What makes a book culturally offensive? And other offensive questions on Telesa Tuesday.

Is she a true tamaitai Samoa? A true Samoan woman?

TELESA Tuesday. I am preparing myself for outrage,hissing and spitting when TELESA hits the real world. Why? Because I have taken a Samoan legend/myth and completely twisted it beyond all recognizable belief. In doing so, I have probably offended any number of traditional beliefs and customs. Not to mention, annoyed all the Samoan experts who are working really hard to ensure that our fa’aSamoa,our aganu’u are not lost/polluted/destroyed. In TELESA I have turned certain things upside down and I expect to get ripped apart for them…

In my previous life as an English teacher, I went to a workshop given by a very distinguished Samoan woman academic. I asked why Sia Figiel’s books were not on the reading syllabus. Dead silence.The academic smiled and replied,”You can use whatever texts you wish with your classes, but those of us who value,understand and honor what a real tamaitai Samoa is…we wouldnt choose to study that.” Okay.Can all the shit fake Samoan women who read and LOVE Figiel’s books please just roll over and die? That’s not the first or only time I’ve seen Figiel’s work get dissed for being un-Samoan, too scandalous, and more. But then, the great Albert Wendt had his first books banned and yet today he is the universally acknowledged “father of Pacific Literature”. So maybe there’s hope for other scandalous Samoan writers?!

I would never presume to put myself in the same stratosphere as Figiel. Or Wendt. However, it does worry me that an award winning, groundbreaking writer like Figiel would be dissed so often as being ‘not Samoan’ enough. Because that means there will be nothing but trouble when a minor Samoan writer like me produces a YA urban fantasy romance that has entertainment as its only goal.So I’ve been asking myself several questions which I’d now like to throw at you:

* How much does culture impact/color our writing? In particular, fiction?
* Who has the ‘right’ to judge/decide/attack another’s imagination for being culturally offensive? Or culturally insensitive?
* Can anyone really write without being influenced by their cultural upbringing? However mixedup/mongrel-ish it may be?
*Can any writer really expect that their work will stand alone and not be critiqued according to what gender/ethnicity/religion/etc they are? For example, do you know how many times I have read critiques/reviews of Twilight that MUST talk about Stephenie Meyer being a Mormon? And a Mormon stayathome mother to boot? (and do reviewers do that to Catholic/aetheist/Buddhist writers of teen trash fiction? If so, I havent noticed.) Why is her being Mormon important?
*Could you read a book from a Samoan writer solely for entertainment purposes?
*Do you judge/read a book diffently when you know the author personally?

There you go – lots of questions today! Give me a thought on any one of them. Everyone who leaves a comment on this post will go in the draw to win the first chapter of TELESA. That’s right, the lucky winner will get a sneak peek at a piece of the book before it hits the e-shelves in September.

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14 comments

  1. People are going to critique you and your work no matter what. Especially academics. They do it for sport. (and you thought Twilight was about vampires…that's nothing compared to where I work!)Wendt is an amazing writer, and has had his share of not being called Samoan enough. Figiel is an amazing writer and I think one who gets written off way too easily at times. I'm lucky to have had people in my life in the academy and in the real world who pushed me to read her. As for Telesea – people are going to have lots to say, I'm sure. Is anybody Samoan enough anymore? That's all I hear anyone say…. with not much to back it up. So write. Be creative. It is Samoan enough because YOU'RE Samoan. And I hope to include Telesea (can't wait to read it!) or one of your short stories, or even some of Galu Afi in the course I'm teaching in the fall – Pacific Studies 108. 🙂

  2. The chiefly language as some would call it has always been one of "slight of hand" subtlety. One could never really understand whether or not the other has insulted or praised him/her. In one instance the speaker articulates a self depracating tone begging the other for forgiveness for some vague event in the past. By the end of his speech he asserts that his lineage is of true royalty and that respect is due-not to him of course- but to the great chiefs that came before. Nothing is really direct, which brings me to why writers like Sia and Albert (Although, in my opinion would never categorize these two together-sorry) are frowned upon. It's their direct, straight forward writings that many find offensive. Talking about sex and female/male genitals is taboo.It's too forward. The chiefs would much rather you call it "intermingling peas in a pod" and "peacocks dancing in lilly pools"I think you get my point…..

