Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tahiti: "Frangipani" by Célestine Vaite

When I stumbled upon a Tahitian author writing about mother and daughter relations, I headed to the library just as fast as I could. By some lights, Tahiti doesn't qualify for this project since it is still tied to France, but I decided to add it anyway. The novel Frangipani depicts a period in Tahitian life of adjustment to changing rules, especially as they relate to options available to women. 

Célestine Vaite writes of Materena and her daughter Leilani. Materena knows the ancestors and the many, many rules of traditional Tahitian life, including how to greet relatives (whom you invariably encounter whenever you go anywhere), how to conduct Welcome to the World rituals, what to say in the Welcome to Womanhood talk, and more. But she doesn't know why it doesn't snow in Tahiti, how to calculate the diameter of a circle, or how to ask a doctor if an illness is contagious. Materena is "Old Tahiti" and she is raising Leilani in the "New Tahiti," with education and confidence in herself, along with a smidgen of reverence for the old ways.

We watch Leiliani from before birth to about age 20, as she grows within her immediate family with two brothers and in an extended family with innumerable aunties, uncles, and cousins, plus grandmothers, neighbors, and more. When Leiliani is about 16, Materena seeks counsel from the wisest woman she knows, the Virgin Mary, Understanding Woman.

"She's here because she's that close to throwing her daughter into the street!'s not natural for a mother to want to throw her daughter into the street...once linked with the umbilical cord, we're linked for the eternity. But...

  Aue, Virgin Mary, what is the challenge you're giving me? She's pushing me, that girl, she's doing everything for me to. . .to. . .want to shove her clothes and her books in plastic bags and kick her into the street. Then she's going to see where not respecting your mother takes you." (p. 132)

As her daughter matures and seeks her own path to self-fulfillment, Materena looks for another purpose, besides motherhood, and finds it in a non-traditional way -- she becomes a radio host. She says on air,

"I'm so proud to have been born a woman...I'm calling on all the women listening right now to share their stories on the radio for other women to learn something and be inspired. People say, 'I've got nothing to say,' but that's not true. Every single woman has something to say. A story. A story about mistakes, obstacles overcome, discoveries, a story. A story that will help another woman take a step forward. A story that will warn another woman before she takes a step backward. A story to reassure all of us that we are not all alone. . ."  (p. 284)

The book itself is a response to Materena's request for stories. Each chapter is a little story of its own and they string together like the traditional shell necklace given when someone leaves the island.

As for learning about Tahiti, I was astonished to see the extent to which this family relied on imported canned goods from the "Chinese store," rather than local fish or produce. At various online sites, I see this is not unusual for Pacific islands, possibly because steep volcanic hillsides mean little arable land. Less surprising, as it is similar to what I saw when I lived in France, is that Materena's man, Pito, works in a factory and spends his non-working hours hanging with his copains (buddies), drinking, or watching le foot (soccer). This seems perfectly normal to Materena, although teaches her sons how to do useful things at home, including their own laundry after they are 14 and doing things a mother shouldn't have to know about. Perhaps the least surprising thing I read about was the easy acceptance of sex and sexuality. This is consistent with what Margaret Mead told us (although some dispute) about Samoa and what Paul Gauguin depicted about Tahiti 100+ years ago. There are glimpses of coupling in a bar, in a car, in a garden, and elsewhere, with shame associated only with men's adultery (the women in this story were one-man women). Even a person born as George who lives life as Georgette is accepted as she is and incorporated into the women's rituals.  

One more thing. For photographers, the accepted images of Tahiti pretty much all show only a vacation paradise, with nubile women and tattooed, muscular men if there are any people at all. It was extremely hard, even using extensions for France, Australia, or other sites, to find pictures that depict anything like what might be "normal" life for an average-income resident of the island. Even the real estate ads at ".pf" sites show mostly luxurious vacation homes with ocean views, swimming pools, and deluxe amenities. The book depicts a clan that lives with a view of the airport in homes that are described as "fibro shacks" (mobile homes in the U.S.?), with colorful curtains but definitely not on the tourist itinerary. 

No comments:

Post a Comment