Postcolonial Pacific Writing: Representations of the Body

By Michelle Keown | Go to book overview

2

'Gauguin is dead'

Sia Figiel and the Polynesian female body

The work of Samoan writer Sia Figiel, one of the newest and most incisive voices in contemporary Oceanic literature, clearly bears witness to Wendt's influence within the field of Pacific writing. Like Wendt, Figiel has engaged with the complex effects of colonization, independence and migration upon the socio-political dynamics of Samoan culture, and she shares her compatriot's interest in existentialism and the corruptions of consumer capitalism. Figiel's writing differs from Wendt's, however, in its specific focus on Samoan female subjectivity, and she has pointed out that she developed her own particular style and subject matter 'specifically because of what was missing' from Wendt's work (Subramani 1996:129; my italics). This chapter explores three particular preoccupations in Figiel's writing: the obsession with Samoan or Polynesian (female) sexuality within European discourse; the internal gender politics of Samoan society; and the influence of Western education, media and consumer capitalism upon young Samoan women.

Born in Western Samoa in 1967 to a Samoan mother and a Polish-American father, Figiel was educated in Western Samoa, New Zealand and the United States, taking a BA in History at Whitworth College (USA), and she began to write after joining a creative writing group in Berlin, where she was working during the early 1990s. Figiel's first novel Where We Once Belonged (1996a) won the 1997 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for the Asia-Pacific region, and further publications include a novella, The Girl in the Moon Circle (1996b), To a Young Artist in Contemplation (1998), a collection comprising short stories, poems and autobiographical fragments, and another novel, They Who Do Not Grieve (1999). In addition to being Samoa's first female novelist, Figiel is an experienced performance poet, has held numerous writer-in-residence positions in Europe and the Pacific, and is also a painter whose work is influenced by both Samoan and Western artistic traditions.

As noted above, Figiel's writing takes as its primary focus the lives of Western Samoan girls and women, an area of experience which is largely absent from previous Pacific indigenous writing, 1 as Figiel herself has pointed out. In an early interview with Subramani, Figiel asserts that her writing style and choice of subject matter have evolved in response to the

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