  3. Q1 response: I think ones culture can influence to a great extent, and in the case of literature I think it acts as a lens or filter by which we write. I'm no writer but I know that in my case it has. I simply write about what I know. Q2 response: I think we all have a right to our own opinions (in regards to others writing) but I don't think we have a 'right' to judge (just because their style/content might not conform to our expectations). However, I do believe if you belong to a certain culture you can speak up about it (because you have an insiders point of view) but don't expect others to follow suit. Q3 response: I think I'll leave it up to the writers to debate this one. Q4 response: I'm not sure. I mean the only way(you would know) is if it was published anonymously. Now days, its the way the world works. The authors background is sometimes just as important in the life of the novel/story. Q5 response: Yes, I could. Q6 response: I do not know if I can answer this one because I've never actually spoken with/ talked to an author & than read their work. I think it could potentially have some sort of influence but who knows?!. j

  4. These are all difficult questions to answer. Let's start off with the easiest one and remember that these are all just my humble opinions:Who has the 'right' to judge/decide/attack another's imagination for being culturally offensive? Or culturally insensitive? (I am assuming you mean if the writer is part of said culture and not a raging racist!)-The answer is most definitely no one. Nobody has the right to make judgements about whether someone's writing is culturally offensive. It's like saying that there is only one right way to behave if you're part of a particular culture. I am so sick of reading generic novels based on the portrayal of certain cultures only in certain contexts. BORING. Give me some entertaining YA with a bit of mongrel action any day. On a side note, the Stephanie Meyer thing I think was more as a backlash to Bella being a completely vapid little cow and Edward being a creepy hundred year old vampire who kept insisting they get married for no particular reason other than to fulfill the writer's religious agenda. I think if Meyer were a Catholic/Buddhist whatever people would critique her just the same only from that particular religious viewpoint. Weak characters are weak characters regardless of the cultural background. I should stop. This is getting to be a novel of it's own.

  5. "Is she a true tamaitai Samoa? A true Samoan woman?" – I suppose I have two takes on this one. 1.) The telesa I heard about during my primary and intermediate years at Malifa; the lovely maiden that many(except me) have seen in the bathroom stalls and mirrors; the goddess that lives in the mango tree..the sultury guardian of the pa-auke next to the water fountain; daunting beauty with supernatural powers, etc.,etc., 2.) The telesa title representative of a specific village and a paramount title of Samoa; she's a sa'o tamaita'i of her aiga and plays a pivotal role in everything 'traditional '…and is held in high regard by her village and aiga. Me thinks that fiction is fiction and if people can't distinguish btw fic and non-fic then they don't deserve a copy of your book, a ea? winx.Lupe Smith

  6. Loving the feedback for this one everyone!Jesster – I appreciate the reminder that academics love to rip things apart "for sport".And you're absolutely right, 'whos Samoan enough anymore?' I'd venture to say we are all patchwork people and the definition of 'Samoan' is constantly evolving – we need to run to keep up lol. Im buzzed you would consider including my writing in your course and i would love to see what your students get out of it (as they rip it to bits…vampire style) Thank you.

  7. Hi Tiamaafan – that was hilarious.."peacocks dancing in lilypools" (do u blog? Because I would love to read it) You make an excellent point, the language of chiefs etc is very 'sleight of hand' and Wendt and Figiel certainly shook THAT up! Thanks for the feedback.

  8. You bring up some very valid points that I've mulled over more than a time or two when trying to write my book. There have been times when I've omitted certain items because I fear the repercussions from the community. However, I've come to the understanding that no one or anything should stifle or stymie creativity. There will be naysayers and critic no matter how sensitive we are to cultural norms. So I right on and urge to do the same regardless. Because you and everyone like you (writers at large) must find and cultivate their voice and allow the public to determine whether they want to to listen or disregard. Great piece!

  9. Thanks for your thoughts JoAn – Youve given me things to think about:culture as a filter and a reminder that yes, we can write about the culture we live in/are from but dont expect others to take it the same way. Whats needed then, is a healthy dose of courage to go ahead and put that writing out there and then be tough enough to stand by it even when people get upset by it!Which is what I think is similar to the point that writer Seti is making – we need to find and cultivate our 'voice'. Thanks for the feedback Seti. A sidenote, I think thats a huge reason why blogging is so valuable for writers everywhere ( even ones who dont think they are writers…*smile*) Blogging gives us a chance to try out diff perspectives/voices and connect with an audience that wants to listen to it. Lan – I really appreciate your feedback and wanted more of your 'novel' to continue! lol Do you find yourself being overly conscious/aware of your own Asian/Australian culture/heritage as you write? I love your point about generic YA novels being boring. While writing my book Telesa, I was frequently tempted to make it generic, remove the specifically samoan/culture stuff because i worried it would alienate the general reading audience, because they wouldnt be able to identify with it. But then i hit myself on the head – hello, people read books about other planets, alternate fantasy realities. dementors and sparkly vampires – surely they can handle a story set in a Pacific island nation!? Love the comments people, thank you for lots of food for thought.

