, [in] Nafanua’s own words, ‘our pseudo-Christianity,’ has buried the pure, the elemental, the basic earthy side of us that we no longer hear the cry of the land, we no longer hear the cry of the rivers, we no longer hear the cry of the ocean, we no longer hear the spirit world of our ancestors. And we desecrate our surroundings without a care in the world” (Martel). Young presents Nafanua as a fierce woman, determined to go to great lengths to save the land and her people’s heritage, which is demonstrated when the telesā blow up a factory that is polluting the land and rivers of Samoa. Nafanua and her sisters become warriors for the land, and unbeknownst to Samoans, for the people as well. Young highlights the devastation that capitalism and development can have on the environment, the land, and ultimately the culture of a people. With the destruction of the land, also comes the destruction of a people’s source of spirituality.
Young presents two different religious practices within Samoa to her readers: those who believe in Christ, and those who follow the ancient ways. For Christians, the sections of the book to which they can relate obviously revolve around Aunty Matile’s Christian beliefs. However, in the end, Nafanua sacrifices herself to save Leila, and Young’s readers are reminded of the ultimate sacrifice of the Christian God who gave his only Son and ultimately His life to save His people. Nafanua saves her daughter who is to her, the future and savior of the people of Samoa. Instead of allowing the malicious supernatural powered telesā to win the fight, Young has her afakasi heroine save the day. Leila is afakasi not just in race, but in spirituality as she is both a child of her Christian God, as well as a child of the land, of Samoa – she is telesā. The significance of an afakasi heroine is tremendous in that it lets Pacific Islanders know that their traditional beliefs can coexist in their Christianized world, and also, that there is a place for them in popular society.
As Pacific women writers continue to “write/ride in the eye of a typhoon,” it is imperative that we find ways to keep our cultures alive in this increasingly Westernized society (Flores). As the youth of the Pacific continue to place their faith and adoration in Hollywood’s All-American girl and boy protagonists, the richness of Pacific Island cultures becomes gradually diluted. As Pacific Island women, we are preservers of our culture and creators of our future. As women we know how important our youth are. This is why when women like Lani Wendt Young introduce aspects of Pacific Island culture into popular young society, our voices are made stronger in mainstream culture. Once we have an audience, we can preserve our heritage in the face of the storm. In order to preserve her Samoan-ness, Young uses popular fiction as a vehicle to dispense Samoan culture, language, and myth to her Pacific Island fan base, and countless other readers around the world. Young blends both Samoan and Western principles to provide her readers with a new perspective of hero and heroine as the diaspora returns to the motherland, the islander finds a place in popular literature, and the hybrid displaces the predictable protagonist of the Young Adult genre.