  10. My novel part two:I couldn't start writing for a long time because I was worried about the repercussions of putting my real name on a novel. Would it be too Asian for the Aussie's to relate too? Too Aussie for the Asian's to give it any credit? Writing is not really a culturally approved profession you see. When I finally got past that hurdle, I worried about making my heroine half Vietnamese, half Aussie. Once again the cultural doubts set in. Worse still, I found that I was writing a novel full of cultural cliches. The smart Asian, the burly Tongan, the easy-going Aussie. In the end, I lost the plot (excuse the pun) and just wrote what I wanted. Who cares about culturally sensitive books that nobody really reads? There would be dozens of books about Vietnamese refugees that are culturally acceptable and I haven't read a single one. I HAVE read the one written by a Vietnamese comedian who breaks all the rules.I'm not saying the former doesn't have a place. I just think these authors don't have a right to judge others who chose to express themselves differently. I feel the same way about how the literary community seems to treat genre authors. If you can put a cultural spin on a great YA read that brings awareness about your culture then go for it! It's great to be highly acclaimed. But even better to be widely read and to touch people. I will be rushing out to buy Telesa when you finish it. I can't say the same for the other culturally sensitive books. *I'm not this angry all the time. REALLY 🙂

  11. Lan – I love hearing another writer verbalize what I myself have been going through! Like you, it took me AGES to actually write my fiction novel – mostly because I was so caught up in worrying abt offending someone Samoan somewhere. And then during the process – the whole 'is this too Pacific? or not enough? Is this too western? or not enough? aaaaargh!' And then of course there was the 'burden' of being an English Lit graduate, daughter of a Professor, niece of a literary great – I come from a very academic family and its hard to shake the self-imposed expectation that whatever i write should be 'literary' and deeply meaningful. Honestly? After writing the tsunami book, I needed to write light/entertaining, engaging, escapist fiction. Its been very therapeutic for me in many ways.And no, Im not usually this rambly and chaotic all the time either!

  12. I read this in a book once – Let go and let it flow! A writer will always have critics or naysayers who will try to keep you down but as many have previously commented – don't be afraid to write and stand by it. I do believe that our culture and environment has an influence on our perspective but since I'm not a writer I don't know how much of that comes through in a fictional piece. Regardless, I would love to read something by a Samoan writer for entertainment purposes. We need more writers of Polynesian descent. I think each of us has a unique perspective to share and your perspective is definitely one that is great to read and always makes me step back and reflect. I appreciate that as it shapes how I see the world as well. Let go and let it flow Lani! teinetoa4lype

  13. Thank you so much for the encouragement Teinetoa4lype – especially since i know you had to go through a lot of hassle to get your comment loaded! So glad you persevered.I love that aspect of blogging – its a great way for lots of different perspectives to be shared and to learn from each other.

  14. Talofa Lani, Yes who we are and our upbringing does bring with it a cultural aspect, but then most of us are walking cocktails, so when in rome wear the roman hat, when in Samoa wear the lavalava, when in Germany wear the german hat and whatever, there is no pure race left, I think. A writer should not worry about what people will say, if you write from the heart in your characters, they will speak your words. It is your book you are writing and Your story, so do it your way and it will flow like a river. and all rivers lead to the sea and all continents are bounded by the water so……….. You cannot go through life trying to please others , like art, there will always be the critics, thats what keeps them in a job…….. nothing better to do, if you are a creator, then create…..
    I remember when my cousin Witi put out his first book, it was so different from anything available and I read parts to my many children of all ages. It was refreshing, a change of attitude, based on some real characters of my childhood whom I could relate to and yet with a touch of fantasy. I am a firm believer that we all need to have a bit of fantasy and dreaming in our lives as it is dreamers who make the world a more interesting place. As a 65 year old I can still fantasise and dream, but still have feet firmly planted on the ground. I also loved Al Wendts books and his perspective. I hope to read your books when Im next in Samoa, under the faleo’o and no more having to work and worry about miniscule details of everyday life.

    Kia Ora e kui
    na Trudy Meredith

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